February 2004 - President's Day Weekend
Arches National Park, Utah

We were planning to use a new house sitter for a week-long trip to California and wanted her to have some familiarity with the dogs before we left. For that reason, we decided to make a President's Day weekend trip to Utah so that our house sitter and dogs would have a chance to get to know each other.

Friday evening, we drove to Grand Junction, about 30 miles from the Utah border. This is a four-hour drive in good weather, and with snow-free roads we made it in reasonable time. The following morning, we headed into Utah. Near Cisco, just inside Utah, we picked up State Highway 128 and followed the Colorado River into Moab. This is slower than dropping down US 191 at Crescent Junction, but far more scenic. Highway 128 passes beneath the massive sandstone cliffs that form the southeast border of Arches National Park.

Hike to Delicate Arch
Carolyn on Delicate Arch Trail After checking into our hotel in Moab, we headed up into Arches. After leaving US 191, the park road passes the visitor center and climbs steeply into a rock desert that contains more than 2000 natural sandstone arches. Although it is tempting to stop at every single overlook, we were able to resist this temptation in most, but not all, cases, because we have been to Arches National Park several times. We were headed straight for the trailhead to Delicate Arch, the symbol of the park - some would say that it is the symbol of Utah.

The trailhead is near Wolfe Ranch, an historic century-old homestead built by a Civil War veteran. After a decade of living at the ranch, Wolfe and his family moved back to Ohio. The arid climate has resulted in a remarkable degree of preservation of the dwellings. Ancient Ute petroglyphs are etched into the surrounding rocks.

The parking area had more cars and people than we expected for an off-season period. Apparently, the holiday weekend resulted in a small surge in visitors. Still the trail could not have been considered crowded by any reasonable standard.

Carolyn at Delicate Arch Delicate Arch is about 1½ miles from the trailhead and about 500 ft higher. This was well known to us because we have been there several times before. Typically, we follow the trail up and "bushwhack" out way down. Bushwhacking refers to off-trail hiking.

Going up, the first ½ mile of trail is through winding switchbacks that slowly climb through loosely consolidated sediments, mostly shales and mudstones. The middle third of the hike, which is the steepest, is across an exposed slickrock face. This part of the trail is a great place to get a sunburn or hit by lightening. Eventually, the trail levels out and is very pleasant. The last 200 yards are along a rock ledge that might be intimidating for someone with a fear of heights.

Delicate Arch is generally regarded as the most beautiful natural arch in the world. It's exquisite shape, impressive size, glowing-red hue, and dramatic setting combine to make this sandstone arch an iconic image of the American West. On this day the snow-sprinkled landscape provided an additional touch of inspiration. Hikers routinely brave a dramatic dropoff a few feet away to pose for a picture beneath the five-story-high arch.

On the way back to Moab, we discovered that a ranger-led hike into the Fiery Furnace, a restricted region of the park, was scheduled for the following day. There was room for two more people and we quickly signed up.

The Fiery Furnace
Fiery Furnace The next morning we did some minor sight-seeing near the park entrance before driving to the "trailhead" for the Fiery Furnace. My reluctancy to refer to this parking lot as a "trailhead" is due to the fact that there is really no trail through the Fiery Furnace. This is one of the reasons that this area is closed to individual hikers. An exceptionally high number of National Park Service "rescues" resulted in the closure of the Fiery Furnace. Unless a hiker can secure a Park Service permit, the only law-abiding option for exploring the Fiery Furnace is as part of a ranger-guided three-hour tour. During the peak visitor season, the waiting list for a guided tour can exceed one week.

The Fiery Furnace is not known for natural arches. It is a labyrinthe of colorful redstone canyons and sandy washes that have been jumbled and disrupted by the movement of a thick and unstable underlying layer of evaporite deposits. The canyons are decorated with light-green cacti and yucca plants, and dark-green juniper trees. A less colorful type of vegetation was the very fragile cryptogamic soil, which is often unintentionally destroyed by hikers. The presence of cryptogamic soil, which is a living amalgamation of lichen, algae, moss, and fungi, is another reason that the Fiery Furnace area has been classified as off-limits to individual hikers.

Whoever named the Fiery Furnace was obviously not there on a cold February morning. Many of the deep narrow canyons were uncomfortably cool and, unlike peak-season visitors, we took our breaks in the sun-exposed areas rather than in the shade. During the summer, the Fiery Furnace is the hottest region of a park that has an average daytime high of 100 °F.

Fiery Furnace Hike The three-hour hike is not strenous, but does require a fair amount of scrambling "on all fours" along a series of steep narrow ledges. At one memorable point along the trail, a narrow canyon evolves into a tight notch, only inches wide, that hikers must lift themselves out of onto a ledge at the head of the canyon. There is nothing on the Fiery Furnace hike that requires atheletic feats and little that would disturb someone with a fear of heights. Based on my experience, the most difficult parts of the hike are the sandy washes, which are very tiring on the lower legs. Progress is rather slow, however, considering that only 2 miles are covered in the three-hour hike.

Each hiker was required to have a daypack and a bottle of water. Since we only had one daypack between us, we bought a cheap pack the night before. Breaking from tradition, I only brought my digital camera. Despite some apprehension, I was happy with the results and shot dozens of pictures. Our fellow tour members made great, if somewhat reluctant, subjects as they scrambled and scooted across the rocks of the Fiery Furnace.

Fiery Furnace Hike Although our guide, Ranger Clay, was very informative, before the hike was over I taught him a few things about the tectonic evolution of the Colorado Plateau. The Fiery Furnace has some nice examples of ductile deformation of weaker sandstones. Our guide discussed arch formation, a process that I understood well from the many geology courses that I have taken, and desert varnish, the water-deposited chemical streaks that decorated the canyon walls. Overall, however, Ranger Clay's expertise was more ecological than biological. He politely insisted that we walk as closely to his footprints as possible, to prevent erosion and destruction of cryptogamic soil, and that we never venture out ahead of him. He offered useful tips about rock scrambling and ledge crawling.

A fair amount of the human history of the area was also presented as we explored the canyons. One arch was named Superintendent's Arch because it was discovered by an early superintendent of the park. Many arches are named on the basis of some physical resemblance. Another Fiery Furnace arch is named Skull Arch because its two symmetrical openings resemble the eye sockets of a human skull. The most creative name for an arch is the Kissing Turtle Arch, which resembles two turtles stretching their necks for a kiss that meets at the center of the arch.

The Fiery Furnace hike offered an intimate look at a landscape that is typically appreciated more for its grand vistas and less for its fine detail.

Delicate Arch Overlook
Delicate Arch Overlook After the Fiery Furnace hike, we returned to the Delicate Arch trailhead. Unlike the previous day, our objective was not the arch itself, but a nearby overlook that offers a spectacular view of the arch. In some sense, the sight of Delicate Arch from afar is even more impressive than up close. In particular, the geologic context of the arch and surrounding rock formations is more evident.

The Delicate Arch Viewpoint, as it is officially known, is about ¼ mile from the trailhead parking lot. The elevation gain is also more merciful, only about 150 ft. It is also possible to hike another ½ mile along the level peak of the ridge that includes the viewpoint, which is separated from the arch itself by a deep redrock canyon. Unless a hiker has rock climbing skills it is not possible to travel directly between the viewpoint and the arch.

The greatest disappointment of the view is that it is nearly impossible to get a picture without tourists. Delicate Arch, as well as the surrounding rock formations are crawling with people. We clutter each other's pictures. They clutter the arch, and we clutter their backdrop of the arch. The viewpoint is more popular with older and less fit visitors that would like to see the arch, but may not be capable of the 3-mile roundtrip hike necessary for a closer look.

Final Scenic Drive
Three Gossips As we were leaving the park, we stopped repeatedly at various "pullouts" and overlooks. We wandered about the Windows Region, which has a relatively high concentration of arches, including the highly photogenic Double Arch, and is also home to the Balanced Rock formation, which is featured in many postcards of Arches. We also stopped at Panorama Point and the Courthouse Towers viewing areas. The snow-capped La Sal Mountains, near the Colorado border, provided a scenic backdrop that was in sharp contrast to the relatively barren redrock terrains of the park.

Many of the arches and rock formations of the park have been given descriptive names, such as the Three Gossips, a favorite of rock climbers. The landscape changes from deep reds to more pale hues as the road descends through a cross-section of the Jurassic. Younger sandstones, most notably the Entrada formation, abruptly yield to the older and noticeably less colorful Navajo formation. What the Navajo sandstone lacks in color, however, it makes up for in texture, exhibiting impressive cross-bedding features.

Soon we were back in Moab, and early the next morning we left for Colorado. The trip was not quite over, however, because we took the scenic route to Interstate 70 by following Utah Highway 128 along the Colorado River. The landscapes that this road passes through are so scenic that one has to wonder why this area hasn't been designated a national park. Also known as the Colorado River Scenic Byway, Hwy 128 follows the river through some of the most impressive gorges of the American southwest. A picturesque, and oddly familiar-looking, ranch along a large meander was the setting for several westerns. The drive offers a closer view of the La Sal Mountains than can be obtained from within Arches National Park. It also passes very close to a rock formation known as the Fisher Towers, which has been featured in many cigarette and pickup truck advertisements.

Soon we were back on Interstate 70, making a drive across Colorado that we were all too familiar with.

Photo Gallery
Trail to Delicate Arch Delicate Arch Delicate Arch Near Balanced Rock

Fiery Furnace Fiery Furnace Balanced Rock

Fiery Furnace Hike Fiery Furnace Hike Kissing Turtles Arch Fiery Furnace Hike

Utah Highway 128 Utah Highway 128 Utah Highway 128

Fiery Furnace Hike Superintendent Arch Fiery Furnace Hike Twin Arch