Canyonlands and Arch Canyon Blog

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      I left OKC on Thursday night, at the absurd hour of 10:30 pm … what a time to leave on a long driving trip, but that’s me.  I made it to the middle of the Texas Panhandle, to what are probably the most elaborate and impressive rest areas in the country, where I have stopped many times over the years to admire the fancy mosaics and the museum-like displays inside… a mighty far shot from the dingy, nasty rest areas found in lots of states, with New Mexico’s being the worst!  So I stayed there in the back of my truck and slept very well, especially since it was a cool cloudy morning when I woke up, so the back of the truck didn’t get too hot.  I drove all the way into southern Utah that night, and found a nice place to camp on BLM land near the Canyonlands National Park – I just followed some faint dirt tracks off the highway to the back side of a low hill where nobody could see me from the road, and had another nice night.  (The National Park Service owns Canyonlands, and has strict rules about visiting the area, which is true of any National Park or National Monument, but the land around it is owned by the Bureau of Land Management, and you’re free to go or camp anywhere you want on their land.) 

     The next morning at 7:30 (ugh) I met up with my hiking group, the Natural Arch and Bridge Society.  They were all gathered at the beginning of the primitive dirt road that leads to Lavender and Davis Canyons (part of Canyonlands).  They split into 2 groups, depending on which canyon each person wanted to see.  For some dumb reason, I went with the Davis Canyon group… I have no idea why, because I had signed up for the Lavender hike… still half asleep I guess.  I had wanted to go see Lavender Canyon for 20 years, tho I hadn’t seen Davis either; I think I just got my days mixed up in my head somehow and thought I was going to Lavender later (and I did).  Anyhow, we had a pleasant hike to see 4 arches that day, though only 2 were very significant; the first one was thoroughly unimpressive, I didn’t even bother to take a picture, and the last one was all right but no big deal.  It had a weird protrusion sticking out from the very front of the span, like a gargoyle on a gothic church; our trip leader, who is the president of the Natural Arch and Bridge Society, asked us what we should name the arch, since it was still nameless, so I just said Gargoyle Arch, which seemed obvious… and everybody immediately started calling it that, as if it was totally official.  So now I have named an arch!  Actually the National Park Service no longer accepts names for natural features there, so it’s not official, but we arch-hunters still name them just so we can recognize what we’re talking about, so they’re official to us, which is all that matters.

Gargoyle Arch:


     Most of the old-timer members of the NABS were no longer with the group, for various reasons – some had gotten old, had found other interests, or had already been to Canyonlands several times, as had I.  So it was almost a whole new group, most of whom didn’t know me either.  I had been with the group ever since their very first convention 20 years ago, so I have a much longer history with them than even its present president does; I just hadn’t been to any of the outings in the past 4 years though, so I had been rather out of touch.  I used to be considered the best photographer of the bunch, and maybe I was!  So now I’ll have to prove it all over again to these newcomers, though you'd never think so by the pictures on this page -- I had some lousy rolls of film, and lots of the pictures came out with too much magenta, which was annoying. 

     I took off on my own after the hike was over to look for a nice shady camping spot.  You can’t camp in the Park without paying and staying at their official campground, and the last thing I want when camping is a bunch of noisy people around; so I drove for a couple of hours up and down almost every dirt trail for a dozen miles outside the park boundary on BLM land, till I finally settled on a secluded spot behind a cliff, which I had to make my own 4-wheel-drive track to get to. 

     The next day a big group of us met to do a 4WD trip through Horse Canyon (part of the national park too).  I had driven it twice before, and it’s a magnificent area with several great arches such as Castle Arch, Fortress Arch, Gothic Arch, and Paul Bunyan’s Potty (not to mention the nearby Mrs. Bunyan’s Potty too).  But for some reason we only had three 4WD vehicles available – some of the people had flown in and rented cars, which could never have even begun to make it through Horse Canyon.  So some people decided to take an easier tour, and the others all doubled up in the 3 available vehicles.  A guy from Denver, about 35, whom I had never met before volunteered to go with me, named Marshall.  He was there for the first time.  He seemed to enjoy me telling him all about what we were seeing and going to see, and looked up to me as some kind of an expert, so I hope I managed to inspire him a bit more in his enjoyment of the great southwest, which he had actually seen quite a bit of already. 

     I had been to the glorious Castle Arch twice before.  It involves a bit of a hike, after driving a couple hours down Horse Canyon; so I walked ahead of the group to the first spot where it becomes visible, in order to watch the reactions of the rest of the people seeing it for the first time… it is truly one of the great spans of the world.  Several are much longer, but few are more fragile and scenic.  So that was fun, seeing their delight and excitement.  Only 4 of the men went up to the end of the trail, the ladies didn’t even attempt it… and even then, we didn’t go clear up under the arch, much less to the back side of it like I did on my own a few years ago… so they had to all take my word for it that it is even more fragile than it looks, being split lengthwise from end to end, which is only visible from directly below it, meaning it is not just one thin span, but two side-by-side very thin ones.

 Castle Arch:

Castle Arch with the split in the span showing:


     After that, we all gave up on the horrible 4WD road, and decided that hiking to the end was more intelligent than tearing up the trucks.  The grand Fortress Arch is at the end; again I had seen it twice before, but never had managed to get good pictures, so that was the whole reason I was doing this particular trip that day.  It was still morning light when we got there, so I finally got some good ones, if overly pinkish.  Marshall was the only one who tried to hike clear up to the opening.  I had tried years ago and had given up, and so did he.  A technical climber could have managed it, but there was no good reason for the rest of us to damage ourselves trying – though “bagging” an arch is always a true arch-hound’s goal; that means going under it, over it, or through it, preferably all three, though in many cases that is impossible without flying or falling to one’s death.  So nobody bagged it, but we got close.  On the way out we stopped at several other places, including the “potty” arches (technically called pothole arches, formed by a hole in the roof of an alcove that gradually erodes bigger and bigger – an overhead, somewhat circular arch, in other words.  We also visited the “Thirteen Faces”, a well-known group of Anasazi pictographs – thousand-year-old Indian art.  We were quite annoyed at the end of the hot, sandy hike to only find 10 faces on the wall!  Not sure why the name, it didn’t look like there ever were 13 there.  Finally at about 4 pm we were back out of the canyon, and I went by myself to take pictures of the Wooden Shoe.  It's actually an arch, but the opening is small -- but the shape of the whole thing is pretty neat, off on the skyline.  After that I went back to my hidden campsite.  I had brought 10 gallons of Oklahoma water with me, so I poured some over my head, and washed my sore feet too. 

Fortress Arch:

Paul Bunyan's Potty:

The Wooden Shoe Arch:


      The next day I woke up tired.  I was signed up for an overnight backpack for that day and the next, which meant I would have to have 20 or 30 lbs on my back for hours and hours, which I totally hate, but it’s often necessary, in order to get to distant arches.  I really wanted to see the newly discovered “Klingon Battle Cruiser Arch”, but that morning I just couldn’t force myself to get up and go, even though I had packed my backpack the night before, and had already flinched at the weight, even without a gallon of water in it.  I had to have a little argument with myself.  A vacation is supposed to be fun!  If you’re not having a good time, if you’re not looking forward to something, then why do it?  One thing I really didn’t like was the idea that after we got to the arch at 3 or 4 pm after walking for 6 hours or more, we’d have to put up our tents and then just sit around until bedtime being bored.  No doubt the others would enjoy visiting and socializing, but of course I would not, I prefer being a hermit.  So I just decided not to go, and then I felt happy!  I spent half of the day in the back of my truck very contentedly reading a novel, something I practically never do, but this one was good and informative, and what’s a vacation for, anyway, if not for relaxing.  Besides, my feet direly needed the rest.  Later, in the afternoon, when the sun was making my campsite too hot, I drove 70 miles to Moab UT, which is the nearest town of any size, and found a cool shady spot directly above the Colorado River and beside a cliff, where I read for another couple of hours.  Then at 6:30 I drove to Arches National Park, but it suddenly got cloudy, so I just turned around.  I was wanting to get a picture of the poor tragic Wall Arch, which famously collapsed last year of natural causes one dark night after standing for like 100,000 years.  I wanted to take an “after” picture to go with my several “before” pictures that I had taken years earlier; but it wasn’t worth the 40-mile drive in and out of the park and the 2-mile hike plus the entry fee, since the pictures wouldn’t have come out well anyhow because of the cloudy sky.

A picture I took of the fallen Wall Arch several years ago:


     I went to my favorite City Market grocery store, an amazing place there in Moab, which has a much better selection of food than anything I’ve found in all of Oklahoma City, even though OKC is about 500 times bigger than little Moab.  Then it was back to Canyonlands, where I camped in the same place as the first night, on the faint dirt trail that led behind a desert hill. 

     The next day I met the group again, or part of it, thinking we were going to see the Indio Arch and the Brooklyn Arch, neither of which I knew anything about.  The Indio Arch was very near the road but it took some bushwhacking to get to since there was no trail, and there was a stream between us and it.  I found a log fallen over the stream, so I and the hike leader went over it, but the others, who were lagging behind, never seemed to find it.  We got up fairly close to the arch and he took pictures, but I wasn’t satisfied because I couldn’t see any sky under the arch, it was too close to the cliff.  I kept climbing up closer to it while he went back to the group, and eventually I got pictures with sky between the arch and the cliff, which usually makes a better picture.  So I was the only one who did that.  Then going back I couldn’t find the log bridge!  I went the wrong way up the river, then had to backtrack through the bushes and brush and cactuses, losing a bit of skin and blood along the way.  But nobody cared that I was the straggler, they had all walked over to see some pictographs on a cliff wall made by the ancient Indians of the area, the Anasazis, which required a bit of a scramble up a cliff.  In fact, that was what we did for most of the rest of the day, visiting Indian rock art plus a great cliff dwelling.  We had a picnic in front of an old abandoned mine cut into the rock, which constantly blew cool air out on us, a welcome thing, since that was the hottest day of the trip.  The biggest excitement of the day was caused by the discovery of several collared lizards.  I’d never seen one in all my many years of hiking the southwest – but that day, we found four of them.  They just sat and posed for us till they got bored with us, then they ran away. 

The Indio Arch:

Ancient Indian art.... what is it all about?  Nobody knows.  Petroglyphs are carved into the rock.  Pictographs are painted on the rock.
You can see some faint red pictographs behind me.

Collared lizards:


      Then we decided to skip the Brooklyn Arch, since it was a very long hike and it was hot, and just go 4-wheeling to the Pelican Arch instead.  The arch was not a bit worth the time and gas and wear on my truck!  It was a dinky little thing, which I guess faintly resembled some long-billed bird from the back side, but only kind of. 

      I stayed that night back at my secluded spot not far from the national park entrance, and did not have a pleasant night!  I had both sliding windows in my camper open a bit, and after an hour of sleep I suddenly woke up to some really weird scraping sounds on the side of my truck, like branches were hitting it in the wind, except there were no trees anywhere around, though there was plenty of wind that night.  It kept on and on, and was a bit scary, because it made no sense…what was scraping back and forth on my truck?!?  Then suddenly the whole truck shook, like something fell against it!  And still more scraping.  All I could do was lie there and hardly breathe, wondering what on earth was going on.  Finally, I figured it out – it was only the curtains on the inside of my camper shell brushing against the screens on the windows!  I hardly ever had had both of them open before on a windy night; and it had only been a sharp blast of wind that had shaken the whole truck!  I felt dumb, then fell asleep. 

     The next day would be the hardest hike of my whole life.  Not that I expected it to be in any way, but it was.  In the morning I joined the group that was going back to Lavender Canyon, where I had wanted to go the first day but goofed up on.  I should have been suspicious when I realized only the group’s president and 2 other guys were going.  But I really wanted to see that part of the park.  But it turned out that they were only going to see one particular distant, hardly ever visited arch called Long Arch.  Since I wasn’t camping each night with the rest of the group, I guess I wasn’t really as well informed about where we were going each day as they were.  Before we took off, a big tough-looking park ranger, who I thought was a man until I saw the lipstick badly smeared all around her mouth, came up to us in her 4-door Jeep and gave us a 20-minute lecture on the park rules and how to be careful hikers and what to do and not do, such as not to tear up or steal Indian artifacts and not to burn wood or destroy native plants… as if we hadn’t all been hiking the national parks for most of our lives and probably knew the rules better than she did.  Then her punk sidekick, some kid barely out of forestry school that she was training, felt the need to repeat to us everything that she had just got through telling us, only not nearly as well!  I was thinking, he’s so out of shape there’s no way he could even hope to do what we had been out there doing every day.  Yet here he was lecturing us; so we patiently stood and listened, annoyed.  Finally, we got to take off. 

      The dirt road to Lavender Canyon is 15 miles long, which means it takes over an hour in 4-wheel drive, throwing up vast clouds of red dust and beating the vehicles and their occupants half to death, bouncing through streams and sandy ditches and over rocks and ridges.  For some reason the guy in front seemed intent on driving it in record time, and all I could do was distantly follow, trying to stay out of his dust cloud, but not lose him in the dry streambeds and deep gullies either.  After an hour of that, I was half worn out and beat up before we even started the hike.  I still had not the faintest idea of what we were getting into, either. 

     The hike started out pleasantly enough, for a couple of miles up a nice side canyon… then the other three guys started going straight up a cliff wall!  Hand over hand, rock to rock, hour after hour.  There was no sign of a trail, since few in history had ever been silly enough to go to this place, wherever it was we were heading.  I was of course the straggler again; the other guys all lived in the area and they did hikes and climbs practically every weekend; then there was poor low-altitude flatlander Okie me, who did it once a year if even that much.  But I was determined to keep up and not be a wimp, and I wasn’t.  They were very nice guys, and knew it was harder on me, and they were patient and actually quite proud and complimentary of me and my progress.  The trouble was, they would get quite a ways ahead, then stop to wait for me.  As soon as I caught up, off they would go again… leaving me thinking, “No fair!  Y’all just got to rest a few minutes while I was catching up and I didn’t, but I’m the one who needs the rest, and you don’t!”  But I was not about to complain and so that little scenario played out over and over all day long.  Of course I lost a bit more skin and blood here and there, and dodged a snake once too.  After hours of steady climbing, over rocks and ledges and exposed scary rims and gravelly dropoffs, we finally approached what seemed like the top of the canyon… though experience had long ago taught me that as soon as you think you have finally arrived at the top of some impossible wall or cliff, that is a sure sign there is much more to be climbed beyond it that you just can’t quite see – and I was right.  But at long last, we got to the top.  One of the guys had a GPS meter and said we had climbed over 1200 feet, which may not seem like much but when you’re doing it straight up, on loose boulders and slickrock ledges, it IS. 

     They actually didn’t have a clear idea of where they were going, but the meter, which tells latitude and longitude, took us straight to the arch once we got to the canyon rim… but it involved the very annoying and discouraging necessity to drop back down about 300 feet to get to it.  One thing any beginning hiker always learns, right off the bat, is never give up any altitude you have gained unless absolutely necessary!!  It’s a horrible waste of precious energy to climb way up and over something and then right back down again, when you could have simply gone around it.  If you’ve got all the strength in the world and you’re not worried about whether you’ll even make it back to the truck, maybe you can do it, but not usually!  Most of the time you want to conserve all the energy you can.  But apparently they thought that was the only way to get to Long Arch.  This arch sure better be worth it, I thought.

     It wasn’t, not really… it is a pleasant span, not really exceptional, sort of a cliff-hugger like the Indio arch was, only separated from the cliff wall by a dozen feet or so, and not really even terribly long.  I’m glad now I went, and proud I did as well as I did, but still, the reward should have been better than it was!  It is one of the few arches that are actually below you on first view, instead high above… though it can also be seen from the canyon bottom at certain viewpoints, which I never saw.  So you’re looking down on the top of it, which means you can’t take pictures with any sky showing through the opening.  Of course I had to walk out on it.  The other 3 guys didn’t seem too inclined to do so right away, so I was the first one out.  I went to the middle and saw that going the whole distance was too dangerous, since the other end dipped quite a ways down, so I turned around and came back.  But I had bagged it, for sure. 

     It’s weird what the mind does.  If I had walked down a typical sidewalk four or five feet wide somewhere, no matter how rough it might be, it would never occur to me to feel scared, to worry about falling, to be afraid a breath of wind might knock me over, or to be nervous about turning around and going back the opposite way for fear of losing my balance; I could prance and cavort on that lumpy sidewalk all day without a problem.  So why is it that when one is on top of an arch of the same width, that one is totally stricken with terror and practically frozen with petrifying fear, merely because there is a dropoff of over 1000 feet on each side of you leading to sure and instant bouncing death?  It makes no sense!  Or maybe it does?  Keeps you from doing anything silly, at least.  One of the guys with me there told of his friend who did a handstand on top of the incredibly fragile and narrow Ribbon Arch in Arches National Park, hardly half as wide as the Long Arch… now that was crazy!  But amazing.  I didn’t attempt it on this one. 

Long Arch:


     After we had our lunch up there, the leader, looking at a map, noticed that the big Gunsight Arch was only a mile and a half away, “as the crow flies”.  Why not go see it while we were up there?  The other guys weren’t too sure, they were I think more tired than they were trying to show.  They left it up to me!  Actually, I had always wanted to see it, it’s one of the truly great arches in Canyonlands, and one that hardly anybody has been up close to.  So I said sure, why not!  So off we went.  No one knew where it was, they were just following the topo map, which are notoriously inaccurate when pinpointing features like arches.  But eventually, after crossing a high plateau, clear off on the rim of another canyon which turned out to be the upper reaches of Davis Canyon again, we spied a magnificent span far off on the other side.  They weren’t sure, it wasn’t quite in the right location, but that had to be it… nothing else that we could see, and we could see forever, could possibly have been an arch.  Even if it wasn’t the Gunsight Arch, it was worth the hike!  But still, it was very far away… that crow could fly a whole lot straighter than we could hike.  Again, they asked me if I wanted to go ahead and do it… to do the major climb to go visit it.  From what I could see, it would only take an hour or so, so I said sure, in spite of my aching feet and back and joints – I really wanted a good picture of that arch, a really rare achievement.  I told them that it didn’t look so hard, just down a few hundred feet, then it was fairly level for a mile, then up a bit of an incline and we’d be there.  They started to laugh!

     Since they were holding the map, they already knew what I couldn’t see – that right below the Gunsight Arch was a 1000-foot dropoff… practically invisible to us where we were standing, on a ridge clear across the valley, but very apparent on the map.  Impossible, in other words.  The only way to do it would be to travel clear around the end of Davis Canyon, then back around the other side, which might or might not be possible, who knew… and might or might not take us over to the arch.  So I said, well, I guess we better not, because we’d still have to come all the way back, with no assurance of success anyhow.  They seemed greatly relieved.  But I got some distant shots of the great Gunsight, which I may never see again.

Gunsight Arch, from a long ways away:


     Then we had the hike back down!  Or rather, 300 feet back up, over the ridge, then back down those 1200 feet.  Why is going down just about as hard as going up?  It puts a totally different strain on the legs than climbing does, and actually jars them much worse, since your whole weight is actually falling on your feet and knees with each step more heavily than it normally would on flat ground, or while going up.  And this involved almost as much use of the arms and hands as it did the feet, too… constantly pushing off from or swinging from rock to rock, trying to take as much weight off from the feet as possible.  Having 10 lbs of water strapped around one’s waist doesn’t make thing easier, but you’d sure die without it… it was after all another hot day out there, approaching 90°.  I was glad the other guys sort of were in command, because I had just been following on the way up and not particularly memorizing the way, such as there was; but after a few false starts and dead ends, they seemed on the right track going back down, though we were still winging it part of the time and sometimes every one of us was going down a different part of the cliff face, whatever seemed easiest to us at the moment; as long as we eventually got to the bottom and didn’t hit an impossible dropoff was all that mattered.  All the way down, which seemed interminable, I was thinking, “I cannot believe we actually climbed all this way UP while ago!”  But in the morning, we had had lots more energy and cooler weather; doing it the other way around would have been a real killer.  After all, we had climbed almost the exact height of the Empire State Building, and now we were crawling back down it.  And we made it.  

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