It was the sort of long distance drive even I couldn't get lost on, if I had been driving. Thankfully, my friend saved me the trouble and we took her much more reliable car. The road is I-70 across Colorado and all the way to Utah; and every minute of it is gorgeous. Seriously. From views of the continental divide, to tunnels through it, I was enraptured by the changing faces of the mountains.
What is college life without the occasional impromptu road trip? A dry desolate arch-less desert of homework. As the Colorado School of Mines does not recognize the national holiday of Labor Day, we had a mere two days to cram in a lot of road and a lot of sightseeing. It was worth every minute. So if ever you find yourself with a spare weekend, or even if you don't but you really need one and are leaving anyway, consider this your guide to seeing Arches National Park in an afternoon.
We left my house at 6 am., and after a bathroom and snack break, and picking up lunch at a City Market in Fruita (which, incidentally, had the best seafood salad I've ever eaten) we arrived at the park around noonish. The Arches website gives a variety of information on what to see, or hikes to take depending on your available time. The cost, per car, is $10, and the ticket is good for a week. If you have a week, by all means take it. An afternoon was a good overview, but not nearly enough time to explore. And the more people you can pack in a car, the cheaper.
Modes of site seeing in the park include the main road, four-wheel drive roads, easy walking trails, and primitive “trails.” Arches is reported to be blisteringly hot, but this was a good day for a tour. The sky was overcast, & the weather had started to become more brisk. I expected the Labor Day weekend crowds to be overwhelming, but they were quite manageable.
Camping in the park, however, was full up. And nearby Moab was pricey! We opted to drive back an hour to Grand Junction to split a hotel. Not only was the cost lower, we were an hour closer to home for our return trip, and, we could tour nearby Colorado National Monument on our way out on Sunday! But that's another article...
If you, like me, have only an afternoon to see the park, you'll get the most sites for your buck if you drive the road and do the short walking trails.
As we approached, I'm pretty sure my mouth was hanging open, and my eye was glued to my viewfinder. Never in my memory have I seen such an alien landscape. It was like Mars. I kept trying to imagine how those early Mormons must've felt, when they fled the lush farmlands of Illinois to seek refuge in this strange, crazy place. I couldn't get enough. Every rock was more awesome than the previous rock. This mortal coil was not big enough to contain my excitement!
The drive starts past named rock formations, like the Three Gossips, and Sheep Rock, until about half way through, you get to Balancing Rock. There are actually a lot of balancing rocks in the park, but you'll immediately see why this imposing formation gets to have the name in capital letters. There is a tiny parking lot nearby, and a short walking trail around the rock. You simply must walk around it for all the views. But please, when you park, don't be a jerk and take up space for two. Enough said.
Just after Balancing Rock, turn right, and you'll approach a lovely cluster of arches all together. All in this area are the North Window, South Window, Turret Arch, Double Arch, and the Cove of Caves. And here I discovered my two favorite things about the park. First, you can climb all over the arches! This is not some stand back and look park. Go ahead, clamber up into the arch with some amazing sky and scenery around you, and have your friend take your picture! Second, I discovered what a 'primitive trail' was.
It's not a trail at all! Hopefully you're not like me. But if you are, you probably find that no matter how exceptional the environment, walking along a manicured trail, especially when there are stairs involved, eventually starts to feel like trudging. My legs rebel at the repetitive motion. This is what was so wonderful about the sections of primitive trails. There really is no trail. You just walk along the massive red rocks, in the natural environment, led by little stone cairns. A cairn being just a little pile of rocks, like a trail of bread crumbs, which, when followed, you trust to lead you to where you're going.
About a third of the way further up the road you'll reach Wolfe Ranch road. This will take you to the most famous arch in the park, Delicate Arch. Depending on your time, you'll be faced with a decision. About halfway down the road you can start a lengthy hike to Delicate Arch itself, or you can journey on to the end of the road to the Delicate Arch lookout. Most of the people when I was there had opted for the hike. In fact, the parking lot was so full that you would've had to hike to the beginning of the hike. Due to time constraints, we opted for the lookout, which had a vast and untouched parking lot. I'll be honest: The lower lookout stinks. The upper lookout is medium. But the really lovely view comes from striking out across the primitive trail from the upper lookout. This takes you to the edge of a cliff that opens into a huge valley below. The riverbed is dry, but the swishing of the trees sounds like water flowing. The view of the arch is tremendously better, and much fewer people take the primitive trails.
Our final destination took us up to the top of the park, to Devil's Garden. This contains the most impressive arch of the day, but also the only one we couldn't climb on – Landscape Arch. It's thought to be the longest spanning natural arch in the world. And it's also very thin in places. The arch is off limits to patrons because a large chunk of it fell of a number of years ago. It's days may be numbered, so go see it while you can. There's a lot of primitive trail hiking that can be done in Devil's Garden, which is the primary reason I'd love an extra day there.
After Landscape Arch, the trail turns primitive. I followed the cairns, scrambling up a giant slanting red rock face. At the top was an amazing view of the area. My friend had asked me why it was called Devil's Garden. I told her it's because it's the sort of patch of earth the devil would plant – a lot of dry, red, pointy rocks. I'm pretty sure she thought that was a retarded explanation, but standing at the top of that outcropping, looking down into the valley below, at all the twisting red spires in the dusk, I think my assessment was right.