ARCHES AND CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARKS

WEDNESDAYS WITH DR. JOE

SOUTHWEST NATIONAL PARKS AND LODGES #3

ARCHES AND CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARKS

For Nov. 30, 2011

It snowed all night.  We were up early, ate breakfast, then shivered as we scraped off the snow and ice from the car.  Turned on the news, and it confirmed our suspicions: Don’t even try to make it through on Interstate 70.  It’s closed.  So it was that after we’d packed the car and taken photos of the snowcapped Stanley, we headed down Big Thompson Canyon.  Northern route it would be.  A pattern developed that would remain a constant: snow at higher elevations, rain in the lower.  To save time, we cut across at an angle on Highway 287; only it almost cost us more time as the snow got so deep, the Lincoln not having snow tires, we barely made it through.

Then it was out onto Interstate 80 in Wyoming; turned south on Highway 13, via Baggs, Craig, Meeker, and hit Interstate 70 at Rifle.  From there on, it was clear-sailing.  At a service station we learned we’d made the right decision: without either 4WD or snow tires, we wouldn’t have made it through Eisenhower Tunnel or over Vail Pass.  I-70 was indeed closed.

As we drove west on I-70, it was obvious that the Colorado River was running high.  Shortly after we entered Utah, we made a snap decision: veering south at Cisco Junction rather than the usual Crescent Junction.  Were we ever glad we did!  Highway 191 out of Crescent Junction to Moab is so-so, but the Hwy 128 Scenic Byway is breathtaking!  One of the most spectacular river drives any of us had ever taken.  We hit it late afternoon when the colors were at their best.  Towering up above the Colorado River were great bronzed cliffs, among them the Twin Fisher Towers, 1500 feet higher than the river.

Moab has become the jumping-off place for all of South Utah, a far cry from what it was during the uranium boom of the 1950s—then it was a wide open boom town honeycombed with bars.  Back even further, Cassidy’s Wild Bunch frequented it, and Zane Grey made Moab the scene for many of his novels!  Many westerns have been filmed in this vicinity since then.  Today, tourism is king, and the town has become the outdoor centrifuge for 4-wheeling, mountain-biking, hiking, white-water rafting, canoeing, horseback-rides, and cross-country skiing.  Besides all this, it is also the hub for the twenty plus national parks and monuments in this magnificent desert country.  We stayed at the Best Western Canyonlands.  There are no historic park hotels in this part of Utah.  If we’d learned one lesson from our Northwest Park Loop of 2010, it was to slow down.  One day is too short a time to experience such national park wonders.  Two days is too, but still better than one.  Besides, if you stay two nights, you don’t have to repack every night—which really gets old on a three to four week trip.  So it was that we stayed in Moab two nights.  We also learned that, other than Moab, there are precious few motel or hotel accommodations in that part of Utah.

ARCHES NATIONAL PARK

Two people started the ball rolling here.  In 1922, Alexander Ringhoffer, a prospector, was so impressed with the wild beauty of the area that he persuaded Frank Wadleigh, the passenger traffic manager for the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad, to come and see for himself.  He in turn contacted Stephen Mather in Washington, D.C.  When Mather came here and discovered for himself “the world’s largest collection of exquisite red stone arches—over two thousand of them—, “he was convinced they ought to be saved.  He then enlisted the support of Dr. J. W. Williams and Lawrence Gould, who in turn put pressure on Utah Senator Reed Smoot.  But Interior secretary Herbert Work balked, for Interior was downsizing rather than adding.  In 1929, President Herbert Hoover and Interior Secretary Ray L. Wilbur stepped in and, by executive order, established Arches as a national monument. 

President Eisenhower reduced it in size, but President Lyndon Johnson increased it again.  In 1971, President Nixon signed a bill making it a national park.  In 1998, it was increased in size in order to bring in Lost Spring Canyon.  Even so, at 76,519 acres, it is relatively small in area.

Nevertheless, people throng here from all over the world.  Few indeed see all 2,000 arches, but most see the park’s two crown jewels: the iconic Delicate Arch, which park officials claim to be “the best-known arch in the world”—it even graces Utah’s license plates.  Probably only Monument Valley’s Rainbow Bridge could challenge its worldwide preeminence.  The other must-see is one of the world’s longest natural spans at 306 feet, Landscape Arch.  But since it is only eleven feet wide (12 feet at its center), arch buffs fear for its future.  For they remember that Wall Arch had stood here for thousands of years: in fact it was already curving gracefully when the Egyptian pyramids were under construction over 4,000 years ago.  Yet, on Aug 5, 2008, Wall Arch simply collapsed.  Then there’s Skyline Arch.  Until 1940, a huge boulder blocked half its opening, then suddenly, after no one knows how many years of slow erosion undermining the boulder’s support, gravity won: the giant stone tumbled out of the arch, and Skyline Arch instantaneously nearly doubled in size. 

Other favorites tourists search out include The Three Gossips, Double O Arch and the Fins in Devil’s Garden, Double Arch in the Windows section, The Three Penguins, Surprise Arch, The Eye of the Whale, Balanced Rock and Chip-off-the-Old Block, Pine Tree Arch, North Window, Turret Arch, Sipapu and Kachina Bridges, Owachomo Bridge, etc.

Arches is a place to return to, again and again.

CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK

Nearby Canyonlands National Park, at 387,598 acres, is over four times the size of Arches.  Though it is the largest national park in Utah, it is the least developed, the wildest; a landscape characterized by famed explorer John Wesley Powell as “a wilderness of rocks…with ten thousand strangely carved forms in every direction.”  Powell also named such popular attractions as Cataract Canyon, the Dirty Devil, and the Labryinth.

During the 1950s and 1960s uranium prospectors ran roughshod over this area.  Bulldozed roads crisscrossed the landscape.  But in 1964, no small thanks to Stewart Udall, President Lyndon Johnson signed legislation for the establishment of Canyonlands National Park. 

Mel White points out that while Canyonlands does have “some paved roads leading to spectacular views, most of the park is accessible only to hikers, boaters, and mountain bikers….  The positive side of this remoteness, of course, is the solitude, beauty, and adventure the park offers to intrepid visitors.  Canyonlands protects one of the most unspoiled areas of the vast Colorado Plateau, a high desert region of stark rock formations, deep river-cut canyons, and sparse vegetation that receives less than 10 inches of rain in an average year.  Two of the West’s iconic rivers, the Colorado and the Green, come together in the center of Canyonlands National Park.  Their canyons, forming a rough “Y” shape, divide the park into three land sections.  Between the two arms of the “Y” is a high mesa called Island in the Sky, 1,000 feet above the surrounding landscape and more than 2,000 feet higher than the site of the rivers’ confluence.  To the east is The Needles, a land of tall colorful sandstone pinnacles.  To the west is The Maze, reachable from the other sections only by a long, roundabout journey involving unpaved roads.  Because of the remoteness of The Maze, and time needed to reach it, most visitors spend at least three days exploring it.  Park rangers, with good reason, describe the rivers themselves as the fourth section of Canyonlands” (White, p. 350).

OUR OWN VISIT

We made an early start for we were foolishly attempting to see both parks in one day.  Our first stop was at the Arches Visitor Center.  We have learned that visiting a park’s visitor center early on reduces the risk that we’ll inadvertently miss must-see portions of the park.  As we crested at the top of a long steep hill, there in the east were the spectacular snowcapped La Sal Mountains (Utah’s second highest range).  We stopped at popular sites such as Balancing Rock, Park Avenue, Three Gossips, North Window and South Window, Double Arch, and Turret Arch. This took all morning. 

In the afternoon, we moved on over to Canyonlands.  After spending some time in the Island in the Sky Visitor Center, we walked out to the dramatic-looking Mesa Arch—a kind traveler took a group photo of us there.  From there, we stopped at Buck Canyon Overlook and Grand View Overlook.  And then we took the long side trip out to Dead Horse Point Overlook, one of the most photographed overlooks in America.  From the highest point on the Island in the Sky Mesa, you can see a hundred miles into some of the grandest scenery on the planet: the snowcapped La Sal Mountains (over 12,000 feet in elevation) to the east, the Abajo Mountain Range to the south, and the Henry Mountains to the southwest.

We were tired when we returned to our motel late that afternoon, for we’d packed a lot into one day; next time, we vowed we’d stay longer and see more within each park. 

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Next Wednesday, we will move on to Capitol Reefs and Bryce Canyon.

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SOURCES USED

Arches National Park (Moab, Utah: Arches National Park, 2011).

Duncan, Dayton and Ken Burns, The National Parks: America’s Best Idea (New York: Alfred A. Knopf/Random House, 2009).

Johnson, David, Arches: The Story Behind the Scenery (Wickenberg, AZ: KC Publications, 2010).

Johnson, David, Canyonlands: The Story Behind the Scenery (Wickenberg, AZ: KC Publications, 2010).

The Most Scenic Drives in America (Pleasantville, New York: Reader’s Digest, Inc., 1997).

Utah’s Canyonlands Travel Region (Moab, Utah: Utah’s Canyonlands, 2011).

Utah’s National Parks and Monuments (New York: American Park Network, 2009).

White, Mel, Complete National Parks of the United States (Washington, D.C., National Geographic Society, 2009).

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