An October 2006 trip
to Arches National Park by btwood2
Quote: Under piercing blue sky and blazing sun, muted by clouds, or pummeled relentlessly by rain, Arches never disappoints. Join us for a romp in Abbey-land.
Ed Abbey was an American icon, his name synonymous with this region. Irascible and opinionated, he’s best known for writing Desert Solitaire, describing his two seasons working at Arches, and The Monkey Wrench Gang, about four motley eco-warriors who take down billboards, and eventually blow up Glen Canyon Dam. Re-reading Desert Solitaire in the environment in which it was conceived was a highlight of my 2003 visit.
Rain, thunder, lightning, flooded washes and red mud characterized our most recent visit, and far from ruining it, enhanced our stay here. The Moab region is known for extreme sports, and from our cozy vantage point inside our motor home, we watched an endless stream (literally) of people and their chosen forms of transport. Not about to be deterred by a bit of water, they braved inundated roads and trails on bicycles and motorized four-wheelers, returning soaking wet and coated with mud.
Delicate Arch is the quintessential arch of Arches, depicted on Utah license plates, and one we missed on our first visit. It was the highlight of our 2006 visit, not only due to its striking beauty, but because we were lucky enough to view it as sun was replaced by ominous thunderclouds, and a tremendous rainstorm ensued. Delicate Arch is actually rather chunky, and its earlier names, Cowboy Chaps or Schoolmarm’s Bloomers, seem more appropriate to its not exactly delicate form.
Every arch, balanced rock, fin, and spire at Arches has its own special character, look, and aura. The richness and magic of this area make it easy to return again and again.
The primitive BLM campground at Big Mesa, northwest of Arches, is one of my all-time favorite places to stay. The vistas in every direction are entrancing, and camp spots are widely spaced, giving lots of elbow-room.
Hot summers are a fact of life in the deserts of the Southwest, even at 4000-5000+ elevations. Summer daytime temperatures can get as high as 110F. April and October are likely the best months to visit Arches weatherwise. If there during summer, use caution hiking in the dry draining heat. Bring plenty of water. One gallon of water per person per day is the recommended minimum. Wear layers and sun protection in the form of wide-brimmed hat, sunscreen, and lightweight clothing that covers your skin.
Cryptobiotic crust is a living organism in many deserts and so-called barren areas. That’s right, the ground is alive and not just dirt. At Arches, these biological soil crusts are composed mainly of cyanobacteria (blue-green algae) that look more black than blue-green. They protect from erosion, retain precious water, and contribute nutrients to the soil. So don’t take shortcuts and stay only on established trails. In backcountry, hike as much as possible on rock and in washes. Camp only in designated sites.
Bighorn Express Shuttle Service provides van service daily between Salt Lake City Airport and Moab and other towns in Southeast Utah. Reservations required. Greyhound stops are in Green River (town) on the I-70, and at Crescent Junction (I-70 intersection with Highway 191).
The California Zephyr stops in Green River. This highly scenic classic Amtrak Route runs daily between San Francisco and Chicago. Car rentals are available in Green River.
Getting around while there: You need a car. Though in many areas around Moab you’ll find prime mountain bike country with famous slickrock trails at all levels of difficulty, Arches National Park isn’t particularly bicycle-friendly. Bikes can ride the narrow shoulders of paved roads and all dirt roads in the park, but are not allowed on ANY hiking trails.
Rain, rain… October 2006: Rain accompanied us into red rock country as we drove southeast from Salt Lake City. Glancing at the soggy desert floor, we knew our 27,000 pound loaded motor home would bog down like an elephant in the muck if we attempted the dirt road and flooded wash entering Big Mesa, so we dallied roadside on an asphalt pullout for a couple of days, waiting for the storm to pass.
After a full day of sun, we pulled in our slide-outs and took off on Seven-Mile Canyon Road to Big Mesa. The wash was squishy-wet and uneven, but Bob made it through (with me behind in the car) without getting stuck. So began our long-anticipated time on Big Mesa.
BLM casually runs this primitive camping area sans host or fees, but campsites are designated and certain areas off-limits, indicated by signs. Some prefer the sites viewing Arches and the LaSal Mountains southeast, but we chose a site on the bluff facing west. We overlook the red muddy wash, dirt road continuing on to more remote camping spots, and sandy-and-red colored rock formations of pleasing and unusual shapes, prefaces to the San Rafael Reef and Swell, further west.
Our east view was of Big Mesa itself, and it is BIG, dwarfing Monitor and Merrimac Buttes, which are actually separate fractured pieces of the mother mesa. Big Mesa also proves to be endlessly entertaining, from afar and up close. The play of sunlight and clouds change its color and character from dawn to dusk. When more storms come, its face streams with impromptu rivulets and instant waterfalls.
Big Mesa is a mecca for four-wheeler ATV’s, and on the roads and slickrock, it’s easy to walk up close to it and climb up a ways. Holiday weekends are to be avoided, unless you like hordes of people on their motorized beasties. It was peaceful and quiet during our ten days there.
An extra treat for us was the discovery of ancient cliff-dwellings hugging the undersides of the bluff atop which we were camped. A ranger at Arches said she hadn’t heard of cliff dwellings at Big Mesa specifically, but wouldn’t be surprised, because "they’re all over the place".
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on December 12, 2006
Big Mesa Campground
Arches National Park, Utah
Attraction | "Park Avenue - Courthouse Towers Hike"
The narrow canyon walls of Park Avenue are formed of Entrada sandstone, which originated in Jurassic era tidal flats, deserts, and beaches. Fantastically shaped structures loom on both sides of the canyon. Two figures near the top remind me of Star Wars aliens talking to one another, one with a big head and elongated brains, the other a tiny-headed reptilian. I later learn that the big-headed one is named Nefertiti; not brains then, but wearing a classic Egyptian headdress.
On the east side, canyon walls are sheer layered slabs, depicting the different "members" of Entrada sandstone: lumpy reddish-brown Dewey Bridge on the bottom, extensive fine-grained Slickrock in the middle, and barely discernable lighter-colored Moab Tongue on top. These massive slab walls are called fins, and they are the first step in arch formation. Over time, erosion by wind and water wear away portions of these fins, and when the middle wears away faster than the edges, an arch is formed.
Hiking Park Avenue also provides an opportunity to become familiar with plants and animals of the Arches area. Piñon pines and junipers, with scraggly and contorted twisted branches, somehow manage to survive in this dry environment. We came upon small lizards scurrying on and under the rocks. If you’re lucky, you may spot a jackrabbit or cottontail.
The Three Gossips on the west side of the canyon resemble three women in long dresses standing close together. Just beyond them stands sheep rock, which may have formerly been part of an arch that collapsed. At the bottom of the trail and across the road lies the massive Organ.
It’s a little confusing because the viewpoint is called Courthouse Towers, and I first thought that was the name of the huge monolith next to it, but Courthouse Towers actually refers to the high peaks southwest of Sheep Rock and the Gossips.
The Tower of Babel stands just a bit further down the road, but it’s not the tallest. Its leading highest edge is lower than the Organ, dominating the landscape at 4735 feet. Another unnamed butte dominates the view north at the La Sal Mountains Viewpoint. In 1933, mapmaker Frank Beckwith with a group of scientists and assistants named many of the arches and landforms, but not this one.
Member Rating 4 out of 5 on December 13, 2006
The Park Avenue Trail
Arches National Park
Moab, Utah 84532
Attraction | "Windows Section"
A short ways further along the road, take the turnoff into the Windows area. You’ll be richly rewarded with an incredible array of unusually shaped rock formations and numerous arches. We hadn’t driven far (in 2003) when we spotted a couple of climbers scaling what looked like a giant thumb. We didn’t see any climbers this time (2006). In May of this year, rock climber Dean Potter made a controversial filmed climb of Delicate Arch that caused park officials to further restrict climbing activities.
Parking at Windows trailhead, we took the easy one-mile loop trail to and around North and South Windows, two oval-shaped arches that look like eyes. A small spur leads to Turret Arch. These three were our first arches, and it was an amazing feeling to stand under them, rather, inside of them. Afternoon sun made the sandstone glow orange-red. They’re very popular, so don’t expect solitude here.
It was almost sunset when we arrived at the trail to Double Arch. Less people here. A quarter-mile trail leads into this unique and lovely arch. It was formed in two ways: The top portion resulted from water in a pothole eventually penetrating its way through the top of the rock to the alcove below, making a hole, which continues to be widened by erosion. The lower sibling arch formed in the more usual way, a fin whose middle eroded more quickly than the sandstone around it. The rocks of Double Arch are distinctively striped with desert varnish.
We’d encountered Parade of the Elephants on our arrival to the loop, but hadn’t appreciated just how much they really do look like big lumbering sandstone-colored pachyderms until we saw them at last light. It would hardly have surprised us to hear the thunder of their approaching hooves, but instead, it was perfectly still, a magic moment, frozen in time.
For everything you ever wanted to know about natural arches, check out the Natural Arch and Bridge Society’s website.
Member Rating 5 out of 5 on December 13, 2006
The Windows Area
Arches National Park
Arches National Park, Utah
The ranger was skeptical that the road to Delicate Arch would open soon. More rain expected; road and trail damage already extensive. She and her truck were guarding the closed gate past the turnoff. A sign warned of massive flooding, and prosecution of those caught attempting to walk in. We’d missed this famous arch last time, and it appeared we’d miss it again now.
Not so fast. Six days later found us attempting access again, after learning at the visitor center that the road had opened. The trail to Delicate Arch is moderately strenuous, steadily uphill on slickrock. It’s the only way to get right to and underneath Delicate Arch. I suggested to Bob that I hike it, while he drive to the viewpoint, further up the road. He was not enamored of this idea, however, recalling the last time I’d hiked off somewhere and he ended up waiting an hour for me.
I was pretty miffed when Bob and I got to the viewpoint, the wimpy way to see Delicate Arch. Indeed, the lower viewpoint visible from the parking lot was not that exciting, and I started up the trail to upper viewpoint. The trail winds gradually up, with steps in steeper areas. It reaches a wide-open slickrock slope, where Delicate Arch is visible. I jealously peered through my binoculars at hikers enjoying the arch. One tiny figure stood directly under it, legs wide and arms outstretched.
Soon I noticed rock cairns on the other side of the ledge, and hopped over to see yet more cairns, leading to the edge of the chasm. This was more like it! I was amazed to find myself the only person to partake of this breathtaking view. Not only was Delicate Arch closer, but Winter Camp Wash below was full of interesting landforms. Yellowing cottonwoods lined the muddy-red wash. An imposing massive monolith jutted skywards, behind which lay a light-colored bowl, ringed in darker reds and browns.
After a couple of hikers joined me on the cliff’s edge, I walkie-talkied Bob to get on over, telling him to follow the cairns. All this time clouds had been billowing in from the west, and as they blotted out the sun, the wind blew harder, making me shiver. "Oh, great" muttered Bob, "now I’m here and the sun’s gone". I left him waiting for sunlight as I made my way down.
Halfway down I met a ranger leading a group of photographers to the viewpoint for sunset photos. With the clouds, the sunset could be really spectacular, or… increasing darkness and sounds of thunder. I was at the lower viewpoint, Bob coming down, when a ranger drove up and urged everyone to their cars.
No sooner were we inside the car than the deluge hit. Nothing like perfect timing! Flashes of lightning and drenching rain made me glad I hadn’t insisted on hiking alone to Delicate Arch.
Arches National Park
Attraction | "Wolfe Ranch Historic District"
It was not until the late 1800s, however, that Civil War veteran John Wesley Wolfe and his son Fred built a small cabin in the Salt Valley of what is now Arches National Park with the intent to raise cattle. Natural grasses were plentiful here then, supporting as many as 1000 head of cattle. The Wolfes built a dam on the wash for water to supply a vegetable garden, and a root cellar for storage. Their dam apparently washed out regularly, and no trace of it remains today.
The force of canyon country flashfloods are simply awesome, and the heavy rains of the past week had obliterated the portion of trail between Wolfe Ranch and the bridge to the petroglyphs. The trail has been rerouted alongside the road until the damage can be repaired.
After some years, another contingent of Wolfe family, John Wesley’s adult daughter Flora, her husband Ed and two young children, joined him and Fred, moving out West from Ohio. Their experiences are entertainingly recounted in A Story of Life at Wolfe Ranch, available at Arches Visitor Center. Their stay at the isolated ranch lasted two years, before they moved to Moab. Two years later the entire family including John Wesley moved back to Ohio.
The cabin continued to be used by local ranchers for grazing not only cattle but also sheep, as late as the 1970’s. Less than 100 years of grazing has had a devastating impact on the native grasses and vegetation in this section of the park, with some areas so denuded they may never recover.
Wolfe Ranch Historic District (Turnbow Cabin)
Arches National Park
Attraction | "Devil's Garden - Landscape Arch"
You’ll actually find two arches at Tunnel Arch, the bigger one, and a smaller one above and to the left of it. Tunnel is a young arch, meaning, a smaller hole with thicker rock around it. As erosion continues, arches enlarge until finally, the surrounding rock is so thin it collapses, and the arch is no longer. On the spur to Pine Tree Arch we met a little cottontail calmly grooming himself just next to the trail. Obviously very used to humans. Pine Tree arch has piñons growing directly underneath it; most likely the reason for its name.
Landscape Arch is possibly the world’s longest arch. Possibly? Yes… Though the NPS sign denotes Landscape’s length to be 306 feet, laser technology has more recently determined that it’s "only" 290 feet long. Zion National Park’s Kolob Arch is probably about 4 feet longer. It’s by no means certain, so the "competition" for longest arch continues…
Landscape Arch will probably lose that competition, because it’s also very old, as indicated by the thinness of its span, in some cases only 6 feet around. According to geologists, it could collapse "any time". They used to allow people right under it until a hefty chunk broke off on September 1st, 1991. A 60-foot long 180 Ton rock slab tumbled from Landscape’s right side, greatly startling tourists underneath. Luckily, no one was killed or even injured. Understandably, the trail underneath is now off-limits.
Devil’s Garden is also remarkable for its fins, massive escarpments of side-lying rock, precursors to potential new arches. At the start of the trail, fins dwarf us ant-like humans hiking alongside them.
Devil's Garden - Beyond Landscape Arch
Arches National Park
Arches National Park, Utah
We arrived early morning at Moab Adventure Center, and with our group of ten (including guide), were shuttled by van to our launch point at Hittle Bottom. The inflated raft was loaded up with huge coolers, and all of us. Our guide, whose name I didn’t write down or recall because at that time I wasn’t writing travel journals, had very long oars and did all the paddling. Soon the morning chill settled into the water, and the sun in the clearest of blue skies began to warm us as it climbed higher.
The glassy-smooth Colorado reflected redrock mesas and buttes on its surface as we languidly floated down the river. This late in the season with no recent rains, the rapids were mild, none greater than Class II, but still enough foam and splashing (some of it intentional) to get refreshing spray on our faces. Our guide pointed out an old movie set at Onion Creek, mostly hidden by thick growths of tamarisk. This redrock country has been prime movie-filming location since John Ford’s 1949 Wagon Master.
Passing the occasional ranch or resort, the morning passed in idle chatter with fellow passengers and guide as we enjoyed the sun, scenery and river. Mid-morning we pulled to shore and our guide inflated a couple of kayaks, eagerly seized by one of the couples, who enjoyed soloing alongside the mother-raft. After the most exciting rapid yet, we pulled in for lunch, and our guide proceeded to set up a table in the sand under shade trees. Out of the cooler, he produced a very satisfying selection of sandwich items and finger foods, but what really hit the spot was the lemonade!
The kayaks were up for grabs, but Bob and I hesitated long enough for two others to snag them. The afternoon sun reflected off desert varnish on red-black canyon walls, lulling us into post-lunch stupor. The solo kayakers were staying on their toes through a couple more rapids. Too bad there weren’t enough kayaks for all of us! All too soon we’d reached Takeout Beach, where the shuttle was waiting.
Western Rivers also offers half-day trips along the same route, a white-water trip in the narrower canyon section upriver, and a two-day raft and camp. The Colorado from Moab Boat Dock to Spanish Bottom, and the Green River from Green River town to its confluence with the Colorado are slow-moving and uncrowded, excellent choices for calm-water float trips of longer duration.
For more info check this BLM website.
Colorado River Float Trip
Arches National Park, Utah
Rodeo, New Mexico