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Exploring Arches and Canyonlands national parks
By Walt Zyznieuski

There's something special about massive red sandstone rock formations towering over a beautiful and fragile desert environment that calls me to explore the region. Edward Abbey once served as a seasonal ranger in the area and in his famous book titled "Desert Solitaire," had this to say: "This is the most beautiful place on earth."

As Abbey and countless others have come to realize, the area around Moab, Utah, including Arches and Canyonlands national parks, is indeed beautiful to explore. So, with my son and his best friend, both 11, in tow, we took off on a trip of a lifetime to explore the region that American Indians once lived, hunted and explored, and early explorers also passed through.

Our goal: to explore the vast canyonlands area, hike the shorter trails and scrabble up the same rocks and crevices as Abbey did, visit a few rock art sites in the area, and lastly, to find dinosaur tracks.

Our trip would take us from Colorado into Utah, where we would take Scenic Byway 128 into Moab. This very scenic byway leads visitors into the Colorado River valley, where great views of the   La Sal Mountains and the river are had as well as the towering sandstone buttes and mesas of the region.

Our home base for a week would be Moab, which serves as a gateway for Arches National Park and is near Canyonlands. Moab is a great little town and an outdoor recreation mecca that is known for its great mountain bike, jeep and hiking trails, float trips on the Colorado and Green rivers, American Indian pictographs and petroglyphs, and of course, great canyon country exploring.

Let me give a short overview of these two great, one-of-a-kind national treasures found in southeastern Utah, and what you'll find there. The photographs of these parks and vicinity speak a million words on their own.

Our campground was located next to the Colorado River and just a few miles from the entrance to Arches. After paying our entrance fee, we hit the visitors center, located near the entrance, to get some great up-to-date park information, information on tours, park history and geology. It's also a good place to fill up your water bottles before you begin your trek.

After our mandatory stop at the visitor center, we were off to explore Arches along an 18-mile scenic road through the park. And scenic it was.

The park road steadily climbs to get up on a mesa and offers great views of the surrounding area.

At an altitude of more than 5,000 feet, the area is a true desert environment that, on average, receives less than 12 inches of rain per year. In the summer, it is quite warm, and it is a good idea to have plenty of water as you travel. We made sure that we filled up our cooler daily with numerous water bottles and ice.

This 76,000-acre park is home to more than 2,000 arches as well as spectacular rock features, fins, buttes, balanced rocks and towering rock walls. Our first stop, along the Park Avenue Trail, took us on an unbelievable walk along the massive rock walls through a canyon. We also got to know how warm it heats up in June, as we walked between massive rock features. We took advantage of shade when possible.

We also stopped by and explored other trails that lead to great arches in the park, including the Double Arch and Sand Dune Arch, to name two. We also took advantage of getting off the beaten path in the park. As we scrambled up rock faces and discovered unnamed arches, we wondered if any people had even stood at the same spot as us. As harsh an area as it is, the views with every step are incredible and a photographer's paradise.

Numerous pullouts along the park road offer great photo stops too, but to get a great feel for the park, you really need to get off the beaten path.

One such location was the Fiery Furnace. The Fiery Furnace is an awesome part of the park with narrow sandstone canyons, fins, and, of course, more arches. As it is easy to get lost here, we signed up for a ranger-led tour of this area one morning and were rewarded with an unbelievable appreciation for the park, its resources and features - an area that most visitors don't get to see and experience first-hand. The boys followed and listened closely to the ranger and became junior rangers after that hike.

Wolfe Ranch offers a glimpse into the life of early pioneers in the park, and a short trail leads to some pictographs and to Delicate Arch.

Outside the park entrance and north of the Colorado River, visitors can take a short hike to the Courthouse Wash Rock Art Site. Various neat petroglyphs and pictographs are found here on the sandstone panels. Rock art sites are typically found on the smooth sandstone panels found in the area, which are referred to as desert varnish. Our favorite pictograph at Courthouse Wash was what seemed to be a chief or perhaps high priest overlooking the area. We wondered if we were standing in a sacred religious spot or if the chief was indicating his power.

Canyonlands offers four distinctive units to explore covering more than 337,000 acres: Island in the Sky, Needles, the Maze and Horseshoe Canyon.

Island in the Sky is the unit nearest to Moab at 30 miles southwest. It offers a great short hiking trail, one of which leads to Mesa Arch, with spectacular views of the canyon 1,000 feet below. The Aztec Butte Trail takes hikers up a small dome. At the top of dome Puebloan granaries are found.

As we sat in the shade at the entrance of one of granaries, I looked out at the terrain and canyon on this warm day. It surely was a difficult life having to travel and live in this desert environment, yet the stories of the early Archaic, Puebloan, Fremont and the Utes are found everywhere in canyon country: their rock art sites, their food storage facilities and their temporary homes under the cliffs.

Another trail leads to Upheaval Dome, where some geologists speculate that the 3-mile crater was caused by a meteorite; others suggest it was a salt dome. The boys and I agree it looked like a meteorite impact. Great viewpoints are had from two observation points here.

One trail that is seen from the Grand View Overlook, below on the canyon rim, is known as the White Rim Road and is 100 miles in length. It is a great mountain bike and four-wheel-drive trail.

The Needle's Unit is located more than 70 miles south of Moab and is more isolated. On the way to Needles, there is a great rock art site called Newspaper Rock. This rock art site offers an unbelievable panel of rock art. Perhaps this location served as a main Indian trail and the art served as a way to communicate to travelers, similar to our billboards along the highways.

Needles offers great sandstone spire formations to hike among. Sixty miles of trails are found here, including trails for hikers, mountain bikers and four-wheel vehicles. Trails also lead to the junction overlooking the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers.

Short trails include the Roadside Ruin Trail, which takes visitors to a Puebloan granary; the Pothole Point Trail highlights life in the potholes during rain events; and the Cave Spring Trail goes by an old cowboy camp, a shelter bluff that has pictographs and two climbing ladders. The Cave Spring Trail was one of the most enjoyable trails to explore in Canyonlands for the boys - and the youngster in me. We also had the trails to ourselves, which was great.

The Maze and Horseshoe Canyon are located on the west side of the Colorado River and are more isolated. Horsehoe Canyon offers a great rock art panel called the Great Gallery. As both these locations were hours away, we planned on visiting them on another trip.

Between Canyonlands and Arches adventures, our last goals in canyon country were to explore a few more rock art sites and to find some dinosaur tracks just outside Moab along Scenic Byway 279, which is known as Potash Road.

Potash Road parallels the Colorado River and would have provided easy access for the American Indians who traveled and inhabited the area. Some of the rock art seemed to have been at higher locations on the sandstone bluffs, which appears to have made it easier to notice if traveling along the river.

A few "Indian Writing" markers along the road made it easy to locate the rock art. One of the best we found was a petroglypgh of a bear. Farther down the road, the Poison Spider Mesa trailhead parking area was our last stop of the trip, as we were on a mission to find some dinosaur tracks.

After a bit of rock scrabbling, we were unable to locate the dinosaur tracks at first but were rewarded with another unexpected treat: more rock art sites along a sandstone panel overlooking the Colorado River valley.

As I began taking photographs, one of the boys ran across a great find: six figures holding hands that appeared to be dancing. We had a great time exploring these rock art sites, yet we still had not discovered our tracks.

After walking back down to the parking lot kiosk and getting another bearing - and a drink of water to quench our thirst, we headed back up the hillside. Soon we found a prominent rock perched at an angle on the hillside that we had passed by earlier. Lo and behold, after a close examination of the sandstone slab, we finally found the dinosaur tracks. As it turned out, this rock feature had three-toed allosaurus tracks embedded in the Navajo sandstone.

At this point, the three of us celebrated our great find with our own dance, as this was the first time that any of us had ever seen dinosaur tracks firsthand.

Our canyon country wilderness trip was now complete.


Story published Friday, July 3, 2009 ( Volume 4, Number 4 )

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