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Weird place Wednesday: Fiery Furnace Arches National Park.

Surprise Arch, Arches National Park

Surprise Arch Buried deep in the Fiery Furnace area of Arches National Park, Surprise Arch is just that, a surprise at the end of a long maze.

For this week’s Weird place Wednesday, we stay in Utah and visit one of the more restricted places you’ll find in Arches National Park. It’s a maze of rock fins that has no official trails called The Fiery Furnace.

Arches National Park is one of my favorite places, and one of the most amazing landscapes in the world. It contains incredible rock icons, such as Landscape Arch, Double Arch, and Delicate Arch, which everyone should see in their lifetime, but there is also a hidden gem of less visited rock fins that most people drive by called the Fiery Furnace. In a park that can be difficult to get away from the crowd, The Fiery Furnace is a guaranteed way to gain more solitude.

Access to the Fiery Furnace is restricted by the park service and is limited to smaller groups via a permit that can be obtained at the Arches National Park visitor’s center. First time Fiery Furnace visitors are only granted entry via a permit through a guided tour of the area, either with a park ranger or a local private company. If you are an experienced hiker like me, your first response may be that you can handle the Fiery Furnace by yourself. Don’t make that mistake! There is more than one reason the parks service highly restricts the amount of visitors to the area; it is a true labyrinth of rock fins, a disorienting maze with no consistently defined trails where cell phones and radios do not work and even GPS has a difficult time receiving. I was told that before permits were mandatory in the area, the Fiery Furnace required the most rescues of anywhere in the park. It is very easy to get turned around in there and with no trails or even cairns to recover your way, the feeling of helplessness will set in very quickly.

The second reason the park service requires permits and limits numbers in the area is the unique ecosystem that is contained between all the rocks and sand. You must watch a video on this very subject at the visitor’s center before obtaining a permit, and it is very clear that they want to protect what is out there. Marking your trail in any way is not allowed as the parks service wants to maintain the Fiery Furnace’s original condition as much as possible. We relied on good old fashioned knowledgeable guides to lead us through an amazing set of formations. Even if we were able to go it alone and find our way through the maze, I think we would have missed out on a lot of interesting information and stories that only local guides can tell.

There are basically two options of guided service through the Fiery Furnace. The first is going with an official National Park Service ranger and the second is with a local private guide service out of Moab. There are advantages and disadvantages to both, but the short of it is the park service is much less expensive, but you have to reserve a guided hike months in advance if you are going during peak season in the summer. With a private service, it is much more expensive, but the groups are usually much smaller and they tend to accommodate your preferences with much less lead time. This is the first guided hike that I had ever been a part of and I must say that it was a lot of fun. Our guide was knowledgeable, and even though we kept moving, the atmosphere was relaxed. I highly recommend it!

What can you expect to see on the hike?

Spoiler Alert: If you want to be surprised by most of what you will see on the hike, skip this paragraph. I believe most hikes through the Fiery Furnace take a similar path to the various named features tucked away in the rock fins. As many arches as there already are in Arches National Park, there are a few more to add to the list in the Fiery Furnace that, due to the limited numbers, not as many visitors will see. In some ways it feels like a V.I.P. tour of a restricted area. Three of the main features we saw along the hike are Walk Through Arch (which is actually one of the few natural bridges in the park), Skull Arch, and Surprise Arch. Viewing these features within the walls of the Fiery Furnace is not the only treat; the real adventure is getting to them.

Skull Arch

Skull Arch Skull Arch sits deep in the Fiery Furnace of Arches National Park.

The hike itself is around 3 miles long and is sure to keep you on your toes. There are many times you have to hop across gaps between fins, walk along a catwalk of rock with some minor exposure , and bridge gaps with your body to scoot through to the other side, dropping back down to the sand below. It does not take long to appreciate a good guide and their knowledge of where to go. On our hike, our guide saved the best for last: Surprise Arch. I was looking for this one, and I was not disappointed. It truly is a unique arch squeezed in between tight rock fins; it is amazing that anyone even came across it. It is a grand reveal from a tight corridor, which opens up like a staircase to the arch that sits flush with the top of the surrounding rock. It is not one to be missed.

Even though it is a guided hike, you will need to bring plenty of your own supplies. Have adequate water as it is still in a desert and bring something to snack on. The Fiery Furnace name is somewhat deceiving because it is shady and one of the coolest places to go in the mid-morning heat. Normally, I would include GPS points to some areas of interest, but since you have to use a guided tour the first time anyway, I will just provide an overall satellite map of the Fiery Furnace, which will tell you where it lies in relation to everything else in Arches National Park. If you are using Google Earth and the map is showing specific points, I would advise not trusting specific locations. GPS is very unreliable in the Fiery Furnace, and even though it is possible to figure it out with enough research and scouring of satellite maps, sometimes it is more fun to just explore without knowing everything that’s coming.

Photography

Since the Fiery Furnace is not right around the corner and a location you can just visit every day, you will probably want to take some photographs. I had one place in mind before we even got started hiking and that was Surprise Arch. I had a good idea of the challenges that I would be facing photographically given that the arch is slotted deep between two rock fins. I knew that even though we would get to the Fiery Furnace fairly early in the morning, Surprise Arch would have to be toward the beginning of the hike for the light to be what I was hoping for. Anytime you have a canyon like atmosphere, where the light will not fully reach until mid-day, contrast will be an issue. Even great modern cameras will only have so much dynamic range, and when the wall tops of the Fiery Furnace begin to light up, that means the rest down below will be in deep shadow. Unless you plan on doing some serious post processing, you have to choose whether you want detail in the shadows and let your highlights “blow out” or you want detail of the sunlit walls and your shadows go to near black. Knowing that I would not get to choose my own start time and I would be at the mercy of the group and guide, I relegated this first trip to a scouting trip. Rarely do I get exactly the shot I am looking for on the first try unless I have plenty of information going in and have had time to pre-visualize what I want to do. I will make another trip to the Fiery Furnace now that I know where things are and can get a permit to go on my own to tackle Surprise Arch on my terms.

Have fun out there and if you have any questions, email me or comment below.

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