If you have read the first part, thank you very much (seriously, you people are the best!) and please carry on. If you haven’t, here you go!
Day three was a long day, taking up an entire part in the travelogue. I hope the pictures and panoramas will make the wall of text a little easier to digest 🙂
Day 3 – 29th December, 2013
I was awake by five. By six, it was breakfast time. Vikram had brought along some instant tea packets: they contained milk powder as well. The two bathrooms ensured everyone was ready by quarter to seven. Sunrise was at 7:35 AM. Google Maps told us that the drive to Mesa Arch, our first destination, would take half an hour at least. By the time we were in the Grand Cherokee and setting the GPS, it was five minutes to seven. But we started the day on a great note: clear sky!
Canyonlands National Park, UT
The early morning drive was a pleasant one. Although we would have enjoyed it more if we weren’t up against the most relentless, unforgiving and heartless enemy in the world: time. Canyonlands is larger in size compared to Arches. As we entered the park, there were a few sharp turns and then mostly straight roads. It was quite different compared to the wall-like structure of the rocks at Arches’ entrance. Even in the pristine darkness of dawn, we could appreciate the beauty and the expanse of the park. Our appreciation was, however, constantly interrupted by the burning hopes of reaching Mesa Arch before sunrise. Saurabh was making the SUV fly!
7:25 AM. We slowed down as a toll booth appeared down the road. The moment Saurabh noticed it was empty, he jumped on the pedal again; there was no time to waste! 7:28 AM. A faint glow was visible to our left as we sped through the national park. Some stars were still visible in the sky to our right. The setting was quite poetic. Camping under such a sky would have been a magical experience. Our GPS started reporting distances that didn’t match our expectations. And so Madhavi started navigation on her phone. We were right, Google maps showed a different time estimate.
7:34 AM. We reached the parking area of Mesa arch, got out of the Jeep, and started running down the trail. The blue shade of the sky was getting lighter. Still, we weren’t able to see the arch or the view beyond as we ran down the curvy, partly icy trail, cameras in our hands.
The trail finally stopped curving and opened up to an expected, but nevertheless, startling sight. Right in front of the arch, about twenty photographers had mounted their cameras on their tripods. This wall of photographers almost covered our view of the arch from the end of the trail. It took us a few seconds to realize that we had just missed the sunrise.
The wall of photographers.
But that did not stop us from enjoying the spectacular view! The photographers were there for a reason. It’s not everyday you get to photograph a landmark that has been featured as a Windows wallpaper! Curving gently, the arch makes a very small angle with the ground. Jutting out from the edges of the cliff, one could think of it as a giant handle for when man needs to literally move mountains. Through the eye-like slit below the arch, the sun was small golden ball, rising above the tall, flat rock to the east. The first rays were touching the inner surface of the arch making the arch glow from underneath in a wonderful golden-red shade. One of the photographers had planted his GoPro camera directly under the arch to capture the sunrise frame by frame. I promptly added it to my to-do list.
A magnificent sunrise through Mesa Arch!
Oh the glow! An excellent shot by Vikram.
We took a lot of photos at this point. Behind the arch, Canyonlands national park was bathing in the glorious sunlight. Snow was sprinkled unevenly in the valley below the arch. The cliffs on both the sides of the arch had horizontal ‘bands’. I thought they were either erosion markings or the exposed cross-section showing the subtle differences in the layers of rock over time. The first thing I noticed about Canyonlands was that it appeared (it is) much larger than Arches. Color-wise it was the same; although I believe the red rock was slightly lighter in shade compared to Arches. During the planning phase of the trip, almost all the pictures we looked at on the Internet showed great desert views; most of them taken during the summer. Nothing had prepared us for the amazing yet subtle enhancement the snow had made to the barren landscapes.
Since my camera is in its twilight years, I was splitting the load fifty-fifty with my Nexus 5. In all the excitement of panorama photography, I had forgotten that the temperature was close to minus fifteen degrees celsius. While in the process of taking a second 180-degree panorama shot, my fingers started hurting. Burning would be more accurate. And so I put on my regular, non-techie gloves that had no support for touch screens and put the phone away. After half an hour or so, the cold was really starting to get to us. And so we walked back up the trail to the parking area.
Unlike Arches, we didn’t have much planned for Canyonlands. So after Mesa Arch, it was just roaming around the park and stopping at random spots. The first such spot was ten minutes away from the arch. The sky was blue and clear by the time we got into the parking area near the spot. I was really impressed by the fact that every major tourist spot in both the national parks had proper parking spots, restrooms and water fountains. Of course, one could argue that these things kind of took away the ‘natural’ feel of the park. But there are still plenty of trails and areas that would satisfy such people.
The viewing spot was actually the starting point of a long (four or five miles, I think) trail along the edge of the large rock we were on. Tempted by the potentially awesome views, we started down the trail, and turned back quickly realizing the trail was going to take up a lot of time. Since we had specific landmarks to cover in Arches, we couldn’t spend too much time in Canyonlands. And so we stopped at the appropriately-named Grand View Point. An information board enlightened us on the formation of the canyons.
Grand View Point. A perfect spot for panorama photography, if the Sun cooperates.
Mother nature must have been in a playful mood when the canyons were created. Observing a vast expanse of the park from the viewing point, it appeared as if someone had plunged a huge knife into the earth and carved out the canyons. Their sharp, clean cut edges suggested the same. Far on the eastern side we could see rock structures of dissimilar heights jutting out, giving the impression of a poorly-built wooden fence. This was, I believe, the Needles section of the park. We couldn’t take too many great photographs due to the fact that we were looking east and the sun was already high in the sky. Vikram did make great use of his zoom lens though.
Near the edges of some canyons we saw a small, meandering path. Saurabh pointed out it was actually an SUV trail. In fact, we found out that it can easily take a couple of days to cover all the SUV trails in the park. Canyonlands certainly appeared to be the kind of place where you did things instead of just looking around. Madhavi, who had visited Grand Canyon a couple of years ago remarked that this was an equally great place, if not better.
Notice the SUV trail near the well-cut canyon edges.
We were on the move in a few minutes, making our way to the exit. On the way out, we stopped at the gift shop to buy postcards and souvenirs. The gift shop had a sign near its door that asked visitors to pay the entrance fee inside. And we did, before leaving the park. It was around 9:30 AM when we left Canyonlands. On the way out, Saurabh remembered that there was a state park nearby called Dead Horse Point. Curiosity about the name and the fact that we had some time to spare before lunch, made us head towards the park.
Dead Horse Point State Park, UT
The road to the park lies in a North-South direction; branching off from highway 191 towards Moab. To our right, we saw what we thought were oil rig-like structures. We hardly saw other people as we stopped at the visitors center for a moment, before moving on. The main attraction of the park for sightseeing tourists like us was the Dead Horse Point, providing a superb view of the Colorado river and Canyonlands. It was a spectacular sight. The small Canyons, through which the river flowed, formed a maze of curved paths. Snow was sprinkled on top of the red rock. The green Colorado river, snaking its way through the rocks, could be seen shimmering around every few corners. A large plateau-like rock was providing a geometrically straight backdrop. The whole scene looked like an unbelievably realistic set of an Indiana Jones film. I was trying hard to save some of my camera battery for the second half of the day but it was getting harder by the minute. My phone did a great job by not destroying a couple of 180-degree panoramic photos. But just like at the Grand Viewing Point in Canyonlands, the sun was directly above the viewing area. None of our portraits with a canyon background were coming out well.
After a while we went to the western edge of the viewing area, where there was a wooden observation deck. The western side offered a more detailed view of the Colorado river. I took over Vikram’s DSLR as he wanted a portrait shot with the red-white rock as a backdrop. As I took the third photo and moved forward to show it to him, the unimaginable happened. The camera slipped from my hands. And its strap was not secured around my hand. Memories of that moment are like a slow-motion action sequence. Instinctively, I tried to grab the camera with my right hand and it stuck. Inches above the ground. I am sure Vikram’s heart had stopped beating as well. Nevertheless, we continued taking pictures for some time. The temperature was around minus ten degrees (none of the pictures made you think that, right?). By the time we got back to the car my fingers were hurting so bad I thought they would simply stop working.
The Colorado river snaking through the canyons. Photo by Vikram.
While on our way back to Moab, we could now see the beautiful sights we had rushed past early in the morning. The sky was a clear blue. I’m not sure if it was the sun or change in composition that made some of the rock structures appear yellow. We hit a patch of road where there was a sheer wall of red rock on our left and a small stream on our right. Saurabh mentioned that the last time he had visited Canyonlands with his college friends, they had camped overnight on the bank. Shortly, we saw a small road branching off towards the stream and followed it.
Across the narrow green stream, a wall of yellow rock extended as far as the eye could see on the right and curved away to the far side on the left. Tall yellow shrubs and dried grass lined the edge of the stream. Behind them was sparkling snow, all the way to the parking area. All these colors painted quite a sight. After around ten minutes, we were on our way again. I made an interesting discovery in our Jeep. There was a 120V charging point at the base of the driver’s hand-rest! Immediately, I started charging my camera battery, hoping it would make a difference before we reached Arches.
The yellow wall of rock beyond the stream.
Our plan was to grab a quick lunch in Moab and reach Arches as soon as possible. All of us agreed that it should be a local breakfast/lunch place that had non-red meat as well as vegetarian options. Of the three possible options shortlisted on Yelp, we decided to go to a small, local place on Main street. The place was extremely crowded and there were at least a couple of other parties waiting to be seated. Within thirty seconds, we were back in the parking lot. The other shortlisted places were a few miles away. After a quick discussion, we finally had lunch at an esteemed, niche establishment called Burger King.
Post lunch, we decided to make a quick stop at our condo before heading for Arches: batteries, change of jackets etc. By the time we touched base it was twenty minutes past noon. Inside, Vikram called out and asked us to come to his room. The door to the yard at the back was open, and the sight was amazing!
View from the back of the condo. We had no idea we were so close to the mountains!
Arches National Park, UT
Mother nature had scheduled sunset for 5:06 PM that day. We reached Arches by around 1:20 PM. This time we visited the visitor’s centre and spent some time looking at the interactive displays and info-graphics. It was fascinating to discover that the entire area was under sea millions of years ago. Also, since these delicate sandstone arches have been forming (and falling) only due to erosion, the area has been geologically stable (no earthquakes etc.) for around fifty thousand years. A small kiosk near the entrance provided us with some extremely practical information. It asked us ‘How many hours do you have?’ and as we entered ‘3’, promptly provided the different combinations of attractions we could cover. But that was quite unnecessary; we knew where we were going. One of the most well known landmarks at Arches.
Delicate Arch. You know it’s one of the most impressive landmarks when a Google image search for ‘Arches national park’ and see more of its pictures than anything else. This is one of those attractions in the park that you have to put in some effort to see as it is not visible from any of the park roads. That made it even more special. The parking lot was probably the biggest one in the park after the one near the visitors center. From there we started on the three mile hike.
Starting on the Delicate Arch hike. The first half of the trail had many gradual slopes.
The trail started as a straight, white path through a field of snow, with grass and shrubs all around. As we reached a group of small hills the trail and the surroundings turned yellow. The trail started meandering through the rocky terrain. The Internet had informed us that the elevation change would be around 480 feet. It wasn’t a difficult climb as the slopes were gradual for most of the hike. And wide. I was surprised to see the width of the rock we were climbing; it was like walking up an inclined field. Towards the top, the trail got narrower again and we had to pass through narrow areas, some water logged and muddy. Saurabh, being a Delicate Arch veteran, was periodically reminding us that the arch was still quite some distance away and the trail leading to it would only get more difficult; that wasn’t true of course but apparently it had an impact on us, much to his amusement.
The final approach to Delicate Arch is a ledge artificially blasted out of sandstone. This part of the trail was covered in snow and in the shade of the tall rock. We reached a small, icy part of the ledge where people moving in both the directions had lined up. One by one, each side taking turns, we walked over the ice with care. On our left was a sight I had somehow never seen in spite of having experienced a couple of winters in upstate New York: snow grass. Flakes (or crystals maybe) of ice were tightly packed giving the illusion of a field of grass. I’m sure I would have walked through it had it not been on the edge of a tall rock. On our right, there was a kind of ditch that sloped sharply before joining the rock wall. Being on that ledge was a great experience.
Vikram on the ledge leading to Delicate Arch.
As we approached the end of the ledge, we could see a sharp bend. A few more steps, and suddenly there it was: the Delicate Arch in its red and white glory. A truly spectacular sight; a moment I shall certainly remember for a long, long time. The arch was standing at the edge of a wide, sloping and conical rock, making the sight dramatic. It looked like a natural amphitheater. The sky was clear, providing a pristine blue backdrop. Behind the arch and visible through it, were the snow-capped La Sal mountains; the border between Utah and Colorado.
Delicate Arch, a wonderful sight. Click on the image for a better view.
We sat on a small, rocky outcrop near the end of the ledge, enjoying the sight. To get under the arch, one had to walk along the edge of the sloping rock. Madhavi declined right away. Saurabh quickly went ahead as Vikram and I started taking pictures. Saurabh returned to inform us that the path wasn’t a trivial one, especially near the arch. Still, the three of us went ahead to a spot offering a wider view of the arch. It was as if the arch was deliberately placed that way to make it more rewarding the closer you got to it. We carefully moved along the sloping rock, while watching a middle-aged man in a bright red jacket almost jogging his way to the arch, at an angle much steeper than ours. After getting a couple of group pictures taken, we sat down on the high rock directly behind us; the ‘balcony’ of the amphitheater.
The weather was quite pleasant at zero degree Celsius, although there were short gusts of wind that made glove-free photography quite an unpleasant experience. But that wasn’t going to stop us. There was no better spot to finish off my camera batteries.
Shortly, we started on the hike back. Since the sky was clear today (as opposed to the day before), the late afternoon sun made the wide, sloping rock glow. We reached the parking lot at four. I don’t remember if we had planned it earlier or not, but next stop was Landscape Arch. Sunset was just an hour away.
The entry to the Landscape Arch trail was quite different compared to the other landmarks. We had to walk through a narrow, icy path through a huge rock with steep edges. I looked at Vikram and both of us said the same thing: ‘Paths of the Dead!’, referring to a scene in The Lord of the Rings where Aragorn, Gimli and Legolas disappear into the mountains to recruit an army of dead (and disloyal) men. That sequence was awesome in the book and really well done in the movie too. ‘What say you?’ Anyways, back to Arches.
As we walked along the trail, the rocks on either side gave way to a somewhat wide area. There was quite a bit of snow accumulated everywhere. We were in the shadow of the tall rocks guarding the entrance of the trail, giving the rocks a dark (often bloody) shade. I observed that there were quite a few trees and shrubs along the trail; we hadn’t seen many since the last couple of days. A high ‘wall’ of rocks was on our left, blocking the sun. To our right, we had a wide view of Arches, shining in the light of the golden sun. The trail was at a slight elevation, allowing us to look at a wider expanse of the park. Sandstone fins could be seen quite regularly along the right side of the trail. These fins are arches in the making. A hundred thousand years in the future, visitors (hopefully human) will be able to see lots of new arches and a few of the old ones that manage to survive. The National Park Service has excellent information on the formation of arches.
Saurabh and Madhavi on the Landscape Arch trail.
As we got closer to Sandstone Arch, the trail narrowed again. We met a few groups of people heading back. It was getting dark fast. But the arch was worth the walk. Leading up to it side, the trail had fences on either side. We had to climb a few natural ‘steps’ as well. Overall, it was a very pretty sight; it felt like a movie set at times. Not a grand backdrop for an action sequence but a set designed for an outdoor Christmas party. The arch is one of the most delicate popular landmarks in Arches. Before we reached, Madhavi mentioned that the arch could fall any day now. It was on a slope to the left of the trail. Through its wide opening, we could see the slope and the rocks behind.
Landscape Arch. Daylight was failing fast at this point.
On our way back, we saw an ice slide: a perfect slope attached to a tall rock, covered with ice. Had it not been getting too dark, it would have been a great start to slipping and sliding on the trip. Arches looked spectacular at dusk. Just like the day before, we drove back to Moab under the stars.
Dinner was a quiet affair at a local Chinese place. Everyone was tired, and so we went to the first place we saw; no arguments. One thing I do remember vividly is that I had eggplant in its whole form for the first time and actually liked it! We retired to our condo before eight that night. Although, we did not sleep for a couple of hours at least. A major topic of discussion was the plan for day four, a day involving Skiing for the first time!
Thanks for reading! As always, comments and feedback will be appreciated 🙂 Part 3 is
on its way here!