Saturday, 2 May 2009

Arches and Canyonland National Parks

As you know, I spent 5 days down in Southern Utah hiking and camping in the National Parks. My folks drove down from Montana on Saturday morning, and we left for Moab on Sunday afternoon. A couple of good friends of mine, the Landons, are avid camper/hikers (Nate's a National Park Ranger), and they recommended a fabulous campsite to us. It's off the normal hiking path. In fact, it's out on the 'Slickrock Trail' which is for BMX, 4x4s, ATVs, mountain bikes and other off road vehicles. They have several campsites out there, but they're all considered 'primitive'. As in, no running water, pit toilets, no electricity . . . in other words, perfect. The lady at the visitor's centre wasn't overly enthusiastic about it when we asked for directions, but we loved it. There were several other groups camping out there, but we couldn't see each other from our sites, and they were all courteous and kept the noise down after dark. The point of this adventure was two fold -- 1) Get Mom out of the allergens up in Montana (their spring is just hitting the worst pollen time, and Moab's a couple weeks ahead, so their trees are already done) and 2) Help her build red blood cells. She's been anemic, and the Dr wants her out hiking/biking and whatever else she can stand as much as possible. So, we opted for medium strenuous, medium length hikes.

On Monday, we went into Arches National Park and hiked up to Delicate Arch. It had rained overnight Sunday, so the air was crystal clear. They get a lot of pollution blowing in from LA, and also the wind picks up all that fine sand (which is how the arches get formed!), so often you can't actually see the La Salle mountains off behind the park, but Monday you certainly could! It was a perfectly clear day, blue sky and sunny! We'd actually lost our sunscreen, but managed to keep the exposure to a minimum, so didn't actually fry. But . . . boy did I get tan! Although, sadly, no one but Lois is ever going to notice! My summer colour is most people's winter colour! I'm just that pale a person. I enjoyed the hike, it's not too hard, and it's only 3 miles round trip, but I ended up doing a bit more than that. I got 2/3s of the way up.... and had to go back to the truck! So I ended up doing it basically twice! Ooops. Never mind. I got a real good first hike in. And on my way back up I saw a collared lizard and a whiptale lizard. We saw loads of whiptales, but that was the only collared any of us saw, so I guess it was worth it!
Monday night the wind picked up. Really bad. 30+ mph. It was so strong that the only thing holding my tent down was me. I ended up dragging the water supply into my tent and climbing into the cab of the truck to sleep. The wind was noisy, but the real reason I ditched the tent was the rain fly might be great for keeping out water, but it's rubbish at keeping out sand. I was being covered. Since the wind was still crazy strong in the morning, we decided to head to Canyonland National Park, which is a bit further South, near Montecello. It was still windy, but definitely an improvement on Moab/Arches! The Four Corners Region, in addition to having some truly remarkable geology, was also the home to the Anasazi Indians (amongst many other groups). These people left behind a bunch of unique dwellings (see Mesa Verde National Park) but also petroglyphs. One of the best examples of petroglyphs is 'Newspaper Rock'. It's in them! And it happens to be just off the road to the Needles District of Canyonland. So, obviously, we stopped off there. Very cool. When we actually arrived at Canyonland, we hiked Pothole Trail and Slickrock Trail. Pothole was pretty easy; all flat. Slickrock was a lot tougher, and ages long! Seriously, it went on forever! It was a 'lollipop' trail, meaning you hiked out a bit, did a loop, then backtracked the first bit to get back to the carpark. It was beautiful, but not my favourite hike of the week. It was hot, windy and I was thirsty . . . and it was not the 2.4 miles it claimed. We hiked solidly for 4 hours! We weren't trying to win any speed hiking competitions, but we weren't just standing around, either. You can walk 4 miles/hour! Ok, so we were going a bit slower because it was up and down and side to side, as well, but 4 hours?!? It only took us 3 hours to hike the 3 miles up and back to Delicate Arch, which was all uphill on the way out, and that was only because I hiked it twice, and we hung around for half an hour once we arrived!Wednesday the wind had calmed down quite a lot. It was breezy, but not windy. I even managed to sleep the night in my tent Tuesday night! We got up and headed out to Double O Arch Trail. This turned out to be my favourite hike of the whole week. It was sort of in three parts. Round trip it was 4-5 miles, depending on how many of the side hikes you took. We took every one of them. It was fantastic! The first mile was out to Landscape Arch. It's this enormous, very thin, arch that spans the horizon. It's considered the largest natural arch in the world -- 295 feet -- closely followed by Kolob Arch, in Zion National Park. It's so cool. The hike was pretty easy up to this point. There was a bit up and down at the beginning, with two side trips out to Pine Arch and Tunnel Arch, but very well maintained, paved, easy walking. It's out in the 'Devil's Garden' area, and there's a whole 7.6 mile loop you can do. We did all but 1.6 miles of that loop. Once you got past Landscape Arch, the trail got quite a lot rougher. In fact, the park service has it labeled as 'Primitive Trail. Difficult Hiking.' But that's also where it got fun. First, Arches is covered by these outcroppings of sandstone called 'fins'. These fins are thin wall-like structures. They're where arches form. Well, the first thing you get to do once you pass Landscape Arch is hike up a (small) fin! Yeah. Obviously I'm going to love that! I was totally in favour of hiking back down, just so I could hike back up again! It's not very tall in comparison to the fins on either side (there are 3 in a row, and you hike the middle one), but it's not flat, like most of them. Instead, it goes up the side of a hill! So you're walking a few feet above the side of the canyon wall. Pretty awesome! Mom's a little sensitive to heights. She wasn't overjoyed with it, but survived ok. Once you got up to the top, you had the option for two short hikes (about 1/2 a mile each way, if you did both) -- Partition and Navajo Arches. They were in opposite directions, but very short trails. Partition Arch was particularly amazing, because it's the same wall as Landscape, just off to the right a bit, so you get this amazing view of the whole valley. Navajo Arch is just very different, because it's kind of in a corner, and you don't have to hike up to it. Ok... sure, you've already hiked up, but usually once you reach the area of the arch, it's still UP! This one's right on the floor! Also, there was this cool little nook just before the arch. I saw it and had to crawl inside. Yeah . . . I do that a lot. If you can climb in or on it, I'm there. The third leg of the trip was the most difficult. But it was also the most fun. (Are you catching a theme here?) That was the mile out from Partition/Navajo Arches to Double O Arch. It was a difficult trail, mostly uphill across rugged land. But the best bit was you got to walk across another fin!! And this one was probably close to a quarter mile long. Now, it was pretty easy walking, because the fin itself was level. What made it challenging was . . . it was the tallest thing up there! And it was a long way down to the canyon floor. Several hundred feet. I have no idea how far, exactly, but absolutely more than 100 feet. Yeah, that really pushed Mom's buttons. There's one point where the fin is cracked, all the way across, and you have to step over the gap. Now, the gap is only a few inches wide, so it's no big deal . . . except that you can see down. That got even stomach, and I'm not bothered by heights. It nearly reduced Mom to tears. Bless her. But she toughed it out, crawled across (no joke. On hands and knees) and we told her how brave and courageous she was to have made it across. Walking across that fin you had the most beautiful view of the lower canyon. Absolutely stunning. You really did feel like you ought to be able to see the back side of your head. The view was only limited by the curve of the earth. Amazing. Once we got across the fin, the trail got physically tougher. Finally, I said to Mom (she was kind of suffering at this point) that, 'whenever [she] wanted to say . . . there it is!' which got a laugh, of course. What I'd been starting to say was, 'Whenever [she] wanted to say enough was fine by me,' and just at that moment, I saw the arch! We could see it out across the valley. It was still a hike away, so Mom decided that it was a rather anti-climactic arch, and she could see it fine from where she was, and sat down to recover for a while. I sat with her, and Dad decided he was going to do a bit more exploring. After about 45 seconds, he said, 'Hey guys . . . that's not it'. We had actually not been looking at 'Double O' even though there were two arches, one above the other! How did he know? Because he'd gone around the corner of the fin we were hiking along the side of, and saw the real Double O Arch! He was all of 15 feet away, so we walked over. It was much more impressive than the one we'd been looking at (still don't know what it was called, if anything), but Mom still thinks it wasn't worth the last part of the trail. The fin, however, she loved . . . retrospectively. She hated walking it, but loves remembering it (which she admits!) Anyway, Mom sat down in the shade of some rocks, and Dad and I hiked the rest of the way over to the arch. I climbed up into the lower arch, but there was no way to get into the upper one. We only stayed a couple of minutes, though, because the wind was picking up, and we still had to walk back across that fin! Mom did it even better than she had on the way out, though. She handled the crevasse much better, no tears at all! Still didn't like it, but did a great job getting through it. All in all, we hiked for 5 hours, and did 5 miles. I'd go back and do that hike in an instant. I'd really loved to have done the whole loop, but Mom was just not in any condition to do the extra mile and a half. But I loved that hike.

Thursday Mom was beat. We'd done quite a lot of hiking, and her body had said 'Uncle!' So we took it easy. We did Park Avenue, which is only a mile, all down hill (then sent Dad back for the truck!). Then we did the upper view point for Delicate Arch, which was probably only a mile round trip (1/2 a mile up -- and I do mean up -- and 1/2 a mile back). But after that, she was exhausted, so we went back and slept. Honestly I was sort of feeling it a bit, too, but was fine as long as we kept moving. I'd been sitting in the middle of the bench seat along the front of the truck on our drives, and it was starting to bother me. It meant I had to sort of twist my back a bit, and even then my legs couldn't be straight out in front of me. They had to fold one direction or the other (mostly one direction, other wise they would get in Dad --driver--'s way). So I was rather glad to have a break and let my muscles soak. We'd decided that we would get a hotel that night, rather than camp again, so that we could get a shower and wouldn't descend on Lois like (Mom:) a Plague of Locus, (Me:) a Pack of Wild Hyenas or (Dad:) a Plague. We opted for one with a hot tub so we could soak the aching muscles. Actually, it ended up being the worst night sleep for both me and Dad. Mom, however, slept much better. Both Dad and I were up early Friday morning because our backs had had enough of the hard mattress! Friday, our last day, dawned overcast. Not heavy clouds, just not the bright blue we'd had up til then. It was kind of a nice break from the heat and sun, but kind of sad, too. So we got out the door and up to the park pretty early (since we didn't have to break camp or anything). We headed out to the Windows area of the park, and did two short hikes: North/South Window and Turret Arch, and Double Arch (not to be confused with Double O Arch). Double Arch is probably the second most photographed/iconic arch in the park. It's sort of a tough call between it and Landscape Arch as to which is second to Delicate Arch. But, Double Arch features in the movies occasionally. Most memorably (for me, anyway), it's the location that Young Indiana Jones is climbing around in at the beginning of The Last Crusade. Once we'd hiked out to both those areas, we piled back in the truck and drove back to Salt Lake.
And thus ended our fabulous visit to Southern Utah.

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