FRUITA — In Edward Abbey’s classic, “Desert Solitaire,” the onetime seasonal ranger complained about the road construction and modernization taking place in Utah’s Arches National Park.
“You can’t see anything from a car,” he railed. “You’ve got to get out of the (goshdarn) contraption and walk — better yet, crawl — on hands and knees, over the sandstone and through the thornbush and cactus.”
Exiting the car and stomping through the desert is exactly what’s required to view Colorado’s outstanding collection of sandstone arches.
Colorado’s spans, the second-highest concentration in the country, grace Rattlesnake Canyon in the McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area southwest of Fruita. Reaching the trailhead requires a 14-mile drive down poorly signed dirt roads, any of which can become a quagmire of wheel-grabbing muck after a rainstorm. The final 2 miles require a high-clearance vehicle, preferably with four-wheel drive.
Fortunately for us, the sky was cloudless, and our truck only scraped the bottom twice descending the roadway’s rocky escarpments. Reaching road’s end, we laced up boots and began the 6-mile, out-and-back march to the arches.
A half mile in, we reached the first fork in the trail. Folks content to not experience the whole show can continue another half mile to view the top of what the BLM unimaginatively calls “First Arch.” Wanting to see all nine of Colorado’s sandstone apertures against the skyline, we turned right and followed the steep and rocky pathway down the cliffs.
A quarter mile later, we intersected the Pollock Bench Trail, a 15-mile alternative route that begins near Fruita. The trail flattens and winds through a piñon and juniper forest with cliffs to one side and distant Colorado River views to the other. Cryptobiotic soil, a living crust of lichens and mosses that hold the soil together, covers the ground. We stay on the trail so as to not destroy the crust.
After about a mile, the trail bends to the southeast and we soon spot our first portico in the cliffs. This one is unofficially named Twin Arch, but monikers out here seem to be somewhat arbitrary.
Continuing down the trail, we discovered that it’s actually the third span in a string that includes Hole in the Bridge Arch, a broad sandstone arc with a skylight puncture through its top.
Beyond, we gazed at the squinting opening of Eye Arch and scrutinized the long, thin span of Akiti Arch. A short detour up a spur trail led to views of Trap Arch, the only span not visible from the main route.
Just when we thought the show was over, we rounded a final corner to find Rainbow Arch (the BLM’s “First Arch”) looming directly above us. Bold and massive, it features a sweep of rusty rock, which has an elliptical opening that frames a sandstone pillbox and a halo of blue sky.
Hikers willing to trust souls to their soles can shortcut the route back by friction climbing through the arch’s orifice and hiking the First Arch Trail back to the trailhead. We were content to simply sit at the base and savor the serene scene in total solitude.
Unlike the national park arches, the road to these spans isn’t paved for minivans and motorhomes. There are no busloads of tourists here. The only way to see Colorado’s geologic sculptures is to do as Ed Abbey advocated and walk.
The part about crawling on hands and knees, however, was an option we opted to ignore.
If you go
Information, maps and driving directions to the trailhead can be obtained at the BLM office in Grand Junction (2815 H Road, 970-244-3000), the Colorado National Monument Visitor Center or may be downloaded online on the BLM website.