Friday, July 27

Canyonland & Arches National Park

Over the years I’ve been a regular visitor to the USA.  Much of my time is spent in its major cities on business.  As result, I’ve pretty much seen their popular tourist attractions, often more than once.  These days I combat sight-seeing fatigue by planning exotic out-of-town excursions.  In recent times this has included side trips to Memphis, Niagara Falls and Mount Rushmore.

In May, while in San Francisco, I added Utah’s spectacular Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park to the list .  If I’m honest, I have to admit that I stumbled across this location by accident.  While researching travel options I googled Rainbow Bridge, the famous natural stone arch in Glen Canyon, Utah.  Unfortunately, you can only access the arch by boat or by hiking through the Navajo mountains.  It was clear I’d need more than a weekend to fly in and out; and still see anything. 

By chance my research uncovered the Arches National Park near Moab, Utah. Rather than one spectacular natural arch, this park contains literally thousands of them, including several arches as dramatic as Rainbow Bridge. In fact, one of these arches – the Delicate Arch – appears in silhouette on Utah's vehicle license plates. Even better, I could spend an entire weekend in Utah by taking advantage of suitably scheduled flights via nearby Grand Junction, Colorado.

The weekend got off to a memorable start. I hired a car at Grand Junction and made my way towards Moab along scenic Route 128. This highway follows the Colorado River through stunning red rock canyons for almost 50kms. As you round each corner, the view grows steadily more and more spectacular. Needless to say I stopped numerous times. Sadly, my photos don't do justice to the incredible scenery I witnessed. 

Upon reaching Moab, rather than driving into town, I continued west for another 50kms into Canyonlands National Park. This arid park is centered around several deep river canyons, framed by a spectacular mesa plateau appropriately called the "Inland in the Sky".

The mesa is amazing. It’s literally a broad island of rock rising more than 500 metres above the surrounding area. Getting there is half the fun. You take a road past plunging canyons, along narrow ridges and on to a 1,500 metre high panoramic ridge. It’s hard to describe the vast expanse the stretches out before you at the end of the road. Words are simply not enough. Try to imagine mile after mile of deep shadows, soaring red stone pillars and meandering canyons; softened by an arid haze of dust.

Perhaps the park’s most memorable sight was the Shafer Trail. This is a narrow 4-wheel drive road descending from the Island in the Sky via a series of hair raising switchback curves. i watched many vechiles take the plunge; slowly. The road was built in the 1950s by an uranium ore mining company. Its mine, along with other human industry in the area, stopped once the National Park was established. However, decades later, the fragile landscape remains scarred by their dirt trails.
Sunday dawned bright and sunny. It was going to be another hot day in the desert. My first destination was Hole n’’ the Rock. Located about 20kms south of Moab, it’s one of the kitschiest roadside attractions you’ll ever see. The “hole” is a 5,000 square foot home carved into the base of a roadside rock. It was built in the 1950s by Albert and Gladys Christensen. For years they operated a simple roadside diner from their rock-hewn front room before converting it to a gift shop that's still there today. Albert and Gladys died many years ago. However, they’ve stayed close to home as both are buried in a small alcove carved nearby.

I spent the rest of my day touring Arches National Park. The park bills itself as the world’s largest concentration of natural stone arches. The description proved apt. Its most spectacular arches are accessible via short walks from paved roads that cut through the centre of the park. With so many options to choose from I mapped out a list of five arches. However I soon found myself stopping to marvel at many other surprising sights.

Access to the park involves winding up a series of hairpin turns that take on up onto a broad plateau. From here the view spreads out across arid grassland toward the snow-capped La Sal Mountains. My first stop on the map is one I almost ignored; Park Avenue. The name didn’t sound all that inviting. However, on whim I pulled over and hiked to its popular outlook.
I’m glad I did. Park Avenue is narrow canyon that opens out onto a backdrop of rock towers you’d find gracing any classic Hollywood western. In fact, when I later posted photos on Facebook, at least one friend thought I’d been to Monument Valley where several John Wayne movies were shot.

The sights kept rolling. Balanced Rock was amazing. It’s a fragile stone pillar sculpted by the wind to the point until its upper segment resembles a delicately balanced rugby ball. From here it was on to Double Arch, a soaring pair of natural stone arches that could easily be the work of science fiction writers. Nearby are the equally majestic Turret Arch; and the Windows, two broad arches that sit along each other. I was lucky enough to discover a vantage point that allowed me to see all three arches in a single glance.
The afternoon was spent hiking to several of the park’s less accessible arches. The first was the Delicate Arch, which sits alone on the rim of deep canyon. It takes almost two hours to hike from the road to its base. With time running short, I decided to hike an alternate route to a remote outlook. The route took me along a sloping slick rock ridge on the canyon’s opposite side. Here the Delicate Arch could be seen rising boldly above the skyline.
I finished the day hiking almost 3km to Landscape Arch, the world’s longest natural arch. It’s an incredible sight. The arch is a gravity defying ribbon of rock that stretches more than 306 feet across a rubble-strewn hillside. In 1991 a slab of rock 60 feet long, 11 feet wide and four feet thick fell from its underside, leaving the arch thinner than ever. Prior this fall you could walk under the arch itself. Today, visitors are kept well away.
Close to Landscape Arch are a number of other impressive arches including Skyline Arch, Tunnel Arch and Pine Tree Arch. I was lucky enough to enjoy Pine Tree Arch without a single person in sight for more than 15 minutes. As the sun slowly sunk below the surrounding cliffs I marveled at my luck. It seemed the perfect way to finish a sun-drenched weekend packed with endless postcard perfect vistas.

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