- An Oasis in the Desert
by Marcia Hafner
park service sign claims that Courthouse Wash is the only
real “canyon experience” in Arches National Park.
It is not a hike for seeing arches but instead is a wonderful
wetland canyon exploration where the sandstone has been eroded
into uniquely formed pillars and domes. At the upper end
of the canyon the Entrada layer of sandstone starts out very
shallow, but further downstream the gorge cuts deeper into
the older Navajo sandstone and the walls become much higher.
The stream is intermittent most of the way through the wash
with occasional pools that have bubbled up. At the lower
end there are two waterfalls and now the water flow stays
The source of this water comes from springs in the western
part of the park that is part of a shallow flow system called
the Moab Member Aquifer. Recharged solely by the infiltration
of precipitation, the gentle dip of the Courthouse anticline
guides the flow into the wash.
lower entrance to Courthouse Wash is just minutes away
from Moab so this part of the park, which doesn’t
have the appeal of the more popular arches trails,
can be a quick, tranquil get away. To get there, drive
north on Highway 191 over the Colorado River Bridge,
and continue for a third of a mile to a parking area
on the right side of the highway. Then follow the short
graveled pathway south along the highway to the trailhead.
To run a shuttle for the entire five-mile hike through
Arches National Park, continue on with the second vehicle
1.7 miles to the main entrance of Arches National Park.
Then drive in 3.4 miles up past the switchbacks to
Courthouse Tower for which Courthouse Wash is named.
It’s another mile to the bridge over Courthouse
Wash. On the other side of the bridge there’s
a large, paved pullout on the left-hand side for parking.
Walk across the road to the sign that identifies a
route that drops down the steep bank.
giving directions for walking down the wash, not up.
The elevation gain is minimal but in my mind it just
makes more sense to go down. The upper trail starts
at 4,120 feet and ends almost at the river at 4,000
feet. Allow three to four hours to make this moderately
easy hike. The only difficulty is that deep sand after
awhile tends to drag on the feet.
With no established trail the best way to go is simply to
follow the wash and that means your chances of getting wet
feet are high. In places there are stretches of used pathways
over lose, dry sand and through thick vegetation of willows,
scouring rush, bulrushes, reeds, cattails, and over-your-head
grass topped with soft-as-fur tufts. In the muddy areas,
which should be avoided because the slickness is equal to
walking on glare ice, look for the tracks of great blue heron,
raccoon, and deer. In the wider, dryer areas that surround
the wash, there’s rabbitbrush, sagebrush, greasewood,
Indian rice grass, single leaf ash, junipers, cockleburs
and an abundance of cottonwoods.
side canyons lead to petrified sand dunes. These canyons
that extend for miles are interesting to explore, but
remember they do eventually dead-end.
I have been in Courthouse Wash during all the seasons and
each one has its own specialty. In winter I like that away-from-the-world
cold silence atmosphere with the frosty, iced-over patterns
on the pools and stream when I can smugly walk over stream
crossings without worrying about getting my feet wet.
Then comes the welcome warmth of spring as the radiant sunshine
is magnified off the canyon walls. Like a sponge the slickrock
soaks up the solar rays making it a perfect backrest for
a long break during which I gaze at the explosion of wildflowers
and listen to the rollicking voices of birds. At this time
of year this lush habitat attracts black-headed grosbeaks,
yellow-breasted chats, lazuli buntings, and Bullock’s
During the summer months there’s the relief of deep
shade provided by towering sandstone walls when wading through
the ankle to knee-deep pools is so refreshing. If the heat
has gotten to you and there’s no time to head for the
mountains, try hanging out in Courthouse Wash.
favorite season is when fall has taken crisp command
with the fluttery cottonwood leaves shimmering in the
sun. By late October they are at their peak of glittering
golden colors. By then many birds have returned from
their summer haunts and the white-crowned sparrows,
black-capped chickadees, and juncos are easily seen.
A more practical reason for a long hike this time of year
is that water levels, barring a recent storm, are generally
lower. On our most recent hike my hiking partner and I did
wear old, don’t-care-if-they-get-wet shoes but discovered
that it wasn’t necessary. Another good reason is that
the deer flies and other annoying insects are no longer around.
On a perfect Indian Summer day, we came to immerse ourselves
in this oasis in the desert autumn hike. It amazed us that
the lavender blooms of asters, golden hairy asters, skyrocket
gilia, pepper plant, and Indian paintbrush had stayed in
full bloom this late in the season. We were in no hurry.
Mesmerized by the rich fall colors, we stopped often just
because we wanted to soak in that fleeting autumnal sensation.
At the first waterfall there’s a water level gauge
in a cone-shaped metal encasement. When I saw that I knew
we were close to the trailhead. We still had dry feet and
wanted to keep it that way so decided to try an unfamiliar,
high-level pathway. It led us above the wash and out through
the park boundary to the trailhead. Feeling pleased with
our beautiful fall experience, we were also very happy we’d
managed to keep our feet dry!
Soil Crust (aka)
Cryptos (krip’ tose):
The surface of
Moab’s desert is held together by a thin
skin of living organisms known as cryptobiotic
soil or cryptos. It has a lumpy black appearance,
is very fragile, and takes decades to heal when
it has been damaged. This soil is a critical part
of the survival of the desert. The cryptobiotic
organisms help to stabilize the soil, hold moisture,
and provide protection for germination of the seeds
of other plants. Without it the dry areas of the
west would be much different. Although some disturbance
is normal and helps the soil to capture moisture,
excessive disturbance by hooves, bicycle tires
and hiking boots has been shown to destroy the
cryptobiotic organisms and their contribution to
the soil. When you walk around Moab avoid crushing
the cryptos. Stay on trails, walk in washes, hop
from stone to stone. Whatever it takes, don’t
crunch the cryptos unless you absolutely have to!
Cryptobiotic soil garden