2016.04.11-12 – A Land of Arches

2016.04.11-12 – A Land of Arches

Once I had arrived in Moab, I immediately began going through my usual adventure town rituals: find a gear shop, get advice. Moab did not disappoint on this front. I began my retail experience at the resale shop on the main drag, poking through aisles of used clothing and trying on a few pairs of climbing shoes. My steadfast dedication to minimalism (and my bank account) kept me from going down any gear-filled rabbit holes. My next stop was Gearheads. With a name like that, I feel like I really don’t need to say anything else. I felt at home. With a free water fill-up station near the cash register, there was a never-ending flow of off roaders and hikers filling up their massive water storage containers. Gearheads bustled with activity.

In the back of the store, I found a sleeping pad that had been evading me for quite some time. Multiple REIs and a handful of locally owned shops had been out of stock of the Therm-A-Rest Z Lite Sol, a closed-cell foam sleeping pad that would make winter camping far more comfortable. Therm-A-Rest happens to be in the process of redoing this particular product line, so stocks have been dwindling all over the country. Gearheads, however, came through in a big way. I left the store with a sleeping pad in hand and a massive grin splayed across my face. It always feels good to cross a piece of gear off of your “need” list.

As the sun sank behind the rocky ridge beyond Moab, I headed for the hills. Just south of town, I found a section of wide-open BLM land with a few dirt roads winding through the sea of prairie dog holes. Pulling off one such road, I nestled up against a grove of trees and bedded down for the night. I wasn’t entirely sure what adventures tomorrow would hold, but Moab seemed ripe with opportunity.

Not a bad view from the campsite.
Not a bad view from the campsite.

Instead of heading straight into Canyonlands and Arches, I decided to spend some time writing in a coffee shop in town. With a cup of dark roast steaming away on the table in front of me, I began piecing together segments of a piece that I had been brainstorming about for the last few months. At points the process felt more than a little overwhelming, but I continued to plug away, taking breaks every now and then to process photos, do some handstands outside, or run and grab a snack from the natural food store across the street. The combination of healthy snacks, an infinite supply of coffee, and a quiet atmosphere seemed to accelerate both my productivity and the time of day. Before I knew it, I had spent all day working. I still felt like I had little to show for my efforts though… I snagged a fresh loaf of bread and a beet salad before heading back to my campsite for the night.

Home is where you park it.
Home is where you park it.

In the morning, I felt as if my productivity had evaporated in the morning light. That meant it was time to abandon the computer and head into the park! Canyonlands and Arches National Parks both lie just beyond the city limits of Moab. Both offer spectacular opportunities for hikers to explore the wonders of Utah’s bizarre geology. Having seen the famous Delicate Arch on every license plate since I entered the state in early April, Arches felt like the right way to start my adventure.

Getting an early start, I headed straight for the Delicate Arch, hoping to beat the crowds to this very popular formation. In the morning light, the landscape of pillars and arches felt Martian. It all seemed a bit irrational. Sandstone towers that should have collapsed long ago stood powerfully erect. Fragile arches bridged impossible gaps, yet still seemed strong enough to hold my weight. I couldn’t help the feeling that I had somehow been transported into either a sci-fi novel or fairy tale. Clearly, I had a lot of exploring to do.

Once I arrived at the Delicate Arch parking lot, I wolfed down a peanut butter and jelly sandwich and then hit the trail. I cruised over shallow hills, rocky promontories, and sandstone flats until I rounded a corner and the arch came into view. I guess it is tough for a license plate to do any natural feature justice, but the Delicate Arch really took my breath away. With the La Sal Mountains creating a jagged horizon, the arch cascades across a vista of red rock and desert lowlands. Despite its name, I have a feeling it will be around for many years to come, barring some sort of natural catastrophe.

Delicate Arch

Despite my efforts to arrive on the early side, I had missed the best of the morning light. I carefully tiptoed along steep embankments to the front side of the arch, hoping to capture the remaining morning color. As I did, the paparazzi arrived. A family of tourists headed into the arch, proceeding to individually cycle through as they took pictures of one another. This disruptive process took about ten minutes and forced all of the other photographers to time their shots perfectly to avoid the presence of unfamiliar faces. Smiling to myself at the absurdity of it all, I was soon joined by a few groups of photographers who also saw the humor in the situation. Eventually, the family moved on and we had some alone time with the arch.

When in doubt, do a handstand.
When in doubt, do a handstand.

Delicate Arch II

Once I had the pictures I wanted, I put my camera away and spent some time probing my fellow photographers for suggestions. Each spoke to the benefits of sunrise and sunset. Focusing my photography on those time slots, however, would limit my ability to travel the park, so I decided to hurry off towards my next objective: Double Arch. Just down the road, I passed by Balanced Rock, a prominent feature that I will talk more about later, before heading towards the parking lot at the end of the road.

By now, the mid-day sun and mid-day traffic had begun to take hold of the landscape. Finding parking near Double Arch proved painstakingly difficult, while the line at the restroom made me question the park’s ability to handle visitors in peak season. That all disappeared, however, once I headed off on the trail.

Double Arch and the Windows lie very close to one another. Making my way towards Double Arch first, I soon stood beneath a canopy of stone arches that seemed to defy the laws of gravity. A latticework of sandstone dominated the sky, while sheer rock faces channeled visitors towards the feature. Even as I steadily craned my neck upward, the scene shifted with each step I took. My position dictated whether or not some arches overlapped or spread apart. At times, I almost felt like I had some control over the landscape, then I would realize that it was more likely that I had just stepped into an M. C. Escher illusion.

Double Arches (Full Size) Double Arches Close Up Arch

From Double Arches, I headed for the primitive trail that skirts around the Windows, a massive wall interrupted by two growing eye-like slits. When the National Park Service designates something as “primitive,” it generally just means unpaved. The well-maintained footpath wound around the backside of the Windows, creating sweeping views of the La Sal Mountains to the east. With the crowds baking on the parking lots far behind me, I found myself in a quiet desert, surrounded by low shrubs that often extended their prickly branches within reach of my legs. The desert definitely has a way of reminding you of its remarkable survival adaptations.

Clouds and arches.
Clouds and arches.

From the backside, the thick arches of the Windows seem to appear out of nowhere. Rippling faces of sandstone suddenly vanish into vacant ovals filled with a brilliant sky blue. Every now and then, a tiny human would appear in the space, granting a sense of scale to the epic system of rock. Eventually, I circumnavigated the monumental slab, swinging by Castle Rock before heading back to the car.

Alone in the Arch

Before heading back out of the park, I spent some time wandering the park roads, passing by corridors of stone with names like Park Avenue and the Courthouse. I ended my day with the park’s film and a quick fill-up of all of my water bottles. With writing on my mind, I headed back to the coffee shop until dark. There, I met a couple that also had dedicated months to traveling the parks. They were sleeping in a miniscule Nissan Versa. Minimal to the max! With the latest season of House of Cards playing in the background, I processed the days photos before heading back to my vacant BLM field to meet up with my incoming friends.

Smiling faces, a roaring fire, and a starry night ushered us into what would be a truly memorable couple of days. Stay tuned!

4 Responses

  1. It’s hard to find experienced people for this subject, however,
    you sound like you know what you’re talking about!
    Thanks

  2. paul
    | Reply

    There is a ranger lead only hike at Arches NP call the Fiery Furnace . Must see, skull arch.

    • jcronon
      | Reply

      Fiery Furnace was closed when I was in Arches! I was super bummed. I will have to go back.

  3. That was a very exciting hike
    | Reply

    I hadn’t realized how many arches and double arches are in the Park. Bob and Carol Ann spent some time there on their trip west, but they just saw the usual tourist spots like most travelers do.

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