Rattlesnake Arches- Arcoliths of Colorado
Western Colorado is blessed with a vast array of adventurous landscapes and serene vistas. Picking an activity or location is as challenging as getting ready to head out the door. A unique local feature that makes choosing a direction easy is the magical formation of arches. People around the world are familiar with the arches of Utah, but I truly cherish my time spent in our very own Rattlesnake Arches! These arches are a little more remote and require a longer hike to see them but that lends to the allure of this special place.
The Rattlesnake Arches though lesser known, are the second largest concentration of arches outside of Arches National Park near Moab, Utah. My goal for this adventure was to show Katie and Matt Sewalson, and their friend Ryan Dutch to the Rattlesnake Arches for their first time. Katie is a teacher at the outdoor oriented Deep River School (which I think is great for kids!) so I thought eventually our exploration would benefit the Deep River students! I also invited my brother Dirk who first showed me these fair arches. Dirk shared this place with me on my first winter backpacking trip where we were treated to the romping display of desert big horn sheep along the gorgeous string of arches.
We agreed to start early on a cool April morning for the long 13.5 mile out and back from the valley floor. After getting our morning groove on we headed for King’s View Estate Road on the right/west side of Hwy 340 heading south from Fruita. We entered the newly titled McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area. 6 miles out the gentle unpaved road brought us to the obvious Pollock Bench Trailhead just above the Colorado River.
We started up the prairie on an old dirt road and angled up the rock rim of Pollock Bench. At just under two miles up the gentle grade we followed the sign pointing the way to Rattlesnake. The disheartening trail loses hard won elevation by descending west into a side canyon. The trail then trends under the west rim of Pollock Bench, crosses a small gully and bench to a tricky down climb and across Pollock Canyon.
After crossing the creek fed by melting snow from Glade Park above, a steep ascent winds up a ledge to gain the west side of Pollock Canyon. The trail crosses through an interesting set of sandstone towers resembling Moscow’s Red Square with an onion domed summit. The trail then traverses juniper flats that give a feeling of solitude to the trip. We soon met a road that quickly turned back to trail up a U-shaped trough toward an obvious rocky pass. From the rock pass the trail surmounts the bench that supports the aptly named Crocodile Point. Crocodile Point is a long tapering ridge holding the prized arches like the lumps on a crocodile’s snout.
We took the trail to the top of Crocodile Point so we could scramble down the upper most, “Rainbow Arch.” Despite crossing rugged country the entire trail is well marked and easy to follow.
After lunch on top of the span we frictioned under the Rainbow Arch to the 1.7 mile stretch of “holy views” comprising the Rattlesnake Arches. The Rattlesnake Arches formed by wind blasting through the western ramparts of the rim. Some of these arches are quite stately. The structure of “Akiti Arch” (AKA East Rim or Centennial Arch) is more bridge like than the classic rounded spans of most arches and is photographed often. The multi-circled “Hole in the Bridge Arch” is my favorite shape along the rim as it reflects the shape of the bent and wiry Juniper trees that thrive beneath it. Many sneaky vertically aligned spans like “Overhanging Arch,” “Trap Arch,” and “Eye Arch” lurk in the shadows under the rim. These smaller holes are fun to find and cautiously explore. To get a closer view of these and the larger spectacles we tip toed in the drainages and over the rocks to avoid stepping on the black encrusted crypto biotic soil that helps sustain life in this inhospitable terrain.
We finally rounded the tip of the crocodile’s snout signaling the end of the “archy” fun on this upper section of Rattlesnake Canyon. There are more arches several miles farther down canyon to the Colorado River as well as some in the upper portions of East and West Pollock Canyons. Our feet were already sore so these have to wait for another day.
On the way back we discovered another arch called Window Rock Tower (I mistakenly called it Keyhole Tower.) We resumed a leisurely pace back to Pollock Bench and eventually into some comfy sandals waiting in the car to sooth our sore toes!
In truly ironic timing with this expose' of our local topographic wonders, The Natural Arch and Bridge Society is spending an annual outing in the arches of Rattlesnake Canyon and nearby parts of Western Colorado. The May 6th to May 14th event is called “Celebrating the Arcolith.” (Cool name.) We are honored to have such a distinguished group in our presence! Maybe they will even fix that “Hole in the Bridge.”
3-4 mile round trip- (add a few more to see the lower Rattlesnake Arches to the west of the rocky pass)
Two roads start near Black Ridge from the upper section of Rim Rock Road on the Colorado National Monument and provide the closest access to the arches. Both reunite to the Upper Rattlesnake Canyon Trailhead. The Upper road is only open from April 15 - August 15. The Lower Road is only open from August 15 - February 15. Biking, hiking and horseback are allowed on both roads throughout the year. A high clearance vehicle is recommended for the deeply rutted roads and a 4X4 vehicle is REQUIRED for the last 1.5 miles. Do not attempt either road with ANY chance of precipitation due to impassable bentonite clay near the beginning of the road.
13.5-14 Mile Round Trip-
In the winter months and for more adventure the 14 mile round trip described above is a true classic and has been written about in the likes of Backpacker Magazine.
The “Grand Junction Trails and Camping Guide” by Nattana Johnson and Chris Schnittker is a great resource for trip ideas and details around the valley. The book is available at many local outdoor shops and bookstores.
Bob's Arches Website- Google it or find it at: users.sisna.com/archman
The Natural Arch and Bridge Society Website at: www.naturalarches.org
-Approximate distance from upper trailhead- Arch name, Span, Opening height
.25 mile- Rainbow Arch, 76x43
.3 mile- Trap Arch, 30x (20?)
.4 mile- Overhanging Arch, 10x10
.6 mile- Eye Arch, 30x12
.6 mile- Right Arch of Twin, 15x15
.6 mile- Left Arch of Twin, 10x10.
.7 mile- Akiti Arch, 40 ft. span 120 ft. opening-
.8 mile- Hole in the Bridge, 30 ft. span, 40 ft. opening.
.8 mile- Unnamed, (Seeping Arch) next to Hole in the Bridge. 10x10
There are many more arches in the surrounding area to get out and explore!
Story by Seth Anderson, Photos by Seth and or Dirk Anderson-
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