Our last few posts have been informational about Utah’s national parks so we thought it was time for a travel story. This is a tale of a series of bad decisions and what not to do if you find yourself stuck in a thunderstorm. Hope that you learn from our mistakes and enjoy this story about hiking to Delicate Arch in Arches National Park.
The Iconic Arches
Arches NP is one of the most iconic places in Utah. It has the highest concentration of arch rock formations in the world and over a million people visit the park each year. Delicate Arch is probably the most iconic arch. You can’t travel to Utah without seeing it as the license plates in the state bear its image.
A Picturesque Sunrise
The day we hiked to Delicate Arch started as planned. We rose early and drove to the Windows area of the park to catch sunrise. We couldn’t have asked for better weather! There were enough clouds in the sky to make sunrise interesting and brilliant, but not enough to block the sun or its rays as they lit up the landscape. In fact, the weather seemed ideal for hiking. Not overly cold or windy, but not too hot either. We’d really lucked out with a perfect Fall hiking day.
Delicate Arch Trail
We love trails that have interesting surprises on the way to the main attraction. The path to Delicate Arch is just such a trail. It starts at Wolfe Ranch with a historic log cabin. A little further along you come to a Ute petroglyph panel. Then you climb along relatively easy ground before crossing a large slickrock section of the trail. This is a huge open rock area where the ground climbs up at a significant angle. The trail isn’t well defined so you have to follow cairns to find your way. Here’s the first mistake we made. Instead of looking for the cairns, we nonchalantly followed the guy in the front of us. Unfortunately for them, a family of three was nonchalantly following us.
Losing the Trail
After the slickrock section, we found ourselves on a ridge that abruptly ended. By this point, the guy we’d been following was turning in circles looking for a way down. We descend to a worn area of earth that looks like the trail. Now we’re in the lead and our original leader is behind us.
We walk along the “trail” and get our first glimpse of Delicate Arch. It’s grand and enormous and all that stands between us is a giant bowl-like pit. I’m sure there’s a technical term, but I prefer bowl-pit. We started out along a curved ledge surrounding the bowl-pit, which really isn’t a ledge at all. It was clear very quickly this was definitely not the trail and we must’ve lost it quite a way back. People at the arch are now visible. They’re coming and going from somewhere completely different than our current path.
We proceed further hoping we can traverse the bowl-pit non-ledge and avoid backtracking. First Tom, then me. I glance back and to my surprise, I see the original lead guy has followed us and he’s also balancing precariously along the rim of the bowl-pit. Then even more surprisingly, I see that the family is following him. I have visions of us all plummeting into the pit. I turn around and wave my hands in an X shape and shake my head yelling “This isn’t the right way!” The man is close enough to hear me and fortunately the family understands what I’m signaling. We all back ourselves off the non-ledge and away from the bowl-pit before anyone falls.
Once we’re safely back on non-rounded ground we notice storm clouds on the horizon. It’s difficult to tell distance, but they’re not right on top of us and we’re almost to our destination so we never really consider turning around. We backtrack until we see some folks on the real trail. The rest of the way to Delicate Arch is (ironically enough) along an actual ledge. When we reach the arch we see lightning and rain in the distance and know that we’ll need to hustle on our trip back.
What Not to do In a Thunderstorm
It starts thundering and raining almost immediately on our journey down the trail. We’re moving quickly. But not quickly enough. Soon it’s pouring. Large, hard, marble-sized drops are pelting us and blurring our vision. My mind races with the many warning signs we’ve seen. What did those signs say again? Oh yeah along the lines of “Don’t hike in a thunderstorm. Don’t hike on wet rocks. If you’re caught in a thunderstorm, seek shelter.”
We couldn’t heed the first two warnings since the thunderstorm was here and the rocks were already wet. The trail is very exposed. There are probably some alcoves to shelter in. However, I imagined being stuck in a small alcove while a stream pours down on us and eventually washes us right off the rock.
What did we do? Well, we started running of course. You did see the subhead here right? Okay good—want to be sure the “Don’t try this at home” disclaimer is clear. Looking back, I know this was likely pure flight mode instinct. But at the time it seemed perfectly logical. We figured that the longer we’re stuck under the storm, the likelier we are to be hit by lighting. Besides isn’t a moving target harder to hit than a stationary one? Okay, so maybe those rules don’t apply to electricity but moving seemed like our best option.
Soon we’re heading down the large slickrock section. There’s no turning back now and nowhere to shelter. The thunder is booming and crashing so loud it rattles your bones. Lighting is flashing across the sky all around us and it starts hailing. There are rivulets of water now violently flowing down the rock and every step is in a puddle. Suddenly I hear a crackling and sizzling directly above our heads. Like giants twisting an enormous roll of that stiff cellophane used on baskets of fruit. I recall a scene from The Great Outdoors. The man who’s been hit by lighting stammering “6…6…6…60…60…66 times!” I wonder if it’s possible to survive being hit by lightning? Certainly not 66 times, but maybe just once? It’s amazing how many thoughts can go through your head in the flash of a lightning bolt.
We ran faster. Truthfully, because the rock is slippery we didn’t so much run, as jog (in a power-walk kinda way) with our bodies tilted backwards so if we fell it’d be on our butt and not face first. In hindsight this was a ridiculous sight to see. We weren’t alone on this trail. No, there were dozens of us drenched hikers slow motion running down the rocks, ducking and lunging over streams while trying not to fall on our asses.
After what seemed like an hour (but was probably 15 minutes) we finally stepped off the slickrock and had come out of the worst of the storm. The thunder was crashing behind us and the rain let up enough that we could start to see somewhat clearly again. No more angry clouds loomed in the distance and the sky was significantly brighter. Now that we weren’t running for our lives, we also noticed for the first time our level of complete saturation.
As we reached the parking lot, I looked back up at the trail and saw a beautiful and rare site. Half a dozen waterfalls had materialized and were cascading down the red rock walls. The dry desert landscape was transformed into a watery wonderland. This moment brought on a flood of feelings (pun intended). Relief that we made it out of the storm unscathed. Gratitude for witnessing this extraordinary sight. And a profound respect for nature’s immense power.
Reader Survey Time!
Would you rather read informational posts about the places we visit or travel stories about what happens on the road (like this post)? If you’re indecisive like me it’s okay to say a little of each too😉 Let us know in the comments below or send us an email to firstname.lastname@example.org. And a huge thank you in advance for your input!
Tom & Liana