So I was wrong. It DID rain. It is still raining. Rain is predicted for tomorrow. “This is very unusual,” says Ranger Chris with a serious look on his young-and-skinny-Nathan-Lane face.
Yet, even on this dreary day, Arches National Park is crowded. Parking spots at the more popular sights are a wait-and-see affair. The campground is full. It is always full.
While Arches and Canyonlands are only about 30 miles apart (and I am camped between them), Arches is the more heavily traveled. I figure that Canyonlands is more difficult to develop–roads are limited to mesa tops overlooking deep gorges carved by the Green and Colorado Rivers thousands of feet below. Many of the roads are gravel and four-wheel-drive, and many of the trails are long. Canyonlands is still busy as people drive from one viewpoint to the next, but it lacks the frenzy of Arches.
Both parks are spectacular in different ways: Canyonlands for the vistas spanning miles both in depth and breadth and eons in time. Arches for the peculiarity of its rock formations.
So, back at Arches with a break in the rain a handful of hardy folks lay down $10 each to follow Ranger Chris through the Fiery Furnace—a maze of rocky fins and slot canyons in the middle of Arches. So convoluted are the bouldery formations that visitors may only enter with a ranger or a special permit. Even then, you are shown scary photos of ordinary people like yourself leaping over chasms and shimmying along rocky cliffs. You are quizzed as to your level of fitness, ability, and fortitude. By the time you reach the trailhead, you are thoroughly cowed. You nervously eye your fellow trekkers, sizing up their bulk.
Ranger Chris doesn’t look too burly. He is, in fact, a self-professed geek. (His favorite animal is a kangaroo mouse.) He is also very knowledgable and funny. Plus, he has the cutest lisp.
We enter the furnace down a rocky trail. I am proud of my coordination as I leap from one rock to the next. We continue to wind among enormous slabs of rock, stopping now and then for a lesson. We learn about packrats and geology, about flora and fauna, and of course, about the all-important cryptobiotic soil crust (more on that later). We see Surprise Arch and Skull Arch and a packrat den.
The trail becomes ever narrower and steeper. We “mature” women are beginning to fade, getting a little shaky in the knees and strained about the eyes. For the first time, I envy them their husbands who haul them up the four-foot boulders we are expected to clamber over.
Ranger Chris keeps an eye on us and demonstrates “good technique” over the rough patches so we don’t get too “acrobatic.” The two buff dudes and the two young women leap like goats over the rocks. I’m feeling a little whoozy.
“This is exhilarating,” says bright-eyed Corey from St. Louis. Her hair is the color of the orange globemallow along the roadsides. She is on a little sabbatical from her job and is so excited to be free that she sometimes forgets to eat or sleep.
“Ten years ago, I thought this was fun, too,” I mutter.
But I have to admit that, after three hours of acrobatics on the rocks, I am kind of tingly and loose-jointed. We all emerge from our trial by fiery furnace, none the worse for wear.
“I think I’ll bust out the Delicate Arch before I leave,” says Corey, which is another three-mile hike.
You go ahead, Dear. Grandma’s heading back to camp.
Shout out: Cory and Lisa. You go, Girls!