The legend of Faraway Arch in southern Utah
June 29, 2017
Editor's note: This article first appeared in the spring 2017 edition of Utah Adventure Journal.
Several years ago, Andy Waddington, a noted British photographer, told me of the existence of a large and beautiful arch in southern Utah near Lake Powell. Known as Faraway Arch, it had never been seen from the ground, though Andy and others had seen it from an airplane. It appears inaccessible, as it is bordered by very steep cliffs on all sides. Detailed work with maps and Google Earth indicated that perhaps there was a way to reach it, but satellite images and maps do not tell the full story.
Bill Briggs and I were determined to see if it could be done, and we planned a reconnaissance mission in May of 2016. The arch is located a short distance from the southern trail around Navajo Mountain to Rainbow Bridge. Since this trail is on Navajo land, an easily obtained permit is required from the Navajo Nation to hike in the area.
Scouting the arch
On a whirlwind Memorial Day weekend, Briggs and I flew from Denver to Page, Arizona, got a permit, and then spent a memorable day starting at dawn for the 45-mile trip to Rainbow Bridge in a rented boat, quickly hiking the 7.5 miles to the base of the arch, where we explored a little, and then returned to Rainbow Bridge and Page.
On this day's tour, we were surprised by a striking arch higher than (but close to) Faraway. It was just as large and beautiful, but also just as imposing and inaccessible. After some research, we learned that this arch was in a compendium by Vreeland, but it deserved a name, so we dubbed it Belvedere Arch. What we found on the scouting journey convinced us that a multi-day trip would be worthwhile and, joined by Jim Illg of Boulder and Katie Larson of Montezuma, we backpacked to the site a few months later in October 2016 to see what we could accomplish.
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To the arches
Jim and Pam Bradley of Breckenridge and my wife, Joan Hutchinson, dropped us off at Rainbow Bridge by boat. We would return to Page on the scheduled tour boat four days later. We camped where the trail through Redbud Pass strikes Cliff Canyon, knowing the arches were in a side canyon about a mile up Cliff Canyon from this junction.
In the days before Lake Powell existed, this site was heavily used as a camp for those coming to Rainbow Bridge on horseback around the south side of Navajo Mountain. John Wetherill and Charles Bernheimer made that trail in 1922, using lots of explosives for the tricky section through Redbud Pass. It is now unusable by horses because of rock movement, but the route through the narrow pass is spectacular.
Bernheimer wrote a superb book, titled "Rainbow Bridge: Circling Navajo Mountain" (and explorations in the "badlands" of Southern Utah and Northern Arizona) about his many explorations in the area a century ago. I highly recommend it to anyone interested in the terrain near Navajo Mountain, also known as the Rainbow Plateau. A 1999 paperback edition is available on Amazon and includes some beautifully drawn maps by Dick Sprang, the first Batman cartoonist.
The campsite was superb, with ancient Basketmaker pictographs and petroglyphs on a nearby wall, clear water from the perennial stream in Cliff Canyon, and even a small arch atop a nearby wall.
That first afternoon we headed to what we thought would be a good chimney route to position us above Faraway Arch — the plan was to rappel down to it — but the route was blocked by an overhanging section at its base that made passage impossible. Another pure friction route beside it would likely work at the 5.7 or 5.8 level, but the smooth slab could not be protected, and so that idea was abandoned. There are some cracks below the arch, but the climbing there was at a much higher level, and with our minimal gear, they too were out of the question.
One nice surprise from this day: We learned that one can see Faraway Arch from the canyon floor, from right underneath Belvedere Arch.
Exploring the land
On our first full day we decided to explore Redbud Spine, a prominent ridge just north of the arches that promised fine views of Faraway and Belvedere.
We were not disappointed. Some rope work was needed to gain the spine, but the hike along its top was spectacular and got us fairly close to the arches, though separated from them by the deep chasm of the side canyon.
To The Hourglass
The next two days were spent finding a viable route to The Hourglass, an unusual feature about 2 miles from camp. Our plan was to descend Cliff Canyon to the Aztec Creek junction, and then try to find an exit upstream. We found such an exit, but it was too far upstream to be useful. It did yield some wonderful hiking though, on the Navajo sandstone domes in the area.
On return from The Hourglass, we checked out a short cliff that looked promising, and indeed Briggs was able to lead to its top without difficulty. It was pretty clear that this would work for us, so we left the rope in place and returned the next morning.
All of us easily climbed this pitch, though an aid move was needed at the bottom. There were some ancient small steps (known as "Moki steps") cut into the sandstone here, but they started about 10 feet off the ground. We concluded that the ground was higher centuries ago, when these steps were made — a hypothesis supported by evidence at other locales, such as petroglyphs carved on a smooth wall 20 feet above the ground.
At the end of our Hourglass day we moved camp closer to Rainbow Bridge, so as to guarantee we met the tour boat on Sunday morning. So while we did not reach Faraway Arch, we did get superb views of it and two other spectacular formations. Each day had a bit of roped climbing, so we felt that the overall adventure level of the trip was nicely high.
I have hiked quite a bit in the canyons of the Escalante River, another Utah marvel, and some of that terrain is wonderfully wild and convoluted. But the area around Faraway Arch is different, most likely due to the extra erosion the area receives from greater moisture captured by Navajo Mountain, making the journey through Cliff Canyon wilder.
Stan Wagon is the founding editor of Ultrarunning magazine. He has covered 100 miles in a day, both in a foot race and in a ski race, and has extensively explored the canyons around the Escalante River. He is a retired professor of mathematics at Macalester College in Minnesota and now lives in Silverthorne.
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