Friday saw us rise with much excitement in Moab. Today, we were driving the 5 or so miles North to the Arches National Park. Along with Antelope Canyon this was to be the highlight of the entire trip. The weather was gorgeous, and despite being a little cool at first, it promised to be a warm, clear day. By just after 9am we had joined the short queue to enter the park. We joined behind a well-used Jeep with lifted suspension and a bumper sticker declaring “Don’t follow me – you won’t make it!”. As we took our turn at the kiosk, the lady asked if we were already pass-holders (the ticket is good for a week). Being informed that we were in fact newbies, she told us that the lady in the Jeep had “paid forward” for the next person to enter the park needing a ticket. What a lovely start to the day this was turning out to be.
We ascended the steep road up into the park, and it was like driving up into heaven. There are allegedly over 2300 documented arches in the park. I think by the time eventually left the park just before dusk, we’d probably seen around 10. Plenty of scope for future visits, to be sure…
But where to begin? There were a couple of “must see” famous arches – Landscape Arch and Delicate Arch – both instantly recognisable when they hove into view. But beyond that?! We studied the map and opted to head for Delicate Arch first, then as far north we could – to Devil’s Garden. There were a few arches we could see there as well as a hiking trail. Then we’d work our way back to the park entrance in the south, going where our fancy should take us. And with that – we were off!
Like Monument Valley, some of the rock formations were described fancifully at best. Some were odd (Double Arch consists of three, for example),and some confusing – Delicate Arch looks way more robust than Landscape Arch.
There is limited parking at the trail-head for Delicate Arch – presumably to help “choke” the crowds and limit the foot traffic up the long slog to the summit. Despite the early-ish hour we were plainly in peak period, and we reluctantly agreed we’d have to come back alter and hopefully get a parking spot later in the day.
At the car-park for Devil’s Garden I was surprised to see a couple of cars and an RV with BC plates. These folk had driven the 2000+km to get here. Respect! The park includes a couple of dirt tracks, but after seeing how red the previously shiny blue rental car had become after Monument Valley, we decided to not chance our arm again. This meant that Tower Arch and the Klondike Bluffs in the NW of the park remained beyond our reach for now.
As we alighted at the parking loop for Devil’s Garden there were signs with dire warnings of dehydration and not wandering from the paths. The sun was still a little shy and it was hard to imagine just how dangerously hot this place could get in the full glare of a summer’s sun. As we set off towards the first couple of arches, we were impressed by the very well-made path. There was absolutely no way one could get lost, but on the other hand one also felt a little like one was walking through a theme park. Not really “in” the environment. We arrived in due course at Pine Tree Arch. This was our first “real” arch, as the earlier Tunnel Arch was definitely of the “meh” variety. PTA was spectacular, and I was quite happy to wait a while for the family who had arrived just before us to take their own enjoyment before I started taking photographs. After waiting almost 15 minutes though, I was starting to think they were perhaps taking the piss. Amazingly, no third party had arrived, but the many offspring of the family refused to play anywhere except right in the centre of the arch, effectively denying me any photo-opp.
Eventually all but one got bored, but the remaining girl flatly refused to leave with the rest of her siblings, and despite us moving in, she remained “in shot” for several more minutes before her mother finally clued in that perhaps their stay had been a little too long. A little further on, and we were at the instantly recognisable Landscape Arch. It looks so fragile and delicate. I can imagine that when the light is just right it would look like it was on fire.
The signs told us that we could hike a little more challenging a route to Double O Arch. The day was young. Why not? We unwittingly then began the circular “Primitive Trail”. Though this is only ~3.5km, it took us well over 2hrs I’d say. Mostly because we were bombarded by the most stunning views imaginable, and I felt the need to photograph each and every nuance. Shortly after we began the hike (by ascending a massive slope of rock), we came across a lady “off trail” sweeping the sand with some dead brushwood. We stopped and stared, not sure how to react to someone so blatantly ignoring the “keep on the path – avoid erosion” messages. It then transpired she was actually a park ranger and was trying to disguise a “social path” that people had been using parallel to the more hard-wearing rock path we were on. By making the alternative less obvious, people were less likely to follow it by mistake.
The route is mostly pretty easy going on hard-wearing rock or packed sand (you were definitely “in” the environment this time!) The route is well marked by small cairns in an attempt to keep the many visitors from straying onto the broader environment and impacting the environment more than necessary. Once or twice though there were some momentously sketchy traverses across steep sandstone rock slabs. In wet weather these would have been downright treacherous. The most impressive views were of the many fins which gave the Devil’s Garden its name. Row upon row of multi-striped rock. Double O Arch is aptly named, and was obviously the destination of many. It was very busy with picnicking parties and foolhardy students actually walking along the top of the arches. A few were leaping from one rock tower to another, trying to impress the attendant girls.
As we looped back south and to the east, we were basically walking through soft sand, and my hiking shoes were getting pretty heavy with all the extra ballast.
Back in the car and we headed back south to try and see Delicate Arch again. This time we were lucky and found a parking place. I’m not sure what I was expecting, but it was a more exacting hike up than I had anticipated. Most of the climb is up a single great slab of rock, making it hard to identify the intended route. The very last part of the hike involves contouring around the side of a cliff on a 2m wide path carved into the side. It’s very broad and safe, but I can imagine when it’s crowded… or windy… it could get a little hairy for the faint hearted. Again, Delicate Arch is exactly as one imagines it from the many pictures in public circulation. I didn’t imagine it to be at the far end of a large flat “plaza” though. The way nature had left it whilst removing all the rest of the rock defies imagination. As expected, there were a bunch of yahoos who insisted that they were part of anyone’s photograph of the arch, but thankfully their attention spans were as limited as their intellect and they moved on before too long.
As we descended, I noticed a round rock that had been split such that a neat 1/4 of the relatively spherical rock had come away. Inside, the rock was a pale baby blue, and seemed to be actually made of clay or quite soft rock. This was the first time I’d seen the source of the blue colour used in Navajo sand paintings up close. As we got close to the car-park there was a sign to Wolfe Ranch and some petroglyphs. These disappointingly turned out to depict men on horses and were dated to possibly as recently as the 1850s. Just a little later and they’d have been classified as graffiti. It was an interesting philosophical point though… when is art art, and when is it defacing nature?
By now we were suffering from sensory overload, and only briefly visited Double Arch – neglecting to take a closer look at North/South Windows. The sun was starting to sink, and a whole new set of colours was coming into play. As we drove west back to the main road, we passed Bullwinkle Tower, and saw the two climbers that were ascending as we drove to the east now safely back at the base, retrieving their rope. Balanced Rock is very aptly named and one could imagine a stiff breeze toppling it at any moment. A few shots of stupendous but by now “too much” sights as we steadily drove south, and we felt one last stop at Park Avenue would suffice. So named because the rocks look like a series of skyscrapers, we were more taken by the fanciful head of Tutankhamen on the opposing cliffs.
By the time we left the park we were exhausted. We headed back to change then straight out for a lavish steak dinner at Jeffrey’s Steakhouse. I would definitely recommend this place. Book ahead though… we were exceedingly lucky to get a table because of a no show. Subsequent drop-ins were politely turned away. Saturday was to be our last full day… but it would be spent putting a lot of miles on the clock as we headed back towards Las Vegas. But I’m getting ahead of myself for now.
To be continued…