HIKING HAPPENINGS February 2011
The Windows – From The Front And The Back
by Marcy Hafner
You could search the whole world over and not find another place that even remotely resembles the astounding rock structures that exist inside the 119 square miles of Arches National Park. Endowed with the largest concentration of natural sandstone arches on this planet, it also has a stunning display of colossal sandstone fins, massive balanced rocks and soaring pinnacles.
Arches, along with all our other national parks, is a showcase of America’s best treasures – a precious bounty of spectacular scenery and unique habitat that should never be taken for granted. Yellowstone, with its amazing display of geysers and hot springs, was designated as our first national park in 1872. Forty-four years later Congress created the national park service, which now oversees 58 national parks; Utah ranks the highest in numbers with five – Arches, Bryce, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef and Zion.
Some of the earliest settlers in Moab made regular excursions into “The Arches” and the word started to spread about this arch-filled wonderland. But Klondike Bluffs was still an unknown until December 24, 1922, when Alexander Ringerhoffer, a miner prospecting for gold, just happened to wander in on Tower Arch and the other splendid formations that surround it. Anxious to publicize his discovery, he mailed a letter to the Rio Grande Western Railroad and this correspondence generated a lot of interest. The railroad executives hoping to seize upon the opportunity to attract more passengers to southeast Utah sent F.A. Wadleigh, the Passenger Traffics Manager, and George Beam, the railroad photographer, on an excursion to that area. They wanted to see if Ringerhoffer’s boasts rang true and instantly they realized he was not exaggerating. The enthusiasm generated by that guided tour triggered the subsequent campaign to establish “Arches” as a national monument or park.
On April 12, 1929, this possibility turned into a reality when President Herbert Hoover signed the order to reserve 4,520 acres as Arches National Monument. Ironically, Klondike Bluffs was not included until Lyndon Johnson issued an executive order increasing the size of the monument to 82,953 acres, one of his last acts in office. In 1971, Congress reduced the size of Arches by 9,574 acres, but upgraded it to a national park. The final transformation took place in October 1998, when President Bill Clinton signed legislation adding 3,140 acres of Lost Spring Canyon, which increased the park’s final girth to 76,519 acres.
It’s a five mile drive north from the center of town on Highway 191 to the Arches National Park entrance station, where an individual seven day pass for motorcycles, bicycles and walk-ins costs $5.00 and a seven day vehicle pass, which covers all occupants, costs $10.00. An annual local pass for Arches, Canyonlands, Hovenweep and Natural Bridges can be purchased for $25.00. Year-round camping is available in the Devils Garden Campground and the nightly fee is $20.00.
The salmon-colored Entrada Sandstone is the major building block of arch formation in this little corner of the universe - a process that began when vertical cracks were formed the in uplifting anticlines. Then water seeped in and washed away the loose debris. Eroding the cement that held the sandstone together, this process over time left behind freestanding fins. The expanding pressure from ice broke off bits and pieces of rock until many of the fins collapsed. But some of them, with the right balance and hardness, survived as arches. The magical number for an opening to be officially listed as an arch is three feet. Arches National Park contains more than 2,000 recognized arches, and since 1929 forty-two of them have collapsed.
One of the best and easiest places to view a collection of arches is The Windows section; turn right at the sign 9.2 miles beyond the entrance station and drive 2.5 miles to the parking area where the graveled trail to The Windows and Turret Arch begins. Consider taking this hike early or late in the day when crowds have somewhat diminished and a parking spot more likely to be available. If you want to avoid the crowds entirely, take this hike in the winter! Snow, however, does happen and it can be cold - so come prepared!
Being able to sit inside the massive mouth of an arch is a mesmerizing experience, and the short, gentle climb to the North Window, which is 51 feet high and 93 feet wide, makes experiencing this event a delightful accomplishment. Once I am hunkered down on this windy day, I am ready for a good long gaze at some fantastic scenery, and looking beyond the parking area I am intrigued with the Parade Of Elephants: a rock formation that imaginatively suggests a herd of elephants who are holding each other’s tails. Gazing directly north, I can see Elephant Butte - at an elevation of 5,653 feet this landmark is the highest point in the park. Further along on the western horizon, my vision flows over the entire jagged-tooth edge of Behind The Rocks and the Moab Rim.
Walking over the weathered bottom of this arch, I seek out a slanted, wind-blown perch for that breathless peek on the other side - a wide-open portrait of topsy turvy sandstone structures and mesas that stretch for miles and miles to the La Sal Mountains, which show off a sharp snow-white silhouette against a crisp lazuli blue sky.
A bit disheveled from the stiff breeze, I leave the North Window and return to the pathway to take the short spur trail to Turret Arch. This arch is quite a bit taller than it is wide – 64 feet by 39 feet, which presents me with the impression of a very large keyhole resting against a jutting tower. Two smaller openings also penetrate its surface, which add an interesting aspect to this formidable arch. Entering into the jaws of Turret Arch is a more ambitious endeavor than the North Window, but well worth the effort for the striking profile of Balanced Rock that can be seen from there.
Back at the base of South Window, I’m not about to pass up the opportunity to walk the primitive loop trail around the backside of The Windows for an entirely different outlook of “The Spectacles.” By stretching my imagination I really can see the illusion of a large rounded slab of rock that looks like a nose for The Spectacles to rest on. Piles of rocks called cairns guide me along this route through a small wash for a constantly changing perspective of The Spectacles; then the climb up a small hill transports me around the corner to the other side and on to the parking area where the trail ends.
We are very fortunate that our ancestors had the foresight to understand the need to create a national park system. It’s difficult to picture how empty our country would feel without public access to them. Yosemite, Glacier, the Grand Canyon, etc. are part of our American heritage, and we are so lucky to have Arches National Park as a next-door neighbor to Moab, just a short drive from town.
Biological 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