A wall of gray clouds rolled over the Utah desert, slammed into Interstate-70 and smothered traffic to a crawl.
Inside the great, white Cadillac STS, I turned the windshield wipers on “high” and strained for a glimpse of the road, some red taillights, or even eastbound headlights across the way. Nothing. It was time to stop.
I felt like Jonah trapped inside a metal Moby Dick. I was beached on the shoulder of the road about 40 miles west of the Utah and Colorado border. The desert isn’t supposed to get this much rain in October, is it?
Actually, I later discovered October is the wettest month in northeast Utah, averaging 1.6 inches of rain, but the cool nights and mild afternoon sun make a fall trip to the area worth dodging the occasional, fast moving rain storm.
Sure enough, the gray clouds cleared quickly, and freeway traffic got back to its 75 mph pace.
After a 20-hour drive from St. Paul, over the Rocky Mountains and into Utah, I would be in the well-washed town of Moab to begin a four-day camping and hiking adventure in Arches National Park.
More Than 2,000 Arches
Arches National Park is one of the most photogenic places in the American Southwest. More than 2,000 red rock arches are cataloged within the park including the spectacular Delicate Arch, an icon of the United States National Park System.
The Delicate Arch at sunset is an amazing photo opportunity that even amateur shutterbugs cannot mess up.
The park offers a modern 52-site campground tucked into red rock bluffs and surrounded by several big time arches just a short hike away.
Visitors can drive to virtually every park attraction including the burly Turret Arch, the tipsy Balanced Rock, and the sublime Panorama Point with its view of the La Sal mountain range.
With the restaurants and motels of mountain bike-obsessed Moab just a 10-minute drive from the park entrance, Arches National Park can satisfy those who want to rough it or those who need a soft bed for the night. Just don’t forget your hiking boots because you can literally walk up and touch the beauty of the place.
And if you get tired of arch views, Canyonlands National Park, with more than 10,000 square miles of rugged backcountry, is just across the Colorado River.
For a semi-pro photographer with just enough camping knowledge to be dangerous, the lure of this desert showpiece was too great to pass up.
I dug a pup tent and flannel sleeping bag out of the basement and borrowed a lantern and one burner stove from my sister. The last piece of the puzzle was transportation. I begged my granddad to lend me his sleek, white, almost new Cadillac STS for a week. I would need the power seats and compact disc player for the two-day, 1,600-mile journey west, I argued.
When approval was granted and the gold-plated, remote control car keys were handed over I was set. Car camping never saw so much luxury.
Sheer Red Rock Cliffs
After being slowed by the I-70 rainstorm, I knew camping inside Arches National Park would have to wait a day. The Devils Garden campground, 17 miles inside the park, doesn’t take reservations and routinely fills up before noon. Thus, I pointed the car toward the nearby Colorado River.
The Utah Bureau of Land Management has established dozens of rustic campsites between Highway 128 and the Colorado River.
Sheer red rock cliffs rise up like 20-story buildings over your shoulder and the endless sound of slow-moving water puts you to sleep at night. It’s not a bad spot for overflow camping and it’s also used heavily by the many mountain bikers and rock climbers.
You’ve seen the red rock buttes and winding, black asphalt roads in classic Western movies and glossy travel magazines — they look even better in person.
The next morning I was one of the first cars through the Arches National Park front gates. Now I had a place to stay and a base for three days of hikes, picture taking and some very ugly camping.
So what do you do with a camera, a backpack and pair of hiking boots in the southwestern desert? Here’s what I did:
* Take a walk through Devils Garden. This is a 2-mile to 4-mile hike that connects some of the most spectacular arches on the planet. While I was loaded with water, a trail lunch and my Nikon camera, a woman from New Jersey scrambled along behind me in what could have been her Sunday shoes. We had our picture taken in front of the Wall Arch by a guy from Philadelphia. “You got a boyfriend?” he asked the woman. “You can make up any story you want with this picture.”
* Continue on to the Double O Arch. The Double O Arch sits in a canyon at the north end of Devils Garden. While the arch itself is amazing, the trail leading up to it steals the show. Follow the small, stone cairns up onto a slickrock spine. Suddenly it feels like you’re on top of the world. The wind blows and you can see hundreds of miles in each direction. Tiny flashes of sun skip off vehicles from I-70 in the north. Keep walking straight ahead as the spine drops off on either side — no wider than a city sidewalk, but somehow much safer.
A Religious Experience
* Photograph Delicate Arch at sunset. Don’t be lazy and drive to the Delicate Arch View Point. Park your car at the Wolfe Ranch parking lot and hike up a 3-mile slick rock trail that brings you to the base of this natural wonder. Even though I was exhausted and running on two apples and a bag of trail mix, I made the hike in less than an hour. A small crowd gathers on a lip of rock that surrounds the arch and waits for the soft light of sunset. It’s almost like walking in on a religious service. People speak in hushed tones. Everyone finds their spot and waits for the moment. Slowly the sun slips off the horizon and the arch turns a brilliant bright red. The show lasts less than 10 minutes, but the memory will last forever.
* Scramble up into the Double Arch. A short trail takes you from the Windows parking lot to the foot of the Double Arch. I watched young children, couples, and even older park visitors’ scramble up the slick rock underneath the Double Arch. Look up. It’s like God ripped part of the roof off a cave so you could get a closer look at the sun.
* Walk around Balanced Rock. It only takes 10 minutes. Why doesn’t that thing fall down? Would I be safe if I stood under it? How did that rock get up there? You could go to Florence, Italy, and walk around “David” and you wouldn’t come away with as many questions.
* Stop at the Courthouse Towers View Point in the morning. You’ve been knocked out by the red rock buttes, endless blue sky and winding black roadway in dozens of Western movies, coffee table books and glossy travel magazines. They look even better in person.
Of course, hiking and red rock photos aren’t the only things to do in Utah.
Moab: Outdoor Enthusiast Mecca
The Moab area has become a magnet for mountain bike enthusiast, rock climbers, dirt bikers, artists, and rock hounds.
Nearby Canyonlands National Park has opened its doors to the growing sport of four wheeling. The park has thousands of miles of dirt roads and unimproved trails specifically designed for fat tire trucks, dirt bikes or All Terrain Vehicles.
It seems everyone in the world knows about southeastern Utah.
“Utah, from Moab south, is the best place in the country,” a New Yorker told me. He was camping with two buddies out of the back of an old Chevy Suburban truck — that’s what they called them before they started calling them “Sports Utility Vehicles.”
The guys were making a “Great 8” tour of the National Park System. From New York to Texas, then northwest to Mount Rainier National Park in Washington, south to California and then back northeast through the Rocky Mountains and Chicago.
“This is what I do. I take these six-week, eight-week trips and hit all the national parks I can,” said the New Yorker. He said he’d been to every national park in the U.S. at least once and many more than three times. The guy couldn’t have been more than 50 years old.
How can he afford these endless road trips?
“I’m self employed,” he said.
But remember, not every campsite neighbor is a road warrior hero.
Camping in the site next to me, a German couple spent their time at Arches drinking bottle beer and singing German songs — even at 10 p.m.
As a lightning storm moved across the black desert, I hunkered down in the tent with an Edward Abbey book. The couple didn’t seem to mind the weather. They tossed their empty bottles in a garbage bag, and sang happy songs of “Kom-ping, Kom-ping.”
Red Rock Elixir
There’s a 2-inch metal pipe that sticks out of a red rock wall near the intersection of Highways 128 and 191, just north of Moab. An endless stream of water flows out the pipe and can quench a thirst as big as the desert southwest.
My brother-in-law told me about the waterspout before I left on my trip. He regularly visited Moab to rock climb with friends. The group hadn’t been to Moab in some 10 years, yet this was his one and only travel recommendation.
What is it about this water? I didn’t even think I was thirsty, yet I kept on drinking. Can water be fresh? Can it taste better than anything you’ve ever eaten? Can it be addictive?
While a sign doesn’t mark the water pipe, there’s a spot off Highway 128 to pull over. I stopped on my way out of Moab. I was headed home. I wanted to bring a little bit of Utah back with me in a plastic water jug.
The locals know about this waterspout, too. Perhaps they are the ones that keep it running.
I stood at the water pipe and watched a man and a woman fill a large 5-gallon jug. A small, dust-covered pick-up truck was parked behind them. The man bent over the pipe as the water drained into his jug. He wore overalls, a greasy cowboy hat and a blue windbreaker. The woman stood off the side. She was short, round and her sunburned face had two beady eyes.
If the desert had hills, these people would be called hillbillies.
The couple told me they lived in the Moab area for almost 50 years. We agreed the water was delicious — the best in the world. I told them they were lucky to be living in such a beautiful place, “God’s County,” I called it.
The woman squinted her eyes and disagreed.
“I call it the Devil’s Country,” she said. “All that red rock and the heat here in the summer. It’s Hell,” she said. “No, this is the Devil’s Country.”
If the devil has this kind of water, then Hell can’t be all that bad of a place, can it?
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