Another ADAM Aviation Adventure to MOAB, UTAH:
CANYONLANDS and ARCHES NATIONAL PARKS
2004 November 23-26


Planning the Trip

     Faced with the threat of losing my "extra" vacation days at work, I decided it was time for another Adam avaition adventure, this one to Moab, Utah, home of Canyonlands National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park, and Arches National Park. In 1985 May I did a three-day whirlwind tour of the American West, six national parks from Las Vegas, Nevada, to Boulder, Colorado. One of those was a two-hour peek at Arches, enough to know it was well worth coming back someday. 2004 November 24 made a good someday for Arches National Park. As for Canyonlands and Dead Horse Point, I figured they're worth a visit, too. I was not at all disappointed.

     Up front: I'm a Type-A person who likes to plan things to the minute. Things don't always go according to plan, but I like to have a plan. Alas, my aviation hobby is a Type-B activity where things go the way the winds blow and the weather goes. Last trip, Zion, was planned out and things turned out quite different thanks to a rockslide rather than the weather. At work, one major project is wrapping up while another is just getting started. I got my management to agree to a week of vacation "as soon as weather permits." I was ready to go and the week of November 21-26, including the American Thanksgiving holiday, looked good for travel. My airplane (Piper Cherokee PA28-140, N4372J) was done with its annual inspection, had been test flown locally in preparation for this journey, and was ready to fly.

From Phoenix to Moab

     The route of flight is pretty basic, from Deer Valley Airport (DVT) in Phoenix to Flagstaff (map), past Humphries Peak, over the Painted Desert to a quick landing at Marble Canyon (L41), to Page, along Lake Powell (map), over Canyonlands National Park, left turn over Moab, eighteen miles flying over U.S. Route 191, and into Canyonlands Airport (CNY).

     They say something about the best laid plans of mice and men. I can't tell much about rodent anticipation of future events, but I know that homo sapien plans are subject to change, especially when they involve the weather as aviation does. Phoenix has good weather almost all the time, but Utah is often less cooperative, so it pays to check their weather forecasts diligently. Earlier weather forecasts for the week were encouraging enough to make me pick that week for my Moab vacation. Sunday and Monday both turned out to be awful the entire way including rain and low clouds right here in Phoenix. So much for Phoenix being the Valley of the Sun.


     Tuesday morning was still grim with low clouds, but the afternoon started to look better from Flagstaff on north. There were still clouds from Phoenix to Sedona, but their tops were low enough to fly over them until I reached good, clear weather in Flagstaff. The official term for low clouds in hilly country is "mountain obscuration," but pilots also refer to these clouds as "cumulus granite," puffy white clouds with nasty rocks in them, not good to fly inside. For the first hour, there were clouds with enough holes in the clouds to see the ground and then the weather was gloriously clear the rest of the way.

     If any student pilot is thinking about giving up flying, it's too hard or there's too much stuff to study, then I hope the trips here convince some of them to persevere. There are lots of reasons to fly, but the view from a light airplane over the mountains of the western United States should be enough.

Canyonlands National Park

     If you thought Bryce Canyon or Zion were worth the effort to visit, then add Canyonlands and Arches to your list. Check out the National Park Service web page for Canyonlands at http://www.nps.gov/cany/. I found several good web pages using Google. The Canyonlands Natural History Association has a webcam of a lovely view of the Colorado River.

     The Neck Spring (more pictures) trail at Shafer Canyon Overlook was my dawn hike on the first day, a 9.3 Km (5.8 mile) loop with some ups and downs and lots of small canyons. The great, big canyon views would come later. The Island in the Sky part of the park is attached to the rest of the plateau by a 12-meter (40-foot) connection called the Neck. So this part of the park is really the Peninsula in the Sky, at least until the Neck erodes away, but that name doesn't sound as good as Island in the Sky, does it?


     Next was a run to Murphy Point, a tremendous vista view, 3 Km (1.8 miles) each way, with an extra 2 Km (1.2 miles) to get to the top of the real-hill hiking trail. There are eight kilometers (five miles) of dirt-road footwork required to see the views and to begin the decent. I did just a little bit of the descent after I decided it's okay to be a "wuss" and not to do the terrible, steep, scary descents. If I weren't a runner, then I probably would have passed on Murphy Point rather than invest the time to cover the level ground to the views.


     My next stop was Buck Canyon Overlook (more pictures), no hike, no effort, just a short walk to the viewpoint. Except for Bonnie in the Visitor Center, this is the first time I saw another person since I entered the park. (That's how I got pictures of myself at this viewpoint.) This view is wonderful, fantastic, breathtaking, and all that, well worth the trip. Seeing Buck Canyon from the air after the ground view was even more amazing. Canyonlands National Park started lovely and was becoming more and more wonderful with each view. From here I went to Arches National Park for the rest of the day but I came back the next day later in the afternoon to see Buck Canyon in better light.

     The next dawn was at Mesa Arch (more pictures), recommended for first light in one of the park brochures. They weren't kidding. The morning light created a yellow-orange glow on the underside of the arch, a wonderful way to start the day in such a strange and wonderful place. (One book I saw said visitors should view Utah with one eye closed so it only looks half as strange.) I'm partial to sunrise as my favorite time of the day, a crescendo of light, color, warmth, and joy. Dawn at Mesa Arch met all my warm and joyous expectations.


     The Grand View Overlook (more pictures) had some great morning views to the west, the Green River side, but I found the afternoon view to the east, the Colorado River side, even more spectacular. There is a 1.6 Km (one mile) walk from the west side to the east side of the southern tip of the Island in the Sky. I counted five distinct levels, the island level at the top, one red-rock level down, the prominent white-rim level, a brown-rock level under that, and the Colorado River itself at the bottom.

     Green River Overlook (more pictures) is a great morning view and a terrific sunset overlook in Canyonlands National Park. The morning view was vast, spectacular, and overwhelming (I'm running out of vast, spectacular, and overwhelming adjectives, aren't I?) More than the east, Colorado River side, the west, Green River views are great, big spaces with far-away rock formations and unearthly vistas. I don't know why I find the variety of vast vistas so visually appealing, but I do and, judging from the popularity of this park, I'm not the only one who feels this way.


     The book I was reading (Exploring Canyonland & Arches National Parks, a Hiking and Backcountry Driving Guide by Bill Schneider) warned that Aztec Butte was a short, tough climb. It was right, my newfangled hiking shoes were not enough to climb the slickrock on Aztec Butte. I was able to get partway up, high enough for a good view, and then I had to walk down before I found myself falling down. There is another butte, smaller, less challenging, and I climbed that one. That one had some living quarters between rock layers that I guess belonged to some primitive people who lived there. Since there wasn't any antenna on top, I have to guess these people had cable television, so it wasn't too primitive.

     With my feet still sore from previous efforts, I decided to stick to the easy, "wussy" hikes rather than doing any big, scary climbs or descents. I did the Whale Rock hike, a fairly easy slickrock climb with chains on the tougher parts, and Upheaval Dome Overlook, a view of Upheaval Dome from above while The Syncline trail goes in and around the dome itself. Upheaval Dome isn't a dome, actually, but a collapsed dome which could be a salt formation that dissolved over the centuries or could be a meteor strike. I'm not enough of a geologist to find it that exciting and the view, even from the overlook trails, did not give me a true sense of its collapsed-dome structure.


     By this point in my hiking adventure my feet were getting sore and my legs were getting tired. I was considering my next hike from street parking in Moab to the nearest pub when I told myself that running was sufficiently different that the parts of my legs that were weary from hiking would not be a problem on an 8 Km (five mile) run on level ground on the Lathrop trail. Well, it turned out to be true! Trotting along at a gentle pace along the sandy trail in the grass, I found myself invigorated with renewed energy, enthusiastic once more. There were some slow-down-to-a-walk stretches of slickrock and I found the combined mental effort of navigating from rock cairn to rock cairn and running on slickrock to be more than I had available, so I decided to walk those areas. Once I got to the descent part of the trail, the hiking was slower and the views were terrific. I came back much faster as I decided to try to make sunset at Green River Overlook.

Arches National Park

     My intention was to spend about four full days in Moab, about two-thirds of that time in Canyonlands and the rest in Arches with a visit to Dead Horse Point. The weather had other plans and the Arches part of my trip ended up getting cut to two hikes. Check out the National Park Service web page for Arches at http://www.nps.gov/arch/.

     The great, big, long, tough hike in Arches is Devil's Garden (more pictures). The regular trail is an easy mile followed by a mile of hiking along slickrock and over a rock fin with a view of Double-O Arch (close-up) at the end of the trail, worth every bit of effort. The rock formations alone are worth the hike and the arches add a sense of wonder to the experience. The name is apt for the strange shapes not to mention that I was tired and had a devil of a time getting up and down some of the slickrock. There is also a longer, meaner, tougher, nastier, harder trail called the primitive trail for the Devil's Garden.


     Inspired by its similarity to the tall buildings of New York City, this vertical-rock hike is called the Park Avenue trail (more pictures). It's not a killer hike, just a gentle descent with, of course, a gentle ascent on the way back. The rock shapes are interesting enough and the combination of all these seriously-vertical formations is quite inspiring on a clear-dawn morning. I did this hike when I was already shagged-and-fagged from other, hillier hikes, so it was a nice end to my visit to these two National Parks.

     There is plenty of other stuff at Arches National Park, many more arches, Petrified Sand Dunes, and the Balanced Rock. Next time I plan to have more time to see them and to hike them.

     There is something about hiking that makes these parks special. I found out that hiking is neither running nor walking. Being a runner, I enjoy a serious advantage over most other people in that I take longer to get tired, but the muscles that keep me running, even on trails like Lost Dog Wash, are not the muscles that keep feet going and going and going along trails, on slickrock, and over tricky-footing hills. Figure on some fatigue in the enjoyment of the scenery. I ran about one-third of the distance I covered on foot to reduce the hiking-fatigue factor.

Dead Horse Point State Park

     You gotta see Dead Horse Point (more pictures) before you go home from Moab. It's the other side of the Colorado River views from the Island in the Sky. There is a four-mile trail that goes to many pretty views but the narrowing weather window sent me to the airport for my trip home before I had a chance to hike it. Utah's Dead Horse Point is a must-see state park, even if it does cost an extra seven bucks (U.S. $7.00) beyond whatever you paid for Canyonlands and Arches. The view is breathtaking and it was a wonderful coda for the symphony of my trip.


     The story on the park signs goes something like this. Back in ancient times when men were men, women were scarce, and horses were nervous, cowboys used to herd horses onto this narrow piece of land so they could block off the inlet, capture the animals, and domesticate them. Depending on which sign you read, either they left the barricade in place or some of the equines never figured out how to leave, so they died, hence the name of the park. I can picture television's Mr. Ed having a few choice words to Wilbur about the name of this park. The irony is these horses died of thirst within sight of the Colorado River just 600 meters (2000 feet) below.

From Moab back to Phoenix

     Alas, the once-cheerful forecasts from The Weather Channel were getting bleak as the weekend neared, four days of rain, snow, and low clouds, so I figured I better get out while the getting was good. I fly by Visual Flight Rules (VFR) which means I can't fly where I can't see, flying in clouds is a no-no. Besides, who would want to be flying back home over all this incredible scenery (more pictures) seeing nothing out the window but white cloud?


     For me, this scenery is the quintessential essence of aviation, the reason to fly. I enjoyed my flight back in 1989 from the New Jersey shore to Chicago over amber waves of grain across the fruited plain, but, myself, I'm partial to purple mountain majesties. I love the Appalachians and the Rockies, but the red rocks of Sedona and the twisted landscape of south Utah have just as much appeal. One can experience America from an automobile and the nine-hour drive from Phoenix to Moab is pretty, but the Painted Desert is all the more wonderful from above where so many colors are visible at once.

My New Hiking Toy

     While hiking and running along the Utah trails, I wore a Garmin Forerunner 201 Global Positioning System (GPS) gizmo on my wrist. It's really for runners rather than hikers, but it has a map display so you can't get too lost and it keeps track of distance. Only one trail, the narrowest part of Devil's Garden at Arches National Park, gave me any trouble with inadequate GPS signal from the sky. It took about half an hour before I stopped looking at it every few seconds because it was so cool and used it to get a sense of how far I had gone and how far I had to go, in both horizontal and vertical dimensions.

Now I'm Back Home

     Is this a trip I would take again? Absolutely. In fact, I feel I ought to take it again because there is still the Needles part of Canyonlands to hike and all those trails at Arches I didn't see because the weather knocked two days off the beginning of my trip and a day off the end. If a two-and-a-half day trip was fun, then a five day trip should be amazingly wonderful and nowhere near long enough to be bored or tired of the scenery.

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