A route for beginning climbers in Arches National Park

photoBy Brooks Stevenson
Photo by Chris Watkins

There are times in life where you just can't see straight; where you need to rise above the clutter and take a refreshing break from the repetitive and often mundane cycles of life.

The same holds true in the great outdoors. Sometimes you just need to escape to the back of beyond, explore an unknown trail or reach new heights; experience a change of scenery, a fresh outlook on a familiar setting.

But how can you take a crowded place like a national park and escape to someplace new? Simple. Get above it all by going for a climb. Utah's national parks offer some of the best — and most difficult — climbing routes in this hemisphere, along with some very basic ones that any adventurous soul can conquer.

You don't have to be an expert or have climbed any big walls to enjoy this sport, You just need to know the basics and have the right gear — or know someone who has both and is willing to drag you along, or up, as the case may be.

photoJump-start spring
My personal philosophy is that winter should be over on the first day of March. Mother Nature, however, doesn't always agree. Some years she likes to drag it out — bring a surprise storm with her that seems to thwart the spring thaw and frustrate anxious enthusiasts who suffer from cabin fever. That's when I head south to Moab, soak in the sun and get a jump-start on my spring fun.

Arches National Park is one of the most popular tourist destinations in Grand County — visitors come from around the world to marvel at the sandstone arches that erosion has tediously constructed over millions of years and hike the red rock trails among the once-windblown dunes. When I go to Arches, I try to avoid the crowds and take advantage of one of the less-popular activities the park offers: climbing.

Owl Rock sits just off the park's main, but often goes unnoticed as a place to enjoy nature's beauty and solitude. Its only claim to fame is that climbers like to hangout there and take turns enjoying the view from the top. Most tourists drive right by and never know the stubby 100-foot desert tower even has a name.

Last year, in the early spring, I made my first climbing trip to Arches, and my first trip to Owl Rock. Not a terribly difficult climb, nor a climb you'd brag about to your friends, Owl Rock serves as a good place to start learning the ropes, so to speak, of climbing on sandstone.

And boy, did I need help learning.

Climbing the rock
The route to the top of Owl Rock is an obvious crack on the west side. It looked easy enough as I watched my partner, Zach Terry, place gear and glide up the foot-wide seam to the top. But looks aren't everything.

To be fair to myself, I'm not weak or uncoordinated; I'm just new to climbing. So to say that I looked graceful as I tried to reach the top would be like saying Martha Stewart really knows how to cook all those great recipes. It just isn't so.

As I tied my figure-eight safety knot and started up the crack, I felt like I was a 10-year-old kid scrambling up the large English walnut tree in my backyard. I clawed and groped for every possible hold until I was tired. Then I'd feign a serious look while I rested, trying to look like I was just searching for the next solid hold.

Truth be told, I just wanted to get to the top. I didn't care how I looked, and trust me, it wasn't pretty. My legs bobbed like a sewing machine needle as I tried to steady them while I looked intently for handholds. When I did make a move, it was a combination of cramming an arm in between two rocks and trying to stand up while "someone" grabbed at every loose article of clothing I was wearing. It was like I was being thrown off a ship, only I wouldn't let go of the railing.

By the time I reached the top, though, I was excited to have climbed my first desert tower — and without a single slip or fall. And the view made it all worthwhile. The La Sal Mountains, Utah's second highest range, loomed to the south with a month's worth of thaw still ahead; Behind the Rocks peaked over the sandstone cliffs that guard Moab from the west; and the whole of Arches could be seen clearly. It was like I had my own periscope that gave me just enough of a glimpse of things to know what was really out there. I could even see Delicate Arch, and I wondered how many people would see me. Probably none.

I climb better now than I did then. And I still go more for the view than for anything else. There is something fascinating about seeing a place from an entirely new perspective. You get a better overall understanding of the beauty of a place. And you have the pleasure of doing it without all the crowds.

Getting above it all is what life, and the outdoors, it all about — metaphorically. I go to the outdoors for two escape the artificial reality of our civilized world and to enjoy the beauty of nature. Climbing allows you to physically get above it all (at least your immediate surroundings) and it allows for a whole new view into the splendor of our natural environment.

If you go
Owl Rock may be considered the easiest desert tower in the area, as well as one of the most popular. This 100-foot spire looks grungy at first glance, but there are plenty of good hand and foot placements throughout the route. From the entrance to Arches, follow the park road for 9.3 miles from the visitor center to the Garden of Eden and Windows turnoff. Turn right and drive one mile to the Garden of Eden parking lot. Owl Rock is just east of the parking lot.

The route, rated a 5.8, follows the obvious crack on the west side of the small tower. There is a three-bolt anchor about 10 feet below the summit, so you can rappel the entire 100 feet. Large hexentric nuts, a #4 Camalot, a set of Friends and large runners are all you'll need to scale this desert gem. Avoid using white chalk in Utah's red rock national parks. You can buy sandstone-colored chalk at most climbing shops.

Spring and fall are the best times to climb our southern Utah routes. Temperatures get very hot in summer