The next leg of our trip would take in 3 National Parks over as many days, completing Utahs ‘mighty 5’ Parks in the process. The one I was looking forward to the most was Arches National Park.
We set off early from Bryce Canyon for a big 7 hour drive to Canyonlands, via Capital Reef National Park. There is a more direct route from Bryce however we thought the longer, scenic drive with an extra park was well worth the extra time (and petrol!!)
As we entered Capitol Reef we immediately felt it had a ‘smaller grand canyon’ feel about it (apart from the fact the cliffs are only on one side so its not actually a canyon!) After stopping at a few scenic viewpoints along the road we made our way the visitor centre to grab a map.
From the visitor centre you can drive a scenic road down to a dead end with various stops along the way. We made it about three quarters of the way down before I turned around and made a bee-line for the picnic spot we had passed near the river (a man must eat!) There isn’t much to the park, an old school house from the first settlers remains as do a few other buildings and some orchards that the settlers used to be self sustainable during their time.
Initially the plan was to go to Canyonlands first and then to Arches but in desperate need of petrol and some internet to figure out a place to stay we by-passed them both and headed to the nearby town of Moab to resolve both issues. After a quick pit stop, we headed the short 5 miles back to Arches to call in at the visitor centre. We got maps and advice for the following day (we couldn’t do any night photography on a Thursday as the park closes at 7pm Sun-Thurs until November for road repairs). The ranger suggested all the nicer BLM spots on the Colorado River would be taken by now, but I ignored him completely and decided to risk it rather than drive miles out of town to the one he suggested would be a better shot! As the saying goes - “He who dares Rodders!” We found a spot in the 3rd camp right on the river, not a bad place to lay your head for the night (although BLM are usually free and this was $15!)
Day 35 - Arches
With the night time road closures now not in play (it was a Friday) we headed back into the park just after the 7am opening time to take in as many as the park’s famed arches as we could find. The arches are formed by different layers of prehistoric sandstone being eroded by wind/rain at different rates. The darker red sandstone is softer than the lighter stone in the layer above so erodes quicker leaving a hole or arch!
One of the most famous in the park is the ‘Landscape Arch’, a long 60m extremely thin arch that spans the canyon below it. The hiking trail used to go under the arch but after a huge piece fell off the park decided to close the trail at the bottom for safety reasons. Landscape Arch is at the very far reaches of the park but only a 10-15 minute hike from the car park. You can then return or continue on a much longer loop along a ‘primitive’ trail where you have to hike and scramble up a few interesting (and high) areas of slick rock. The extra loop totalled about 7 miles and took us around 4 hours to do. I don’t think I’d fancy it in the rain as the smooth sandstone almost had me slipping into a muddy pond on a dry day! George found this very funny.
We then drove to the other main arches - Double Arch and The Windows - but the crowds were a bit much. Little to nobody obeyed the ‘stay on the trail’ signs and instead treated the arches as big climbing frames.
My main hope from our visit was to get a night shot of ‘Delicate Arch’ with the milky way in the background but as we pulled into the trailhead car park there was thunder and lightening in the distance. Annoyingly we had to abandon the attempt. It was scary to see other people stopping when they saw the lightening, and then continuing to hike to the arch regardless. The arch is 90 minutes out for a fit hiker and a good 6-7000 ft above sea level - not where you want to be in a big lightening storm!
We headed out of the park (I was pretty annoyed) and headed up to Canyonlands which is a short drive further (away from Moab) with another BLM campground on our radar. Fortunately this camp just off the 313 road had plenty of spaces. We self registered with our $15 fee and sat in Tyrone waiting for the torrential rain to stop before attempting to put the tent up.
Sensing a gap in the weather we quickly erected Colin (!) (the tent) to be rewarded with the biggest and most perfect full rainbow we’ve ever seen right over the top of Colin - George loved it… then it started raining again so we had to eat dinner in the car!
Day 36 - Canyonlands……and Arches again!!
Another sight we’d researched that wasn’t to be missed was a sunrise at ‘Mesa Arch’ in Canyonlands. In order to make sunrise, I had to drag George out of bed at 4am, pack away the wet tent, drive the remaining 45 minutes to the trailhead and then hike out to the arch all before sunrise. Luckily it all went to plan and we joined a handful of other nutters waiting in the pitch black at around 5am.
The whole point of your effort is that as the sun rises the first light hits the underside of the arch creating an amazing orange glow with the impressive canyon visible beneath it and into the distance. This is what the photographs look like anyway, I’ll never know as it was bloody cloudy so the impressive glow never fully materialised! (It was still worth it though!)
A quick drive back out to the visitor centre armed us with a map of the park. We decided to hit the Grand View viewpoint and hike along the rim of the canyon. Canyonlands obviously gets its name as its a huge, vast canyon! Somehow it looks weirdly different to the Grand Canyon though…
Eager to learn more we decided to stick around for a Ranger talk on the geology of the park. This might sound boring and a bit geeky but after half an hour of the ranger explaining rock and erosion facts all the way back to 650 million years ago we were both geology experts. I would write about it here but I’ve forgotten most of it! The general gist being over millions and millions of years and different ice ages/hot periods different layers built up and up and then have eroded at different rates creating the huge canyons below. You could definitely see this process (I’m sure the photos will explain it better).
We also drove to another of the park’s weird features - The Dome. A short hike brings you to an enormous crater that looks very much out of place amongst the rest of the landscape. They don’t know whether the crater was caused by a meteor that vaporised on impact or by a huge salt build up under the rock that escaped and then collapsed. More recent opinions seem to go with the meteor theory.
Given our 5am start, we’d seen the majority of Canyonland’s highlights by mid-afternoon! We headed down into Moab to grab some dinner before driving back to Arches National Park for a second attempt at the Delicate Arch milky way photo. With the sky a lot clearer we made the 90 minute hike out (armed with head torches for the return leg) and joined the other couple of hundred people for sunset.
Once the sun had gone down so did the people count and only a handful of keen photographers were left, including two great guys from Vegas that we had met that morning at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands.
Unfortunately the near full moon buggered the milky way shots but everybody left happy and we teamed up with the two guys to try and navigate our way back to the car in the dark. This was much harder than we expected. Amazingly the two lads weren’t done and headed off to Double Arch to get some more night shots (they kindly offered to let us stay at their campsite but we had to decline as it was the opposite way to where we were headed).
Day 37 - Salt Lake City….sort of!
After waking up very early due to the sun, we were greeted with a great view of a hot air balloon going up. The huge red cliffs that we had become so used to in Utah were a very scenic backdrop. With Salt Lake City still miles away we couldn’t hang around too long and started the drive north for our last night in Utah and first night in a hotel for a while. We stayed at the familiar Econolodge just on the edge of downtown. The previous few days playing photographer and camping every night of the last week had taken its toll so once we checked in we hibernated until the following morning.