T009 Utah: Arches to Hanksville

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At the state line the Welcome to Utah sign is almost lost in the vastness of the sky and land atop the Colorado Plateau. Ahead I70 stretched on over a scrubby, lonely, empty land. It is desert with vivid evidence that rain when it falls is heavy and runs off quickly cutting the land into a mosaic laced with gullies, gulches, and washes. The road stretched on with occasional No Service signs seemly more visible than exit identification signs for the few exits along the interstate. Forty miles later the Utah Visitors Center showed up.

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Clicks of a camera shutter and the mind’s eye capture the uniqueness of Arches National Park. Camera images endure as taken, recalling long after the variety and wonder of nature’s carving efforts. Images in the mind’s eye blur a bit and run together as arch after unique arch merges with the subtle feel of the park picked up not in quick clicks and glimpses but rather over time as the rest of the park’s remarkable scenery is absorbed by eye, ear, mind and body.

We’d added privacy by driving forward into a park campsite. Immense red sandstone boulders intermingled with twisted pinyon pines and junipers filled the windshield view. With our stern facing the road and the natural site privacy it wasn’t necessary to pull blinds and curtains in the evening.

Walking from our base camp we covered trails working past arches. Each trail had its own unique feel; some were on flat areas others scrambled up fins (the narrow ridges of sandstone from which arches are formed) with the trails marked by stacks of rocks called cairns. Trails ran through narrow canyons, along desert terrain and over sandstone called slick rock because of its slipperiness when wet. Each arch became a unique experience intriguing us with variety in structure. Some are thick, looking like they’d stand forever. One, Landscape Arch, spans 308 feet. Delicate Arch stands alone on the edge of a cliff with a mouth drying approach. It is Utah’s State Symbol. Our planned two day stay extended to four and if we hadn’t run out of water would have been longer.

Moab sits between Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. It has more mountain bike shops than gas stations. Adventure companies specializing in 4X4, kayak, and raft tours line main street along with outfitters. Restaurants and gift shops complement all the backcountry activity as people come in for provisions and a day in town. Moab’s central RV park became our base as we did laundry and restocked. We found Camelbak backpacks at a local outfitter. It’s a backpack with a 2-liter water supply feeding a hose on the front strap for no hassle water sipping while hiking.

We couldn’t resist one Roadside America (a book of unusual attractions) stop. Hole N’ The Rock is a 5,000 sq. ft. house dug into a sandstone cliff. Once a home and café, it’s now a museum. One man, with a bit of help from dynamite and a donkey, had carved out this unique piece of Americana. We were the only people on the funky10 minute tour.

The campground in Canyonlands National Park and the road leading to it seem unusually crowded with campers. We hiked one easy trail as we arrived and gave our Camelbaks a trial run and then found a campsite early worrying that the campground might fill.

The next day we headed out to hike the Squaw Canyon Loop Trail gaining 700’ rated 4 on a difficulty scale with 5 as a maximum difficulty. Earlier we’d noted that the Trail Hazards section read “Much slick rock scrambling using both hands and feet at times; steep drop offs.” Our read was that it sounding challenging but no big deal.

The trail was great. We worked our way along enjoy a gentle rise as we headed upstream into Squaw Canyon. The trail worked its way back and forth across the stream and at times we were walking under the cliff face going almost straight up from the canyon floor. Our GPS indicated we’d climbed about 200’ when we came to the end of Squaw Canyon and began working our way up switchbacks working their way up the end of the canyon and the now dry stream/waterfall from the top. Walking was strenuous but easy and we were feeling quite proud of ourselves. Then as we came to about the last 100 vertical feet of the climb and found that we’d now be going straight up in and along the very steep streambed. Suddenly the Hazards words made sense. We went beyond the write up and added ‘butt’ to the ‘both hand and feet’ suggestion in the trail guide.

We stopped and savored the view once we made the top. Our joy was dampened a bit as we realized the route down on the other side into Big Spring Canyon looked steeper than our climb up. Working slowly we picked our way down the heart stopping 100 vertical feet to where the trail became a bit more reasonable. That evening we toasted our most ambitious hike and climb ever and went to bed early.

In a dripping rain we stopped to see Newspaper Rock. There on a cliff face were distinctly different petroglyphs from the many different Indian cultures that passed through the area. As we returned we met a couple admiring the mountain lion on the back of the Trek. We struck up a conversation and learned they were rock climbers waiting out the rain. The cliffs in and around Canyonlands we learned are considered world class climbing and that people from all over the world were in the area climbing. Now we knew why there were so many campers.

During the ranger’s talk my mind flashed back to a time in my youth when a picture in a book and “cliff dwelling” became forever linked. Now I realized I was standing in the picture in my memory. We were in Spruce Tree House in Mesa Verde National Park. The ranger’s talk and seeing the cliff dwelling up close increased our knowledge, understanding and curiosity about the unanswered questions about the Native American inhabitants who built, lived there and migrated away leaving no clear idea of where they went. Afterward, as most visitors walked back along the paved access trail we headed out on a rough trail working our way much like the cliff dwellers once did up the cliff face to the cliff top where their farm fields once grew.

Off we went hiking up the riverbed trail in Natural Bridge National Monument. The trail isn’t maintained because spring rains create flash floods that rearrange the riverbed each year. At a number of points we had alternatives and could see footprints going and coming in the sand for each route. We picked the wrong alternative more than once and followed the false trail until it dead-ended at a cliff face or some other obstacle we couldn’t pass. The hike wasn’t a white-knuckle climb like Canyonlands, but proved to be quite tiring because of sand, and very uneven terrain and all the backtracking we did. The parks natural bridges, cut by the river didn’t have near the fascination or beauty of arches cut by wind, spring rains, and freezing water. We crested the canyon edge in early afternoon with the Trek steps away. Not feeling ambitious we drove back to the park campground and spent a second evening watching the sun deepen the red sandstone cliffs.

An hour had passed and we hadn’t seen another car on the road as we headed for Bryce Canyon National Park. The road with its ever-changing views of mountains, cliffs and desert was far from boring. By hour two we’d seen a few cars and were coming to a wide spot in the road called Hanksville and stopped for gas. Except for the lighted neon open sign, the restaurant across the road appeared to be closed. A bit hungry we tried the door and were treated to a nice breakfast in the middle of nowhere. We were the restaurant’s only customers. Refreshed we head on for Bryce Canyon.

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