The (almost) Ultimate Arches Loop

I’ve always held a more-than-healthy dose of bitterness and cynicism towards Arches National Park, likely due to having had several particularly bad tourist experiences and too many readings of Desert Solitaire.  For me, it’s always been the archetype of beautiful places lost forever to development and crowds.  Three weeks ago I stood at dusk at the head of Cottonwood Wash north of the park and realized I was missing out and wanted to see the park differently.  I had never even considered backpacking Arches until that moment, but decided I needed to do it.  I had some time last week, and a half inch of rain over the weekend ensured that the biggest physical obstacle would not be a problem.

Anywhere in the park can be dayhiked to, but I decided to opt out of that possibility.  I didn’t care if I saw people, didn’t really care that I had to cross roads, I just wanted to spend a couple days immersed in this awesome chunk of desert, walking.

I had hoped to be at the visitor center when they opened, but didn’t end up getting there until around noon.  Getting a backcountry permit at Arches is strange.  They come just shy of discouraging backpacking and it was apparent that they don’t have many people asking for permits.  This is likely due to the small size of the park, lack of water, and lots of absolutely pristine soil crusts (they require that you have camp set up by dusk so you don’t risk walking on soils after dark).  I started the trip at Wolfe Ranch and headed north up Salt Creek.  I knew generally what route I wanted to take but had zero beta so knew there would be some adjusting on the fly.  The first route change happened pretty much immediately.  I had planned on going up Salt Creek and doing some exploring in Lost Creek Canyon, but the canyon above Freshwater Spring looked pretty interesting from the bottom so I decided to head up that way.  A ribbon of water trickled along the the canyon floor, filling large potholes.  The highlight was some unreal hanging gardens with a surprising number of Mimulus still blooming.

I spotted what looked like a possible exit not far up the canyon.  It required some crawling through oak to get to, but there was a good crack to exit.   Next, back over to the rim of Salt Wash.  Since I’d gotten a late start and spent a good amount of time admiring seep flora, it wasn’t looking good for checking out Lost Spring Canyon, as inviting as it looked from above.  I considered scrapping my loop plans and just spending a couple days there, but decided to save it for another trip.

The rim walking along Salt Wash as well as Clover and Cordova Canyons and their tributaries was fantastic.  Easy walking, changing cottonwoods, and lots of water made it pure joy.  I couldn’t believe I’d never been out here before.  Simply fantastic.

The next segment was walking behind the Devil’s Garden area.

At one point I came to the top of one of the innumerable slickrock domes and stopped in my tracks to see Landscape Arch across from me.  I’ve seen it dozens of times, but this was totally different.  That whole little park was just ridiculously pretty.  Going to see something with expectation and anticipation to be wowed is just not the same as unexpectedly coming across it.   I didn’t really get a decent photo, but it’s just out of view to the right in the below photo.

I crossed Fin Canyon at sunset.

A while after crossing Fin Canyon I realized I hadn’t seen water anytime recently, which was problematic because I was out and starting to look for a spot to camp.  I could always go back to some I’d passed, but following small drainages downhill was eventually successful.

The next morning I headed for Eagle Park after a bit of exploring the canyon west of Fin Canyon, which was similar in character to Fin.  First views above Eagle Park:

…and a nice wide crack to descend to the floor…

…more Eagle Park…

This next section was a good example of how something can look really easy to navigate on a map but the actual walking and micro-navigation is pretty tedious and difficult.  Not visible is dozens of of 8′ deep cracks too wide to hop over out there between all the mounds and domes…

Next was following washes down to Willow Spring.  I assume this poor guy was a flash flood victim.

The canyon/wash below Willow Spring was another highlight.  This empties into Courthouse Wash, but finding a way in that avoided the wall of willows and deep pool at the confluence took climbing out both sides to find a way into Courthouse.

The upper part of Courthouse Wash was mostly easy walking with the exception of some bushwhacking around beaver dams and some of the craziest quicksand I’ve ever experienced (immediately drops you thigh deep).  I found camp once the canyon opened up below Sevenmile Canyon.  Dawn in Courthouse Wash:

The route after crossing the main entrance road was less than ideal.  Taking one of the side canyons out of Courthouse and then getting into lower Salt Creek would be the preferred route, but I didn’t know if either of those were possible and needed to be back around noonish, so didn’t have time to check it out.  I went up Dragonfly a ways, thinking that there might be a exit that canyoneers use, but didn’t see anything and headed back down and then up and out of Courthouse.

Following washes up towards the Windows Section was a blast despite being quite close to roads.  Zero signs of people and enough rock to completely shield any road noise.  One last monkeyflower in a little alcove…

…and, almost back to the trailhead, Gardner’s saltbrush and mud…

This was one of the most fun and rewarding trips I’ve taken in some time.  Are there better loops in canyon country?  Lots.  Would I recommend this loop to someone visiting from out of town?  Probably not.  But there’s a lot of perfectly backpackable dead-gorgeous desert in Arches.  And solitude (except for crossing the main road, didn’t see a single person the whole trip).  You just have to use your imagination a bit and opt out of dayhiking from your car.

Gear notes:

-Inov-8 Trailroc 255.  I’ve been using the 245s since they came out and like them, but I’m pretty worried about burning through the uppers doing off-trail stuff.  I wore through the toe reinforcements in 100ish miles.  I picked up the 255s before this trip hoping for the same perfect fit with more durability.  The uppers feel significantly more durable and the added heel drop isn’t very noticeable   The “cushion” is much firmer and more responsive than other 2-arrow Inov-8s I’ve used (212 and 285) and the small amount of extra substance underfoot is welcome for long days.  The second day of the trip I had basically zero foot fatigue after an almost 30 mile day on 75% foot-killing, uneven slickrock.  Provided the uppers hold up, the 255s are very promising as a backpacking shoe.

-MYOG 1st gen m50 quilt.  I’ll probably make another one sometime, but I realized this trip that this is probably the closest to perfect gear item I own (noted when I realized I never think about it).  I’ve made probably 10 packs in the time that I’ve used this quilt (granted nailing a pack is far more difficult than a quilt).   The original M50 got a bad rap, but I think it’s misplaced.  Perfect amount of breathability and the DWR still works remarkably well for how many nights I’ve used it.

-MYOG trekking poles.  Realized the second day that they’d barely touched the ground.  I didn’t take a shelter, so didn’t need them for that…should have left them home.

-Starlyte stove with MYOG windscreen and Evernew .9L pot.  I have to give some credit to Dan for inspiration.  Reliable, simple, efficient, and just works.

8 thoughts on “The (almost) Ultimate Arches Loop

  1. Fantastic route! Evidently everyone forgot to tell you how Arches has no worthy backpacking.

    I don’t think there’s a route out of Dragonfly, though everytime I’ve been in it was as a descent, then out Courthouse via the drainage you took and XC back to the car.

    Herdina Park is worth exploring; some very cool scrambling loops through the mini-canyons.

    Lower Salt is ok too. We took wetsuits and swam the CO (in January) to finish that dayhike.

  2. Pingback: Read this blog: Out Living « Bedrock & Paradox

  3. Great trip. Awesome photos…..nice stove too ^_^.

    I’ve never been beyond the hoards in arches, but I did enjoy a 3 day trip in the Needles last summer which turned epic when we lost the trail for the final day.

  4. Beautiful photos Brandon, and good on you pulling 30 miles as a shutterbug. Also, nice workaround for NP cynicism. BTW this is serge from BPL. My only connection to wordpress was a spoof blog I did with my friend from college a while back.

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