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A Southwestern USA Expedition: Moab

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Just fifteen minutes past the Forrest Gump overlook we reached the turn-off for Goosenecks State Park. I hadn't even had this place on my itinerary but our down time at the hogan had given me the time to do a little extra research about our route. Goosenecks only has one sight but it is a knockout. Just steps from the parking area is the viewpoint for a geologic masterpiece where the San Juan river has cut a thousand foot deep serpentine pattern into the sedimentary rock forming what is known as an entrenched meander. As usual the river at the bottom of the canyon was rather unassuming while the walls formed vast layered peninsulas that narrowed to ridges at their highest points. The polypoid peninsulas interlocked perfectly like the teeth of a zipper at a scale that was breathtaking. The other fortuitous thing about stopping at the park was that I was able to buy Cleo an authentic Navajo turquoise necklace from a vendor at the parking lot. I hadn't found what I wanted anywhere we'd looked over the last two days in Navajo Nation and now I had finally found the perfect item at a very reasonable price. Cleo was thrilled and I can only hope she still loves it as much when she's older as she does now.

Just a couple of miles from Goosenecks was the west entrance to Valley of the Gods, a site owned and administered by the Bureau of Land Management whose name makes it hard to resist. Since we had been denied a drive through Monument Valley it was great to have a chance to see some magnificent rock formations up close. The loop drive through the valley is seventeen miles but the bumpy dirt road made it feel much longer. The monoliths here were smaller than the spectacular Monuments but no less fascinating and the opportunity to see them up close was unforgettable.

We stopped for lunch in the town of Bluff, a tiny burg that seemed to have progressed past sleepy into comatose. Our first two restaurant choices were closed but that proved fortuitous as our third and final option was quite an amazing place. The Twin Rocks Cafe was nothing special when it came to food but the setting at the base of a cliff topped with jaw-dropping rock formations was unbeatable. The twin pillars of layered sandstone topped by limestone boulders that gave the restaurant its name were particular impressive. Indoors we restored the union of body and soul with the typical utilitarian southwestern fare. I had a craving for a beer after the dusty drive through Valley of the Gods but our Navajo server told me he had to find someone else to take an order for alcohol. I wasn't sure if that was because of his age or some other ordinance, but after some time had elapsed no one else had shown up at our table. I had to flag him down again to request an audience with the "beer sommelier" before I could get my drink. A friend had recommended we visit the Bluff Fort, the main tourist attraction in town, but the midday sun was blazing hot and we decided to push onward to Moab.

By now we should have been oblivious to rocks and cliffs but the truth is that every scenic location we had visited had its own unique look. Sedona had its red rocks, the Petrified Forest had painted mesas, Navajo Nation had layered sandstone, and now Moab was something altogether different. As we entered the region the landscape transitioned from a relatively flat expanse into outcroppings and rounded bluffs of pinkish sandstone. The harbinger of this was Church Rock, a magnificently striated and colorful chunk of weathered rock that looked to me more like a surfacing submarine than a church. Fifteen minutes later we were shocked to see an enormous sandstone arch right by the side of the road, with people clambering up to its base. We were expecting to see arches in the Arches National Park, but had no idea that one could be accessed so easily from the highway. This was Wilson's Arch, a spot that I'd missed completely in my research.

Our Airbnb in Spanish Valley was so unobtrusive that we drove past it three times before we finally identified it. It looked more like an outbuilding at a construction site than a residence, but inside it was surprisingly comfortable and spacious. The backdrop of mountains and cliffs eased the minor annoyance of being located right next to the highway.

The first order of business was getting showered and changed. There hadn't been any showering facility at the hogan which made me feel like I was only half awake during the day. The hot air and hours in the car hadn't helped, so the cool water streaming into my hair felt blissful. The past few days in Navajo country had been fairly rough from a culinary perspective as well, and thankfully we had reservations for Moab's top spot for fine dining. Desert Bistro was a beautiful restaurant that also felt amicable and laid-back, much like Moab itself. We had a very satisfying dinner and began to soak in the atmosphere of this legendary adventure town.

We had one adventure planned for each day in Moab. For our full day I had scheduled a rafting trip, intentionally booking the gentlest option that still had some rapids. I was pretty sure the older kids could handle class II rapids but Spenser had just turned six and I thought it would be wise to ease into the whitewater thing gradually. I needn't have worried because the rapids were so minimal that it was more like a float trip. We didn't even have our own oars. The kids had plenty of fun getting bounced around a little and they had a chance to try rowing the raft and swimming in the murky water. The current was surprisingly strong and I felt a rush of anxiety when the kids floated a couple hundred feet downstream from the raft. My rational side told me the guides would never expose us to any real danger but my parental instincts induced me to strike out as fast as I could swim to catch up with them. By the time I finally caught up I was completely out of breath. The red sandstone cliffs around the river looked like they had been carelessly shellacked with a black substance everywhere they were exposed to the sun. Our guide told us that this was "desert varnish", manganese oxide produced by the metabolic activity of bacterial colonies on the rock surface. It's an incredibly slow process and is useful to geologists in that the thickness of the layer allows a determination of how long the surface has been exposed. We could pick out the most recent rockfalls by spotting the bared areas of the cliff which invariably had piles of boulders beneath them that were varnished on just one side.

We had an early dinner at a serviceable Thai restaurant and then killed the time until sunset at the small city park. The kids were having so much fun making new friends that we eventually abandoned our plan to drive up the hill adjoining the main road to watch the sun go down.

We had saved the main event in Moab for our last day. Arches was the first of three national parks in Utah that we would be visiting over the next week. Utah actually has five but it would have been obsessive for us to try and visit all of them. Arches National Park is of course named for more than two thousand natural sandstone arches that are distributed within, although only a few of these are considered worthy of being destinations unto themselves. I had made the decision to buy a personal half day tour for the family via jeep, considering the limited time we had available to see the park. We met our guide fairly early in the morning and drove into the park via a back entrance that wasn't open to the general public, bypassing the line of vehicles that had already formed at the main entrance. The first place he stopped the jeep was an open area with dinosaur tracks, where we had a chance to educate the kids about the different impressions left by sauropods and therapods.

We soon found our way to Arches Scenic Drive, the main road that snaked through the park. This brought us right up to one of the park's iconic formations, Balanced Rock. The fact that the mushroom cap boulder at the top is attached to its seventy foot pedestal, rather than balanced on it, does nothing to detract from the stunning beauty of the formation. No matter how many geologic masterpieces we had encountered during this journey through the Southwest, it seemed like Mother Earth always had more to give.

The single defining formation of Arches National Park is Delicate Arch. This fifty foot freestanding arch is by far the most popular site in the park and is featured on the Utah license plate. The only catch is that seeing Delicate Arch up close requires a three mile round trip hike on rock that is completely exposed to sun. On sunny days many people underestimate the hike or fail to bring enough water and have to turn back before the goal. While all the pictures of Delicate Arch show it in magnificent solitude against the backdrop of the La Sal mountains, what you don't see is the line of people waiting for up to an hour to get their chance for their individual picture. Knowing all this I had decided that for this trip we would forgo Delicate Arch in favor of less popular locations inside the park. Fortunately our guide knew a vantage point from which we could get a decent picture of the arch from ground level. As I expected, when we passed the Delicate Arch trailhead there was a long line of hikers snaking up the rock surface towards the arch despite the blazing sun overhead. I was very glad we were not attempting to join them.

Now that we had seen these iconic features of Arches it was time to have a little adventure of our own. Our guide brought us off road to a spot where there were no other visitors at all. Our guide took us on a short hike to an arch where we could scramble across a smooth rock slope and get right underneath an arch. He explained the process of arch formation which begins with an uplifted section of sandstone called a dome. The same process of lifting creates numerous vertical fractures in the rock which are gradually enlarged by freezing and thawing of water that collects in the cracks. Eventually the domes cleave along the fracture lines to form freestanding rock walls called fins. The way in which fins become arches is less clearly understood, but one theory is that as the fin itself erodes away the most stable remnant is the part that forms the arch and thereby supports itself. It's the same principle that led the Romans to utilize the arch so successfully in their construction of enormous aqueducts and colosseums.

After the hike the boys fell asleep in the jeep but Cleo and I were able to take one more short walk on our own to another popular area of arches and fins. I think that for us the guided tour was probably the right decision mainly because we were able to have that one arch completely to ourselves, but I can't say that it's really necessary even for a short visit. The scenic drive makes it very easy to get to Balanced Rock, the Delicate Arch trailhead, and most of the other popular areas of the park. There are a lot of amazing hikes in Arches that we didn't have the time nor inclination to attempt and many people stay in the area for a week or more. It's a National Park that I would definitely return to in order to see Delicate Arch up close some time in the future when the kids are older.

At this point we were all packed up at the northern end of Moab in perfect position to resume the northward drive to Salt Lake City. However, I felt a distinct sensation that we had unfinished business in the area and I knew it would continue to bother me even after we had returned home. We had lunch in town and then got back on the main road south towards Wilson Arch. When we had passed it the first time on the way into Moab it had just looked too interesting to pass up. It was further south than I remembered, a full half hour's drive from where we'd met our Arches guide. As soon as we found the turnoff I knew we were in for a challenging climb. The arch was a lot further from ground level than it appeared from the highway. It still seemed doable, although once we got started I regretted having changed out of our hiking boots into sandals. As we moved upward there was less gravel and dust on the sandstone and it became harder to get a grip on the smooth surface. Fortunately the slope was never that steep so even if one of us had slipped completely we wouldn't have slid down very far. There was one final scramble across a slick surface and then we were under a magnificent arch, much larger than the one we had climbed up to in the park. There was a beautiful view through the window to an idyllic landscape of a tree-dotted valley and a majestic butte, but I wouldn't let the kids close because of the drop on the other side. We spent a few minutes up there savoring our achievement and enjoying our closeness to this magnificent natural creation.

Our final stop in the Moab area was The Hole N"The Rock, a classic American roadside tourist trap that is actually quite an interesting spot. The hole is a five thousand square foot home that was dynamited out of the base of a sandstone bluff by a local settler in the 1940's. The interior is quite comfortable and well-ventilated, and also fairly modern from a 1950's perspective. There's plenty of fascinating period kitsch and artwork inside, although how much of it was really there when the home was inhabited is questionable. No pictures were allowed inside so we had to be content with capturing the exterior of the bluff, which was still very memorable with an enormous bust of FDR chiseled into the sandstone. I never did ask why there's a solitary quotation mark after the N instead of an apostrophe before it, but I probably wouldn't have gotten a very good answer. We skipped the petting zoo and some other little cash grabs at the site and got back on the road to Salt Lake City.

Posted by zzlangerhans 14:26 Archived in USA Tagged road_trip arches family_travel travel_blog arches_national_park goosenecks tony_friedman family_travel_blog valley_of_the_gods wilson_arch hole_n_the_rock

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