April 29, 2012
This was hands-down the most spectacular run or hike I have ever been on. Probably the scariest too.
After packing up camping, I headed down from the park and out to Horsethief State Wilderness Area. A book I’d recently picked up said that this one of their all-time favorite runs in the state. And for good reason. Mind-blowing vistas, canyon climbs and descents and Rattlesnake Arches, the second highest concentration of natural arches in the US after Moab.
I actually started out with a quick run around the Fruita Paleontological Area on the way out. I’m a sucker for dinosaur bones, and this region has some of the richest deposits in the US. They actually have an Allosaurus vertebrae preserved in rock there. Pretty awesome.
I drove a little ways more to the Pollock Canyon Trailhead. From there, I followed the trail straight west towards the Rattlesnake Arches. The whole area is a massive network of small canyons. So heading straight in one direction, you end up slicing right through the middle of all of them. It was a lot of drops down on loose sand or rock and a jaunt across the floor of the canyon and then a scramble up the other side, over and over again. It was as taxing as it sounds because a) the canyons are relatively small (only 300 feet tall maybe) and b) it was so gorgeous and interesting that you don’t mind.
One of the first canyons.
Despite the fact that it’s only 10 miles or so outside of Fruita, it feels so unbelievably remote. Since it’s a State Wilderness Area, it’s maintained at the most minimal level. And there are probably only 10-20 other people out there at any given time. But beyond that, because you’re going up and down these canyons, you get the sense of being very, very alone. It’s incredibly thrilling and absolutely terrifying.
Just think about it. You’re running through remote canyons with sometimes barely visible trails, surrounded by cactus, cliffs and a scorching sun. Oh yeah, and you’re in a place called Rattlesnake Canyon. So every time a skink goes scrambling off the trail (about every 5-10 seconds) it could easily be a rattlesnake you just startled. If anything happened to you out there, well, good luck. The whole run was a balancing act of trying to stay cautious without getting overly paranoid.
This is actually part of the trail I was trying to run.
Mini arches being formed.
Beautiful and dangerous.
But I finally (and safely) made it out to the far point of the trail and Rattlesnake Arches. The arches are definitely not as impressive as the ones near Moab, but they’re all slammed together in a one-mile area. Some of the shapes feel very organic and Gaudí.
Overlooking Rattlesnake Canyon.
The beginning of Rattlesnake Arches.
Gaudí in stone.
East Rim Arch.
Bird apartments in the arch.
As I ran on, I hit the end of the trail. But looking on the my map, I saw there was another trail end just a tenth of a mile away, and I could hear people up above the arches. That’s when I remembered something in the book about climbing up through the final arch. So I scrambled the 50 or so feet up through Rainbow Arch and voila! trail.
Cedar Tree Arch (aka, Rainbow Arch)
Scrambling up through the Arch.
At this point, it was just heading back along the same trail. The sun had come out and was really starting to feel great. I was flying over the sand and dirt and rock, putting miles behind me. Devouring the canyons.
And then suddenly the trail disappeared.
I was descending down a ultra steep section and when I hit canyon floor, there was nothing. No cairns to follow, no clear trail, no sense of direction where I was supposed to head. The bottom was a dried up creek so it effectively erased the trail. Nearby there were actually several trails that split off like a spur. I started following the few other footprints towards them, but every time they went somewhere, the trail would abruptly end within a hundred feet or so.
This is when I started to panic a little. I didn’t know which canyon I was in. Everything looked unfamiliar. There was no trail. I started following footprints again, looking for my own from my first pass out. But now after looking around for any semblance of the right trail, I was backtracking over multiple sets of my own footprints. The sun suddenly felt acutely hotter. I could feel it cooking me.
I tried to keep my heart rate down and stay calm, but I could feel myself getting increasingly frustrated and distressed. Shit was real. But finally, I set off on one last attempt of a trail, and after coming over a small ridge, I saw a sign post. It was a trail marker. I was back on track.
Back on the Rattlesnake Arch Trail.
After my scare, I quickly move out of the canyons and finally made it to the top of the mesa. I just sat there on the edge of a drop for a bit. Looking out over the canyons and wilderness and unknown dangers, I’m not sure I’ve ever felt more alone. It’s a feeling that’s intensely electrifying but even more crushing at the same time. The brutality of nature and fragility of life. I guess these are things you think about in the desert.
At this point, I could’ve headed directly back home, but despite my scare, I wanted to add another 5 or 6 miles to the run so I broke off and following an unmarked path that winded along the top of the canyons. Even with my map, I was feeling a little wary of which trail I was actually on and had these weird sinking feeling that I might be getting myself lost again, right after getting out. And the sun would be setting soon, and I was getting tired. Nonetheless, I pushed on and had a relatively pleasant and uneventful trip down through Flume Canyon and back to the trailhead. Safe and sound.
Back to somewhere familiar, perched on top of Pollock Canyon.
Heading towards Flume Canyon.
Fortunately/unfortunately, this was the closest I got to seeing a rattlesnake.
I’m not sure how many miles it was, since my watch died just a mile in, but I’m guessing it was about 18 or so. And no matter the distance, this was absolutely the most spectacular and beautiful and lonely run I’ve ever been on. I highly recommend it to anyone. What a way to feel alive.