Tuesday, July 7th we planned an exceptionally full day in Arches National Park. Upon arrival in Moab two days earlier we stopped at the Arches visitor center (because it’s right off the highway) to check availability of tours of the Fiery Furnace area. We had also read that the famous Delicate Arch is crowded during peak season, especially at sunset, so we asked about the timing for a sunrise hike. The ranger said that was a great time to be there, and that with sunrise around 6:05, we should begin the hour-long hike at 5:00 and thus enter the park at 4:30am. Woah.
There’s not much that gets us up that early, but every one of our national park trips seems to have at least one day where we end up awake pre-dawn. The sound of an alarm at 4:15am is never a pleasant one, but with such an exciting sight ahead of us, we sprang into action fairly easily. We had packed the night before, so all we had to do was throw our hiking clothes on, grab our backpacks and head out. Nick opened the hotel room door and reported “It’s raining.” Crap. And it wasn’t just a tiny drizzle, it was a pretty steady rain. We briefly debated on weather or not to continue, but decided we might as well go ahead with it because who knows when we’ll be back in Moab. Really our main concern was lightning, so kept an eye on the weather radar as we drove to the park entrance to see if there were any storms forming or if this was going to be a rain-only event. The last place you want to be with a chance of lightning is a trail on an exposed rock ridge an hour’s hike from the car. It continued to be just a light rain, so we entered the park. It’s a strange feeling to be in a popular place when there are no other visitors. We drove the 13.2 miles to Delicate Arch trailhead at Wolfe Ranch in pitch blackness. We only saw the vague outlines of towering formations against the stars in the sky. The headlights lit red rock everywhere along the edge of the pavement, but we really had no idea of the scenery we were driving through. When we arrived at the parking area we were alone, but one more car arrived a couple minutes later. We were slightly relieved that at least two other people were crazy enough to be there at this hour. We studied the map at the trailhead under our phone flashlights and then set out into the darkness.
It’s a little unnerving to be following a dark trail you’ve never hiked before, but it was well enough marked that we were fairly certain we were going the correct direction. The trail begins to climb up a ridge of slick rock shortly after leaving the parking lot, at which point we turned around and saw a few more sets of headlights coming down the road toward the parking area. There was still a drizzle coming down, but it was tolerable and our hiking hats kept the water off our heads. It’s important to remember that even in the desert where daytime temperatures can be over 100 degrees, mornings can be quite chilly. It’s a 1.5 mile hike to the arch, with 480 feet of elevation gain. We’d put it in the moderately difficult category, but at 5:00 in the morning everything takes a bit more effort than normal. Toward the top, the rain stopped and a dawn glow was filtering through the clouds, finally revealing our surroundings. After climbing a smooth expanse of rock for most of the route, the trail threads between some rock fins, briefly hugs the edge of a ledge and then rounds a corner to reveal Delicate Arch dead ahead. Boom. This 65-foot arch is perhaps the most recognized symbol of Utah and one of the most iconic singular features of the American West, and we had it nearly to ourselves. The arch sits between the edge of a giant rock bluff and a bowl-shaped depression. Wandering around allowed us to appreciate the arch from all angles. We stayed for just over an hour to watch as the changing light and clouds altered the scene. On the hike back to the parking lot we finally saw the real landscape of the park that we had driven and walked through in the dark hours earlier. Other than Nick’s ankle roll with just a few hundred yards left, our morning adventure was a great success.
The area of the park with the highest concentration of prominent arches is the Devil’s Garden, located at the northern end of the road system. There are 7.2 total miles of trails in this area, the longest hike in the park if you do the whole thing. From the parking area a trail sets off between two tall sandstone fins. The main trail is an out-and-back route with shorter side trails leading to arch viewpoints and a primitive trail that creates a loop at the far end. The first mile between the trailhead and Landscape Arch is fairly level and has spur routes to Tunnel Arch and Pine Tree Arch, both are worth checking out. Landscape Arch up ahead is probably the second most famous arch after Delicate, as it is most improbable looking of all the arches. This 290 foot span of rock is only 9 feet thick at its thinnest point, making it appear that it could collapse at any moment. In fact, visitors have not been allowed to hike below it since a 70-foot section of rock peeled off its underside in 1991. Get your ass to Utah while it’s still standing. After Landscape Arch, the trail climbs along the edge of a thin fin of rock to a fork in the road. Continuing straight leads to Double O Arch and Dark Angel, but we turned off to the left to visit Navajo Arch and Partition Arch, both of which you can walk right up to. Standing inside Partition offers a great view down over the fins to the valley below.
After a return to Moab for lunch at Eklecticafe and an Ace bandage for Nick’s ankle, we drove back for more arch viewing. When we arrived in Moab we stopped at the visitor center to reserve tickets for the ranger-guided tour of the Fiery Furnace. Morning tours can be reserved online months ahead of time, but afternoon tours are first-come, first-serve up to a week in advance. They had availability on the 5:00pm tour this day, so we bought them ($10 per ticket). We had a few hours before we needed to meet the ranger, so we visited Balanced Rock (no explanation needed) and the Windows Section. Windows is named for the North and South window arches that look out over the landscape and contains enormous, rounded cliffs of rock that appear alternatively like they’ve been melted or like animals. One formation is actually called Elephants on Parade. Both window arches and the nearby Turret Arch are large and impressive, but our favorite arch in this area was Double Arch, with its two giant rock spans towering over a hollowed out section of the cliff. A trail leads right up inside, it’s kind of like sitting inside an enormous porch with a skylight.
Approaching 5:00, we took off for our Fiery Furnace tour. This is an area that is not open to the public because it is basically a big confusing maze of rock fins with narrow passages in between. To avoid lost tourists, the park only allows entry to guests with tickets and the accompaniment of a park ranger (or by special permit). It’s really a win-win situation because it means the group sizes are limited to about 20 people at at a time and you get full narration and interpretation along with it. Ranger Matt gave us some tips on what to expect and warned people of how strenuous the hike would be. It’s really not too difficult, but there are a few sections where you need to do a bit of scrambling on rocks through narrow spaces, so they’re really just trying to scare away anyone who might pose a freak-out risk. After a brief downhill walk from the parking area, we entered the first of many narrow slots with completely vertical walls and topped by strange fins and spires. Ranger Matt had a wealth of knowledge to share about the geologic processes that formed this area, as well as plant and animal residents and various other topics of interest. The two hours spent in the Fiery Furnace were memorable and informative, we highly recommend it for anyone visiting Arches. We were extremely lucky with weather, as the region normally has highs in the upper 90s or 100s in early July, but the cold front that dumped the morning rain showers held the day’s high to an unseasonably cool low 80s. Afternoon tours in 100 degree weather must be nearly intolerable.
From sunrise to sunset, in rain and sunshine, Arches blew us away. It’s no wonder it’s a favorite of National Park visitors and marked an attendance high in 2014 with nearly 1.3 million guests.
Up Next: Black Canyon of the Gunnison