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Our 2019 summer vacation out west was a dream trip full of bucket list items for the whole family, the final highlight being Arches National Park. This three-day stop included Arches, Canyonlands, and a drive down into Long Canyon on Long Canyon Road. Along the way, we witnessed natural beauty, learned some important parenting lessons, and even got some time away from the kids, thanks to meeting up with family.
I wrote about all of these experiences on Accepting the Unexpected Journey.
Music by Craig Harmann
Links to places mentioned in the episode:
Its most famous arch graces Utah’s license plate. The desert climate presents extremes of dangerous summer temperatures and cold, snowy winters. The same natural phenomenon that creates the stunning arches all over the national park has also left its mark all over the western United States, yet it is the over 2000 documented natural arches that gives Arches National Park its name.
Hi, I’m your host Sarah Styf. Welcome to Mission: Wanderlust.
Mesa Verde had been the first “must” of our 2019 family vacation.
Arches was the second.
I’m not sure what has always drawn me to visiting Arches, but I’m sure it had to do with the pictures I’ve seen over the years of red rocks, natural arches towering over visitors, and the mountains in the distance. I’ve wanted to see it in person for years and I was finally getting my chance.
I woke up early and filled all the water bottles, made sure the family ate breakfast, and had plenty of snacks to keep us well fed until we were able to leave the park for a lunch in Moab. I was far from patient while waiting for everyone else to be up and ready to go, mostly because I knew that if we wanted to get any hiking in, we were on a limited time budget before the heat of the day got to be too much for us.
We managed to leave before 9:00 and made our first stop the visitor center where Jeff and I added to our family water bottle holder collection. We had purchased the same style for the kids when we were in Guadalupe Mountains National Park and noticed how well they worked for them. Jeff and I had tried to find similar holders in Mesa Verde but they didn’t have them. Now we decided we weren’t going to pass up the chance again. I could ditch the backpack and just carry my camera and RTIC water bottle with ease.
We were now ready to drive through the entire park to get to the Devil’s Garden Trailhead and work our way back towards the park entrance. Jeff, the kids, and I struggled to take in the rugged beauty of Arches National Park as we traveled to the trailhead. There was so much to see and such a contrast: desert, colorful rocks, and mountains merged together into stunning landscapes that took my breath away. The kids imaginatively described what each rock formation looked like, coming up with different stories for each one while also pointing out every arch we passed.
We finally got to the parking lot, found a parking spot far from the trail, and made sure water bottles were once more full. Then we prepared to hike.
We had been warned. There are signs everywhere telling visitors to drink plenty of water and reminding hikers that heat is dangerous. For over a week we had been bragging about how we could handle the desert heat because it was better than the humidity that we had left behind in Houston.
But that was before Moab.
By the time we hit the trail, we were nearing the 11-3 window that all of the tour guides say to avoid. We started on the Landscape Arch trail, 0.8 miles to where the trail branches off in longer and more difficult trails. It was beautiful and yet we struggled. Our son, who is used to leading the charge, complained of being warm and said his foot hurt from when he fell playing catch with a football the day before. By the time we reached the perfect picture spot for the arch, we were all ready to head back.
On the way back, the trail branched off to our left to both Pine Tree Arch and Tunnel Arch (0.9 miles roundtrip). By the time we finished the short trails at the Devil’s Garden Trailhead, we had hiked nearly 2.5 miles in significant heat. It was time for a break.
As we drove back towards the visitor center, we made a detour towards Wolfe Ranch so we could take a picture of Delicate Arch. We had two options: we could take the 3-mile hike to go directly to Delicate Arch or we could take the 0.5-mile hike to the Upper Viewpoint. We opted for the viewpoint with a zoom lens.
We were past time for lunch and decided to look for a good place to eat on Moab’s main drag. We were all ready for something significantly different from sandwiches. We drove past Zax, where the kids saw signs for pizza and pasta and Jeff and I thought pizza sounded good. We showed up in time to see the women’s soccer team play against England (with a family from England eating at the table behind us) and Jeff and I opted for the salad and pizza bar, finally getting some fresh veggies into our system, besides the ones I had jammed into our fridge.
We headed back to the campground for swimming and relaxation so that we could cool off from the hot morning and early afternoon of exploring. By the time dinner rolled around, I was ready to see what we missed in the park and attempt to catch the sunset from one of the arches. Since the French dip had been cooking all day in the Crockpot, dinner was easy, but I was anxious to leave before everyone else, wanting to hike up to Windows before we ran out of natural light.
Jeff knows me as well as a husband should know his wife. He scarfed down his sandwich and then said, “Grab my socks and boots. We’re leaving.”
So we left our happy kids with my sister-in-law and took off for the park. With the sun going down, the 90-degree temperatures were downright pleasant, and we rolled down our windows down to take in the growing shadows that changed the entire appearance of Arches.
We arrived to a packed parking lot of fellow visitors also trying to take in the arches in the cooler temperatures. The hike around the North Window, South Window, and Turret Arch is only one-mile round trip, and visitors can pick just how far they want to hike and how much they want to climb to see each one. We opted to climb the North Window, making it just in time to enjoy the view before watching the sunset over the Double Arch on the other side of the parking lot.
God’s creation is beautiful, and peacefully sitting under the arch with my best friend while the sky changed to dusk was the perfect end to a beautiful day. In visiting another dream park, I learned that one week wouldn’t be enough to see everything that Arches National Park has to offer, but I had seen enough to be satisfied. And my husband, my best friend, knew that this was how I needed to end my day. For that I will forever be grateful.
We met up with the rest of our family in Moab. They were on a quest to find ice cream, a quest we gladly joined. We finally found one ice cream shop that was open after 9:00 and then dragged the whole family home to go to bed. We had another park to explore the next day, and we all needed our rest before that was going to happen.
Arches was everything I had dreamed it would be and more. Now I was ready to take on Canyonlands.
When I first started planning our trip west, I asked an open question on Facebook: Where else should we visit besides Arches and Mesa Verde?
One of my college friends quickly responded: Canyonlands.
I had never heard of Canyonlands even though it is within easy driving distance from Moab. Arches, which is actually geographically smaller than Canyonlands, gets all of the glory, few people outside of the region making Canyonlands their original destination when they visit Moab. Statistically, Arches sees a staggering one million visitors a year; Canyonlands, only 35 miles away, sees 400,000. The fact that Canyonlands was just an “add-on” in my trip planning put us in good company with most national park visitors.
I had a hard time getting the family moving on the morning after our second late night in Moab, but I still managed to get the family out of the campground by shortly after 9:00. We drove straight to the Arches Visitor Center so that we could get both kids sworn in as Junior Rangers and then we continued on the road towards the Canyonlands Island in the Sky Visitor Center.
Something was off. Our son, who is usually up for exploring and gets excited about earning more badges, was sulky and quick with the attitude. When we got to Canyonlands and they started working on their Junior Ranger books he almost fell apart while he and our daughter used a map of the park to answer several of the questions, arguing that map reading (something he was perfectly capable of figuring out) was too hard for him. When we went out to the overlook across the street, our son was nearing an early meltdown and Jeff and I helplessly looked at each other. If we were going to make the most of the day, we had to stay in the park, but could we really do that with a little boy who was falling apart?
Jeff sat down to talk to him and our son lamented the injustice of his sister getting the hiking stick that he wanted and he accused me of wanting to do too much, making me feel like the worst mom on the planet. Maybe I was trying to do too much on the vacation, but there we were. Jeff calmed him down enough to get into the truck and within minutes he was sobbing, “My ear!”
Suddenly everything made sense. He had several ear infections as a toddler (we were one ear infection away from tubes) and difficulties with his ears have always had an impact on his mood. This time, the changes in altitude was wreaking havoc on his eardrums and the pressure had finally popped. We rushed him ibuprofen, made sure he had water, and by the time we reached the Mesa Arch parking lot, he was in a completely different mood.
The Mesa Arch hike is only 0.5 miles round trip, but it is rocky and requires some climbing. The view from the arch is spectacular, the canyons below living up to the name of the park. When we all returned to the truck, everyone was in a positive mood, ready to hit at least one more major stop before saying we had seen the best parts of the Island in the Sky region that we could quickly hike to.
Next, we headed to Upheaval Dome, making a quick stop to take pictures of Whale Rock. There are three different areas in Canyonlands, Island in the Sky being the closest to Moab. Our goal was to see as much as we could reasonably see in a couple of hours, aware that we had expended a significant amount of energy the day before with the hikes in Arches. The temperatures in Canyonlands were considerably more comfortable, the extra 2,000 feet in elevation dropping the air temperature down to the high 80s from the high 90s we had experienced the day before. It made the 0.8-mile roundtrip hike to the first Upheaval Dome overlook doable. This time, our daughter was struggling as we got to the top of the rocky climb, stopping in a small sliver of shade to work on her Junior Ranger book. I left her for a few minutes to see how Jeff and our son were doing and discovered them contentedly working on our son’s Junior Ranger book while sitting in a crater at the top of the overlook.
The crater itself is a spectacular sight, and considerably unusual when compared to other geologic sites in the park. According to the NPS website, “In an area approximately three miles (5 km) across, rock layers are dramatically deformed. In the center, the rocks are pushed up into a circular structure called a dome, or an anticline. Surrounding this dome is a downwarp in the rock layers called a syncline.” The explanation was a little above this English teacher’s paygrade, but it made for a unique view of our natural world. Our daughter finally joined us at the top so that she could work with her brother on their books, and we eventually convinced them to leave their natural workspace so we could get back on the road.
We had considered adding the Green River Overlook to our list of places to visit, but my sister-in-law was ready to head back to Moab and our daughter wanted to join her. Besides, Jeff had his own adventure dreams that he wanted to fulfill, and we had to do a kid switch to make those dreams happen.
We drove straight back to the visitor center, got the kids sworn in as Junior Rangers, and then our family minus one headed towards Long Canyon to see just how well our F150 could handle off-roading down into the canyon.
The road starts out simply enough, just a gravel country road, but then it makes one turn after another, dropping in elevation and then finally dropping into the canyon. The road is rough, the decline steep, and then we reached Pucker Pass.
Jeff had shown me video of the trail, particularly Pucker Pass, people going through the seemingly impassible gap in the rocks only to prove that there really was plenty of room to get through once vehicles are right underneath the rock leaning up against the canyon wall. But the approach is terrifying, especially for someone who is risk-averse, like me. Basically, everything up to our passage through Pucker Pass had me gripping the handle on the door next to me and wondering why I ever let Jeff talk me into it in the first place, while our son and K were in the backseat having the time of their lives.
Then we wove through the switchbacks, finally getting towards the bottom of the canyon, and while we slowly moved along the packed dirt road, the views opened up into something truly spectacular.
When we finally came out of the canyon, we were on a small highway taking us back to Moab, traveling along the swollen Colorado on our right with the red canyon walls towering over us on our left. We stopped at perfectly preserved petroglyphs high on the rocks overlooking the road and then stopped again further down for a close-up of the river, so swollen that there are currently signs underwater.
I had been apprehensive about the excursion, but it was worth every moment. We all returned to Moab satisfied and ready to meet the rest of our group for some ice cream and then pool time back at the campground.
After a rushed dinner of leftovers, we all headed back into Arches National Park so that we could watch the sunset from underneath The Windows. Our daughter had seen our pictures from the night before and she wanted to climb rocks. We laid out blankets and watched the sunset beneath the afternoon clouds, and then watched the stars come out as the western sky slowly faded to black. Our son, ever the bat lover, noticed a small number of bats flying out of the rocks behind us and watched until he couldn’t see anymore.
As Jeff, our son, and I snuggled on the blanket, he asked if we could stay for just one more day. A day that had started with a meltdown accusing me of wanting to do too many things ended with an ardent plea to stay for just a little longer. His day had ended perfectly and it was a feeling that he wanted to hold on to. I felt the same way, but we just couldn’t do it. Our nearly perfect family vacation was coming to an end.
When I made the plans to stay in Moab, Utah, my only goal was seeing natural arches. I had no idea what else we would discover as we traveled around the entire region. What we found was natural wonders that none of us will soon forget. Now it was time to head home.
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Special thanks to Craig Harmann for the music underscore.
Thanks for joining me and don’t forget to find your wander.
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