Upper Loop Rattlesnake Arches

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Rattlesnake Arches are the best kept secret in Utah.  That’s because they’re in Colorado.

The largest concentration of rock arches in the world outside of the eponymously named National Park, is in the Black Ridge area just west of Colorado National Monument.  A series of beautiful red rock canyons drains the north side of  Uncompahgre Plateau for a distance of 80 miles; the Monument is well regarded, while the canyons to the east and west are almost unknown yet just as spectacular.  This is the eastern edge of the Colorado Plateau, so it is geologically the same as the iconic landscape of Utah, which makes it quite satisfying to drive only 4 hours from Denver/Boulder, then stand alone in the middle of a large federal Wilderness area, almost in sight of the steady stream of SUV’s blasting down Interstate 70 on their way to standing in at Pasta Jay’s in Moab.

OK, enough shuck and jive; what’s the deal?

The standard Rattlesnake Arches trail is an excellent 5.3 miles from the Pollack Bench TH, returning the same way.  A nice little singletrack, it runs longer than it’s distance, goes up and down, in and out of numerous smaller canyons and draws.  From there a little balloon loop starts (which isn’t always shown on maps), allowing one to drop down directly thru the upper arch, and circle back below the set of seven.

The arches are actually up on the rim, while Rattlesnake Canyon itself is far below, gorgeous and virtually untraveled; there’s a secret social track that drops into the Canyon, but that’s another topic.

What we did is create a terrific loop by going up a different canyon – called Devils Canyon – bushwhack out the top, gain a jeep road, and follow it to the upper TH of Rattlesnake Arches, for a delightful 18 mi circuit.  Devils Cyn is wonderful; it has a nice little path thru the open grasses, no willows or brush here, just a pleasant flowing trickle of water framed by impossible-to-get-in-or-out-of red cliffs towering over everything.  At an old line camp we turned right up a side draw, no path anymore, aiming for the one spot in the entire canyon system where one can climb thru the Wingate formation and exit.

As we neared the head of the side canyon, Peter noticed a herd of Bighorn Sheep trying to get away from us.  We were able to watch their antics for a full 5 minutes, as they were trying to get thru the Windgate also, and it wasn’t easy even for them.  Some went back down seemingly unable to get out, then turned around and took a full running charge at the smooth slickrock face.  It looked like a few young ones weren’t going to make it, as they tried and failed repeatedly; we started to feel guilty watching the little fellers frantically trying to regain their mothers, who had fled because of us.  They finally executing a vertical 4′ leap onto a ledge from a standing position, and trotted off.  Really quite interesting to watch, and somewhat gratifying to us, as just a few minutes later, we had the exact same trouble as the sheep.

I’d done this route three times before, so found the exit route readily.  But it sure looked a lot harder than I recalled.  It actually looked undoable – a 15 meter high slab, with a steep horizontal rib virtually featureless.  It was definitely the spot, and I had definitely done it three times previous, so why couldn’t I just fire it now?  Maybe it was age related.  Possibilities were:
a) I was a total genius back then, and now am reduced to being a mere mortal; or

b) I was a total fool back then, and now have the sense to realize I could be killed doing something pointless.

Still unsure of which it was, I finally figured out the sequence, gave Peter a small partner assist, and we were up and out.  A reasonable bushwhack across a series of benches took us to the Lower Black Ridge Road, which is closed from April 15 to August 15 every year, so it was a very quiet and pleasant run to the Upper TH.  Then we dropped way down to where the arches are, with big views of the Grand Valley in front of us, and quite conveniently found our friends completing their loop of the Arches, and ran the 5.3 miles back to the car with them.

The Rattlesnake Arches out-back is excellent and highly recommended.  And if you’re as good as a Desert Bighorn, the Upper Rattlesnake Loop is even better.

Upper Loop only, connecting to normal trail at left

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