Hiking Arches National Park In Winter With A Pair Of Worn Out Sneakers

How did I end up on the ass end of the famous Delicate Arch rock formation at Arches National Park in Utah? That’s the question I asked myself one afternoon last week as I was standing on the slippery base of the arch in completely inappropriate sneakers, looking down at the steep drop into the canyon below. (see video below)
At Arches, you can’t miss the Delicate Arch, a huge rock formation that stands on the brink of a canyon with the imposing, snow capped La Sal Mountains as a backdrop. (It’s even on the state license plate in Utah) But you can easily get lost trying to find the damn vantage point above the arch, especially in the winter, when the crowds range from sparse to nonexistent and there’s no one to follow.

In truth, I should have known better. I’m a fairly experienced hiker, so I know that you’re supposed to follow the cairns- those short stacks of rocks that mark trails. But I like to hike fast and when I’m wrapped up in the natural splendor of a place, I tend to lose concentration, as I did on this day, when I began to follow footprints up a series of steep rocks, rather than the cairns.

When I finally reached the base of the Delicate Arch, I looked to my left and noticed a cluster of hikers sitting up on top of a colossal wall of rock looking down onto the arch. There was a steep drop off and no way for me to walk across and up the rock to their vantage point, so I made the assumption that I needed to climb around the arch to get up to where they were.

I had planned to buy a new pair of hiking boots on the trip, but had been so busy waking up before the crack of dawn to hike and take photos each day that I didn’t have time to buy them. I was wearing a pair of running sneakers with virtually no tread left and my attempt to shimmy around the sides of the arch, which has a fairly steep drop on both sides, scared the hell out of me.

It seemed hard to believe that the park’s most popular trail would lead people along such a treacherous path, yet I couldn’t figure out how to reach the upper vantage point I could see. I considered yelling across to the hikers on the plateau but felt too ashamed to scream out, ‘HEY! HOW DO I GET UP THERE?’ But after I nearly slipped and fell down the canyon (see video above and below) I finally realized that I must have taken a wrong turn.

I retraced my steps and eventually realized that the path requires hikers to make their approach behind the steep wall of rock in order to reach the upper vantage point of Delicate Arch. It was a humbling start to my visit to Arches, but I soon fell in love with the place nonetheless. Arches is a remarkably beautiful place and it’s only a couple miles outside Moab, one of just a handful of left-leaning places in a very red state.

The park has at least 2,000 arches, formed by erosion over a period of more than 100 million years but it’s relatively easy to see most of Arches in a day or two, depending on which hikes you take. How beautiful is it? Chose any adjective you like- stupendous, awe-inspiring, breathtaking, mesmerizing- they all fit.

Delicate Arch is the most hyped hiking trail in the park but I enjoyed the Park Avenue, Windows, Balanced Rock, and Devil’s Garden trails just as much. (Though I only completed part of Devil’s Garden, due to my shoddy footwear) Arches is a popular place for most of the year, but I had the place mostly to myself on a Sunday afternoon and almost completely to myself on a Tuesday in early January. Nearby Canyonlands National Park was even quieter.

Some sections of the roads in the park were a bit icy, but given the choice between sitting in traffic at Arches when it’s 100 degrees or having the place to myself when it’s 30 and a bit icy, I’ll take the later every time. If you want to go someplace quiet to relieve stress, I can’t think of a better place than Arches in the winter. But dress warm, bring your own food and water, and, whatever you do, follow the cairns, not the foot and paw prints.

[Photo/video credits: Dave Seminara]