Saturday, May 19, 2012

Arches: Tower Arch

Distance: 3.4 miles round trip
Elevation: 5,055 ft at the trailhead, 5,241 ft  max elevation at the top of the bowl, 4,960 ft at the bottom of the bowl
Elevation Gain: 677 ft cumulative elevation gain
Bathroom at Trailhead: Yes
Water at Trailhead: No
Dogs: Not allowed
Date Hiked: 27 April 2012

Godzilla's Tail dominates the Tower Arch Trail.  Even a 360° panorama would not do this area justice. 
The Tower Arch Trail located in the Klondike Bluffs area of Arches National Park is sublime!  During this hike you will sigh often at its solitude, mildly adventurous route, and breathtaking scenery.  The fact that you can only get to Klondike Bluffs after driving a half-hour or so down a washboard-y dirt road leads to its first quality.  A 200 foot scramble up a vertical bluff and then mysterious journey through a broad valley leads to its second quality.  Mother Nature, in her infinite creativity, is responsible for the rest.

The trailhead
Starting up the Bluff.  The wrong trail follows the dirt path to the left.  The correct trail heads up the rocks to the right.
I confess, I had a hard time with the vertical bluff.  Not because it is technically difficult, but because it is really a large pile of rocks and there was a distinct social trail leading parallel to the bluff and not up it.  After following this route for a while, I realized my error and turned around.  It was then that I saw the two cairns that marked the route UPWARDS and not SIDEWARDS.  On my return trip, I stopped and placed a bunch of rocks across the social trail to prevent others from repeating my mistake.  Once on the correct trail, I was able to scramble upwards with relative ease.  This portion of the route does require the use of your hands as you weave in, around, and over large rocks.  At the top, the trail flattens out but don't be deceived, there is another vertical scramble just ahead.  This segment is easier to follow, however, as it ascends vertically up a long smooth rock face.  Finally, at the top of this segment a sombero-sized cairn indicates you have reached the apex of the climb.  Before you is the desert descending downwards in all directions.

Back on the right trail.  Note the cairn to the left.  There was a smaller out, just out of frame that I never saw.
The second vertical pitch
To the right is a wall a thousand feet high that curves down and outwards like the wall of stadium or the serrated tail of Godzilla.  Dead ahead is a pinnacle with spires, shelves, and a thousand nooks and crannies.  In between and all around is a vibrant desert stretching off into the distance.  The destination is an arch, but guessing where that arch is in this vast landscape is part of the fun.  Spoiler Alert:  The arch is actually beyond the pinnacle, across the entire valley, and up and around Godzilla's tail.  Who knew!  If you hike this trail without reading a description like this one, the route will take you from cairn to cairn on a mysterious breadcrumb trail through an enchanted landscape.  The destination could be anywhere but only through completing the journey will you know for sure!

Almost to the top
The large cairn indicating you have reached the top.  The trail with heads towards the pinnacle in the distance but turn right so it is on your left as you descend into the valley.
From the vantage of this amazing vista, the route curves to the right and travels downwards between the pinnacle and the wall in a long series of sloping shelves.  A few places involve maneuvers down steps a couple of feet high, but for the most part the route is sloping and easy to follow.  At the bottom, the route crosses over to the wall, leaving the pinnacle behind as it travels upwards again on a long-curvaceous pile of sand.  The going is slow here as you slide downwards a little with each step.  Where is that arch is the perennial question at this point.  The arch is only 1.2 miles away from the trailhead, but by this point you will feel like you have hiked all day.  Distances are deceiving when looking across broad vistas.  They really are closer than they appear, but it can still take forever to get there!

You can't tell from here, but the arch is behind the wall in the distance and located near the tower of rock that stands tallest against the skyline.
A few places along the route involve larger steps like this step down into a wash.
Still in sand, the route takes a right turn and continues on the backside of the wall.  It is necessary to pay close attention here because hikers have taken slightly different routes between the bushes.  Eventually, a cairn will appear guiding the hiker down a long fin.  More sand and shrubbery follows and if you are like me, you will suddenly find yourself face-to-face with a wall of rock.   At this point I thought I must have taken a wrong turn and starting looking around.  Eventually, I looked up.  I was actually standing at the base of the arch, which was several hundred feet above me.  If I had not been so busy trying to find my way, I would have seen it from the fin. 

At the bottom of the valley crossing a large wash
Heading up the sandy hill
The only people I saw on this whole trip was a group of screaming "spring breakers" who were visiting the arch from the 4x4 road that curves around the valley from the trailhead.  Fortunately, I saw them in the distance and they were long gone by the time I started up the sand hill.   While shocking to my peace and sense of wonder I could not help but remember similar behavior from a much younger me.  Such is the progression of things. 

Few cairns mark this part of the route but you can follow tracks in the sand.
It is hard to see in this smaller photo, but tracks in the sand are visible on the hill in the distance.
The return trip was just as pleasing if a little less mysterious.  The descent down the sand hill provided a nice view of some collapsed arches, which made for a sobering contrast to the loud frivolity of the youngsters.  Everything dies eventually, even arches.
Heading down the fin.  The arch is actually visible at this point but I was so busy watching my step that I did not see it.  This hike was filled with metaphors about life.  Surely this is another one.
Tower Arch
The Tower Arch Trail was my favorite in the park for the reasons I have already articulated.  Don't let the drive intimidate you.  It is passable by a passenger car.  Bring lots of water and food and if you have time linger at various places along the way and let the mystery, deep reds, and startling greens caress you with the realization that life, like a trail is a journey that should be savored every step of the way. 

The spires in the distance are the remains of arches.  Visitors a thousand years from now will see a very different park as the current arches will have collapsed and new ones formed. 


Linda W. said...

wow, another amazing hike with great photos. I need to plan a trip here soon!

KT said...

Hmm...I don't think we did this one. Another reason to go back :).