North Window Arch
underneath an arch
Double Arch. Desert varnish, a coating made of clay minerals and manganese/iron oxides, appears to drip down the sandstone like frosting on a cake.
South Window Arch
Twin Arch in the Fiery Furnace
Surprise Arch in the Fiery Furnace
North Window Arch
view of the Windows from Turret Arch
Delicate Arch and the bowl
Day One of our Utah trip took us to Dead Horse Point State Park. On our second day, we headed to a park that has long been on my Top Ten list of places to visit — Arches National Park. Our first stop was the Arches visitor center to see the park movie. Having worked for the National Park Service, I’m a big fan of watching each site’s movie. You can learn a lot about a park if you’re willing to sit down for just twenty minutes and listen. After viewing the short film and picking up a guidebook on canyon country wildflowers (which would come in handy throughout the trip), we were off on our first adventure: a ranger-led hike through the Fiery Furnace.
the Fiery Furnace as seen from afar
The Fiery Furnace is a maze of sandstone fins, hidden arches, and narrow passages between massive walls of stone. To explore the Furnace, visitors must either be on guided tour or obtain a permit (after having attended a guided tour). While I like to think I generally have a good sense of direction, it would take me a couple of tours before I would feel confident venturing into the labyrinth without a guide. The area is known for the many rescues that are needed. Without cell service, a reliable ability to use a GPS, or well-defined trails, it’s a wonder more visitors don’t end up lost in the Furnace.
entering the Fiery Furnace
a cool morning in the shade of the furnace
crossing a crevice
back into the sun
view from the furnace
baby fox outside the furnace
view from the furnace
In between leaping across crevices, scooting along rocky ledges, and practicing some basic canyoneering techniques, our guide, Ranger Leigh, told us about the plants and animals that call the Furnace home and their adaptations that have allowed them to live in such an environment. One of my favorite plants was Mormon tea (Ephedra spp.), a small desert shrub with jointed stems.
Mormon tea (Ephedra viridis)
As the story goes, early Mormon settlers drank tea brewed from the plant, since Brigham Young banned caffeine and other stimulants. Ephedra contains pseudoephedrine, a mild stimulant. It’s not known exactly when the name “Mormon tea” came about, and some have pointed out that references from Young’s lifetime to the concoction are hard to find. The plant is also known to have been used by native peoples to treat cold, congestion, and other ailments. Pseudoephedrine is still in use today. If you check the label on a bottle of Sudafed, you’ll find that pseudoephedrine is the active ingredient.
sandstone fins in the Fiery Furnace
Our next stop, Balanced Rock, is another famous feature in Arches National Park, despite the fact that it’s not actually an arch. The trail circles the base of this island of rock in a sea of desert scrub.
a balancing act in nature, Balanced Rock
One of the rangers told me that the wildflowers we were seeing were the most abundant he had observed in years. They certainly were beautiful. Both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks are located in the Canyonlands Region of the Colorado Plateau. Plants here are adapted to hot summers, cold winters, a dry climate, and strong winds. To conserve moisture, many plants have small leaves, reducing the surface area by which water is lost through evapotranspiration. Waxy coatings on some species’ leaves also reduce the wind’s drying effect.
a good year for wildflowers
common globemallow (Sphaeralcea coccinea), a common wildflower
After visiting a number of arches, we ended the day with a hike to one of the most recognizable and photographed arches in the world, Delicate Arch. The hike was uphill all the way, but with the stunning scenery all around, we couldn’t complain. After cautiously following the trail across a ledge that was fairly wide but had a steep drop-off, we suddenly rounded a bend and were stunned by the sight of Delicate Arch, glowing in the evening sun. The LaSalle Mountains, bright blue sky, and colorful rock strata behind the arch formed the most beautiful background. It sounds picture perfect, and it was. Delicate Arch was different – and much bigger – than any of us had imagined though. It front of it lies a wide, steep bowl, forming a sort of natural amphitheater that you don’t see in most pictures.
a different view of Delicate Arch
The arch itself is perched on the edge of a cliff with a drop of at least 100 feet behind it. Want to take pictures underneath the arch? That’s fine — just don’t step backward. I opted to pose in a nice, safe spot in front of the base. Many of the hikers had decided to sit along a ledge opposite the bowl from Delicate Arch, quietly contemplating the massive geologic wonder. Despite the late hour, everyone seemed reluctant to leave. I thought about how nice it would be to watch the sun set over this serene landscape, and I realized the other hikers were probably wishing the same. Without a headlamp, however, the 1.5-mile hike back to the trailhead would be treacherous, so with a glimpse over our shoulders to sear the scene in our minds, we turned and marched back down the trail.
Delicate Arch near sunset – a natural tapestry of green, blue, and orange forms an elegant backdrop
a race against the fading sun back to the trailhead