Saturday, January 21, 2017

CO & UT - Day Five - Arches National Park

Now that we were in the middle (relatively speaking) of lots of National Parks, we had to begin our next adventures with a biggie - Arches National Park.  It was "only" 90 miles away, and seemed like a good place to start, promising stunning scenery and geology, balanced rocks and some good trekking to put our legs to the test.  So with a 7.30am start after a good breakfast, we were on our way.

Arches Park itself is 76.5k acres, with a geology that represents millions of years of earth's battering from water, ice and wind.  The park contains the world's largest collection of natural stone arches and "windows", as well as numerous fins, bridges, pinnacles and balanced rocks.  There are over 2000 documented arches in the park, ranging from sliver-thin cracks (arches in-the-making), to huge expanses of almost 100m.  

We hit our first piece of luck as we drove in and joined a (relatively short) queue, then happened to pick the booth with no-one manning it, which meant free entry!  (we double-checked, and yep, definitely free).  Having done a bit of research beforehand, we headed straight into the park, following dozens of other cars and RVs, but ignored all the turn-offs for all the scenic views, gradually leaving many of the cars behind, and went straight for the end-point of the park (18 miles away from the entrance!) to the Devil's Garden Trailhead, where we parked in a relatively empty car park (since everyone else was still pootling around at the beginning).  

We chose to walk the Primitive Trail to Double O Arch - a trail described as "difficult" with "narrow ledges, uneven surface hiking and scrambling on slick rock", and about 7.5 miles round.  This one would be a challenge!

The trail started gently enough on packed dirt and sand, surrounded by tall rock "fins", scrub, the odd scrubby cactus, and a nosy raven (common in the area, apparently).  

Rock "Fins"

Pretty soon, we came to our first Arch: Landscape Arch - considered to be one of the longest arches in the world at 290 feet.  As with the rest of the rock formations in the area, it isn't immune to the ongoing effects of erosion, and it has lost significant chunks of rock from its arch over the last 25 years.  As a result, the trail no longer runs beneath it, but winds around and up.

Things got a little more challenging at this point, as we experienced our first hikes on "slickrock" - literally huge slabs of sandstone (which get slippery in the rain), that form part of the trail - we were actually walking on the rock formations - with steep drop-offs and narrow walkways at times.  The scenery from our higher vantage point over other "fins" was amazing. But you had to keep your wits about you - if only to keep an eye out for the cairns (small rock piles) which marked the trail at regular intervals.  

Coming off the slickrock, we hit another dirt trail before very quickly coming to Double O Arch - a 150 foot tall sandstone column with two arches stacked on top of each other.  Due to the time of day, the lighting wasn't great, but we stopped for a brief snack in the shelter of the rocks and managed to snap a few photos.

We continued on the Primitive Trail Loop, heading into a sandy wash at the base of several fin formations, and through a canyon floor before hitting more slickrock and keeping a good eye out for the cairns - without these we'd have lost track of the trail within minutes!

Spot the cairn in the foreground!

There followed a bit of scrambling over and down the slickrock for a time, before we were back on the sand and dirt trail again, with stunning vistas back out across the Park.  

This is my favourite picture from our day's adventure

Our legs were definitely feeling it at this point, so we stopped for another snack break and a breather, before continuing on the remainder of the loop, eventually ending up at the car park again after about 3 hours' walking.  And it was only lunchtime!

A brief drive back the way we came brought us to Sand Dune Arch, which was a short walk through some thigh-busting sand dunes (bare feet recommended) and a narrow canyon between two fins, to a serene arch, almost enclosed on all sides by high rock faces.  Very peaceful (if you ignored all the other people stumbling about in the sand and queuing up for photos).  

From there, we drove a little further to Fiery Furnace viewpoint - at midday, to be honest, it wasn't that striking (relative to all the other things we'd seen that day), but you could imagine if the sun hit it the right way at sunset it would live up to its name.  

Feeling a little more rejuvenated by the break in walking, we decided on our final hike of the day - only 1.5 miles each way (allegedly) - although it was listed as another "difficult" hike... We started with a gentle stroll through the scrub trail and past the remains of an old ranch, built in 1888.  A little further on, we got to see a small rock panel of ancient petroglyphs from the Ute tribes, depicting horses and a bighorn sheep hunt.

From there, we started the looooonng hike upwards.  For such a short distance (1.5 miles) it definitely wasn't an easy stroll (should have known that when the estimated timeframe for the round trip was 2.5 hours...)  The first third of the trail was dirt track and easy to follow, leading to the base of a steep slickrock hill.  No choice but to head upwards and to follow the cairns to keep on track (mind you, there were plenty of other people to follow, too. Randomly, we even met another lady from Bristol!)  It was a steady climb (legs and lungs protesting, and water bottles getting emptier), and pretty exposed to both sun and wind.  And took about an hour, one-way!

Eventually it levelled out a little to base of another rock face which had to be navigated around along narrow(ish) outcrop paths, with a steep drop-off on one side.   And as we rounded a corner, suddenly there it was - Delicate Arch - perched on the edge of a huge slab of slickrock.  Given the strong winds that buffeted us as we tried it enjoy the view, it's amazing that it was still standing!  This Arch is particularly famous, since it features on the Utah license plate.  However, the wind wasn't much fun, so after the obligatory photos we headed back down again to the car.  

By this point, we were pretty much shattered and slightly over-cultured as far as rock formations were concerned, so we took a steady drive back to the exit via a few stop-offs at more rock features and stunning vistas:

Balanced Rock

Parade of Elephants

Parade of Elephants

Right: Tower of Babel and The Organ
Centre Left: Three Gossips

By 5pm, we were pooped, with just enough energy for the long, straight drive home and a well-earned bath!

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