Travel in the United States: The Desert in Moab, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks

If you’ve read any of my previous posts on Moab, specifically for Arches and Canyonlands national parks, you will already know that the vastness surrounding the small desert town is one of my favorite places on the planet. The feelings that crop up as I turn onto Highway 191 are a mixture of excitement, anticipation and an expectation to feel extremely small and insignificant as only the desert can make one feel. Unlike previous posts I am shifting away from just the scenery with no people in it and wanting to explore the adventure of sharing one of my favorite places with friends. Look for the tiny people in expansive landscapes to try and get a feel for the scale…

Last week I took a road trip with my wife and two of our close friends to Moab. I wanted to share those magical places with people that I love.

Our basecamp for the five day adventure was situated right next to the Colorado River at the Grandstaff Campground off of Highway 128. There are numerous campgrounds along the highway and we were lucky enough to find an open spot that was shady in both the morning and the evening which is something of a challenge in the desert. Tents pitched, water containers filled and all the other necessary preparations made, we set off to explore Arches.

As we climb the entrance road, gaining almost 1,000 vertical feet of elevation in about two miles, the ooo’s and aaaah’s start. The sheer cliffs and giant boulders start pretty much right after the park’s visitors center and it is an impressive sight to behold. But that’s just an appetizer. First stop is The Windows and Turret Arch. It’s still early in the day and spend some hours hiking around, exploring the trails near these amazing sandstone structures. The main trail is about a mile loop that swings visitors past both the North and South Windows as well as Turret and is an easy introduction to hiking in the desert. We opt to take the South Window Primitive Trail next which actually leads you behind the windows and is, at least on this day, sparsely traveled by others. We circle back around to the North Window and take in the view.

Let it be said at this point in the story that I have a fairly substantial fear of heights and falling. That fact is important because I have always wanted to photograph Turret through the North Window. I saw the photo once in a travel magazine and it has been a personal goal of mine ever since. My past few trips to Arches I have tried to venture to a spot I scouted as the probably vantage point for said photo and have failed to reach it. I’ve gotten close but there is one spot where rock climbing or bouldering experience would come in handy. As we catch our breath taking in the view, I mention this to my friend Nick and he looks at me and says “Come on; let’s go”. Nick is a skilled rock climber and as we approach my personal point of no return my heart rate quickens and my breath becomes more rapid. I try to regain my composure and focus on the instructions he is giving me. My foot goes here, shift my weight against this point, hug the rock, hand goes there and after what seems like an eternity I am on stable ground. I turn to look at my accomplishment and as I thought there is my shot.

There is a place in Arches known as the Fiery Furnace. The furnace is somewhat of a maze of high fin canyons and sand washes. Six years ago I explored this area of the park during a ranger-led hike. This time around there would be no ranger, just the four of us left to our own devices, instincts and orienteering skills. We sat through a orientation class at the visitors center. The two mile “trail” through the furnace would be loosely marked by small arrows pointing this way and that to pseudo guide us to the way out. That being said, rangers have had to go in and rescue hikers that have gotten turned around a few times each and every year. So with some trepidation and a large sense of adventure and excitement we set off down into the canyons. For the next four and a half hours we explore the multicolored, sandstone fins, scrambling up rocks, wedging our bodies through tight, claustrophobic spaces. Following the rules set down by the rangers, we go off the main trail and try to explore all of the nooks and crannies. We do some minor rock climbing, pressing our bodies up against the rough walls to gain friction and support so that we can reach areas of the canyon that the average hiker might not see.

There is a certain mindset to the furnace that needs to be embraced. Although the park is in a short busy season with loads of people in four and a half hours in the furnace we saw, maybe, 10 other people. That feeling of isolation can sometimes be overwhelming, especially if you miss one of the arrows marking out the trail. It happened only once but thankfully it was in a larger, open section. The landscape almost leads you off of the trail on purpose. Mother nature having a laugh at your expense. We kept our heads and after backtracking for a quarter of a mile we find the point where we went wrong. The creeping sense of dread at the prospect of getting lost dissipates and after another hour we spy the parking lot marking the trail head. We had made it through unscathed.

One of the highlights of a trip to Arches is sunset at Delicate Arch. Only a mile and half hike up to the bowl where the arch has stood the test of time, the trail is uphill on scarcely marked slick rock and we are racing against time. The sun is getting low on the horizon as we push uphill but with some hustling and heavy breathing we crest the final part of the trail and down into the bowl. We take a seat to watch Mother Nature’s light show. I wish I could say it was a peaceful moment but what can I say…people are people. There is a mix of photographers and hikers all there for a different reason. Some folks are just sitting in taking in the beauty. Others are in a line to have their photo taken inside the arch. Photographers are setting up their shots. As the sun creeps ever lower people start getting bossy. Photographers yell at people in line to give them a second to take a clear picture of Delicate. One in particular comes over to us and others to tell us that we need to move. The sense of entitlement of some people is sometimes astounding. The same person starts dictating that the line of people needs to stop and that it is time for everyone to clear his field of vision. Again astounding… As hard as this guy tries the moment is however not ruined for our group. We sit, all together, in the dying light of a great day happy and content.

We have prepared and brought headlamps for the return trip. Twilight fades and the stars come out as we make our way back to the trailhead. The milky way shines brightly on the horizon before the almost full moon comes out to obscure our view. It has been an absolutely amazing day of adventure.

Any good camping trip, in my opinion, needs some time carved out to relax and hang out at camp in between all of the exploring and adventuring. Swimming, eating, drinking, talking and playing games are just as necessary as hiking and photography.  And that’s exactly what we did. Time well spent growing the already strong bonds of friendship.

The last part of our adventure started early the next morning with a trip up to Canyonlands and Mesa Arch. Sunrise at Mesa is another experience that as a photographer and a lover of nature I wanted my friends to witness. Like Delicate a few days before, Mesa is also a popular photography stop and although we made it well before 6 a.m., there were already a herd of people setting up tripods and cameras, jockeying for position for that perfect photograph. All I can say is that the beauty one sees at both Mesa and Delicate, is worth the early morning and the circus of people. I thankfully can compartmentalize that circus of people as background noise,  The voices and shuffling fade as we watch the sun crest over the mountains and the clouds turn from purple, to pink to brilliant oranges and yellows.