Arches and Canyonlands National Park
When in Rome…? Not this time.
Even though Moab is considered a Mountain Biking Mecca with its slick rock action, after my off-road adventures in Banff last summer I decided to stick to bicycling paved trails and hiking in the National Parks.
Spring weather can be fickle and so it was as we left 90 degrees in Death Valley driving our way through snow flurries as we gained elevation in Utah. Forecasts for stormy spring weather meant that we had to plan for hot and dry then cold and wet then back again all in a single day. We packed layers and chose hikes that could fit between rainfall.
Even with the cool weather, it is vitally important to manage your water intake in the high desert. The National Park Service recommends drinking at least 4 liters per person per day. We kept two gallon jugs in the car and refilled them each day in addition to any water we had in our back packs.
Arches National Park
The weather was scheduled to be the driest on our first full day in Moab. Joel rented a full-suspension mountain bike (it’s fancier than his current bike) and spent the day on the biking trails. I scouted out Arches National Park with some beautiful hikes, using the GyPSy audio tour guide as my companion, and finished up with a bike ride in the afternoon sun.
Delicate Arch / Wolfe Ranch
Getting Joel set at the bike shop took longer than expected and I was worried that my late morning entry into the park would mean the parking lot at this popular trailhead would be full. I misjudged which of three entry lines would be fastest and found myself getting more and more anxious with each car I saw driving up the switchback road into the park.
Time to put down my travel mug of coffee and relax a bit… I’m in the park to get away from stress…
My fears were baseless, it’s early enough in the season that there was plenty of parking for everyone.
The hike up to Delicate Arch is actually fairly strenuous from the elevation gain so plan to take your time especially in the summer heat. It is not a technical hike with the majority of it is across large expanses of rock. Descriptions warn of vertical exposure near the top but the narrowest section of trail is wide enough for people to pass in each direction with some care. This is definitely worth the hike up to experience the slick rock and view some of the surrounding petrified dunes.
Most of the hikers were hanging out quite a distance from the Arch at what I thought must be the end of the trail, I hadn’t realized that it really was OK to walk out under the Arch. Note to self, read the park Visitor Guide!
The Delicate Arch trailhead is located at Wolfe Ranch which is worth a visit even if you choose not to do this particular hike. A determined rancher lived at this site and two of his family’s buildings are maintained here. Take a peek inside to see the rough conditions these people were willing to endure. At least for a short while before packing it up and moving back to town.
The Native American presence is also felt here with the Rock Art Panel. These petroglyphs are some of the most colorful, clear to see and accessible that I’ve seen in my travels through the southwest parks. Make sure to take the short side trail to see them.
Just a short distance beyond the main trailhead is the parking lot for the accessible viewing area of Delicate Arch. A second trail brings you to a complementary view of the arch from the backside. This trail doesn’t reach the arch due to a deep valley in the rock. Weather prevented us from checking out the second hike. It looked like it would be just as nice a view of the arch.
For our shared day in Arches, we got an earlier start to take advantage of a clear morning after overnight rains. Dawdling on the Park Avenue hike was a great choice. The early sun and shadows were gorgeous on the rocks and reflected beautifully in the shallow pools. We parked at the lot for Courthouse Towers for the out and back hike. Some families will choose to drop off hikers at the Park Avenue lot and do a pick up at the lower lot. (Be forewarned that there are no restroom facilities at either parking lot so plan ahead.)
These are the most accessible arches and are an easy hike. This is a wonderfully concentrated area of arches if you are pressed for time in the park. North Window, South Window and Turret Arch are easily reached from the upper parking lot. If you want some ‘alone’ time, take the primitive trail around the backside of windows loop. With the parking lots pretty much full, I shared the primitive trail with only a handful of other people and the nesting birds.
The wildflowers were in bloom throughout the park. Sometimes it was tempting to go off trail to take pictures but in this ecosystem it is very important not to. The soil’s top layer is actually full of microorganisms that keep the thin layer of soil in place and it takes years to develop. The simple rule is “Don’t Bust the Crust” both inside and outside of the park.
Our favorite spot here was the Double Arch. Accessed from the lower parking lot, the trail leads up to the rocks underneath it and with a bit of scrambling, you can look directly up to view this rare configuration.
The Road to Devil’s Garden
We visited this area on a very stormy day. On the drive out, a quick stop at Fiery Furnace in the blustery wind actually made us glad that the guided hike was booked up – until August! Although, the beauty of the area also made the list of “We have to come back sometime to do this hike.” The number of spots on these Ranger-led hikes are very limited so book this early!
The short hike to Sand Dune Arch was easy. This low arch is tucked away among sandstone fins. It has seen some rocks fall fairly recently so warning signs are up but I’m guessing that it’s pretty low risk to explore under the Arch. It’s marked as a favorite hike for kids.
Another short hike to view Skyline Arch had plants in bloom – remember… keep on the trail… I liked the majestic view looking up to the arch. Just below is the boulder pile created by collapsing rocks in 1940 as the window doubled to its present size.
The rain started as we got back to the car so we did a cursory drive through the parking lot of Devil’s Garden. Then the rain turned to sleet. Then we saw lightning in the distance. Time to head back to the warm rental house!
Our rental house was back in the residential area, a couple miles from downtown Moab. Billed as a “Tiny House”, it was actually brand-new manufactured home. We had plenty of space to unload the car and the unit had a small loft area with a fold-out couch and a big screen TV. It’s always hit or miss what kind of television and cable are set up in short-term rentals. We took advantage of the cold, rainy weather to spend time binging on shows courtesy of the Netflix account that came with the house.
Our day in Canyonlands was another cold and blustery one keeping us close to the shelter of the car. With just the one day we stuck to the northern Island in the Sky area. This area of the park is an amazing counterbalance to Arches. Island in the Sky refers to the mesa top formerly used for grazing cattle via a narrow section of rock that formed an easily fenced area.
The ground drops away below the mesa in phenomenal ways. A number of short hikes and viewpoints are available if you don’t have time to fully explore this park.
Beautiful wildflowers framed the trail. This arch is very unusual – take a look from the side view. It is actually separated from the cliff that forms the viewing bottom of the arch.
Grand View Point
I am not a fan of “vertical exposure” as you know by now. Do not let the description as a rim trail scare you, the trail is wide and for most of the hike, is not all that close to the rim. It’s fairly flat and worth hiking to the end to view the overlooks into White Rim Sandstone formations below the mesa top.
Our timing on this hike was perfect, making it back to the car just as the next rain shower rolled in.
Bicycling in Moab
The changing weather meant that I only got in two “real” bike rides. I brought out my Brompton folding bike a couple of times to pedal in the neighborhood since this trip was during the 30 Days of Biking challenge – which meant cycling every day in April. You can read about the easy part and the hard part of meeting the challenge in my previous posts.
I stuck to the paved trails on this trip and it was a wise choice. I wanted to actually ride my bike, not take it for a walk as I am known to do.
Coming out of the town of Moab, a bike trail takes you right by the entrance of Arches National Park. Soon after that is a network of trails ranging from beginner to advanced. (I rode past them…) The separated bike trail ends at the intersection with Highway 313 but the shoulder on the highway is plenty wide so many cyclists ride towards Canyonlands National Park. It looked like several trail networks are accessible from this road.
Back down towards town, the trail continues along the Colorado River for just a few miles along Highway 128. But it is enough to reach several campgrounds and we saw a number of families using it with their kids. Riding in town was OK once I figured out some of the bike routes off the main highway that runs through downtown.
On the books this summer, I plan to take some mountain bike classes to improve my skills.
For our next visit, I might just be ready to choose the gravel path … as in Rome.