A Dawn walk to Delicate Arch

One cannot have read Edward Abbey’s “Desert Solitaire” and not want to visit Arches if you’re in the area. In his first season there, he was the only NPS employee, and only from April to the end of September. In those early days, visitors were rare except at weekends. Even as long ago as 1995, the tarmac roads and handy access meant that the Park (upgraded from a National Monument since Abbey’s seasons there) was uncomfortably crowded. Guides you read now (2015) suggest that it is hard to get photos of the major landmarks without other people milling about – even in the summer when you’d think the heat would deter most people. We were fortunate enough to be there “off-season” and chose to visit Delicate Arch early enough to see the sun rise. That meant that we met no-one on the walk in; we had the arch to ourselves for the whole time we were there, and I don’t recall meeting anyone else on the walk back to the road, despite this being a Sunday.

It’s a very short walk from the road (less than an hour, even carrying Sarah, aged thirteen months, or (in my case) a heavy tripod and other photographic kit). It was also pleasantly cool (not to say chilly on the uphill walk, a bit warmer on the way back down) which made a change from the previous day when we had baked on our visit to other parts of the park. Because the walk was quicker than we’d been led to expect, we had a bit of a wait for the light. The sky was clear, so we didn’t get the sort of pink clouds I’d have liked, but the sunrise was spectacular nonetheless with the sun lighting up the distant cliffs well before it hit the arch itself. It is supposed to be possible (I’ve later learned) to climb down the cliff for a view of the sunrise side of the arch, but as this is something like a 150m drop-off, it didn’t appear possible/sensible in the dark.

We were nearing the end of our trip by this point, and spent the rest of the day driving back nearer to Salt Lake. In my usual fashion, I was not wanting to stop for fuel until near the bottom of the tank, so when we found signs indicating that our chosen route was unsurfaced for some considerable distance ahead (I had failed to appreciate the significance of the dashed lines in our road Atlas) we didn’t really have enough fuel left to go back and fill up at the last gas station we’d passed. This generated some earache and some interesting driving (we weren’t supposed to take our hired RV off the tarmac surfaced roads…). Being an automatic, I couldn’t just turn the engine off and coast down the far side as I would at home, and the first town didn’t have the gas station I had confidently expected. There were a few anxious moments running on “empty” before we found fuel. This then took us into the Wasatch for some very different scenery for the last couple of days of our trip.

Little Wild Horse Canyon

We knew we weren’t supposed to take our hired RV off the paved roads, and, at 8m long it certainly felt a bit exciting when we needed to do so, but this wasn’t going to deter us from getting to a parking place as near as possible to Little Wild Horse Canyon in Utah’s San Rafael Swell. There was a moment crossing a draw when we feared we’d get stuck in soft sand … but it was OK. Phew !

This is not a place to visit if there’s any chance of a sudden downpour – it’s normally dry, but from its confines you’d never see gathering clouds, and its narrows, cut in slickrock, would offer no escape from a flash flood. It is never too narrow, however that you can’t get through with a small daughter in a backpack, as we discovered, though some climbing up and traversing ledges was needed in the narrowest section.

Fantastic rock sculpture

At the top of the narrows, the canyon opens out, reached by a couple of short bridging climbs, and becomes a wide sandy draw below a desert-varnished cliff.

The water table is near enough to the surface to support shrubby vegetation like Cowania mexicana and Fraxinus anomala in the shade of the cliff, from both of which we collected seed. We grew several plants back home – but they didn’t really like the Pennine climate (no real surprise) – the Rockrose have all died though we still had a couple of the Single-leaf Ash in the greenhouse in 2012 and rather to our surprise they have survived being left outside over the last two winters to 2014.

The Subway

Unlike much of the scenery featured on photos and posters you can buy in Zion, the Subway is quite a walk from the road, and not in the main valley. It’s a bit of a drive to reach the start of the trail, which starts off as a visible but fairly rough path (photo left) dropping down to the Left Fork, North Creek. As it drops, you get more pinyon pine and juniper scrub, and on the valley floor, lots of autumnal cottonwoods. The path, however, doesn’t stay as well-defined, and we soon found ourselves crossing and re-crossing the stream, often finding it as easy to walk in the shallow water as on the banks where spiny vegetation often made progress difficult.

Mary and Sarah in the Subway – not far beyond is about as far as you can get without starting to wade through deeper pools

We had a pretty good idea of what to expect in the Subway from posters and guidebooks, so I had brought a tripod to take photos with long exposure times. Nonetheless, the camera showed a tendency to expose for the highlights in such a high-contrast scene, and perhaps I should have bracketed exposures to get some more detail in the shadows. But this was back when we were limited by the amount of film we were prepared to carry (and pay for).

The rockmills filled with deep clear water were quite reminiscent of caving

For such a spectacular location, even though warned by the rangers that it was a hardish walk to be doing with a young child in a backpack, we were surprised to meet no-one else at all (compare with the Angel’s landing walk which was really quite busy) until within the Subway itself. Here there were a small group of people abseiling in from above, having approached by a different route from ours, but we had gone before they came downstream (we were dressed for the heat outside and it was quite chilly within the Subway), so we neither spoke to them nor met them on our walk out.

Looking back down the stream to the sunny canyon outside