I flew into Salt Lake City Thursday morning a few days in advance of Sunday’s XTERRA Nationals to do a bit of altitude adjustment and also some sightseeing. I can’t believe I haven’t spent time in Utah before. It’s beautiful!
I didn’t have much of a plan other than heading south to the Moab area and hopefully seeing both Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. I couldn’t figure out if I should hit Canyonlands in the afternoon and Arches in the morning? Vice versa? I pulled off the road to take a little stretching break and do what anyone else would do. I asked Siri.
Seemed most search results suggested Arches as a better, less-crowded morning option so I turned towards Canyonlands and drove into the Islands in the Sky district around 4pm Thursday. I also had no idea Canyonlands spanned 4 different districts across a vast amount of land. I guess I get an F for advanced trip planning.
Islands in the Sky is the most accessible area of Canyonlands. Other areas of the park require some effort to reach. A Park Ranger at the Visitor Center suggested the Lathrop Trail just down the road as a great spot for a 5-6 mile trail run with some excellent canyon views.
Being up at 6k in elevation was a great opportunity to do a little shakeout. The trail started in a prairie-like grasslands setting that was a bit sandy. I watched my step, careful to avoid the cactus and little lizards skittering everywhere beneath my feet.
In about a half mile I had my first slick rock experience and had to carefully look for cairns to point the way. In this rocky environment you have to pay attention because the cairns are almost camouflage at times and it’s quickly apparent how easy it would be to get lost here.
After a short stretch of slick rock, the trail descended to the canyon rim near the 3 mile mark. I stopped and enjoyed the views and complete utter silence. Not a sound anywhere! Truly incredible but also a little unnerving at the same time. I would not want to get lost here.
From the canyon rim the Lathrop trail descends all the way down to the canyon floor and then onward to the Colorado River in about 9.5 miles. What a fun run that would be! As much as I wanted to continue, I turned back to the trailhead, amazed I had already drank nearly a liter of water in just over 40 minutes. Happily my heart rate had normalized and my heart was no longer pounding through my chest. I’m sure hoping some of the hiking I’ve done the last few weekends at higher elevation has helped!
I spent the next hour or so touring the park, marveling at the views, and watching the sunset. On my drive out I was ecstatic to see a very large, very full moon rising from behind the mountains and canyons. What a sight!! I couldn’t do it justice with my wimpy little camera. It was just beautiful!
I stayed in Moab overnight with the idea of getting up at the crack of dawn to see Arches National Park, but sleep won over instead. The 4am early flight wakeup with a full day of sightseeing had kicked my butt. A local suggested I check out Corona Arch on my way to Arches. It was a short detour that turned into a spectacular little side trip. The arch trailhead is about 10 miles up the Potash Rd (SR 279), a mile north of the Colorado River bridge outside Moab. The drive was spectacular with ridiculously tall, steep, foreboding rock walls encroaching on the highway. Signs along the road point out petroglyphs in the canyon walls.
I was delighted to see only a few cars at the trailhead. The arch is reachable by a mile and a half mostly easy hike. The trail is signed and cairns lead the way through slick rock. As you round the corner of a canyon, there is a short ladder climb and a cable that helps guide you up a short steep section of rock. The rock has little foot holds so it’s an easy stair-like effort. The setting is spectacular, the arch dramatic, and the echo of the nearby Bowtie Arch is pretty cool. I had the whole place to myself with just 2 other people on the trail.
Corona Arch gained notoriety from a 2012 YouTube video of someone turning it into the world’s largest rope swing. Earlier this year a Utah man died trying to replicate the stunt. No thanks. Simply enjoying the view is plenty!
After Corona Arch I hit Arches National Park and as expected, a lot of tourists and traffic. Arches is incredible and has some of the most amazingly bizarre sights I’ve ever seen, but honestly, I quickly grew tired of the tourist rat race. There really aren’t many trails with the exception of the Devil’s Garden loop that get you away from the road and the masses. Even that trail seemed to be very busy, though I didn’t have enough time to do the loop myself. Tour busses tailgated, parking lots were swarming, and lines of cars made their way through the park.
I think the beautiful solitude of Canyonlands and the Corona Arch spoiled me. At least I did visit on a weekday. I can’t imagine how much worse a weekend is! Arches would be spectacular at sunset and/or sunrise, but I wonder how many others have the same thought.
Arches is certainly a must-see but I enjoyed the much less populated short hike to Corona Arch so much more! For me, Canyonlands was the surprising underdog winner. I loved that I was able to get out on a trail there in shocking solitude without hoards of people. It was fun to have such completely different experiences in each park.
If you find yourself in the Moab area, definitely put Corona Arch on a list of must-do’s along with a full day each for both Canyonlands and Arches. I suppose you could do both in a very long day, but the hot sun, arid environment, and higher elevation take their toll after a bit. I went through 3 gallons of water in just 24 hrs!
I will definitely be returning to southeastern Utah for more exploration. Now onward to XTERRA Nats!