There’s a very accurate way of finding lost hikers in the Arches Park: mathematic probability.
Getting lost in The Arches Park is a common and potentially deadly occurrence in this stretch of wind carved red earth in eastern Utah. Over a million tourists visit the park each year and as sure as the erosion that forms the spectacular arches, a number of them will get lost.
Losing the way amid the Arches
Unfortunately, it happened to me and Carmen, when we somehow lost sight of the well-beaten path on a hot afternoon exploring the towering rock formations as part of our road trip across the USA.
That morning, we had set off very early from our motel room in the nearby town of Moab to make it to the ranger station in time for a guided hike of a place called The Fiery Furnace.
This natural labyrinth of sandstone fins, slot canyons and steep, jagged rock piles is a place where GPS signals get scrambled, trails get washed away by sudden rains and no signs or cairns are allowed to protect its natural state. To tour the Fiery Furnace, you must be accompanied by a ranger or go with someone who’s been before – once you’re in, the only way out is through.
Down into the Fiery Furnace
The diminutive US National Park Service ranger leading our tour us to stay together, watch our steps, and that if we got lost to simply stay put. “We’ve done statistical modelling over the years that has identified the most likely places that people will get lost and also where they can be found,” she said, adding wryly that “it saves lots of time on rescues.”
In The Arches Park, maths is your safety net, and with this positive addition to our hiking gear of boots, water, sunscreen and energy bars, we descended down into the Fiery Furnace, going from the windblown flatness of the Utah desert to a series of deeply carved rock furrows shaded with ancient layers of coolness carved by wind and water.
It seems barren and forbidding, but the whole place is teeming with life. Pools of rainwater on the dusty rock floor are cauldrons for microscopic life while gnarled Juniper trees hundreds of years old hold for their lives with claws of desperate roots. “Be careful where you step,” the ranger warned. “This place is more delicate than you think.”
Squeezing through the gaps
Following her exact footsteps, we jumped from rock ledge to rock ledge, squeezed through crevices, shielded our eyes against harsh wind blowing through the tunnel-like canyons, and slowly and surely made our way back out again.
With our confidence for navigating and our appetite for hiking stoked high, we set off into the heart of the park to take an eleven and a half kilometre long trail known as Devil’s Garden.
Hiking through the Devil’s Garden at Arches Park
There are very 2,000 sandstone arches to see within the park but the primitive trail through the Devil’s Garden takes in some of the most picturesque ones. We set off down the path and duly ticked them off: Landscape, Navajo, Partition, Double O.
Then we came to an area of tight rocks where the trail petered out under red dust and branches from a recent storm. Our map showed that we needed to make a right hand looping turn, but all we saw ahead was a steep bank of sandstone fins filed together like a radiator.
Map reading disasters
We read the map again, turned it upside down and back to front and could not for the life of us figure out where we were. Doubling back on our tracks was a dead loss and made us even more confused. We had no idea where we were. The sun was high in the sky now, beating down with hot fury, and we began to get worried.
Looking around in desperation, I spotted a cut between the rocks and climbed up to explore it. Halfway up the floor of this narrow gap ended in a sharp cliff plunging down to the other side. But in the red dirt down below the path shone as a thin white line.
The ledge I was standing on was high, but not impossible to over come. After all, I had just conquered the Fiery Furnace… Feeling brave, I braced my back against the rock wall, pushed my legs onto the opposite wall and shimmied down slowly. Carmen followed me, both of us encouraging each other to keep going.
The danger of getting lost
Half way down a feeling of incredible stupidity washed over. If I fell I could break my legs. And Carmen would have to go back up and then find help, if she could find her way back at all. We’re we about to become another statistic at Arches Park?
Gritting my teeth, I forced my legs and back to keep shimmying down, pushing my fears aside to get close enough to the ground to leap out and land safely. Carmen followed quickly and we both stood on the path, breathing hard, relieved to be back on track, safe and sound.
Before we set off again, I took another look at the small-scale lines on the map of Arches Park. I realised I had read it completely wrong, thinking we had gone past the turn by twenty metres or so when in fact we were yet to reach it. The rocky cliff we had just climbed down was the apex of the turn. If we had just gone a little further, we’d have seen the path and avoided that risky climb.
Oh well, maths has never been my strong suit!