Monday, August 22, 2011

2011 - April 20th - Rattlesnake Arches, McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area / Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness

Even before moving to Grand Junction, I had eyed the Rattlesnake Arches in my DeLorme Atlas (which I browse through more than the pious read The Bible).  They are listed under the atlas' "unique natural features" section, which is a favorite of mine.  The Arches are described as "the word's second largest group of natural stone arches," behind, of course, the Arches National Park area.

According to the various maps I have of the area, the Black Ridge Road which leads to the main trail head opens  annually on April 15th.  I had been eying the area since moving to the Western Slope and was waiting to get access.  There was another option; a fourteen and a half mile round-trip access to the site, but that seemed a little too ambitious for me at the time. 

As mid-April approached, I started looking for my first opportunity to visit the site.  April 20th was a Wednesday, which is essentially my Sunday and my first "weekend off" after the road opened.  After reading accounts of other travelers visiting the area, I concluded that it would be more rewarding to try the fourteen and a half mile route.  So, early in the afternoon on that warm Wednesday, I set out.

The weather was quite comfortable.  I expected a high in the mid-seventies; the kind of air I would long for in the hot summer months.  The long route to the Rattlesnake Arches begins at the Pollock Bench trail head.  I had used this trail head previously on my short exploration of Flume Creek Canyon at the beginning of March.

The trail leaves the Flume Creek drainage and quickly climbs to a bench between the watersheds of Flume Creek and Pollock Creek. I've found that the first hill is always the hardest as your body isn't quite used to the exercise yet and I was certainly huffing and puffing when I reached the top.  

From the Pollock Bench, looking northeast.

Though the temperature was only in the low 70s, I was already feeling the heat, especially burdened with a heavily packed bag, camera bag and tripod.  I noticed myself quickly going through my first (of two) bottles of water, so I started rationing immediately.  That isn't something you want to have to do after just beginning a long adventure like this, but I figured once I was on the bench, the going would get a lot easier.  For the most part, I was right... at least for a while. 

The trail followed the western edge of Flume Creek Canyon, atop the cliffs.  Eventually, however, it started to turn more to the west and instead of cliff-side, I found myself immersed in the Piñon-Juniper scrub.  I was pushing my pace as I had started a bit later than I would have preferred.  Still, though, I was trying to take it easy on my water.

I came across several groups of travelers heading the opposite direction on the trail.  Some had been exploring Pollock Canyon and several had been to Rattlesnake. One group, who surprisingly recognized me though I was wearing a baseball cap and sunglasses, seemed surprised that I had chosen such a late start-time.  I promised them that I had a turn-around time I would adhere to, as to not be out after dark.

Back on my way, I eventually came to the wide expanse of Pollock Canyon.  Like so many canyons in the area, there is an outer, wider canyon and a narrow, inner gorge.  The trail meets the outer extent of the Pollock drainage at a tributary (pictured below). 

Looking west, perpendicular to the canyon.

The descent into the tributary is not easy.  It is quite steep and requires several traverses over exposed slick-rock that tapers precipitously as well as an area that requires some hand-climbing.  Once down into the tributary, however, the trail returns to sand and gravel and after a few switchbacks, just follows the contour of the tributary to the edge of the inner gorge.

Once reaching the inner gorge, the trail turns south for a while, closely approaching the edge of the cliff.  The bottom of the gorge is about 200 feet lower than the rim and I struggled to find where one could possibly make a safe descent.  There were several areas that appeared to carry a trail only to have it meet an impassable cliff.

It took me quite a while to find the route, but eventually, I came across a ledge that had a rock cairn on it, marking the way.

Just because there is a route, doesn't mean it's an easy one.  And it wasn't.  Again, I found myself removing my gear and setting it on ledges, climbing down with hands and then pulling my gear down from over my head.  The descent on the east side of the canyon requires you to do this several times.  Eventually, however, it becomes a little easier and you can rumble your way down to the canyon floor.

There was a little water in the wash, but it was very milky.  The trail crosses the creek and then follows it up -canyon for a bit.  I happily followed the trail as looking at the west wall of the canyon made my head spin.  I couldn't believe that there was a possible route to the top.  It seemed kind of ridiculous, actually.  And honestly, it was.

Again, I found myself taking my gear off several times and stowing it on ledges above me, only to have to climb up to those ledges to carry on.  This, of course, was accompanied by exposed stretches of slick rock with precipitous drop-offs, par for the course by this time.  Finally, after much effort, I found myself at the opposing rim.  As a reward, nature provided a couple of small arches for my capturing pleasure.  

By this point, I felt like I had been hiking forever... but I wasn't even half way to my destination.  Onward I went, across the rolling bench lands.  The trail falls back down into and crosses another tributary of Pollock Canyon which joins much closer to the Colorado River.  I found several stagnant pools of water along the wash but avoided them as bugs had already found them to be a fruitful habitat.

The trail continues out of that drainage and then drops into the next which also eventually drains into Pollock.  This one was a little more wide, however.  Distantly to the south, I could see the fabled "South America Arch" or "Window Rock Tower Arch".  I call this drainage South American Canyon just for reference.  The trail continues up to the west side of this drainage and then follows a side canyon steeply to a pass.  This was another difficult, calf-burning climb but did not require hands.  Once at the top, I was afforded a nice few northward toward the Colorado River (pictured below).

I figured the trail would drop down into the next drainage, but to my dismay, it did not.  In fact, it turned south again and straight up the hillside.  After several switchbacks, I finally found myself atop yet another bench which created a wide east to west amphitheater, open to the north.  I had a good idea as to where I was at this point based on my research and figured I was only a few miles away from my destination.

The trail follows the curve of the amphitheater and eventually, I came to an intersection with the real Rattlesnake Arches loop trail which I knew was five miles in.  The sign at the junction confirmed that I only had two and a half miles to go.  This was good because I was already getting tired, was running relatively low on water and it was getting late.

Speaking of it getting late, I had to cover the last two and a half miles in less than an hour if I was going to obey my turn-around time.  Luckily, the trail was relatively flat and this allowed me to pick up my pace. 

At the westernmost point of the trail, there is a hairpin curve back to the south-southeast.  This point is on a peninsula, if you will, between the amphitheater drainage and Rattlesnake Canyon.  From here, I had a fantastic view off to the north-northwest toward the Colorado River, which was about 1,000ft lower than where I was standing.

The trail continues south-southeast along a bench overlooking Rattlesnake Canyon, the bottom being about 600ft down.  Not a half mile down the trail, I began to see the arches carved into the sandstone to my left.  The arches are lined up along the bench and make for a nice gallery to observe.  I didn't take any photos at first as high clouds made for terrible lighting and I was trying to get to the end of the trail before my turn-around time.

I passed at least seven arches before reaching a BLM marker proclaiming the "end of the trail"... which happened approximately ten minutes past my "absolute latest turnaround time."  I figured I'd have to hike even faster on the way back... which seemed like a terrible but necessary idea.  I didn't linger long at the final arch, but finished off my first (of two) bottle(s) of water and had a little snack.  The light was terrible, so I did my best to capture a few images.  This arch is known both as "Cedar Tree Arch" and "Rainbow Arch".  I'm going to refer to it as Rainbow Arch.  Early settlers in the area often mistook the Juniper for Cedar, so I'm not sure that name is appropriate.  Enjoy my terrible, blown-out images:

Rainbow Arch

Frustrated by the light (it was late evening and should be golden hour!) and already exhausted, I began my journey back.  I had read mention of the trail continuing up through Rainbow Arch where it met the loop back to the Black Ridge Road, but I figured I'd stick to the route I already knew. I stopped at each of the arches I could find on the way back and took the best images I could.  The sun would kind of peek out from time to time, but the dry thunderstorms in Utah were making my life difficult, casting their anvils over the area. 

The path north-northwest on the east rim of Rattlesnake Canyon.

Overhanging Arch

One of my favorite shots from the trip.

A look down into the depths of Rattlesnake Canyon.

A good representation of the sandstone that the arches form on, the bench and then the drop-off into the canyon. 

Rock doves roosting on a cliff-side hoodoo.

I found the most spectacular arch to be Akiti Arch (also known as East Rim Arch or Centennial Arch).  I prefer Akiti Arch to the others as it is a more unique name.  Information online suggests that "Akiti" means "big" in Ute.  I have also found reference online preferring the East Rim Arch moniker, but since none of the arches are noted by the USGS, it is probably open for interpretation. 

Akiti Arch

My favorite view of Akiti.

Eye Arch & Akiti Arch

Seeping Arch & Hole-In-The-Bridge Arch

Hole-In-The-Bridge Arch & Twin Arch

Twin Arch (best angle)

Back on the trail and with about seven miles ahead of me, I knew sunset would happen in just over an hour.  I was already working into my last bottle of water and was quite exhausted.  The only real positive thing was that the sun started to peek out.  And by positive, I mean annoying.  I did stop occasionally to snap off a shot.

After the sun had come out a few time to allow for pictures, I realized that hot on my heels were the aforementioned but not-so-dry thunderstorms in Utah.  They were approaching, as was nightfall.

Storms approaching from the west.

Looking east to Grand Mesa as the clouds filled in.

Luckily, I was making good time at about two and a half miles per hour.  On a flat, even surface, I might only be slightly faster than that.  Though the light was still terrible, I popped off a shot of the Window Rock Tower/South American Arch.  At some point, I'd like to go back and get a closer look.

Window Rock Tower Arch / South America Arch

All the while on my return trip, I was dreading the transit of Pollock Canyon.  I knew I'd have to climb down the treacherous cliff wall and back up the opposing one.  As I approached the canyon, however, the light at least welcomed me with golden tones.  I took a lot of pictures.

Looking down into Pollock Canyon before my descent.

A good example of a slick-rock exposure that one must traverse.  The trail goes straight across.

At the bottom, I stopped to wash my hands in the barely-moving water.  I was down to a quarter bottle at this point and decided it would be good to at least cool my hands in the water.  Outflow from a nearby storm suddenly rushed down the canyon, bending the isolated Cottonwoods and of course blowing sand into my eyes.  Despite the nonsense in my eye, the wind felt good. I didn't linger long before making my way back up the other side.  The fantastic light kept me motivated to continue and took my mind off of the strain.

Golden hour commences.

Looking back up the tributary to my final ascent to the Pollock Bench.

The light didn't last forever, however and nor did my ambition to continue.  After the sun went down, I was still a few miles out and absolutely exhausted.  I still had a steep climb and was down to one drink of water.  Not to mention the fact that the light was fading fast.

Back into the tributary, I had to stop many times on ascents.  I was afraid for a while that rain would come, but it never did.  Then, the my mountain lion paranoia (one could argue that it is indeed rational) crept in as well.  It didn't help that I spooked several deer which were quite close to me and bounded out of the bush like a pouncing predator.  Luckily, I wasn't predated.  Exhausted, I sat on a rock before the final ascent and finished off my last drink of water. 

With much labor, I reached the top of the tributary and found myself on the elevated Pollock Bench.  As the light faded,  I hauled out my weak yellow flashlight and slowly stumbled along the last two miles back to my car.  I don't think I've ever been so thirsty in my life.  My mouth was very dry and my joints were very sore.

The only bright side was the level terrain which made my ambling journey tolerable.  At the edge of the bench, I gingerly worked my way down, trying not to stumble on the slick rock and steep steps.  By the time I reached my vehicle, it was completely black out.  I could hardly move when I got in and sat down.  I'm not sure if it was dehydration or just overuse, but my body was not happy with me. 

I drove into Fruita and somehow managed to walk into a convenience store and buy a large sports drink, which I quickly downed.  Then, I recharged at the adjacent Wendy's and finally made it home. 

The arches were actually pretty cool, though perhaps a little less impressive than I had expected.  But count this journey as another lesson learned.  I didn't bring nearly enough water and certainly should have left earlier given that I had a weak flashlight with no back-up batteries. 

I've been lucky this year as my mistakes haven't caused me any harm.  I'd like to say I've learned from them but one thing is for sure, the outdoors of western Colorado keep calling me, whether I'm prepared or not.

 Overview Map

Detailed Map Of The Arches Area  



Unknown said...

Very cool Dann. One of my sisters lives on the AZ/UT border and the red rock cliff and canyons are always interesting. Love the shots from your hikes....keep 'em coming!

Dann Cianca said...

Thanks, Bill! There sure is a lot to see out here... and I plan to see as much as I can while I'm here!

Steve said...

Hi Dann, I really enjoyed your description of this amazing hike! I will be doing it for the second time tomorrow with 6 other members of my "Grand Junction Hike-N-Bike" group.

Dann Cianca said...

Thanks, Steve. If you're into arches, there are plenty more in the area if you know where to look!