Arches National Park
Credit: Tourism Utah

By Wallace MacLean

I’m hiking up the side of a 3,600-metre-plus mountain in eastern Utah, and I’m moving very, very slowly.

It’s partly because of the altitude — after all, I’m a flatlander from Toronto. But it’s also because of the footing — the entire slope seems to consist of loose rocky slabs that slide with every step I take. I’m beginning to think that maybe this last-minute adventure wasn’t such a brilliant idea — climbing a mountain hadn’t been part of the original plan.

I’d come to this corner of Utah to explore one of the state’s most famous natural attractions — Arches National Park. Like thousands of other people, I’d first become familiar with the area when I read Desert Solitaire, the classic book by Edward Abbey. Abbey — considered by many to be the curmudgeonly patron saint of the American Southwest — spent several seasons as a park ranger at Arches back in the late 1950s, and he declared the area “the most beautiful place on earth.” Naturally, I had to see it for myself.

I arrived at Arches just after noon on a scorching mid-August day. As I drove the 30 km from the entrance gate to the park’s only campground — which sits at an elevation of 1,500 metres — I could see why Abbey had used such superlatives to describe the area. The high-desert landscape here is fantastic in the truest sense of the word. First, there are the namesake sandstone arches. The park boasts more than 2,000 of them in its 31,000 hectares, which makes this the best place on the planet to see these stunning formations. But Arches is also home to all sorts of other classic southwestern formations — Monument-Valley-sized buttes, soaring rocky pinnacles, bizarrely shaped hoodoos. It’s like a greatest-hits collection of the American Southwest.

When I reached the Devils Garden Campground, I set up my tent in the sand and then briefly considered going for a hike. But the midday sun seemed a little too hot. So I hopped back in the car and headed for the nearby town of Moab.

Shortly after exiting the park, I passed over the Colorado River, which was surprisingly narrow here and very muddy. And then I entered Moab, population 5,046. The town was once a mining centre — “The Uranium Capital of the World” — but in the last few decades has become one of the recreation capitals of the world. It’s particularly popular among mountain bikers, who come from all over to ride the legendary Slickrock Trail. I planned to try the trail while I was in the area, so I went to one of the local bike stores, rented a ride and threw it on the back of the car. Then I set out for a scenic tour.

First I drove south along the Colorado River as it made its way below tall canyon walls, and then I followed the Kane Creek Road higher and higher into the backcountry. Red cliffs rose far above me while the creek itself was far below. I stopped and sat on a rocky outcrop for half-an-hour to take in the view. Later I headed back along the river north of town to see the Fisher Towers, a famous rock-climbing area. Some of the spires here rise 300 metres above the ground.

After grabbing dinner in Moab, I drove back to the park campground. A thunderstorm was brewing in the distance, but I set out anyway for an evening hike to the nearby Broken Arch. It’s a large arch that is not actually broken, but may be one of these days. I scrambled onto a high point of rock next to the arch, and sat there awhile as it grew dark, watching the lightning get closer and closer. Fortunately I made it back to my tent well before the rain began.

The next morning I was up early and headed off to bike the Slickrock Trail. I wanted to beat the heat and made it to the trailhead by about 7:30 a.m. The smooth sandstone reminded me of Canadian Shield granite, but the sections of wheel-sucking sand let me know that I was definitely not in Ontario. The ride was challenging but fun, and there were plenty of nice views along the way. Moab sat just to the south, a low-lying pocket of green surrounded by red sandstone walls. To the northwest, the oddly shaped landscape of Arches poked above the horizon. And at points down below, I could see the muddy brown Colorado River.

After the ride, I returned the bike, had some lunch and then headed back to Arches. I wanted to explore the park, and my first mission was to visit the spot where Ed Abbey lived while a ranger. (Needless to say, the trailer he called home is long gone.) And then I visited some of the park’s more popular sights — the gravity-defying Balanced Rock, the huge double arches called the Windows and the classic Delicate Arch (the park’s most famous). That evening, while the sun was setting, I made the short hike to Landscape Arch, which — at about 100 metres — is the longest arch in North America.

Later that night, while reading my copy of Desert Solitaire as lightning again flashed outside my tent, I was reminded of one of Ed Abbey’s many interesting adventures. On an August day about six decades ago, Abbey decided to escape the summer heat by heading for the La Sal Mountains, which rise to a height of over 3,600 metres just east of Moab. Specifically, he decided to climb to the top of 3,805-metre Mount Tukuhnikivats — what he called “the King.”

The next morning, I got up early again and headed southeast for the La Sals. I stopped in Moab to buy some food, then proceeded on a series of smaller and smaller roads high into the foothills. It was a pleasant drive, passing first small herds of cattle and later deer. Eventually I reached a small clearing in the aspen forest where I parked the car. As far as I knew, I was at an elevation of about 3,000 metres, at the place just north of Tukuhnikivatz where Abbey started his hike.

I followed a trail through the woods until I reached another clearing. From here I could see the summit of Tukuhnikivatz above, and it looked like it would be a fairly easy hike out of the woods up a gradual incline to the top. But even before I’d reached the treeline, I hit big blocky talus. And I realized, as Abbey had before me, that this was going to be a very tough slog.

I ascended gradually up a slope that was steeper than expected, balancing carefully on the large rocks underfoot. Finally, about two hours after leaving the car, I reached the summit. Only, it wasn’t the summit of the main peak. It was the top of a sub-peak called Little Tuk. The top of Tukuhnikivats was still about 150 metres above me, nearly a kilometre to the southeast along a ridgeline. To get there, I’d have to lose some elevation before climbing even higher.

Half-an-hour later, I was finally standing on top of the real summit. It had taken some perseverance, but the effort was well worth it. Not just because of the view, which was spectacular in all directions. But also because I’d managed to follow, literally, in Ed Abbey’s footsteps.

 This article originally appeared in our Summer 2014 issue.

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