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rock safari

Our favorite pastime in Kenya was going on self-drive safaris. We liked seeing the animals and birds, of course, but we also enjoyed the simple pleasure of cruising around nature’s vast garden, not knowing what wonder lay around the next corner. There was the time, for example, that we stopped in a wooded area for lunch and, after some deliberation, wisely decided to eat in the car; unbeknownst to us, there was a large pride of lions around the very next bend of the road. Southern Utah offers a different twist on the joys of safari.

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Moab, where we camped, is ideally situated between several stunning national and state parks. We started with the aptly named Arches National Park, the entrance to which lies just a few miles outside the bustling desert town. Although it was mid-October, there was a long line of cars at the park entrance. Our visit coincided with the fall break for Utah schools, and Moab proved an immensely popular destination for Utahans wanting to take advantage of the four-day holiday weekend.

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The arches that give this national park its name stand in silent witness to the beautifully awesome power of nature. Over the course of untold millennia, countless fine grains of sand became compacted into monumental slabs of sandstone, which now tower over the landscape. After erecting these monoliths, nature now slowly works to erase what it had created. The wind whittles the rock formations away a few grains of sand at a time. Meanwhile water finds its way into minuscule cracks, where it freezes, thereby continuously expanding the fissures in the rock walls until whole slabs of sandstone crumble away. The latter process is responsible for the magnificent arches on display throughout the park.

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There are several signature hikes in Arches, but the park is so massive that it is impractical to visit without a car. What’s more, its location in the high desert makes hiking long distances challenging, leading many visitors to simply enjoy the sights from the comfort of their vehicles. We spent close to two hours driving around among the various easy-to-access sights before we set foot on our first trail, stopping at Park Avenue, the Sheep Rock and the Courthouse Towers, and the Balance Rock.

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One of the best hikes in Arches is a ranger-led excursion into the Fiery Furnace, an area of the park where one can witness the early stages of arch formation. Because self-guided tours are forbidden in the Fiery Furnace, the excursion must be booked in advance. We came to Southern Utah during the shoulder tourist season, but the school recess meant that Arches was as busy as it gets at the height of summer. We checked in at the visitor center only to learn that the next tour that had open spots would be after our departure from Moab.

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We hiked the Devils’s Garden loop instead, which was the most highly recommended hike in Arches and which proved well worth the hype. The loop is 7.5 miles and took a good chunk of our afternoon, but we saved enough time and energy to end our day at the Delicate Arch.

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It was a steep mile and a half to the arch, which were punishing after a full day spent out under the blistering desert sun. We arrived a little after 5pm, which was clearly too early for the golden hour that would cast the arch in its most flattering light. We were early, but far from alone. By the time sun began in earnest its descent towards the horizon, there were between 400 and 500 people gathered at the Delicate Arch.

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A handful of the visitors had tripods and serious photo equipment and were patiently waiting for the sunset. Most of the others were there to get a picture with the famed arch — an endeavor that was at once maddening and humorous in its futility. A virtually uninterrupted stream of people made their way to the very base of the arch to be photographed with it, seemingly oblivious to the fact that the size of the arch meant that either they would appear ant-sized in the photos or the arch would not fit into the frame.

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We watched the sunset and then rushed back to our car, hurrying in a vain attempt to make it back before total darkness engulfed the park. The temperature had reached the mid-80s during the afternoon, but a noticeable chill descended on Moab as soon as the sun had completed its descent, with temperatures dipping into the low 40s that night.

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