Up close and personal with ancient art in Fisher Towers, Utah

May 18, 2019
Fisher Towers are a series of towers made of Cutler sandstone capped with Moenkopi sandstone and caked with a stucco of red mud located near Moab, Utah. Source: Ian Smith

“The real voyage of discovery consists not in seeking new lands, but in seeing with new eyes.” — Marcel Proust

I’d seen them from a distance over a decade ago. Those upright bastions in the distance challenging me to go and have a look at them. Now I had time, but first I’d pencilled in Castleton Tower and The Rectory; two high rise pillars somewhere on the La Sal Loop Road in Utah, United States.

Castleton Tower is probably the most famous desert tower in the world, and was the first major tower climbed in the Moab area. Source: Ian Smith

My GPS didn’t like the towers but gleefully accepted the loop road. I headed south out of town for about 10 miles (16 kilometres) before it told me to turn off and it wove its way gently towards the mountains. Obviously it will turn left and go follow the river or such at the base of the mountain. No dummy, the mountains are named La Sal, just like the road, and you’re going up there. It’s also a 50 mile (80.5km) road and you’re at the wrong end of it to see the tower.

Up it went, climbing, climbing until I’m in the snow yet again, eyeing off panoramic views over Moab and beyond. Understandably, there’s not a lot of vehicular traffic so I can stop frequently, often in the middle of the road, without worries. At one point I find myself pulling over beside two carloads of young adventurers who’ve spent the night up here. We quickly fall into chatting and one of them rushes over to the car and offers me some agate and mentions there’s lots of it nearby. I add I’ll have weight problems at the airport so just take a small piece.

All I’d really pulled up for was a pool of water beside their cars in order to get some reflection shots because it’s mostly snow and, at one stage, I try and walk across some to get an angle and I’m suddenly up to knees in it. Knew I should’ve brought those snow shoes! Still, it’s a lovely drive, I’m so pleased I found this meandering scenic byway where, way below, a long stark ridge juts hundreds of metres into the air. It’s the boundary for Castle Valley where I’m headed.

Parriot Mesa offers one of the premier, if not the premier, hiking adventure around Moab for very experienced hikers, climbers, and canyoneers. Source: Ian Smith

Before the road takes its inevitable descent I can see the tower I’m aiming for way in the distance, constantly thereafter offering different angles, posing like a tempting model. Before it is the massive Adobe Mesa and behind is Parriott Mesa, another great lump that apparently you can climb but it’s done rarely.

In time I stumble on the carpark for the tower. I use ‘stumble’ advisedly because there’s no sign as, around these parts, it’s one of the lesser attractions. Again, some young folk have camped here overnight in flimsy one-man, or woman as it turns out, tents.

Grabbing my phone I head off. Though it’s not very long (where I go) the trail follows a dried-up watercourse and at two points it’s quite tricky clambering over drops about 2 metres high. One takes me a couple of minutes to negotiate, wondering if, indeed, I can get up there and if it’s worthwhile, but after about 10 minutes the scene opens up with both peaks impressively standing out and I do a U-turn to ascend a prominence that’s beside me.

It leads to a genuine 360-degree panorama of Castle Valley and you can see a thin trail leading to the base of Castleton Tower where the crazy climbers go. I have no need to perform such deeds but I note there’s about four younger people edging their way up the steep trail. It’s a massive base that’s been torn from the rock over millennia but your eye is drawn to the heights.

Then I edge my way back down and it’s off to Fisher Towers, my main goal for the day. It’s about another 20km and, as I draw nearer to the turnoff, it’s clear I won’t be the only one there, though when I reach the carpark there’s only a couple of dozen vehicles, small potatoes by the numbers at Arches National Park.

The Fisher Towers hiking trail follows an easy path to an overlook of these sandstone rock formations. Source: Ian Smith

Even from the carpark this place is impressive. Dramatic shafts of surprisingly stable Permian Cutler sandstone (290 million years old) topped with Triassic era Moenkopi sediments (240 million years) leave me gasping in awe, even more so when I head off in the wrong direction (three trails, no sign is my excuse) and end up in a small canyon. The reward is a couple of unusual shots, but I’m soon back heading in the right direction of this 7km out and back hike.

Immediately I come across people pointing at one of the towers, the ever-popular (with climbers) Ancient Art Tower with the squiggly bit on the top. Sure enough, there are athletes up there near the summit. Talk is that you’ll find someone up there most days. They also have names for all the other peaks, like Echo, Cottontail and Titan. Not sure where climbers dig them up!

Up close and personal the formations of Fisher Towers are beyond impressive. Source: Ian Smith

Up close and personal these formations are beyond impressive; they dominate you in a way few other rocks I’ve ever walked beside do. They are so overpowering and the track meanders initially in the wash and then rises to the bases where it follows them around.

As you curve past one bend the wind is ferocious; starting on the opposite side and accelerating around the U-shape until it hits you at something like 90km/h. It’s all I can do to hold onto my hat, protect my eyes and try and keep dirt out of my mouth. Luckily I don’t have to worry about my camera because I’ve only brought the phone.

After that buffeting it eases the further you move and around the next corner there’s a short ladder you have to climb down before getting on top of another watercourse and rounding the next monolith, which is pretty close to where it all ends.

On the return leg I pay more attention to the mushroom-shaped rocks. These are harder slabs that have fallen from way above aeons ago and then the softer soil has eroded beneath them. Rarely have I been made to feel so puny as I have beside this outcrop and, for me, it’s better than anything Arches has to offer.

I’ve teamed up with a young man named Corby and we swap traveller’s tales all the way back, making for a pleasant interlude. It’s so nice to chat with someone while you’re walking along, sometimes you simply forget just how good it really is to share an experience like this.

Have you travelled through the Spanish Valley in Utah? Is hiking something you enjoy doingon your travels?

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