Descending into a labyrinth - East Valley Tribune: Outdoors

Descending into a labyrinth

Hiking the Fiery Furnace in Utah arduous but worthwhile

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Posted: Friday, August 15, 2014 5:39 am | Updated: 4:51 pm, Thu Aug 28, 2014.

Where do central Arizonans go for a quick, out-of-state escape? Families with younger kids often go west to San Diego, hedonists south to Rocky Point, Mexico, and those who like to be active in mountains and canyons can go north to Moab, Utah, a kind of Disneyland for the outdoorsy set.

Whether mountain biking, hiking, river rafting, four-wheel driving, camping, canyoneering or simply visiting a national park, it’s all a day’s drive from the East Valley to Main Street Moab, a funky town for people in hiking boots

Everybody gets to do their own outdoor thing in Moab, but for first-timers, let me give you a heads-up on one of the best day hikes in the country: the Fiery Furnace section of Arches National Park, which sits just beyond Moab. To quote the park website, the Fiery Furnace is a “natural labyrinth of narrow passages between towering sandstone walls.”

The only drawback is that you need to have a guide to do this hike, which quite frankly is a great idea because if you didn’t know where you were going, you could be wandering around the labyrinthine trails for days and not find your way out. Well, as long as you had brought enough water to wander for days, otherwise you would dehydrate in the arid climate.

My wife and I arranged for the hike through Moab Adventure Center, which placed us in a small group of hikers to be led by a young woman named Carla, who was born in Chile, a country with a desert environment all its own.

Besides my wife and me, our group consisted of a father and teenage son, and a family of five: mother, father, two school-age daughters and the grandmother. Although the hike was arduous at times, everyone made it out with limbs intact, which is not often the case around Moab. About a week before I arrived, there was an ambulance shortage because so many hikers and bikers had to be carried off the trails, mostly for heat exhaustion or broken bones.

A van picked us up in town and drove us out to the Fiery Furnace area. It was early morning and the summer heat wasn’t upon us yet. Although the land rises from the bowl of Arches Park, for the hike you must descend into this amazing landscape of large rock monuments, slot canyons, arches and desert floor. This is not a true walk-hike since you do have to engage in a considerable bit of climbing, up and down, and depending on the section of the trail, you also have to inch along a ledge, straddle rocks and even engage in some butt-sliding.

For most of the hike, you are at the desert bottom, which means you are surrounded by massive sandstone walls, hundreds of feet high and some of the slot canyons are extremely narrow. There was one spot where we had to crab-walk our way to the end as it narrowed almost to a close above us.

The little vegetation is mostly juniper, piñon pine, or thelesperma megapotamicum, or what most of us in the Southwest call “Navajo Tea” or “Hopi Tea.” If your guide is knowledgeable in botany like Carla, you might spot a bush of canyonlands biscuitroot, which is only found in Utah and Colorado.

The hike lasts about 3 hours, but due to the arduousness of the terrain, you only cover about 2 miles. Carla purposely guided us into box canyons — nature’s cul-de-sacs — to view particular rock formations or hike through a small cavern just for the experience. The good news is, despite the heat, you’re in the shadows of the rock walls. This doesn’t mean you shouldn’t pack in plenty of water — you will go through most of it, as the last stretch of the hike is a tiring ascent when the sun sits almost directly overhead and you really feel the summer heat.

IF YOU GO

Activities: Guides through the Fiery Furnace are available through Moab Adventure Center: MoabAdventureCenter.com

Accommodations: The quirky Gonzo Inn, just off Moab’s main drag. is not upscale, but a lot of celebrities have stayed there. More information is available at GonzoInn.com.

• Steve Bergsman is a freelance writer based in Mesa, and the author of “The Death of Johnny Ace” and “Growing Up Levittown: In a Time of Conformity, Controversy and Cultural Crisis.” Reach him at Redroom.com/Stevebergsman or smbcomm@hotmail.com.

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