Utah’s Arches and Canyonlands National Parks; side trip to Grand Canyon North Rim

Arches National Park's Balanced Rock stops thousands of visitors each week in this lovely park, home to over 2,000 arches and strange landforms.

Author and spouse Susan pose in front of Landscape Arch, spanning well over 300 feet with its delicate arch.
Arches Park visitors trek fo Sand Dune Arch on short, flat trail through slot canyon.
Our Horsethief Campground, maintained by the BLM just outside Canyonlands, was scene of several evocative sunsets. 
John Wesley Powell pioneered the exploration of this vast tract of the new nation.
A couple takes in the other-worldly view of Canyonlands, with the Green and Colorado Rivers in distance.

Tour to Utah’s Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, with a side of Grand Canyon North Rim!

This is the third in a three-part series on the evocative national parks of Utah (see my blog for the previous two weeks). We’ve been blessed by our house sitting assignment in St. George, UT, allowing us a base camp to get started. We toured to Zion National park and Cedar Breaks National monument on day-trips, separate trips took us to Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef and onto the final two Utah national parks.

If you’re doing a clockwise circuit of the five parks, as we’ve done, start at Zion, then Bryce and on to Capitol Reef. From there it’s roughly another 200 miles to Arches and Canyonlands, just 30 miles from one another. You can camp, or use the lively town of Moab, Utah as your base camp for these two parks.

Arches offers Devils Garden Campground (which can be booked in advance) and Canyonlands offers Island in the Sky and The Needles campgrounds, both first-come, first-served. The Bureau of Land Management presents a number of nearby campgrounds; we found Horsethief Campground, on edge of Canyonlands Park, almost as handy to Arches National Park and just $8/night. We spent three nights, took in the two parks and were treated to the most stunning of sunsets over the Green River Canyon.

In two days we hiked to 15 of Arches National Park’s 2,000 arches (yep, 2,000!); the visitor center helps plot your destinations in this amazing park. Treks to Turret Arch, South and North Arches, then Double Arch (at 144′ wide, 112′ tall, 3rd largest in park) were eye-openers. Later that cloudy, cool day, we climbed from the Arches campground to Tapestry Arch – and had it all to ourselves.  We continued onto Broken Arch, following three hikers – equally impressive – logging 3.5 miles hiking over all. That night we enjoyed spectacular starry night skies above our campsite.

Our second day, we started early to hike Arches’ Devils Garden area.  Our reward was the Landscape Arch; a 1.4 mile hike to this famous arch, tall, thin and spanning over 300 feet, attracts a large crowd.  Spur trails to nearby Tunnel and Pine Tree Arch both proved memorable.

Our final hike into Sand Dune Arch carried us through towering sandstone fins and slot canyons. By 2 PM we had covered three miles, and, avoiding hot mid-day sun, took a late lunch at The Spoke Restaurant in Moab (just three miles from Arches Park), where chicken wings, pulled pork and libations sated our appetite and thirst!  Moab is a busy town, humming with restaurants, motels, bike shops and canyon tour-providers!

Nearby Canyonlands National Park offers the most impressive canyon vistas yet on our journey. Until 1869, the huge Green and Colorado River watershed was uncharted on U.S. maps; John Wesley Powell, a geologist and one-armed Civil War major, set off in May, 1869, with four boats and nine novice boatsmen to explore the Green and Colorado rivers –  to make their fortunes and chart “the great unknown”.

When he reached the rivers’ canyon country in July, Powell noted the party had entered a “strange, weird, grand region” of naked rock, with “cathedral shaped buttes, towering hundreds or thousands of feet, cliffs that cannot be scaled and canyon walls that shrink the river into insignificance”. He would finish the harrowing journey three months later with two boats and six men and a tale of exploration that would capture the nation’s imagination.

We visited the northeast “Island in the Sky” section of Canyonlands; overlooks such as Grand View, Buck Canyon and Green River evoked the spirit of Powell as he contemplated this alien territory 149 years earlier. Mesa Natural Bridge, the Whale (a 500 yard hump-backed sandstone formation shaped like a huge orange whale) and the blue, red and pink colors of the vast Green River and Colorado River Canyons that converge here are not soon-forgotten.

In nearby Horse Canyon, ancient Puebloan people’s ruins can be toured, with stone homes and food storage built into a ledge far-up the canyon wall.  Pictographs left by the ancients are also found throughout many of Canyonland’s dry washes.

If your schedule permits, return on a southerly route to the Grand Canyon’s North Rim. With only about 10% the visitation of the southern rim, it, too, is a spectacular destination! On the approach, you’ll likely see some of the 400 herd of bison that make that part of Arizona home. Your return to California will also take you past Pipe Spring National Monument, Mono Lake, and, If you like, a final night camping on the edge of Yosemite – plotting future travel explorations!

For more info: For Utah travel insights, visitutah.com; Arches, nps.gov/arch, (435) 719-2299; Canyonlands, nps.gov/cany, (435) 719-2313; Camping can be booked through www.recreation.gov, or 877.444.6777.

Note: Two free travel-related programs coming up this week: Tuesday, July 10, 6 PM, award-winning Record photographer Cliff Oto presents a program on improving your photo skills; on Thursday, July 12, 6 PM, Record travel writer Tim Viall presents “The nine national parks of California”, both hosted at the Quail Lakes Clubhouse, 3808 Quail Lakes Drive, Stockton, and, both are FREE.

Contact Tim at tviall@msn.com, follow him at recordnet.com/travelblog. Happy travels in the west!

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