"Trails are like that: you’re floating along in a Shakespearean Arden paradise and expect to see nymphs and fluteboys, then suddenly you’re struggling in a hot broiling sun of hell in dust and nettles and poison oak … just like life." --Jack Kerouac, The Dharma Bums
The only way I can explain how I ended up in Utah for the third time in as many months is to say that their National Parks are the best. This weekend I drove past Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef to Arches and Canyonlands. I have now experienced The Mighty 5.
I underestimated the drive and forgot that I would lose an hour, so after driving all day, I still arrived in Moab after dark. I was already nervous about staying in a cabin instead of a hotel, and the last thing I wanted was to enter a new situation without being able to see anything, but I found the cabin easily and made my way inside with the help of the flashlight on my phone. I’d like to say I roughed it, but the cabin had cable and wifi, my sleeping bag was comfortable enough, and the bathroom was only twenty feet away.
The next morning I drove the few miles to Arches National Park. My first stop was Park Avenue, an easy hike through large rock formations down to Courthouse Tower. The idea is that you walk one direction and then have someone pick you up at the end, which I guess people actually do, because I got a couple questions when I started walking back to where I’d parked.
I drove through the rest of the park to Devils Garden and hiked the full primitive trail, which starts with a view of Landscape Arch. I wondered how many arches Arches National Park had in order to earn its name, and the answer is a lot and the arches are all very different. Landscape Arch is thin and stretches across a long distance. It blends into the scenery, so I almost didn’t notice it at first.
The trail continued across some precarious rocks to Double O Arch, which is an arch within an arch. I told you they’re all different. By this point I was really starting to feel the heat. It was over 100 degrees and shade was hard to find. Instead of being smart and heading back, I decided to finish the primitive loop, despite its warnings of difficult hiking. Cairns guided the way across the rocks, but the heat was the real obstacle. By the end I felt like the sun had zapped all of my energy. I went back to the cabin, collapsed into my bunk, and slept like I was dead.
I woke up the next morning feeling surprisingly alive and headed out to Canyonlands, which is only 30 miles from Arches, but feels like Utah’s best kept secret. There are two separate sides to the park, and I visited Island In The Sky. The drive there was beautiful and I could not believe the view when I parked at the Visitor’s Center and walked across the road to see the canyon.
I went straight to Grand View Point where you can hike a mile along the rim. If you hike to the end of the trail, you can see views of canyons on both sides. I stopped and took pictures for a couple strangers, but otherwise had the place mostly to myself.
My next stop was Green River Overlook, which was about as underwhelming as seeing the Colorado River from the top of Grand Canyon. Then I drove out to Upheaval Dome, a strange-looking crater. I hiked to the first overlook, but there was a large group there, so I continued on to the second. I stopped at one final overlook on my way out of the park, but was more taken by the grasslands on top of Island In The Sky.
It was still early, so I decided to head back to Arches. Perhaps I have already made the point that it was hot, but it was the kind of hot where you could very easily get yourself in trouble. Though I woke up feeling recovered from my hike the day before, the sun had exhausted me again pretty quickly, but there were a couple more arches I had to see. I hiked the short distance to Double Arch, which is so large that the people climbing around the base looked like ants. Signs warned that rock falls are common, and if you hear cracking, you should get out of the way.
Delicate Arch is the symbol of Arches National Park and possibly Utah. I was low on energy, but eventually dragged myself across a large rock face with zero shade in the hottest part of the day to see the most spectacular thing I have ever seen. Pictures of Delicate Arch do it no justice. You enter through what looks like an amphitheater surrounding the arch, which is huge and sits at the edge of a cliff. As soon as I got there, it seemed to make sense that it was so hard to reach. You feel like you earn the view.
The way down was much easier, but it was still so hot that I had to pause a couple times for shade. I thought I was being smart by staying hydrated and wearing sunscreen, but I still ended up exhausted and sunburned. I was awake long enough to explore Moab briefly and eat some pizza, and then I fell asleep unreasonably early again.
Utah, I think I will be seeing more of you.