Wednesday, May 21, 2008

Canyonlands and Arches National Parks

Wayne and I enjoyed a weekend visit to Canyonlands, (Island In the Sky district) and to Arches National Parks the weekend of May 2-4, 2008. Wayne took a vacation day on Friday and we left SLC by 8:30 AM and arrived at Arches NP about 1PM. Unfortunately the campground was full and as I later discovered, most of the sites are reserved, and the open ones always fill by 9 AM.

We headed back up the highway to the first entrance to Canyonlands and about an hour later were able to set up in the last site in Willow Flat Campground, all unreserved but only 12 sites. Maybe the reason it was open is that there is no water available in the Island In the Sky part of Canyonlands. I don't mean no showers, I mean no water. There are two vault toilets in the campground with antiseptic gel dispensers. There are no pumps, no pipes, no water at all.

You can see water 1500 feet below in the Green and Colorado Rivers which carve the canyons and made the island plateau where we are now camped. Luckily we came with water jugs full for hiking and biking, but it never occurred to us that there would be no water for cooking or clean-up. This camping experience really gave us a taste of the difficulties of living in a high desert!

After setting up camp and eating lunch, including wiping our dishes clean with paper napkins, we set out to explore our island in the sky. We drove to the Grand View Point overlook to look down 1000 feet to the white rim (a step down on our plateau) and another 500 feet to the rivers.

From the lookout we followed a trail, the White Rim trail(2miles one way,elevation change 25 feet) to the very SW point of our plateau with gorgeous views of the Green River canyons. The trails on the "island" are interesting. Although some of the area is grazing land with wild grasses, most of the trails cross vast areas of rock, called slickrock, and the trails are denoted by cairns, man made piles of rock 1- 2 feet tall. So when following the trail, you approach a cairn and then search the rock for the next one, maybe 40 feet away.

On the Rim trail, the Cairns were made of neatly cut rocks so they were easy to distinguish from the natural land. Besides rock and some grasses, there was lots of prickly pear cactus growing out of breaks in the rock. This surprised me as the Island is at an elevation above 7000 ft. and I didn't realize that cacti could grow in that high elevation.

From the southern overlooks we drove to the northern part of our Island to an area called the upheaval dome. Scientists are uncertain what caused this unique landscape, originally thinking it was caused by salt pushing rock up from under layers although a new theory involves a meteorite. We parked and walked to both lookouts. The first was relatively easy, just under a mile with a climb of 100 ft and a clear gravel and rock lined trail the whole way. The second overlook continued on another almost 2 miles with a 150 foot climb.

Some of the time there was a gravel trail, but most of it crossed slick rock with cairns as guides. I had picked up a brochure about the site and there was a warning not to build your own cairns as it could be dangerous for other hikers. Wayne and I got off the real trail following false cairns and ended up on a rock spine with a great but somewhat dangerous view of the upheaval dome. We knew we were off as our trail ended in a drop-off and the real trail was to end at a fence. Looking around we saw the real trail several hundred feet below us and soon found where we had been lured off the trail and took the real one to the end. We ended up climbing several hundred feet more than the trail advertised but the false trail views were well worth it.

We drove back to our camp and were able to listen to the Twins on XM radio while preparing supper. The temperature was diving fast and we ate bundled up in our winter coats and devoured our beef stew and bread. After supper to warm up we hiked down our road to the Green River Overlook hoping to see the sunset. From our island most of the view is 1000 feet down to the White Rim. The Rivers are another 500 feet down and off in the distance.

Gazing at the White Rim we could make out a trail and even something moving on it. This turned out to be the White Rim road, a 100 mile loop traveling near the edge of the white rim. It was for 4-wheel drive vehicles, motorbikes, and hikers. There are 10 primitive campgrounds along this trail that you register for at the visitor center. It was fun to watch for any sign of life along this road. You could also see the remains of roads made by the trucks that hauled out uranium when it was mined here in the 1960s before becoming a NP. Rangers say the high desert land is so fragile that it will take many more years before the roads made by the trucks disappear in the wilderness. For that reason hikers are asked to stay on trails or on slickrock.

On our way out to the viewpoint, we passed a Ranger in the parking lot who was setting up his telescope for viewing after dark. The temperature was close to freezing with a breeze from the North when we rejoined him. A total of 7 brave souls took a quick class with him on the night sky and enjoyed great views of Saturn through the telescope as well as stars and constellations. The cold drove us back to our tent and our warm sleeping bags.

On Saturday after a hot breakfast which tasted wonderful in the still chilly morning air, we hopped on our bikes and rode to the visitor's center about 7 miles away. The road was mostly gently rolling with views of grasslands and only a few challenging hills.

We stopped to catch my breath at the Shafer Trail overlook. This is a 5 1/2 mile trail that drops 1000 feet to the White Rim by a series of switchbacks and is the entrance to the White Rim Road. We watched one 4-wheel drive vehicle inch its way along the single lane cliff hugging road and about 10 motorcycles zoom by him. The road is narrow and rough and you need high clearance or maneuverability to miss the many rocks. Most people take it only one way and exit on the Potash road that leads to Moab. It might have been fun to try with our bikes if we didn't have to come back up! We found out that the visitor center sold water in gallon jugs and planned to come back with the car for water and postcards.

On the way back to camp we stopped at the Mesa Arch turnout, locked up our bikes and hiked to the arch. By this time the weather had turned gorgeous and we enjoyed snacks and water near the arch before heading back to camp. Back at camp we sat in our folding chairs, drank some orange juice and read our books while we rested and enjoyed the rest of the morning.

After lunch we stopped again at the visitor center and got 2 jugs of water and the cards. From there we drove to the Murphy's Point trail head. This trail started out crossing grassland and we could even see the remains of corrals used by ranchers. Eventually we got to the slickrock and enjoyed following the cairn trail to the cliff edge and gorgeous views of the white rim and green river valley below.

It was a 7 mile trek round trip but with only 100 feet of elevation change. The afternoon sun got hot and we had stripped down to our bottom layers including zipping off pant legs before we were back at the car. It was only about 3 miles back to our camp and we enjoyed a beer and hard lemonade as we finished our books in the setting light. The evening was milder and we could keep our heavy coats open as we ate spaghetti and later walked to the lookout. The Ranger was setting up his star show again, but we only stayed for a bit and then took a starlit walk for a couple of miles til the spreading clouds covered our sky and convinced us it was time for bed.

Sunday morning we were up and breaking camp so we could visit Arches NP on our way home. The Park has a scenic drive that traverses the area from the southern entrance to almost the northern tip and from the west to the east. If you have seen a UT license plate in recent years you have probably seen the Delicate Arch, the most famous of the arches in the Park. It is on the Wolf Point turn-off, about 12 miles from the Park entrance. We enjoyed the scenery along the road but did not stop (after our stop at the visitor center for water, restrooms, and souvenirs) until we reached the Delicate Arch trail head at Wolf Point. We had hoped to get to the trail head parking area early enough to find a spot but were disappointed. The designated parking area was full as were all the overflow onto the nearby road.

We decided instead to drive to the overlook and take the trail to the upper viewpoint and then use our time to visit other, less popular trails. This was a great decision which I highly recommend to anyone contemplating a visit to Arches NP.

The trail to the viewpoint is only 1/2 mile vs. 3 miles to the arch itself. Although it is a steep climb over 400 feet, most climbers stop at the top of the regular trail where there is a nice view of the arch across the canyon. However if you enjoy climbing on slickrock, you can follow cairns up another 100 feet to the very edge of a cliff directly across from the arch. We only saw 2 people on the upper slickrock portion of the trail and were alone for 15 minutes while we rested, snacked and took pictures( a rarity in the popular Arches NP.)

We used the time and energy saved from not walking to Delicate Arch itself, to explore the Devil's Garden Trail. This area is right by the campground and a picnic area and is at the northern end of the park, another 8 miles from Delicate Arch. We stopped at the picnic area but just missed getting the last table in the shade. Arches NP is definitely desert country and in the summer is often over 100 degrees. In early May it was much cooler, 70s, but sitting for any length of time in that direct sun can wipe out your energy. Luckily the young couple who beat us to the shaded table offered to share it with us, and we had a nice visit over lunch.

Although we didn't get into the parking lot for Devil's Garden, we found a nice spot on the shoulder of the road not too far from the trail head. It is the longest of the trails in the park, 7.2 miles if you complete all the spur trails to the points of interest. It is listed as strenuous although it doesn't have an extended uphill climb, but does cross narrow ledges (fins) with lots of ups and downs over rocky surfaces and scrambling across slickrock. We ran out of time before we were able to do the primitive loop of the trail, but really enjoyed being on the slickrock.

The trail starts as a popular gravel road that has short spurs to see Tunnel and Pine Tree arch. The trail begins to change as you approach Landscape arch and can see Partition arch up above. Here most of the tourists turn around as the trail turns to sand, or crossing and climbing up sections of slickrock.

There used to be a trail to Landscape arch which was closed in 1996 when a huge under section of the arch fell making the remaining arch very fragile. A huge sign asked hikers to stay clear for their safety and we only saw a few cross the chain to get closer.

We passed the spurs to Partition and Navajo Arches and decided to go for the Double O arch, near the end of the trail. It was a great hike. We scrambled up slick rock and crossed 100 foot long fins with drop offs on both sides and a gusty wind blowing.

But the fin was about 8 feet wide and the rock wasn't slippery so we didn't feel unsafe and had gorgeous views of the surrounding area. We stopped on a rock ledge for a snack with a great view of the Double O arch below us, and also the dark angel rock formation.

The trail climbed down to the base of the arch, about 100 feet below us and we decided we didn't have the time or the energy to go to the end of the trail.

So instead we ate orange slices and fruit leathers, drank water, and thoroughly enjoyed an awe-inspiring view of the northernmost canyons in Arches NP from our perch on a rock ledge of the fin.

The hike back to the car went quickly, mostly downhill and not a lot of other hikers to wait for, and we were back to the car and heading home by a little after 4. Of course I had forgotten that we still had to take the scenic drive back out of the park, 15 miles at 30 miles an hour, so it was almost 5 by the time we were back on the highways heading home. We took the shortcut through the mountains, and stopped at a small brewpub/restaurant near Helper for a late supper. (Thanks Beth for looking up directions on-line for us when our AAA book just got us lost!)

We were back in SLC before 10 after trying to visit with Wayne's folks and having the mountain passes cut off our reception. We had the best reception at 10,000 feet when we were crossing a huge valley in between two great mountains. We brought our clothing and food up to the condo, but left most of the camping gear to be unpacked and put into storage the next day.

There is something so uplifting about walking through the natural wonders preserved in our National Parks. It is something I urge everyone to do in your lifetime. If you don't like to camp, all the NPs have small towns just outside with accommodations from tent camping to luxury resorts. Some of the larger Parks have lodges within the Park itself. Try it and I'm sure you will like it!

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