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A-maze-ing Arches

Arches NP, Monday, 22 May 2023

Oh, man. How could I possibly hope to follow up on the incredible Cataract Canyon whitewater trip?

How about with the most popular unknown hike in any National Park?

I'd never heard of Fiery Furnace until I called Arches to inquire about singular experiences. The ranger described a 'trail' that wove through a maze of slot canyons, requiring route-finding skills and climbing up/dropping from/squeezing through boulders. He assured me that even though visitors will run into dead ends and must retrace their steps - "Always remember to look around whenever you take a branch, so you can find your way back." - they have not needed to send a search and rescue squad for anyone who got lost in the maze recently. Oh, good - been there, done that last year.

Here's how the park website describes it: "During these physically demanding hikes, you will walk and climb on irregular and broken sandstone, along narrow ledges above drop-offs, and in loose sand. There are gaps you must jump across and narrow places that you must squeeze into and pull yourself up and through. In some places, you must hold yourself off the ground by pushing against the sandstone walls with your hands and feet."

I asked several friends who frequent National Parks, as well as my nephew Justin (who qualified as a local), and none of them had heard of Fiery Furnace. The fact that the park limits the number of people who can take the hike to under one hundred daily - only 1-2% of the visitors to the park - may explain that.

Ahh, but getting a reservation to take the hike... The park releases tickets for any given day at 8:00 a.m. one week prior. Problem: I knew I'd be somewhere high over Kansas when the tickets became available. I did a few test runs anyway, logging on at 8 a.m. several straight days before I left for Utah, to see how quickly tickets sold out. Answer: within two seconds. In four attempts, I only reached a 'purchase' screen once (which I had to decline, being the wrong day).

Came the Sunday one week before today. At 8 a.m. I logged in with Delta's inflight WiFi, hit the buttons ... and no luck. But I had Sue at home try her luck right at 10 a.m. EDT! and she had the same result. Thank goodness I had gone full OCD on this, and had asked my nephew try also ... and he got through! (I heard later that other people tackle it the same way. If they end up with excess tickets, they cancel them, and those tickets eventually show up at for lucky people that check in later.)

Justin picked me up at 8:15, and he drove us over to the park. At the Visitor Center, the ranger led us to a room around the corner from the main desk. "Everyone who hikes the Fiery Furnace has to watch an instructional video," he explained. "We want to keep this area pristine." The film mentioned that you WILL get lost, and you WILL need to retrace your steps. "Only walk in sandy washes or over slickrock, and if the path peters out, turn around and go back."

Once the video ended, the ranger came back in and gave us our final exam. "What do you do if the sandy wash or slickrock you're walking on ends?"

"Turn back!"

Now armed with our marching orders, we sought out the Fiery Furnace trailhead. People wandered about, many taking the short walk to the Furnace overlook.

There, a view into a mass of rocks split into spires, crevices, and canyons got us eager for this adventure.

The trail into the maze was well marked, a dirt path leading into the array of rocks. It took little time before the obvious path dwindled, leaving us with various sandy wash or slickrock options from which to choose. I got into the spirit of things quickly. "Let's head right on this wash, Justin. It's probably the wrong choice, so let's see what's down there. Remember that scrawny bush for when we have to come back."

Thus began our exploration of the Fiery Furnace. Everywhere rocks surrounded us, with brush in many places. Up one trace, we found ourselves looking down on where we'd been.

Another trace had us lowering down,

yet another was too narrow to wear a pack through.

Some areas kept us corralled by high rock walls,

in others the terrain opened up. We constantly had to check our bearings,

as trail arrows came few and far between.

Sometimes the passage would seem too ridiculous to be the trail,

but at the end we would see another arrow hidden on a facing wall.

(In an attempt to help frustrated hikers, the NPS had posted a few 'Dead End Ahead' signs to let them know that this path would NOT get them home - but go ahead and check out the scenery if you'd like.) After a few too many wrong turns, I let Justin take the lead, and his route-finding skills shone.

When the rock walls widened, plants filled the void, be they scraggly pinyons or flowering plants anchoring the sandy soil.

A few nooks looked alluring, with the sun illuminating the red rocks.

Occasionally we'd catch glimpses of other hikers,

but would generally give them space (as the video suggested).

After a couple of hours, the going got tougher.

Soon we found ourselves comparing notes with other hikers, trying to find the passage out. Certain traces would beckon, then we'd backatrack when it got gnarly,

only to hear from a hiker using the AllTrails app that yes, indeed, that was the way.

Once we edged down a boulder and found the continuation after that backtrack and retrack, we saw another 'Dead End Ahead' sign. The AllTrails hiker had had enough. "My app says this is the last dead end, so we're skipping it and heading back to the car."

"Our last exploration, Justin. We might as well check it out before calling it a hike." The walk started off in a narrow wash, but the walls quickly closed in. We now ascended a small rock ledge between the pressing walls - not nearly as tight as cracks we'd already seen, but too thin to walk shoulder-to-shoulder.

Justin took lead, scampering up the trace as I plodded behind him. Soon he stopped. "Ooh, you're going to like this. Definitely worth the effort." I caught up to him where the slot opened up to the sky - and found us standing beneath a landscape arch soaring between the walls.

Wow... definitely worth pursuing.

We retreated - it was a dead end, after all - and caught the now well-trodden trail out of the maze. After we descended the steps carved into the stones,

the rock walls fell away and we found ourselves back at the car. Three hours had passed since we entered the maze, but the clock had not yet reached 1:00. Time for one more hike...

I'd hoped we'd have time to see Delicate Arch. This arch serves as THE icon of Arches NP, if not of the whole state of Utah - egads! they even have it on their license plate! When I suggested that, Justin endorsed the idea. "Delicate Arch has always helped me mark special times. My first time there came when I graduated high school, when I hiked it with my three best friends. I returned with my roommates during Spring Break of my senior year of college, and then with my new bride Rachel once I got my internship in Grand Junction. Now I've got a career and can help you share your adventure. My next visit will probably be when our kids are old enough to hike it!"

My adventure, you bet. After spending so much time doing the two miles (plus detours) in the Furnace, and with the heat peaking in the afternoon, the hike was far from a simple jaunt. Yes, the trail ran only 1.6 miles each way, but it did gain 480' - with very little shade along the way. An actual trail ran halfway there before dumping us onto a wide slickrock ramp for most of the elevation gain.

We could see this looming from the moment we started, with tiny pinpricks of color marking the distant hikers.

I started strong, leading the way, but soon slowed as Justin passed me on his young, fit legs. (He graciously declined to hurry me as I kept stopping for photos to catch my breath.) Halfway up I stopped for water, looking at the bright blue sky leading us to the view. "It'd sure be nice if we could get a cloud overhead for some shade," I observed.

Instantly, the ground ahead of me darkened, accompanied a pleasant breeze. Looking up, I saw a few random clouds overhead move in front of the sun. Geez, why didn't I know about this superpower before now?!?

We finished the slickrock ramp and treaded carefully along the approach ledge until - there! just like on the license plate!

Delicate Arch quickly brought on a sense of peace, letting me marvel at the beauty of nature - while also recognizing that someday it, too, will fall. For twenty minutes we soaked it in, watching people shot selfies in the gap. Raoul even made an appearance, gliding through with the impressive clouds as a backdrop.

Finally we picked ourselves up, knowing we still faced a 90-minute drive home.

The heat still radiated off the slickrock on our return. Partway down, Justin observed, "Whatever happened to the clouds and breeze we had on the way up?"

OMG, he has that same superpower! It must run in the family. That restored breeze cooled us on our way back to the car. I had to snap photos at the remains of Wolfe Ranch before closing out the park visit.

We drove home to Fruita CO along the scenic route following the Colorado River. The swollen waterway continued to rise; at points near Fruita, the bike trail along the river lay under feet of water - and where the interstate crossed the river, the water level reached within a foot of the base of the bridge.

One last stop to make. Rachel drove me the few miles to the Grand Junction airport so I could pick up the rental car I'd reserved. At the terminal, the agent processed my reservation, then handed me the keys and said, "Head to row G - the last row - and you'll find the Chevy Malibu in space G24."

Over at row G, I walked down past the cars in G22, G23, G25... "They lost my car! G24 is empty!" My mind raced as I wondered how to break the bad news to the agent. Before I could make a brash move, though, I thought... and punched the 'lock' button on the key fob a couple of times.

"Beep, beep." Move to the right a few steps, click the button again. "Beep." Closer... move forward, click the button. "Beep!" There's the Malibu, in space G14.

How nice of Alamo, to give me a test to see if I'm ready to re-enter civilization after so long on the river!

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