Hiking Utah’s Arches and Canyonlands National Parks
Hiking Utah’s Arches and Canyonlands National Parks – May 2006
It seems like only yesterday since I returned from leading our hiking tour in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, based in Moab, the adventure capital of Utah. The area abounds in fabulous hiking trails, and it’s wonderful not having to pack and unpack a suitcase for the entire week. Known for its variety of fine restaurants, local legends and eclectic shops, Moab has long been one of my favorite destinations. Where else can you hike to 2,000 year old ruins during the day, enjoy a smoked elk tenderloin mignon with caramelized onions in a huckleberry, chipotle pepper and port wine sauce for dinner and then head over to Lin Ottinger’s Rock Shop to purchase some petrified dinosaur poop?
One of my favorite excursions near Moab is to the Fiery Furnace trail in Arches National Park. Because there are no trail markers through this puzzling array of towering rocks and it’s very easy to become disoriented, it takes a special permit to venture on this trail without a ranger and the park tends to discourage people from attempting it. Luckily our tour leaders know the way! Like kids sneaking up to the cookie jar our group whispered and giggled as we entered this maze of soaring sandstone fins. I’m not sure if it was the excitement of not being in a group of 25 people on a ranger-led hike, or if everyone was a little apprehensive whether we’d find our way out. An inspiration for maze makers, and seekers everywhere, the Fiery Furnace has numerous improbable passages and apparent dead ends. We wiggled through tight passages, crawled up steep bits, relaxed beneath Skull Arch, and snacked beneath Surprise Arch before making our way out of the labyrinth. My favorite thing about the Fiery Furnace is that it allows adults to be childlike. You can climb on rocks and laugh as you attempt new maneuvers that make you feel good about your accomplishments, and yet they aren’t so challenging that you feel intimidated by the experience. Although the Fiery Furnace gained its name because the stones appear to be on fire at a certain distance and in a particular light the name is reminiscent of the Hebrew Bible’s Book of Daniel where King Nebuchadnezzar threatened nonbelievers with the ultimate torture, “you shall be thrown into the fiery furnace! Who do you think can save you?” Regardless, both believers and nonbelievers will count the “ultimate torture” as one of their favorite tour experiences.
There are two mantras that hikers in Arches and Canyonlands quickly learn. The first is “trust your boots,” referring to the amazing adhesive characteristics of slickrock that allow you to walk up or down nearly vertically. This is true, however, only when the rock is dry, so be aware that in a rain storm the surface will indeed be slick rock! The other chant you’ll soon be repeating is “no stepping on the crypto”. The soil of the Colorado Plateau is held together by a combination of cyanobacteria, lichens and mosses. This amazing cryptobiotic crust crucially contributes carbon and nitrogen to the soil and helps provide essential nutrients to encourage the growth of plants. “Crypto” is also critical for erosion control. Because it crushes easily beneath careless feet, it can take 20 years for an area to recover from one misplaced step. If the disturbance covers a large surface area it will often result in the formation of sand dunes barren of any vegetation. In short, this remarkable stuff basically holds the desert together!
Speaking of what makes this area so special, top honor for most cherished celebrity in Moab would have to go to Blender, the Colorado River dog. Blender lived on the banks of the Colorado River and spent his time watching for rafts coming down the river. He would sneak through the tamarisk and willows and swim down the river, feigning an injury. Tourists would exclaim to the raft guides that they must save the “poor dog.” After a few minutes of tricky manuevering, amidst many cheers Blender would be pulled from the river, and consoled with a free lunch of roast beef sandwiches. Some of you may be wondering: how did Blender get home after his 13-mile raft trip? He had that figured out as well – he’d hitchhike of course. To read more about Blender’s adventures and film career, I recommend Blender, the Colorado River Dog, A True Story. I’m very sad to report that Blender passed away a few years ago, though his legacy lives on at mile marker 22 on Hwy 128.
If you prefer “human interest” stories, consider Charlie Steen’s Mi Vida by Maxine Newell. Steen was one of those rags to riches to rags eccentrics who seem to fit the atmosphere of Moab perfectly. He was nearly at his wit’s end, feeding his young family venison poached from nearby land, when he finally hit the big one on July 6, 1952. Steen’s discovery of the largest uranium deposit on record marked the beginning of the “Uranium Rush,” very similar to California’s “Gold Rush” in the 1850s. Local legend says that every Thursday night Charlie would have his private pilot take him up as high as it took for them to get good reception for the I Love Lucy show. Mi Vida was the name of the mansion Steen built overlooking Moab, and now it’s the Sunset Grill Restaurant, a wonderful setting for our tour’s first dinner together.
Our tour’s big “problem” came at the end of the week: there was still so much to see and do! We didn’t have time to go up the Kane Creek Road to see the “birthing rock” or the amazing cave that overlooks the site. No time to explore Behind the Rocks, another network of rock formations set up to confound the average explorer. As a group we determined that ExperiencePlus! would have to add Arches and Canyonlands II, The Next Chapter to further explore this vast land filled with more geology, history, natural beauty and, well, humor than any place else we could imagine.