The National Park system of the United States is one of the great jewels that citizens of the USA should be proud of. It is wide-ranging, well funded, and spectacular from a conservation perspective. 27 states are home to at least one park and many states have multiple parks, with the greatest concentration in the west. Recently, myself and three others took a meandering trip that visited six of these great coliseums of nature. Over the course of 13 windy, asphalt packed days, we visited: Wind Cave N.P in South Dakota; Yellowstone and Grand Teton N.P.’s in Wyoming, Arches and Canyonlands N.P.’s in Utah and, finally, Rocky Mountain N.P. in Colorado. Yellowstone, Grand Teton, and Rocky Mountain are three of the most visited conservation areas in the world, and are consistently among the top-15 most visited national parks in the U.S. As much as the four of us loved those parks, our hearts were truly stolen by the grandeur of the desert plateaus in southeast Utah defined by Arches and Canyonlands national parks.

After leaving Provo, Utah we took a more direct route southeast along Highway 6, which cuts through the mining towns of Thistle, Price, and Wellington. Dirt roads, broken signs, and sagebrush litter the dry, dusty hills as you descend towards Interstate 70. Between Price on Highway 6 and Green River, just off I-70, we did not pass a single gas station or convenience store, so be sure your fuel is sufficient to make the 90-minute trip. Turning south onto Highway 191 towards Moab, Utah, one sees high tabletop mesas, long windswept valleys, and the occasional lush green patch where a natural spring bubbles to the surface. The southeast portion of the state near Moab is dominated by the two national parks and various other recreational activities that are available inside and outside of the parks. There is an annual Jeep-fest where enthusiasts try their skills at navigating the area’s slick rock outcroppings. The same features draw thousands of mountain biking fanatics who pedal and climb through a labyrinth of trails. The Colorado River runs just north of Moab, forms the southern border of Arches N.P., and runs for nearly 35 miles through Canyonlands N.P. (including a major confluence with the Green River). The Colorado is available for rafting for most of the year through various independent outfitters in the area.

We took the right off Highway 191 onto State Road 313 and began the slow incline towards Canyonlands National Park. Unfortunately, many visitors to the Moab area miss out on Canyonlands and its epic views because the entrance to the park is some 12 miles off the main drag that runs through the town. We camped at Canyonlands the first night, taking the last campsite available, and walked the quarter-mile to the “Island in the Sky” overlook. On a clear day, like every day during our visit, one can see upwards of 50 miles to the south and west, overlooking the great Colorado and Green Rivers, while standing on a cliff whose precipice is some 1500 feet above the canyon floor below. We visited in late May, and the weather was perfect with temperatures in the mid-80′s and almost no humidity. While some may think of the desert as a barren, identity-less place, we found it to be more expressive and dynamic than expected. Beautiful desert roses bloomed, lanky jackrabbits scampered, and a night sky, unleashed from any urban presence, filled the late evening with undefinable numbers of glistening stars. In the morning, we retraced our route down 313 and took Highway 191 towards Moab for lunch and then to spend the afternoon exploring the bounties of Arches national park.

Arches covers some 310 square miles on a plateau that is reached by driving a series of switchbacks from the visitor’s center some 600 feet below the plateau. Arches is most often enjoyed as a day hike park with various 3-4 hour long hikes throughout different areas. While the park does contain nearly 2,000 individual arches made of eroding sandstone, the great attractions are the “Devil’s Garden” and the “Fiery Furnace”. These two areas have accessible parking areas and miles of hiking paths which meander between steep columns and cliff faces of sandstone intermingled with various arches, large and small. Each major column (some rising hundreds of feet) on the main park drive has been named and there are parking areas for photographers at nearly all. We found the natural arches to be impressive and overwhelming in size, with even famous Delicate Arch standing over 50 feet high.

The Utah portion of our trip was certainly eye-opening, as the desert’s sweet poetry was taken to heart. I encourage all the adventurous to visit the Moab region to admire spectacular views, visit unique phenomena, and rest the soul. And if you have time, stop for a meal at Zax’s Restaurant for the best fire-grilled pizza in the southwest.

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Gabe’s monthly articles in The Soap Boxers focus on science and Nature (Travels and Tales).

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