Highlights from Arches National Park — The Fiery Furnaces and Delicate Arch

Highlights from Arches National Park — The Fiery Furnaces and Delicate Arch

After a few visits, we’d exhausted all there is to do in Arches National Park, but since we were in the area, we couldn’t resist stopping again for a scramble around the Fiery Furnaces and a Delicate Arch revisit.

Hiking in the Fiery Furnaces is an ordeal. You first must stop at the visitor’s center, watch an instructional video, be quizzed by a Ranger (Ranger: “Now, tell me how to identify a wash.”), and purchase a permit. I hate doing stuff like this. Only 75 people are allowed in the area each day, so you’ll need to arrive early on potentially busy days to ensure you’re one of the lucky 75. It’s worth it, of course.

I should also mention that the official name is “Fiery Furnace” — singular. However, that’s never seemed right to me. It should be plural, right?

When you look at the Fiery Furnaces on an aerial photograph, it looks like someone took a rake and neatly dragged it from southeast to northwest through a wet pile of sand. It’s a dense area of sandstone fins that have been eroded into interesting shapes and arches. There’s no official trail through the area, but you’d have to be pretty trail-blind to not be able to follow the path Rangers use to take groups to the easier-to-reach highlights. It’s pretty tough to get lost as long as you keep your orientation in mind and pay close attention to landmarks. This is full body hiking — you’ll be using your arms as much as your legs as much as your brain.

This visit we saw some things we’d seen before, missed others, and found some entirely new things. It’s hard to describe how amazing it is to look up and find a tripod arch high above your head, or to squeeze through a crack in the fins only to find a sand dune blocking your exit, the wind hurtling it at your face as hard as it can, or to find yourself in a dead end slot canyon with a dryfall towering high overhead. It’s essentially an entire network of slot canyons that you can explore to the point of exhaustion. All the while, you’re surrounded by silence. As the sun moves across the sky, the lighting changes. First you’re in shadow, then all begins to glow orange, then the sun is directly overhead and the rock looks more brown and grey. Then you’re in shadow again. It’s hard to leave.

After exhausting ourselves in the Fiery Furnaces, we decided we’d hike up to nearby Delicate Arch. I just wanted to see it again. I remember this trail being really difficult and scary on our last visit, but we’re in so much better shape that it now seemed easy. The trail climbs straight up a massive sandstone hill, then skirts around a narrow ledge. I love the approach to the arch — it’s so dramatic. You’re preoccupied by the narrow ledge and steep drop-off, then you round a corner, and BOOM! Delicate Arch slaps you in the face. You stumble back, then remember the cliff and stumble forward. You climb up over the rocks and wedge your body into a crevice so you can take everything in without falling over.

Delicate Arch stands in the center of a dramatic sandstone amphitheater, a bowl hollowed out of rock with a lumpy handle on a precipice in the middle. The name is obvious. There’s a spot where one of the legs tapers in to a skinny little knee of rock. Someday that knee will break.

I wanted to sit and stare at the arch for an hour or so until the lighting was better, but the wind was so intense we were having a hard time standing. The wind did do one good thing — it kept the crowds down. Usually it’s nearly impossible to take a picture of Delicate Arch without someone underneath it. Other than an awkward Facebook photo shoot that was wrapping up as we arrived (“OK baby, now lay right up there and spread your legs out all the way, yeah, that’s hot,” I imagined the guy saying to his girlfriend.) the wind was keeping everyone else from lingering and attempting the scary climb to the underside of the arch. We scrambled around to the backside of the arch on our backsides to see a different angle. From that side, the arch looks even more delicate, even less probable. It’s beautiful.