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On the Road: Arches National Park, by Truck and on Foot

The road to Tower Arch

Gordon Brumagin
Jul 26, 2005
My wife Darlene and I drove to Moab to photograph Arches National Park and were unaware that four-wheel-drive roads exist within its boundaries. We'd heeded Edward Abbey's admonition to "get out of that tin can" and hiked to a dozen of the salmon-colored Entrada Sandstone arches, including Landscape Arch and Delicate Arch.
Later, at the visitor center, we spoke with the park ranger, who offered helpful advice about traveling the road from Balanced Rock to Tower Arch.
Photo 2/3   |   ford F 350 Pickup left Tree
The next day, Darlene and I tried our luck on the road to Tower Arch. The paved road took us north, past Balanced Rock and the Fiery Furnace area of the park, toward the Devil's Garden. Near Broken Arch, we turned left onto a gravel road.
It's an easy 7.7-mile drive on two-lane Salt Valley Road to reach the trailhead for the hike to Tower Arch. The sparse vegetation--juniper trees, Mormon Tea, blackbrush, and cliffrose--blended into the rust-colored, sandy soil stretching ahead and to the north. Skyline Arch appeared on the eastern horizon to our right.
As we gained elevation, vegetation decreased, and the sandy soil took on a greenish cast. We saw red-rock cliffs in the distance. At mile seven, a 4x4 dirt road branched left. We continued on Salt Valley Road to the trailhead and hiked for over three miles to Tower Arch.
After 1.8 miles off-road, we reached an intersection with the road from Balanced Rock but continued on. The road twisted and turned upward, with the Entrada Sandstone cliffs of Klondike Bluffs above us and on our right.
We parked at the turnaround and hiked the short trail to Tower Arch. The afternoon sun was already sinking. After taking photos of the Arch and the La Sal Mountains to the south, I fired up our diesel for the return trip.
We were soon faced with the choice of driving back to Salt Valley Road or taking the 4x4 scenic route. I estimated that we still had an hour of sunlight, enough time to drive the nine miles to Balanced Rock before dark.
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This road, called Four-Wheel-Drive Road, presented new challenges. There were places where the sand was eight to 12 inches deep and pulled us, just as snow can pull unwary drivers. Getting stuck was a distinct possibility. In the middle of one sandy wash, the road took a sharp 90-degree turn. I knew our F-350 couldn't make such a sharp turn, but I also couldn't back and fill in the middle of such deep sand. I swung right and then hard left, scraping the brush on the driver's side, going up onto the bank on the passenger's side, while pouring on the power.
Sometimes the road actually disappeared in sections of slickrock. One time, the road disappeared at the crest of a sharp hinge-pin hill. I stopped on the incline, and we walked up the slickrock hill to the crest. There was a large half-moon-shaped hole in the rock on the downhill side. Darlene stood next to the dropoff, so I'd know where to turn my wheels as I came up over the top.
We drove through the gathering darkness with the setting sun at our backs. Finally, our headlights shone on the Willow Flats Road sign, and we turned left toward pavement. Balanced Rock, silhouetted against the pale evening sky, appeared before us, and I shifted out of four-wheel drive as we turned onto the park's paved road.
Getting There
From Moab: Take Highway 191 north. Follow signs to visitor center, on the right after five miles.
From Denver: Take Interstate 70 east to Highway 191 south. After 30 miles, follow park signs to visitor center, on left.
Be advised: The information presented in this column is, to the best of our knowledge, correct and accurate at the time of publication. However, because of our lengthy lead time, we recommend you call the proper authorities or local experts for confirmation before visiting.
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