When my family and I visited Arches National Park many years back, we didn’t know that you have to reserve tickets for the Fiery Furnace ranger led hike ahead of time. Like… way ahead of time. This hike generally sells out months in advance. So when we decided to visit Arches last July as destination #1 on our annual family vacation, I reserved our campsite and tour tickets at the same time… in March.
Arches in July is not optimal… something we said after our last visit and proceeded to ignore once again. It’s hot and dry, and no amount of water seems to be enough. However, the name Fiery Furnace is not at all related to the temperature; the name stems from the flaming reddish-orange of the rocks when illuminated by sunlight. Thanks to the giant parallel rock fins that make up much of the Fiery Furnace, there’s a lot of shade and it actually stays quite cool inside.
The Fiery Furnace can be explored in only two ways: on a ranger-led tour or on your own after acquiring a permit. It’s a maze inside, there isn’t a well-marked trail, and it’s very easy to become disoriented. GPS devices don’t work well inside the Furnace. Due to the high amount of iron in the rocks, compasses don’t work well either. Therefore, I wouldn’t recommend going on your own unless you have strong navigational skills.
Our ranger-led tour departed from the parking lot at 9:30am and lasted about 2.5 hours as we wove our way through this red rock maze.
Our tour guide was super knowledgeable and provided us with lots of fun facts. She also helped us negotiate the many obstacles along the way, including narrow ledges, steep drop-offs, skinny passageways, large boulders, cracks, and a leap across a 3 foot (1 m) chasm. We all really enjoyed the challenge of navigating these features; some basic balancing, bouldering skills, and general oomph were required, but nothing too crazy. My sister has somewhat of a fear of heights and she didn’t have any problems making it through. The photos below are a pretty good depiction of what to expect.
In addition to the red rock fins and pinnacles, there are a few arches hidden within the Fiery Furnace, including Walk Through Arch (which you walk through on the tour), Climb Through Arch (which you have the option of climbing through on the tour), Skull Arch, and Surprise Arch (which, when it unexpectedly came into view, I appropriately exclaimed “oh, there’s an arch!” prompting the ranger to explain that this is exactly where the name came from).
Much of the red sand in Arches is part of a fragile, living cryptobiotic crust. It may not look like much to the naked eye, but it’s actually a symbiotic community of microorganisms that lives in the top few inches of the sand and provides the stability required to prevent it from eroding or being blown away. The crust is recognized by its bumpy topography and darker color and is easily damaged by walking on it. The trail through Fiery Furnace travels alongside much of this crust, so if you do enter without a ranger please be mindful of your feet!
There were also a few rock potholes in the Furnace, which was a feature I didn’t know anything about prior to this hike. It turns out these potholes are tiny ecosystems that come to life every year with the spring rains and fall dormant when the water disappears. Some creatures are seasonal inhabitants but others lay eggs in the potholes and/or have various special features that allow them to weather the dry season burrowed in any mud that remains on the floor of the pothole. Because of this, it’s important to avoid stepping in potholes, even when they’re dry. I’m glad the ranger took the time to educate us on this, and we now know to walk around these unique features.
This was Pat’s first time in Arches, so we spent the remainder of our time here repeating a few of the highlights that my family and I visited back in 2010 (see all of those photos/stories here).
We did, however, squeeze in a few new things: a quick 0.3 mile (0.6 km) hike to Sand Dune Arch, a stop at the historic Wolfe Ranch, and a walk from the campground up to Skyline Arch at sunset.
Last time we visited we camped outside the park, so staying at Devil’s Garden Campground was new for us as well.
(Spoiler alert: it was gorgeous!)
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: the entrance station is located 5 miles (8 km) north of Moab, Utah off Highway 191
- Fees and passes: $30/car for a 7 day pass; Interagency Annual Passes accepted
- Hiking: Fiery Furnace is about 2 miles (3.2 km) if you go on the tour, but can be much longer if you enter on your own with a permit; all the info on the hike and and reservations can be found here
- Where to stay: Devil’s Garden is the only campground in the park (51 sites, no hookups, reservations necessary most of the year), but there are many camping options ranging from primitive to full hookups in Moab and the surrounding BLM land, and Moab has hotels, cabins, and hostels as well
- Showers: there are no showers in the park since it’s the desert and water is limited, but public showers are available in Moab; we went to the Lazy Lizard Hostel and were very pleased, but here’s the full list of options
- Other: I recommend carrying a water bladder rather than water bottles on the Fiery Furnace hike; there are some narrow passageways, and people with water bottles in the side pockets of their backpacks ended up scraping and banging them against the rocks on numerous occasions