Choose Your Own Adventure at Arches National Park
We learned quickly that Arches National Park isn’t too wild.
Sure, the retirees who file out of giant tour buses at each overlook may have been party animals in their day, but still…
The vibe of Arches is quite touristy. Pull-outs and overlooks are everywhere, 3-mile trails are deemed “strenuous,” and the entrance gate lines are lengthy in the mornings. In the brochure, the park deters visitors from backcountry camping by recommending Canyonlands or other nearby BLM areas. You may not find too much solitude on the hiking trails. Picnic tables are at a premium. I’m sure you can paint this picture in your mind. (Hint: use a lot of gray).
But despite these (stopping-in-the-middle-of-the-) road blocks, Cole and I were determined to dodge the selfie sticks and find a sense of wilderness.
We are getting good at this. Our mission was accomplished on Day 2 of our two-day Arches tour.
Arches National Park is an accurately named park. Their hiking trails and overlooks all center around natural rock arches that occur more densely here than anywhere in the world. The arches don’t disappoint, either. You’ll be amazed at how these guys form, how they are slowly but constantly eroding and changing, and how they’ll eventually all fall down.
Don’t go to Arches and skip the arches. That would not be productive. Follow the crowds and see, at the least, Delicate Arch (3-mile trail), Double Arch (.5-mile trail), Landscape Arch (1-mile trail), and North and South Windows (1-mile trail) to get a good grasp on the geology of the park. But from there, if you are seeking a bit of quiet wilderness, keep reading this post.
In addition to their easily-accessed points of interest, Arches boasts another feature that is much harder to visit: the Fiery Furnace.
The Fiery Furnace is a rugged, trail-less, 2-square-mile zone in the middle of Arches National Park that is often simply driven past. Looking out the car window on the way by, a visitor can see large rock formations that resemble other areas of the park. Meandering within the Fiery Furnace boundaries, though, is unlike any other experience in the park.
Before running off and getting lost in the maze-like twists and turns of the Fiery Furnace, your first stop is the Visitor Center. From here, there are two options: go on the guided tour ($10 per person, fills up fast), or explore on your own ($4 per person, rarely fills up). Both require registration and payment at the Visitor Center.
Can you guess which we chose?
Since we didn’t take the ranger-guided tour, we can’t speak much to it. But since it was recommended by a few people we ran into during the first part of our trip, we can assume it is also an awesome experience.
We can speak well to the self-guided exploration of the Fiery Furnace (or as we called it, “Choose Your Own Adventure Where the Soil Crust is Lava.”)
Okay. So you’ve watched the guidelines video, you’ve aced the flash-card ranger quiz, and you have your permit in hand. Now what?
Now is the fun part. Enter the Fiery Furnace via a feeder trail that leaves from the parking lot. From there, the area is yours to explore. You can climb, scoot, crawl, and squeeze your way through as many mazes of rock formations as you can, as long as you keep things low-impact. Stick to walking on sandy washes and slickrock. Pack out all waste and trash. Don’t kill the plants.
Even though I don’t have a “type-A” personality, I do like knowing where I am and I hate the discomfort of being lost. Two mindsets that don’t mesh well with the trail-less Fiery Furnace. My advice? Just know that you’ll find your way out. Even though the video warns about getting lost, the zone is not too big, and you’ll be okay.
If this doesn’t ease your anxiety, bring someone like Cole with you. His sense of direction is impeccable.
We spent about three hours in the Fiery Furnace, and that was plenty of time to explore. We saw a few “secret” arches, scrambled up some rock piles, and generally treated the Fiery Furnace like a giant playground. It was fun and exhausting and made us very sore in muscles that apparently aren’t used on regular trails. It tested our navigation skills and trail-following tendencies. It was an amazing way to spend three hours at Arches.
Get brave. If it is wilderness, solitude, or adventure you seek, you will without a doubt find it in the Fiery Furnace.