Arches and Canyonlands National Parks Vacation

Day 1Day 3 Day 5Day 7
Day 2Day 4Day 6

Photo Gallery Only

This was a Smithsonian Study Tour sponsored trip. As you will see I thoroughly enjoyed this vacation and I will go on such trips again. While these trips are more costly than the HF Holiday trips I have taken they provide a wholly different and just as enjoyable experience in thier own way. --KRK September 17, 1998


Day 1

The flights went quite well even though they were exceedingly early. I arrived in Grand Junction right when I was supposed to and settled down for the long wait I knew I had. Unfortunately, I had a mishap that I think can only be attributed to the darker side of human nature. My monocular had been stolen. I feel confident in saying this because I knew I had it when I put the fanny pack it was in on the conveyor belt at Detroit security. When I emerged and went to my gate - just a couple down from security - I realized it was no longer in the pack. I went back to security hoping that maybe it had just fallen out. They didn't know what it was even after I descried it (I wasn't hopeful that it could just fall out). It wasn't anywhere near by security. I certainly never heard it fall out. Nor was it anywhere else in my luggage as security suggested it must be (it would be useless in the other luggage!). I'm left with the conclusion that my monocular was the victim of the equivalent of laptop theft though I don't see why anyone would steal a monocular that has seen rough times. I'm still upset by this. I'll receive a backup from home Monday since that is the earliest FedEx will deliver to Moab (thanks Art). I really miss it. It makes seeing things much tougher. I'll try to get a cheap replacement here in town so I have something, but who knows. I also forgot to bring my walking stick. That is a bummer but I suspect I might not miss it much (we'll see).

The lengthy wait at the Grand Junction airport was ended when fellow travelers started coming in around 11:00am. We had been told the last flight was arriving at 12:30pm so we would be able to hit the road to Moab earlier than expected. Well, all the best laid plans of mice and men... It did not quite work out. The Smithsonian representative was going to be very late and he had to find alternate transportation, but a fellow associate member just had not shown up at all. It turned out that she never got the message so when she arrived around 10:00am (probably walked right by me) she rented a car to do some sight seeing at a near by national monument - she returned at 2:00pm. Oh well. Their were other people to chat with during the wait so it wasnÕt too bad. And it wasn't like we really lost any time according to the schedule.

I want to say something about the airport itself. Very laid back. You wouldn't know it was an airport until you went inside (the only flights are small prop jobs like Dehavilan Dash-9s). The place is open and breezy and has some very nice dinosaur exhibits which makes good sense when you realize that places like Dinosaur Valley are quite close by. This is probably an airport where it would be OK to leave your luggage alone for a few minutes.

The drive to Moab takes about 2.5 hours and you need to go through, I think, Arches National Park to get here. But, I'm getting ahead of myself. Before we got to Moab we made a couple of stops. One was too view some petroglyphs cut into the rocks by the local Indians (not sure which tribe). We don't know what they mean. Another stop was in the town of Cisco (not named after The Kid - the town came first). This is now a town of 3 people: the post mistress, one of our leaders Dan Murphy, and a truck driver who is never around. Dan Murphy is an older fellow probably in his sixties who has spent his career as a ranger in the National Park Service. He was one of the first to work at Arches even before it became a national park (it was a national monument first). He's worked in many places and quite clearly knows his stuff. He is interested, has a degree in, anthropology and I get the feeling he is very much a people person and is interested in how people live and work together and how they affect the land and it affects them Of course, he is also an outdoors type of guy and was in the park service when rangers could still do outdoors stuff (apparently nowadays most rangers spend the majority of their time inside). Dan is retired from the park service but he is caretaker for a ranch in this now very small town of Cisco and is also a sometimes guide and involved in many groups that do things with the wilderness hereabouts.

Cisco was not always this small. During the late 40s, 50s, and perhaps 60s it was quite a bit larger. It was larger mostly due to the Cold War and the government's need for uranium which exists in abundance in this part of the US (and not in many other places). Of course, eventually the need died down and then completely vanished and Cisco went the way of other mining towns - it practically fell off the map. But, it does have a post office which now actually is just a set of P.O. boxes that the post mistress fills when she gets the mail from Grand Junction (her mileage reimbursement must be impressive).

The drive through the mountains to get to Moab was quite enjoyable though I really can't describe it. Canyons, the Colorado (at this part of the river I think it really is the Colorado though before 1921 the whole thing was the Grand River - I think some of it still is called that), and many steep rocks formations. The river is running quite high and is full of sediment from snow melt. Later in the year it'll clear up and therefore warm up since the sediment reflects the sun quite well (and that water is just plain cold from snow melt). I was in John Weischit's van. He is a guide with Tag-a-long Tours and has lived in Moab for a decade. John is a self taught man from what I can gather and is quite interested in the history surrounding the river. But, he is also a true professional in that he is also interested in the geology, fauna, and flora of the area. Apparently many guides do not know very much about the area - talking through their hats I suppose - because they just are guiding as a summer job often times. There is no licensing requirement for guides. An organization John and Dan have founded is trying to change this: at least provide some sort of more formal education, classes and the like, that guides can take to learn the area. The guides would receive a certificate saying that they learned what they learned. An institute for guides that you would want to attend so you can say you know where of you speak. It's clear to me both our leaders really care about what they are doing and about the area. I don't doubt I'll learn plenty on this trip. I hope I retain it. The quality of the leaders this so far reminds me of HF volunteers. Though I suspect these two men could be far better than our favorite HF people were (I can't remember who those are now: Eric certainly, who did we have in Austria - Louise and who else?).

We arrived in Moab around 5:00pm which gave me more than enough time to shower and unpack before I had to meet everyone else at the vans to go to diner (our Smithsonian rep had arrived). Dinner was at the Sunset Grill. This restaurant was once the home of a fellow named Charles Steam. Mr. Steam is a local rags to riches story. He came out here in the late 40s or so to prospect for uranium. He found it - a whole lot of it. He made quite a bit of money mining the mineral and wasn't shy about spreading the wealth around. He threw parties for Moab and did stuff like that. He built a home which he named (why do rich folks name their estates?) Mi Vida (My Life in Spanish). I think he was referring to the uranium strike he made and how it made his life. Mr. Steam is apparently a good geologist but not such a good businessman. He lost a lot of his fortune and his company Atlas Minerals to bad decisions. But, he is still I think considered quite the character in these parts. The dinner was very good.

I should say something about the group of 15 (includes leaders) people we have here. I am pretty sure I am the youngest. The oldest is a guy who must be in at least his 70s since he flew bombers during WW II (very active guy who loves to hike). We have mostly married couples some who are a little older than I (30s , 40s) and others who are more Mom and Dad's age. Their are also some other single people (though I think I'm the only single male). Professionals all. Or were if they're retired now. Very knowledgeable I think and hopefully we'll have things to talk about.

Bedtime I am very tired after all I've been up since 4:30am EDT.

Day 2

After an easy wake up and breakfast we left Moab for our first real excursions into the canyons, arches, and rivers of this part of Utah. We first visited the canyon rim of Long canyon. I think it was actually the top of the canyon. The trip to Long canyon via Pucke Pass is worth mentioning. The land , when not canyons, is plateau with plenty of sage and juniper and pinion. It really does look like all the western movies you have seen and that is because the Moab area has been the site of many films (Long Canyon is where Thelma and Louise was filmed - the final scene). The plateaus are covered with a sandy top soil that is only about one foot deep. It also supports various desert grasses some of which are naturally short. It is remarkable how green things are. John and Dan agree that it is unusually green for this time of year - courtesy plenty of snow melt from the past winter. Where the plateaus are not covered with sandy soil and vegetation you see rocks that are covered with fissures and faults. The rocks are a sandstone and this means they are always becoming sand , sandstone, and sand again. One feature you notice very quickly are the pot holes in the surface of the rock. Since the rock is sandstone water erosion can dissolves the cement that holds the sand grains together. This makes the pothole, not freezing and thawing which is what usually is the cause back home. As the water evaporates it leaves its sediments behind and these stain the pot hole a different color than the rest of the rock - it looks quite neat. Some of the pot holes can be several feet deep.

We next went to Dead Horse Point. This state park takes its name from somewhat unknown resins. The story takes two forms:

  1. Cowboys were using the plateau as a natural corral for horses. In fact, you can still see the fence of Juniper tress that they used to block off the next of the corral - the other side of the plateau ends in cliff faces. As the story goes the cowboys took their best horses, they had too many for the area since water was scarce, and brought them to town (Moab I think) and sold them. Being cowboys they then whooped it up for a time and therefore took a while to get back to the plateau. When they got back the horses were dead from dehydration. It is said that many ran off the mesa to get to the Colorado river in a rather stupid attempt to get water (I'm not sure I believe that part).

  2. This version is more risque though it has a morbid ring of truth: the good Christian women of Moab did not like the ladies of the evening. They were after all attracting their husbands, boy friends , and sons away from the good women of Moab. They decided to try and convince the ladies of the evening to leave and setup shop elsewhere. They took them to the aforementioned mesa for a big picnic. They did not convince the ladies of the night to depart and this made them rather irate. The story is that they then proceeded to kill the ladies of the evening and the name of the place is really Dead Whores Point.

Take your pick on which to believe.

The hike I took part in was to an overlook that had some very fine views and was to be our luncheon spot. The hike itself was about 2 miles through easy terrain on a trail that skirted the edge of the plateau. Part of this hike took me to an overlook right at the edge that required a bit of a descent and return ascent. That little trek caused me to think a stick would be a nice thing to have. The overlook gave me a view of the valley floor but I really cannot give a good description of what I saw. One prominent feature is the salt evaporation pools that can even be seen from space. The whole area has salt beneath it - several thousand feet of salt. The overlook itself was not just some picnic tables in a shady spot instead they put awnings over a set of large boulders and turned it into a great luncheon spot.

After lunch we headed to Canyonlands National Park to start exploring there.

Our main goal was a trek to Upheaval Dome. This was an uphill hike of three quarters of a mile. This was a bit tougher hike since it had a moderate bit of broken rock, but it was worth it. Upheaval Dome is a geological structure that is the source of some debate. Details of formation to come later. I enjoyed this hike too even though it was hard to really see things well.

Dinner out again at what we were told is the classiest place in town: the Center Cafe. The food was quite good and it was a pleasant evening for everyone involved. I choose to walk back to the hotel from the restaurant. The walk is not really pretty, you walk along what amounts to the main drag (strip) but the evening was nice and the sunset was pretty.

Day 3

Today we spent our time in Arches National Park. This park has approximately 2400 arches that have opening , in any direction, of at least 1 meter.

Our first stop was at Delicate Arch. This 1.5 mile trail is pretty much all uphill and the last 0.75 miles is up what is called slickrock. Slickrock is really not a good name for the rock since it is not slippery. It is instead merely bare hard rock - harder than sandstone (need to find out what it is). At the trail head you pass by John Wesley Wolf's cabin. He was a frontiersman who came out here from Ohio to try and make his fortune. This is a small one room cabin that must have been a real chore to build in the open exposed area. After ten years he gave up and went back east with his wife who supposedly stayed in town (Moab) proving women are smarter I guess.

Part of the trail goes over a swinging bridge that the park service will be removing next year since they claim it costs to much to maintain. It'll be replacement with a normal (i.e., concrete) bridge - ho hum - a real shame.

You climb up this slickrock completely exposed to the sun (the trail head sign says this is a trail that is best done at sunset - more on that later). The hike up is not hard and I imagine you could climb far steeper slickrock without fear since it is very much like sandpaper in its friction-like state [sic]. The slickrock is not broken up chunks or fractured rock like you might find on a mountain trail. These are big rocks. You eventually reach the top which has a nice inward sloping trail around some large outcrops and when you make it around the outcrop you see it - Delicate Arch. You have no hint it is coming until you are there (of course you know it is coming since you are going to it). The arch stands alone and you have a grand view to a large valley below. During sunset the arch would cast its shadow against the outcrop you walked around at the end of the trail - probably very pretty. The arch itself is large and it is delicately shaped. The expanse of arch, valley, and outcrop, is extraordinary.

I thought the return downhill would be tougher than it turned out to be. I attribute this to the nature of the misnamed slickrock. As you walk the trail you see a large open expanse of exposed rock and then you're back to what I suppose would be the desert floor with its sage and other plants. If it wasn't so crowded you could really relax into the walk.

We next went to Sand Dunes Arch. This is an easy, sandy trail that is 0.2 miles long. You walk through this deep sand up towards an escarpment of rock that is about 80 feet tall. I saw some rocks that to me looked like a pair of binoculars. As you want up to the escarpment you enter into it though a small, but not twisty, passage. This entrance passage takes you into the central parts of the rock which if, like the other Entrada sandstone full of fissures and cracks. After passing through another passageway you enter a small courtyard grotto that is surrounded by tall rocks and contains the arch itself. I think the grotto would be a superb place to meditate and relax if it weren't a natural playground for kids. You could just relax in the deep sand that was once sandstone.

Our final stop was at North and South Windows , Turret Arch and Double Arch. Unfortunately there was not enough time to go visit both sets since the trails went in essentially opposite directions. I chose to visit the Windows and Turret Arch. Though I wish I could have done both trail sets I am very glad I went to the Windows and Turret Arch.

Turret Arch is in a formation that I think looks like a hitchhiker thumb and if it were a solid formation , as it must've been once, maybe that would be the name. When it does come into full view you do understand why they called it Turret Arch since the whole formation looks like a castle wall (complete with a good sized arch and small porthole window).

North and South Windows have superb views of the , I think, Moab Valley. North Window is quite a bit smaller than its counterpart but it is easier to sit in that arch. South Window sort of sits on top of an alcove like structure.

I took the Primitive Loop Trail and am very glad I did. This trail curves around the back of North and South Windows and affords you views of both arches at once. This loop trails aptly named since it is a single person wide and moves through desert scrub and gives you a feeling that I'm not sure you can get on many other wider trails that just have more people on them. The end of this loop is especially nice since it takes you back past Turret Arch through desert scrub and you can imagine yourself trekking through the Colorado Plateau by yourself. Well worth it.

I am fairly certain that both these pictures are of Turret Arch.

We did make pause at Balanced Rock for pictures on the way back. Balanced rocks are a neat formation. They form when the cap rock is far harder than the pedestal. The pedestal erodes far faster than the cap rock and a balancing rock is the result. I suspect that balancing rocks are even shorter lived than arches but can't confirm this. Balanced Rock is 123 high, the balancing rock 55 feet tall and weighs 3,500 tons.

Dinner on our own and I went to the Poplar Place to have Italian. I tried a pizza of theirs and was overwhelmed. The 'za was very flavorful and filling - kudos the restaurant. I wish I'd known the room had a fridge and microwave then I would have taken a doggie bag home with me (they're hiding under a countertop).

Day 4

This day will be I suspect the least enjoyable one of the trip. It was spent mostly in the vans going from one sight to another and while some of the sights were quite nice I much rather be hiking in nature able to immerse myself in the scenery and learning about what I am seeing.

For some reason I never recorded what we did visit and see. I'm fairly sure this was the day we saw things like Jug Handle Arch, Monument Arch (think that's correct), and spent a nerve wracking time driving up a rather steep, very curvy mountain road in either Canyonlands or Arches, to see some spectacular views. This was also the day that we visited a few other balancing rocks (including the one which you can "help" balance that I mentioned above). One other thing we did on this day was clean up after some Tourists. Some people like to scrawl pithy messages in chalk on the rocks. I suppose they think that since aceint native Americans did this with their petraglyphs it is all right for them to do so too. I don't think it is acceptable. We cleaned off the graffiti they had left behind. --KRK well after the trip was done.

Day 5

We returned to Arches National Park. Our group divided into two sections: slower and faster hikers. I was in the faster group which went all the way out to Double O Arch and Dark Angel (sorta). On the way the trail takes you past Landscape Arch which is the longest arch in the world. Sadly my camera was not working so this day is only remembered in these diaries and my memories.

Wall Arch was the next arch on the trail This arch is sort of snuggled in the rock and is really quite pretty. On one side you have a n alcove like structure with plenty of green ; on the other a fine view of the way you came through the arch.

The trail spends some of the time going over fins. Fins are the tall free standing rocks that can form arches or , I think, sometimes are the remnants of arches. Walking along the fin was a bit trying since the rocks have ups and downs (tiny ones) and some cracks with sheer drop-offs on either side. But, I managed very well. The scenery is spectacular where you can see the full expanse of the salt valley. Very stunning. Since the trail is so well traveled the rocks and sand have been worn down by foot traffic which has tended to make the footing slightly more slippery (sometimes the slickrock really is).

The fin crossing takes you to more well worn trail (2 person wide) which winds mostly gently up towards the slightly, in my view, misnamed Double O Arch. I think Double Oval Arch would be more apt since when you get to the arch you see two oval shaped arches one on top of the other. This arch is in a small dip in the land which seems, like many arches, too have more active life within it. The whole Colorado Plateau is an area full of micro climates.

The entire hike is around 5 miles and though it has some steep spots they are short and I don't think it is a tough hike (though the toughest we did). On the return trip the skies began to cloud up some and we got some here-a-drop-there-a-drop rain with a brief spurt of somewhat harder rain accompanied by strong winds. Time enough to get out the rain coat , put it on, and have the rain then stop.

If I had known that lunch would take so long to prepare I would have detoured to Pine Tree and Tunnel Arches which were off the main trail near the trail head. Hindsight is a wonderful thing. This is where I think packing your own lunch is a better deal. I do wish we spent a bit less time on lunch (we seem to average an hour and a bit) even though Devil's Gardens is certainly a nice location (we actually were there twice).

After the lengthy lunch we returned to Moab. The group then split up with some staying in Moab, others going to check out some petroglyphs, and my small party going to the Matheson Wetlands. These wetlands are owned by the Nature Conservancy and named for a former Utah governor who , unlike most others in his office, was an environmentalist. The wetlands are just outside Moab by the river. It is remarkable to me that they exist at all. My first thought when I think about wetlands is swampland or at least land with plenty of rain. That, of course, is not what make wetlands. All you need is plenty of available ground water and soil that can hold it. As the Colorado rises it floods the wetlands (they're in the flood plain - used to be ranches) and things really begin to bloom. Even when the river levels fall I guess enough water has been absorbed into the ground to keep things like cottonwoods going (if you see a cottonwood it means their is a year-round source of ground water). In the parts of the wetlands we were able to visit you could find plenty of birds, tress, fish (lots of carp), and plants including flora like cat tails, bull rush, cottonwoods, some type of willow, and other plants I expect to see at river banks and lakes back East. A lot of the wetlands was not accessible because the paths had flooded and no one wanted to trek through the water. Admittedly these are small wetlands, but the fact that they exist and provide an important refuge for all sorts of life (I'm sure migratory birds use them as a handy oasis) is what I find fascinating. I enjoyed them. I even learned, probably won't retain, stuff about plants from a fellow traveler who is a botanist (tress mostly) at UM.

Dinner was at the Grand Old Ranch House. Dan had said this was a very fine restaurant and in some respects he was correct. The food was quite good; the service was iffy (Charlie let them know it too - when they repeatedly tried to clear plates before everyone was done).

Day 6

Our initial plan was to visit Nigger (politically correct will say Negro) Bill Canyon, have lunch, and then going to Onion Creek. It did not quite work out.

Nigger Bill was one of two people who were in the area when a second attempt was made to settle Moab in the late 1800s. The first attempt, by Mormon several years earlier, failed when the local Indians (Uts - Ew-ts) forced them out. Nigger Bill was ranching cattle in a nearby box canyon and selling to the army to make a living. In time he left the area and ended up in Salt Lake City shining shoes or so goes the tale. The canyon eventually became public land and was named for the man who used it: Nigger Bill. Keep in mind that "nigger" was not the pejorative word then that it is now. But, political exigency has caused the maps to be changed and it is now Negro Bill's Canyon. Personally, I think this is a shame since the canyon is meant to be named for the man who used it and he was not known as Negro Bill (the other fellow was called Frenchie and that is all that known of him today). I do realize however that most people only know "nigger" as a pejorative term and that to be politically correct is more important than to be wholly accurate to historical records.

The canyon is, for the area, very lush. Of course it was this lushness plus the box nature of the canyon that attracted Bill. Water and vegetation for cattle and he only had to block off the mouth of the canyon.

The hiking , which I did in sandals, was easy with some small ups and downs with rocks. You had to cross the creek at several places but that was no trial. Life is abundant in this canyon (and I imagine the numerous others like it). Plenty of plants, birds, and animals that I'm sure where there. I was able to get enough distance between myself and others several times so I could just walk and enjoy the "silence". I am happy to hike and not talk or hear other conversations.

The hike, which took maybe 90 minutes, ends at Morning Glory Arch. This arch is not a see through arch. There is a rock wall behind it that is surely several feet thick. In fact, unless you stand near or under the arch you cannot tell that it is not a separate structure with a gap of open sky between it and the back stone wall. A rivulet springs from the wall at the back of the arch and I think this would be a good place to take some shelter from rain though it would be susceptible to pour offs from the rocks above. All in all a very pleasant morning.

Lunch was beside the river and we had time to kill as the leaders prepared it. I spent it on a riverbank beach just lying in the sand trying to not think of much at all. I didn't fall asleep and know I had my picture taken by a few other people. That is fine with me. Unfortunately, as lunch concluded it started to storm. Storms here are fairly short but intense. The results can be flash floods caused by pour offs, the births of numerous water falls, which result from water running off the slickrock. I can se where this could be dangerous and though I would have liked to see Onion Creek, statistically your chances of having trouble are still low, I agree with the decision that our leader made to not do it. This meant we had an enforced half day where we couldn't even do any more hiking. Bummer.

Some of us went to the local museum. It is a small but nicely put together museum that documents the local history. I didn't really learn anything that I had not already known but I wasn't really look that hard either. Worth a quick visit to learn the history of the settlers, farmers, uranium miners, and so on though.

We had dinner at Pack Creek which is a dude ranch. The owner, apparently is the model for a character called Seldom Seen Smith in a Tony Hillerman novel called something like "Thief of Time". Maybe one of you readers is familiar with it - I'm not. The dinner was quite enjoyable.

Day 7

Today was our river raft trip. We were taking what our guides claimed was the most popular introductory river trip. The leaders, both licensed boatmen, were the drivers of the boats (rafts). We just got to sit on the tubes while they rowed and steered us through the few mild rapids. You get to see the banks from a different perspective and we all enjoyed the rapids and occasional cold-water splashing (I wore shorts, shirt sleeves, and sandals - I had warmer weather clothing available in case the weather turned cold which it did not). I can't say that this day was the highlight of the trip mostly because you don't get to do much on the raft itself. However, I can still imagine a multi-day trip being quite fun if there are many opportunities to beach the raft and explore the banks on short to medium length hikes. We made a couple stops on our float: the first for lunch on what would have been a wonderful white sand beach if the water weren't so high (a shrimp avocado in a peta lunch - very tasty); and the second at what were admittedly, by the guides, poor quality Anasazi ruins. It's worth noting that the Anasazi did not really vanish off the planet as popular culture has it. Their descendants, like the Hopi, are still here. The Colorado Plateau Indians apparently were quite mobile and when they abandoned an area they did not return to it. It's this abandonment practice that I guess is why people think the Anasazi just vanished instead of merely moving on. All in all the float was enjoyable but I'm glad it wasn't much longer.

We had dinner at Buck's Grill and this was probably the best overall meal that we had. The evening was closed out with good conversation and stories.


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