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October 23, 2006

Southwest Odyssey: Day 3

Today is the day our vacation begins in earnest: no more 10+ hour drives for us until next week. We begin our day in Moab grateful that we won't be spending most of it in the car. Our plan for today is to explore Arches National Park, the entrance of which is only two miles outside Moab.

But first things first: breakfast! We are sick of fast food, having eaten almost nothing else for the last two days, so we take the advice of a couple of our guidebooks and head for the Jailhouse Cafe, a breakfast-only place located in Moab's original jailhouse. Moab is a tourist town, and makes no bones about it: the long main drag is lined with hotels, motels, and restaurants, but there are many locally owned and operated places among the chains, including our motel, which is quite pleasant (and cheap). After breakfast, we go to the grocery store to pick up some sandwiches and fruit for lunch, since there are no food outlets in Arches.

As we're doing these things, we get our first view of the terrain surrounding the town, which we of course could not see in the darkness when we arrived late last night. The town is surrounded by high red cliff walls. It is beautiful and alien, a small sampling of what we will see in Arches. We couldn't ask for a better day: bright sun, no clouds, expected high of about 62 degrees. Perfect weather for desert hiking.

We enter the park with a few other cars (and a few road bikes -- Moab is renowned for mountain biking, but road cyclists find plenty of places to ride here, too), and stop at the visitor center, which was newly constructed only a year ago. We browse through the informational exhibits and buy Dr. Dregs a hat, since he neglected to bring one from home, and we know we won't have much shade today. Then it's onward into the park. Arches has a few relatively short scenic drives, from which many of the park's most famous formations can be seen, but there are also a large number of short hiking trails which allow you to get up close and personal with the red and orange sandstone.

We stop first at "Park Avenue," where we are able to hike along a canyon bottom lined on either side with formations resembling buildings and towers:

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This is our warm-up in a sense, and we hike back out of the canyon eager for the next chance to walk. We hike a short trail around Balanced Rock before moving onto the Windows Section of the park, where we take a slightly longer hike on a "primitive" trail (marked only by rock cairns) that circles the formations. Arches is a small park, and it is heavily visited, so there isn't much solitude to be had. Still, at this time of the year, the crowds are relatively light, and getting off the beaten path away from the classic "photo op" spots means that we do find ourselves alone for short periods of time. There is no wind today, and the desert is almost eerily quiet away from the other park visitors. It is very beautiful, very peaceful, and very calming -- just what we needed after two long days in the car.

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We stop to eat our lunch at the trailhead for the Delicate Arch hike, which is near a log cabin that was the homestead of a family that tried to ranch in this area near the turn of the 20th century. It is hard to imagine what it must have been like to live out here, with very little water and almost total isolation. We consider making the hike to Delicate Arch (one of Utah's state symbols), which is about a 3 mile round trip, but decide to simply go to the viewpoint instead. Once we have hiked up to the viewpoint (about half a mile), we wish we had done the full hike: we can see the hikers up on the ridge near the arch, and it would be great to get that close to it. But there's a lot more to see, and the daylight won't last forever, so we move on.

As we continue along the scenic drive through the park, we are treated to several views of distant snow-peaked mountains (the La Sal Mountains) rising above and beyond the red sandstone cliffs, towers, and arches. The contrast between lanscapes is at once unspeakably beautiful and confusing. I am sure that such contrasts are not confusing to residents of the Southwest, but to us, from a land of lakes, rivers, greenery, and gentle, gradual changes in topography, the extremes are jarring. This area of the country is frequently described as "alien," and it's the most accurate adjective we can come up with. It is a beautiful, special place, but it is alien and even hostile. It's a sharp contrast to the Rocky Mountains, which for all their size and drama, seem comfortingly familiar compared to this landscape.

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In the Devil's Garden area, there are several arches to see, including Tunnel Arch, Pine Tree Arch, and Landscape Arch. Getting to Tunnel Arch and Pine Tree Arch requires a short hike off the main trail, and this is where we find the most solitude of the day, since most of the crowd seems to be focused on getting to the very famous Landscape Arch. Again, we are bowled over by the pure silence and peace of the desert, and wish we had more time to spend here.

Finally, we approach Landscape Arch, which appears just as improbable in reality as it does in pictures. At its thinnest point, the informational signs tell us, the arch is only six feet thick, and a big chunk of it fell only 15 years ago, in 1991. It is entirely possible that the arch won't be here any longer, should we ever return. We snap a few pictures, and wish we had the energy (and enough daylight) to do the longer hike from here that would show us several more arches and get us further away from the crowds in the park, but we will have to save that for another time.

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On the way back from Landscape Arch, we strike up a friendly conversation with a middle-aged Tennessee couple who are vacationing in the national parks of southern Utah. As for us, this is their first trip out here. They are excited about everything they have seen so far, and they have clearly fallen in love with the high desert. I imagine that most people who visit here must; the beauty and the mystery of the place are not exactly welcoming, but they are irresistible.

We drive out of the park as the daylight begins to fade, and make one last stop at the visitor center to learn a little more about the forces that made a place like this. Then it's back into town for dinner and bed. We dine at a pleasant brewpub in downtown Moab, but we are both exhausted and almost fall asleep over our (very good) beers. Then it's back to our motel for a quick dip in the hot tub -- such a relief after a day of hiking -- and another long, deep sleep.

Road, trail, and kitschy fun: Day 4

Posted by at October 23, 2006 8:50 PM