Tuesday, January 1, 2013

Kids will love hike on Arches' Windows Trail

Windows Trail (photo courtesy NPS)
For most visitors, Arches National Park appears otherworldy. The oddly shaped, red rocks strewn across a mostly barren landscape look like a science fiction movie set. The alien-like vistas are no small sound stage, however; the park stretches across nearly 120 miles with more than 2,000 cataloged arches.

A set of paths collectively known as the Windows Trails will give you a good sense of what the region is like without having to drive or traipse all over the park. You’ll pass a massive hoodoo and three impressive arches all in a matter of a couple of hours of walking.

From the visitor center, drive along Park Avenue. At 9.2 miles you’ll come to Balanced Rock. It’s worth stopping the car for a short jaunt around this hoodoo, atop of which sits a precariously balanced ball of stone. After you get your fill, drive another 0.3 miles and turn right. It’s another 2.5 miles to a loop at road’s end. Look for the trailhead on the parking lot’s southeast side.

The trails here are well-marked and fairly easy, which makes them ideal for children. At the group of rock formations, the main trail loops with spurs to each arch.

The first stop is North Window Arch. Stone steps lead about a tenth of a mile up to the arch’s base. Visitors have compared the approach to entering an ancient temple. The sandstone fin through which that the wind carved the arch is massive, leaving you with a real sense of nature’s awesome might.

You’ll also get a fantastic framed view of the of sandstone hoodoos that dot the desert beyond. Turn back for the main loop, and you’ll get a good view of Turret Arch.

Continuing onward, you’ll come to another spur that leads to South Window Arch. The two windows actually are formed from the same sandstone fin. South Window, however, is elevated off the desert floor.

The loop curves around to Turret Arch, which is a fairly young formation in a castle-like rock. You can step through the opening to see a framed view of the North and South Windows. A much smaller arch sits to Turret Arch’s right, and in a half million years the two probably will join, forming a much larger arch.

From the opening, simply return the way you came back to the parking lot.

If you have older children, however, consider taking a primitive trail back. Return to South Window and locate the trail that parallels the loop through blackbrush flats. It affords good views of the North and South Windows, which are commonly called “the Spectacles” – an apt name as this walk will attest. The terrain is a little rougher, though, and negotiates a small hill. It’s also not frequented as much as the approach you took; watch for the cairns, however, and you’ll be fine.

Arches National Park sits smack dab in the desert, so you’ll want to bring plenty of water and use generous amounts of sunscreen. April-May and September-October make for the most comfortable months to visit.

Learn more about national park day hiking trails in my Best Sights to See at America’s National Parks guidebook.