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Courthouse Wash - An Oasis in the Desert
by Marcia Hafner

A park service sign claims that Courthouse Wash is the only real “canyon experience” in Arches National Park. It is not a hike for seeing arches but instead is a wonderful wetland canyon exploration where the sandstone has been eroded into uniquely formed pillars and domes. At the upper end of the canyon the Entrada layer of sandstone starts out very shallow, but further downstream the gorge cuts deeper into the older Navajo sandstone and the walls become much higher. The stream is intermittent most of the way through the wash with occasional pools that have bubbled up. At the lower end there are two waterfalls and now the water flow stays steady.

The source of this water comes from springs in the western part of the park that is part of a shallow flow system called the Moab Member Aquifer. Recharged solely by the infiltration of precipitation, the gentle dip of the Courthouse anticline guides the flow into the wash.

The lower entrance to Courthouse Wash is just minutes away from Moab so this part of the park, which doesn’t have the appeal of the more popular arches trails, can be a quick, tranquil get away. To get there, drive north on Highway 191 over the Colorado River Bridge, and continue for a third of a mile to a parking area on the right side of the highway. Then follow the short graveled pathway south along the highway to the trailhead. To run a shuttle for the entire five-mile hike through Arches National Park, continue on with the second vehicle 1.7 miles to the main entrance of Arches National Park. Then drive in 3.4 miles up past the switchbacks to Courthouse Tower for which Courthouse Wash is named. It’s another mile to the bridge over Courthouse Wash. On the other side of the bridge there’s a large, paved pullout on the left-hand side for parking. Walk across the road to the sign that identifies a route that drops down the steep bank.

I’m giving directions for walking down the wash, not up. The elevation gain is minimal but in my mind it just makes more sense to go down. The upper trail starts at 4,120 feet and ends almost at the river at 4,000 feet. Allow three to four hours to make this moderately easy hike. The only difficulty is that deep sand after awhile tends to drag on the feet.

With no established trail the best way to go is simply to follow the wash and that means your chances of getting wet feet are high. In places there are stretches of used pathways over lose, dry sand and through thick vegetation of willows, scouring rush, bulrushes, reeds, cattails, and over-your-head grass topped with soft-as-fur tufts. In the muddy areas, which should be avoided because the slickness is equal to walking on glare ice, look for the tracks of great blue heron, raccoon, and deer. In the wider, dryer areas that surround the wash, there’s rabbitbrush, sagebrush, greasewood, Indian rice grass, single leaf ash, junipers, cockleburs and an abundance of cottonwoods.

Four side canyons lead to petrified sand dunes. These canyons that extend for miles are interesting to explore, but remember they do eventually dead-end.

I have been in Courthouse Wash during all the seasons and each one has its own specialty. In winter I like that away-from-the-world cold silence atmosphere with the frosty, iced-over patterns on the pools and stream when I can smugly walk over stream crossings without worrying about getting my feet wet.

Then comes the welcome warmth of spring as the radiant sunshine is magnified off the canyon walls. Like a sponge the slickrock soaks up the solar rays making it a perfect backrest for a long break during which I gaze at the explosion of wildflowers and listen to the rollicking voices of birds. At this time of year this lush habitat attracts black-headed grosbeaks, yellow-breasted chats, lazuli buntings, and Bullock’s orioles.

During the summer months there’s the relief of deep shade provided by towering sandstone walls when wading through the ankle to knee-deep pools is so refreshing. If the heat has gotten to you and there’s no time to head for the mountains, try hanging out in Courthouse Wash.

My favorite season is when fall has taken crisp command with the fluttery cottonwood leaves shimmering in the sun. By late October they are at their peak of glittering golden colors. By then many birds have returned from their summer haunts and the white-crowned sparrows, black-capped chickadees, and juncos are easily seen.

A more practical reason for a long hike this time of year is that water levels, barring a recent storm, are generally lower. On our most recent hike my hiking partner and I did wear old, don’t-care-if-they-get-wet shoes but discovered that it wasn’t necessary. Another good reason is that the deer flies and other annoying insects are no longer around.

On a perfect Indian Summer day, we came to immerse ourselves in this oasis in the desert autumn hike. It amazed us that the lavender blooms of asters, golden hairy asters, skyrocket gilia, pepper plant, and Indian paintbrush had stayed in full bloom this late in the season. We were in no hurry. Mesmerized by the rich fall colors, we stopped often just because we wanted to soak in that fleeting autumnal sensation.

At the first waterfall there’s a water level gauge in a cone-shaped metal encasement. When I saw that I knew we were close to the trailhead. We still had dry feet and wanted to keep it that way so decided to try an unfamiliar, high-level pathway. It led us above the wash and out through the park boundary to the trailhead. Feeling pleased with our beautiful fall experience, we were also very happy we’d managed to keep our feet dry!








Cryptobiotic soil garden
Cryptobiotic soil garden

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