No man ever steps in the same river twice, for it’s not the same river and he’s not the same man
The desert surrounding the former uranium mining town of Moab in southwest Utah looks like a scene from a sci-fi flick. The imposing monoliths of red sandstone tower over seasonal washes and the mighty Colorado and Green Rivers. Millennia of erosion has shaped the stone into hoodoos, fins, and mushrooms. The layers of red, pink, white, grey, and occasionally green look like child found the Earth’s paint pot.
The first time I went to Moab, I was astounded by the scenery, but only had time for the “drive-by” version. The one that’s typical in many national parks across the country, where you get out of the car at the viewpoints and walk along the paved or gravel paths to the carefully curated scenes. It was early November, or the start of low season in that section of the desert, so luckily I didn’t have to deal with the crowds that have become a problem at places like Arches National Park.
That quick trip to run my first marathon somehow allowed Moab to worm it’s way into my soul, and I’ve found myself back there almost every year since. There are literally endless trails to explore. If you get bored hiking (which I highly doubt could ever happen), there’s always mountain biking, rock climbing, rafting, and canyoneering.
This past week we decided to celebrate the return of my health, although not my fitness quite yet, by taking a mid-week trip to Moab. Although I have list of hikes, mountain bike rides, canyoneering routes, and a dream packrafting trip that I want to do in the area, I knew that my body wasn’t up for the challenge involved in any of those. It was only 3.5 weeks ago that I was using a walker to get around and only a week ago that I stopped the antibiotics and had the PICC line removed. Despite this, I did have the thumbs up from my physical therapist to push myself until my body let me know that I pushed too far.
Our first stop in town was to the Arches National Park visitor center to secure permits for Fiery Furnace. I’ve always wanted to go there, but the permit process combined with the short distance always pushed that adventure to the bottom of my list. We got lucky and were able to secure permits for our final day in Moab, nabbing permits 39 and 40 out of the 60 they allot for each day.
With our permit in hand, we headed to an old favorite, Corona Arch. Corona Arch is a short hike, at less than 1.5 miles each way, but involves some very minor scrambling and a metal cable and ladder to help navigate a steep sandstone section. It has also become relatively less popular now that the BLM implemented a rope-free section around the arch to prevent people from rappeling or swinging from it (despite the article saying the ban was for two years, it has been extended indefinitely). Corona Arch was the perfect spot to test out my healing body and get a gauge for how much it could handle.
Despite the ban on rappeling and swinging, you can still hike to the top of the arch. When we first did this hike in 2013, the scramble up to the top looked very intimidating. With five years of sandstone experience, it looked significantly more doable.
The next day it rained so we decided to stick close to town and try to find an ephemeral waterfall. The hike isn’t listed on any maps, and there’s absolutely nothing indicating the start of the hike is a trailhead, but through some internet digging we were able to find information about it. All of the information is 5-7 years old and I’ll keep the mystery by not giving any information away. Needless to say, the rain wasn’t quite enough to get the waterfall flowing, but it was still fun scrambling around and trying to navigate the maze of cryptobacteria-free sand and rock.
The forecast for the following day (Thursday if you’re keeping track) was for partially sunny skies and temperatures ranging from mid-30s to low-50s. We decided to make the long drive down to the Needles district of Canyonlands for a morning hike to Druid Arch.
We also hiked to Druid Arch during the same trip where we went to Corona Arch. Unlike Corona Arch, my memory was a little hazy about the hike. I knew the dry statistics: 10.8 miles, ~1000 feet of elevation gain, a tricky rock gully scramble that prevents most people from actually seeing the arch. I had forgotten about the steep pourover that you need to scramble up and down, the couple of moves that are tricky for a short-legged person like me, the seemingly endless sandy washes. The intricacies of forgetfulness brought some memories into hyper focus, while other parts of the trail seemed like we were discovering them for the first time.
On our way into the park, we drove through a small snow storm that blanketed the road in white. Although we hiked under mostly blue skies, the storms were swirling all around us. It started flurrying while we were enjoying the arch, adding to the magical bite to the air. When we were there in 2014, it was blisteringly hot, so the snow was a welcome surprise. As we were hiking the last mile back to the car, we turned around and dark storm clouds billowed over the trail we had just covered. We managed to sneak in and out of Druid Arch during the perfect weather window.
After 10.8 miles of full-body hiking, I was sore. We stuffed our faces with pasta and garlic bread from Pasta Jays and then laid in our hotel bed watching stupid movies and editing photos. I went to sleep thinking that we would just go as far into Fiery Furnace as my body would let me and praying that I wouldn’t find the “too far” point until after we had finished our hike.
My prayers must have worked because I woke up feeling refreshed with relatively springy legs. We threw everything into the trunk of my car and headed up into Arches National Park. Neither one of us had done much research about the hike and were only armed with the piece of wisdom the ranger gave us when we picked up our permits: stay on rocks and sandy washes and don’t worry if you can’t find the “trail” that is very sporadically marked with very small brown arrows.
Fiery Furnace is something you really need to experience to believe. There is no “wrong way” to experience the area, unless you disobey the park rules and walk where you shouldn’t. The permit system also helps add to the adventure. We only saw three other people while we were in there, and were on our own to find our way around and through the furnace.
It was not the easy hike through sandy washes that I was expecting. There were sections that required balancing on narrow sandstone ledges with a steep drop if you fell. There were sections where the rock steps had been so worn down by countless boots that they were useless. And there were quite a few sections where we thought there’s no way that route will go, only to find out it was the “easiest” way out.
With a healthier body and more hip, ankle, and knee flexibility there were endless areas to explore. We mostly stuck to the “trail” but did plenty of exploration to find hidden gems within the furnace. With a little more research before we started, I think we would have found even more gems.
After three hours in the furnace, we decided to head out and get started on our six-hour drive back to the front range. We only made it 21 miles outside of Moab before we stopped a Fisher Towers since Jason decided to sit in the car while Moose and I hiked during our last trip there. Less than a mile up the trail, my body decided to let me know that I had pushed it too far. My knees suddenly started aching, my legs had no power, and I was seriously regretting the fact that we had left our water in the car. Mission accomplished!