Arches National Park
|Delicate Arch in Arches National Park, Utah (Jack Hollingsworth/Photodisc/Getty) (John Clet Jones, Greater West Images)|
In the southwestern United States there is a world of stone and sky, where between the eye and the horizon lays a colorful panorama of buttes, canyons, and plateaus. Life can be challenging in this desert environment, yet many animals have adapted to the extreme temperature and topography. Rare perennial streams and seeps support explosions of vegetation and echo with the songs of water-loving wildlife.
In Arches National Park, the forces of nature haveover an immense span of timecreated a wondrous landscape. Slickrock caps of Navajo sandstone cover layers of sediment from ancient oceans, shores, and deserts. Folds and warps in the layers indicate movement of long-buried salt deposits in an incomprehensibly slow geological drama that seems to have culminatedfortunately for usin the present day.
Arches' incredible towers inspire rock climbers to scale heavenward. Hiking trails lead to enormous rocks balanced on thin spires, standing rock fins and cliff walls hundreds of feet high, and graceful sandstone spans arcing against the skya photographer's paradise. The scenic park road makes it easy to visit these wonders by bike or car.
Arches possesses a beauty both grand and strange. In his book Desert Solitaire, the well-known nature writer and environmentalist Edward Abbey found the unique charm of Arches to be epitomized by its most famous feature, Delicate Arch: "If Delicate Arch has any significance it lies, I will venture, in the power of the odd and unexpected to startle the senses and surprise the mind out of their ruts of habit, to compel us into a reawakened awareness of the wonderfulthat which is full of wonder." The sublime beauty of this land speaks to all its visitors.
Find the Wilderness
With 73,379 acres to its name, Arches is on the small side for a national park, and few areas are isolated enough to make the backcountry cut. However, with most marquee sights accessible by car, many visitors never leave the roadso getting away from it all is possible and remarkably easy. A trailhead leading to Tower Arch offers some hiking solitude, as does the area past the Landscape Arch trail (approximately six to eight miles round-trip). If you can swing a reservation, the arduous Fiery Furnace hike (two miles round-trip) twists through a maze of slot canyons, winding passageways, and hidden arches. Luckily, a ranger accompanies unwary visitors through the labyrinth. If you choose to brave the crowds, don't miss the three-mile round-trip hike to Delicate Arch; the trail is designed so that this incredible 45-foot-high, 33-foot-wide arch won't come into view until the last moment.
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Bike on Slickrock
Though biking inside the park is limited to the paved road and a few dirt ones, nearby Moab is a mountain-biking mecca. Moab's smooth slickrock is perfect for mountain-bike tires, offering fast rides with steep climbs and steeper downhills. Most bikers find the risk factor worth the opportunity to pedal this landscape and take in the views surrounding them. For a technical, strenuous ride against an incredibly scenic backdrop, try Moab's famous Slickrock Bike Trail, a 10.3-mile, half-day loop. For a warm-up to the Slickrock challenge, try one of these Moab trails: Monitor and Merrimac is an easy 13.2-mile loop that passes Determination Towers and the Monitor and Merrimac buttes; Bartlett Wash runs up and down unmarked slickrock for four to six miles.
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Climbing the Sandstone
Arches' soft sandstone and harsh climate offer quite a challenge for climbersbut the opportunity to scale these incredible rock formations keeps them coming regardless. A large number of climbs are located just past the visitor center along the main road, including Three Penguinswhich bears an uncanny resemblance to the flightless Antarctic birds; the Penguins' Right Chimney route is a 5.10 free climb. In the Windows area you'll find the popular Owl Rock; this 100-foot spire offers a 5.8 route up a well-defined crack system. The nearby Tonka Tower, another 5.8 climb, is the middle of three prominent towers and rises 150 feet above the desert floor. No climbing permits are required at Arches, but the park prohibits climbing on any geological features named on the USGS map.
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Cruise to the Arches
In the desert heat of southern Utah, many visitors find that exploring the Arches from the comfort of an air-conditioned automobile is an acceptable compromise between experiencing the outdoors and being assailed by it. Fortunately, the thoughtful layout of the park's road system makes it possible to enjoy much of its natural grandeur, even on a short trip. A spur road off the main park drive leads to the Windows sectionso named for the way these sandstone structures frame the vistas behind them. A half-hour stroll brings hikers to the base of these formationsthe North and South Windows, as well as the Double Arch and Turret Arch. Just a bit farther down the main road is the turnoff to Delicate Arch Viewpoint; Delicate Arch, the park's famous 45-foot fragile sandstone curve, is just a mile off the road. Either drive is doable within an hour and a halfor do both in three hours.
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Raft the Colorado
To beat the desert heat, a wet and wild rafting trip down the Colorado River will do the trick. The Colorado passes along the southern border of Arches and runs through the heart of Canyonlands National Park on its way down to Mexico. For a whitewater trip, put in near the confluence of the Colorado and Dolores Rivers, not far from the Colorado-Utah border. This 12-mile, Class II run passes through green river valleys and sandstone canyons, with the snowcapped La Sal Mountains rising up beyond the rock walls. Enjoy a half-day flatwater paddling trip through the steep gorges between Moab and Gold Bar. Keep an eye out for modern-day faunablue herons on the banks and hawks, ravens, and the odd osprey overheadas well as prehistoric vestiges (dinosaur tracks visible in the rock walls).
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication