Elephant Butte (Arches NP)

Party: Mum, Dad and I

We said bye to the geyser that had kept us company through the night with its continuous bubbling eruption and headed towards Moab. Whilst not the greatest canyoning location in Utah, it is home to the famous Arches NP which contains the largest concentration of significant natural arches in the world. As many as 2000 natural sandstone arches!

Driving to the park was pretty spectacular; even from the highway the silhouette of unbelievable arches could be seen on the skyline. We drove slowly through the park, admiring the sandstone cliffs, towers, holes and arches. The reason the area has so many arches is due to uplifting cracking the 90m thick Entrada (sandstone) layer.

As weathering/erosion occurs, these cracks widen forming parallel rock walls called fins. Rainwater continues to dissolve the sandstone and freeze-thaw cycles crack the rock. Pieces flake off and crumble away forming holes that eventually enlarge to become arches.

ArchFormation

Our destination was Elephant Butte. This is the highest point in the park offering panoramic views of the park. It seemed like a good objective to get our bearings. Whilst not a canyoning route, it is somewhat technical requiring lots of scrambling, some 5.4 (grade 12) climbing and a couple of rope drops.

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Strange rock formations all around as we look for the right fins to travel between.

We started at the Garden of Eden TH, watching climbers making their way over to the bases of some of the thin towers (apparently there is a 5.8 route up The Owl… I’ll have to come back!). The route was not well marked. We headed up between a couple of large fins. The obvious way on dead ended, with a potential climb on the right. In three places I spied gear that had been abandoned on the route. We headed back out and scrambling up a small boulder field joined another couple who were planing to do the same route.

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Looking back out from the boulder climb.

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Continuing up through sandy gardens, a small stream entered from the right. I gave a half-hearted attempt to get up; but hearing the group up ahead pressed on. We joined not only the couple we’d ran into, but another too! There was a tricky headwall that was holding everyone up.

The couple that had been there a while had decided to turn around, but provided an audience as the others began to climb up… I didn’t think it was right and we headed back to check out the source of the water we’d previously seen. Following suit, the couple heading back decided to try it too. Some partner assists to get up the slick rock and we were up. It looked right! Some more climbing, helping each other get up the tricky parts and we topped out between a crack in a large fin. Looking down we could see the anchor for the first pitch (P1 xx 30m).

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Dad belaying Mum down the first pitch.

From here it was an easy scramble to the summit of the butte. Taking regular stops to admire the ever increasing views behind us, we slowly gained the summit (Mum taking some sketchier routes than Dad and I).

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Part way up.
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Photo pfaffing on the summit.
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More photo pfaffing! (La Sal Mtns in the background).

After a lengthy lunch and explore around the top of the butte, we began our descent which took us back down the same way and then past an obvious sandstone tower. Bridging/stemming over some water – or as dad worked out, simply stepping on the sand which turned out to be quite solid – we were at the top of the final pitch. Three pitons had been hammered into the rock to create the anchor (P2 xxx 15-20m?). It was quite a nice pitch the final part overhung with great views.

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Some downclimbing, just before P2.
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P2

It was now a short hike down the wash to skirt around the fins back to the car.

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I believe The Owl is in the right part of this photo.

Being so early in the day, we decided to visit the Windows area and visit some of the more popular arches in the park. This area is extremely busy – I can’t imagine being here in the peak season! We started by visiting the North and South Windows as well as the nearby Turret Arch. It was an easy climb up into the small hole next to Turret Arch.

The back of the Windows (along the primitive trail) was far less crowded.

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My parents beneath Turret Arch. North Window can be seen in the background.

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We then visited the nearby Double Arch, probably my favourite arch in the park thus far.

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Double Arch. Note the person in the bottom right corner for scale.

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