Within Arches National Park you will discover a landscape of contrasting colors, landforms and textures unlike any other in the world. The park has over 2,000 natural stone arches, in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins and giant balanced rocks. This red rock wonderland will amaze you with its formations, refresh you with its trails, and inspire you with its colorful sunsets. From Courthouse Towers parking area, the trail ascends gradually, meandering along Park Avenue Wash into a spectacular canyon, and continues up the wash to the Park Avenue trailhead. Our first hike of what looked to be an exceptional week, we traversed Park Avenue on Sunday, October 12, 2014 beginning at 2:30PM and ending about 3:45PM. Our plan was to walk the Park Avenue Trail from Courthouse Towers to the top, then return.
Hike Length: 2 miles roundtrip Hike Duration: 1.2 hours
Hike Configuration: Out and back. Blaze: Rock cairns.
Hike Rating: Easy. Limited climbing. Take your time and you’ll be fine.
Elevation Gain: 470 feet Elevation Start: 4,240 feet
Trail Condition: Very good. Some sand, some dirt, some slickrock.
Starting Point: Northern end of the Park Avenue Trail at Courthouse Towers.
Trail Traffic: We encountered roughly two dozen other hikers.
How to Get There: From the Arches National Park Visitor Center, take the entry road to the top of the winding hill. The first marked pullout on the left is the upper Park Avenue trailhead. Continue for another mile to the Courthouse Towers pullout on the right. Across the road is the lower Park Avenue trailhead. Hike the trail in either direction.
Seemingly endless delays of my flights on US Airways caused the late arrival into Denver, which led to bed in Vail at 3:00AM, therefore a late start to our Utah adventure the next morning. Still seething from the senseless crew delays that had nothing to do with weather or other uncontrollable situations, I resolved to never fly US Airways again. I’d made that decision years before, but gave them one more chance in order to use frequent flyer miles. My previous dissatisfaction was reaffirmed.
So, as we were driving from the Colorado Rockies to the Canyonlands country in Utah, we needed to change our plans in order to shorten the hike on Day 1. It was great to be back with my brother again… the other Internet Brother. The thought of Arches National Park popped into our head, and with it the brief one-mile Park Avenue Trail that we had looked at numerous times, but never actually walked. It seemed ideal.
There’s a back door into Arches that takes you from I-70, along Utah Scenic Hwy 128 as it follows the Colorado River, through a stunning canyon that in any other state would be a prime recreational location. In the Utah canyonlands, however, this beautiful riverside drive has to compete with scores of others for attention. The highway passes Fisher Towers and square mile after square mile of sage ranch land, ending up on Hwy 191 just south of the Arches entrance road.
We paused along the river near Fisher Towers to throw together sandwiches and relish the sandstone scene that is unquestionably Utah. We try to make it to red rock country at least every four years or so. The desert, with its compelling canyons and accompanying reefs and towers runs a very close 2nd to our beloved mountains. We had a complete week of adventure planned, including visits to Zion, the north rim of the Grand Canyon, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Capitol Reef, Goblin Valley, and perhaps our favorite of all, Canyonlands. For today, it was to be the small but impressive Arches.
This day also happened to be my 62nd birthday, meaning I was eligible for a Senior National Park Pass. This lifetime treasure will henceforth gain me
— along with my companions
— free admission to any and all national park units. It was with great pleasure that I purchased my pass at the Arches entry station.
We chose to begin the Park Avenue hike at the bottom, preferring usually to go uphill first. It’s less than 500 feet total climb, but we might as well get the legs broken in early. The north (bottom) trailhead is across the main park road from the Courthouse Towers parking pullout. Not particularly easy to see, look for a sandy pathway across from the south end of the parking.
Within a hundred yards you’re in the Park Avenue Wash. The terrain changes from sand, to red dirt, to slickrock. The difference is up to the whim of the wind, ever changing, no two days will be the same. On this day the wind was still, so no blowing dirt. The foliage consists of native desert plants like sage, and yucca, and juniper. Keep your eye out for the occasional lizard. They’re difficult to spot as their coloring blends in perfectly with the red sandstone. Watch for movement.
We were surrounded by giant sandstone towers surveying the wash from several hundred impressive feet above. The Courthouse Towers themselves do remarkably resemble the stately stone facades of 18th century archives of the law. The closest, and most prominent, landmarks are The Three Gossips. This triad of towers are closely grouped, appearing as human-like figures with heads that face one another in conversation. If you look closely behind the Gossips, you may catch a glimpse of your first arch near ground level, and an unusual formation known simply as Sheep Rock.
On the other side of the road are the Tower of Babel and The Organ, two more massive monoliths carved by millions of years of erosion and piercing wind. The wash itself rises gradually, shelf-like, climbing steadily into a wide canyon that surrounds and swallows you the higher you get.
Once you’re about half way up the wash, both sides of the canyon take on the appearance of midtown in any major city, with skyscrapers and wide avenues. Hence the name, Park Avenue. Don’t strain your neck as you stretch to see the tops of these massive sandstone walls that line the wash. The light from the sun plays color games with these palisades. Your experience will be totally different depending on time of day.
About two-thirds of the way to the top end, we began to notice the foot traffic increasing as others were coming down from above. All told, we encountered perhaps two dozen hikers during the hour we were in Park Avenue canyon, not bad at all for this very touristy attraction.
Approaching the top of the plateau, you begin to see the expanse that surrounds this national park, including the picturesque La Sal Mountains. Located southeast of Arches, and approximately 50 miles away, the La Sals sit astride the Utah/Colorado border. Part of the Manti-La Sal National Forest and the southern Rocky Mountains, the maximum elevation is Mount Peale, reaching 12,721 feet. The range contains three clusters of peaks separated by easily distinguishable passes. As you travel about southeastern Utah, it seems the La Sal Mountains will always be within view, from many different angles.
Right at about a mile from the start, you will reach the other end of the Park Avenue Trail. Just as the lower end, there is a parking area for those who wish to hike or merely walk to the overlook for some pictures. The scene down Park Avenue really is quite stunning, and one that shouldn’t be missed whenever you’re visiting Arches. Hollywood directors have thought so too, as this view can be found in several western movies.
Summarizing: this hour-long hike was perfect for us to break up the day of long driving from Central Colorado to Southwestern Utah. It was great to get out of the car, and get close to the grand sandstone spires of Park Avenue. If you’re visiting Arches National Park for the first time, please take the time to walk the length of Park Avenue rather than just looking from your vehicle.
While you’re in Arches, also be sure to check out Delicate Arch, the Windows, Fiery Furnace, and Devils Garden. If you’re really adventurous, head for the northern part of the park to the remote Salt Valley Road and the four-wheelin’ possibilities presented there. Arches is small, so you can easily catch all the touristy features in a single day, but to fully appreciate what this unique area has to offer, get out in the backcountry.