Even before we moved here a year ago, I wanted to check out the Rattlesnake Canyon and its arches, touted as having the world’s second largest concentration of natural arches outside of Arches National Park.  My interest was piqued even more when my husband did a couple of trail runs into the area from the Pollock Bench trailhead after we moved here.  Unfortunately, I’m not in the physical shape he is, so a 15 mile strenous hike, with climbs and scrambles up and down small canyon walls to get there was not an option for me.  We decided to check out the somewhat easier 4WD route to the trail on Saturday.

There are three ways to access the trail to the arches.  The first is via the Pollock Bench trail, which begins in the McInnis Canyons Conservation area near Fruita, south of the Colorado River.  This trail is not for the faint of heart – it’s a grueling 15 mile round trip, and you must do some climbing.  Another route for you river rats is accessed from the river, launching from the Loma boat ramp.  Since I’m scared of heights and am a wimp, and I can’t swim, the only option left for me was via the 4WD road which is accessed via the west gate of the Colorado National Monument.  (I’m told if you let the rangers know you are just going to the Rattlesnake Canyon trail, you won’t be charged admission fee.  We have a park pass anyway, so didn’t try it.)  Drive up Rim Rock Drive for approximately 11 miles to 16 Road/Glade Park and turn right. Very shortly thereafter you pass over a cattle guard, and the sign for the Black Ridge Access Road is immediately to your right.  Turn right onto this road and let the adventure begin!  Watch for the signs – they are hard to see.  Follow Black Ridge Road to the juncture of the Upper and Lower access roads, and pick one (flip a coin if you must!).   We drove the Upper road and I must tell you we thought it was pretty gnarly about a mile or so from the trailhead.  Much of it is easy but that last mile or so is a doozy, with some steep terrain and lots and lots of rocks.  Since we didn’t take the Lower road, I can’t vouch for its condition.  DO NOT attempt either of these roads in a low clearance vehicle – I guarantee you’ll tear off the bottom of your vehicle!  4WD is definitely recommended due to the steep terrain and you just may not have enough oomph to make it up the hills with 2WD.  You should NOT attempt this drive/hike if there’s ANY chance of rain.  Both the Upper and Lower roads become impassible when wet, and these roads are totally closed from late fall until late spring.  People HAVE gotten stuck and stranded.  You don’t want to be one of those folks, trust me.  There is very little traffic on this road so rescue would be very long in arriving (not to mention expensive).  After a few miles, you will pass another junction with the Mee Canyon road.  Stay to the right to Rattlesnake.  There are several camping areas if you choose to do an overnight in this area (surprisingly I did see one tent).  There is no camping allowed at the trailhead.  We didn’t measure the distance, but figure it’s somewhere around 10 miles from the time you turn off onto Black Ridge until you finally reach the trailhead.  We honestly thought we’d overshot it somehow and needed to turn around, when we finally saw three cars at the trailhead.  Yes, three cars.  If you like solitude, this is the hike for you.

Finally, the trailhead!

The trail heads down an old jeep road for about half a mile, where there’s a junction with a trail where you can walk another half mile to an overlook of the last arch (this will add a mile to your total trail mileage).  You will actually be above this arch.  We decided to save our energy for the main event and skipped this part.  We kept heading down the trail, which at this point heads steeply down the canyon wall.  There are several sets of switchbacks as you wind down, and finally arrive at yet another juncture.  This is where the Pollock Bench trail comes in from the right.  As you head toward the arches, if you look carefully back at some point, you can faintly see another arch which is on the Pollock Bench trail.  We didn’t head toward that one either, staying on point with the main concentration of arches.  You will pass by a large sandstone point, and it’s shortly after here where the arches start to appear.  The hike through this area is pretty easy and level, with just a couple places near the arches where you actually have to deal with some large steps/rocks.  In between the arches, there are fascinating sandstone formations to your left, and the awesome Rattlesnake Canyon to your right.  The views are impressive wherever you look.  The arches, formations and colors are very similar to the Arches National Park and Moab area.  A photographer’s dream!

Sandstone formation near the arches

Hole in the Bridge Arch, or Bridge Arch

The first arch is called Hole in the Bridge Arch, or simply Bridge Arch.  A pothole from above has slowly eroded into an arch through the top.

The vertical version (which I like better)

Next up was Eye Arch, named for obvious reasons.

Eye Arch

There are several arches in here which I didn’t photograph.  More explanation on that later…

The next arch was my very favorite of the bunch.  It has several names:  Akiti Arch, East Rim Arch or (my favorite) Centennial Arch.  It has an impressive span of 40 feet and an opening height of 120 feet.  From this photo, the right tower appears to be leaning.  This is due to perspective issues with my 10-22 mm lens which is unfortunately permanently stuck on 10 mm (need to get it fixed!)  This is definitely a wide angle lens type of place because the trail passes very close to these arches, and on the other side of the trail is the steep Rattlesnake Canyon.  There isn’t a lot of room to maneuver around so a WA lens is definitely a plus.

Centennial Arch, Akiti Arch or East Rim Arch

The last arch (which is the one you can see from the viewpoint I mentioned above) is called Cedar Tree Arch or Rainbow Arch.  It has a massive span of 76 feet and an opening height of 43 feet.  I didn’t explore this arch up close, but I’ve read there is actually a way you can climb up and effectively make a loop out of the hike.  Since I’m afraid of heights, I do not recommend this, especially if carrying  precious camera gear!

My hubby Mike in front of the last arch on the trail, Cedar Tree Arch (or Rainbow Arch)

Me, trying to act like I'm having fun while secretly dying of dehydration!

Now, the reason I didn’t take many photographs in this awesome place is simple:  I was dehydrated.  I thought I had been drinking enough water but I knew even before the half-way point of the trail that I was in trouble.  We started out way too late in the day, we underestimated how long it would take to arrive at the trailhead, and the early afternoon, late August, Western Colorado sun was absolutely unrelenting.  Even after taking a granola bar/water break before reaching the end of the trail, I was still lightheaded and weak and had to stop numerous times, even on the flat areas.  I had to get out of that damn sun!  While attempting to scale the canyon wall back up, I honestly didn’t think I would make it.  My heart was exploding in my chest, I had a tingling sensation in my arms, my head was swimming and I was sure I was going to pass out and roll down into the canyon, never to be seen again.  Not a good sensation…  However, I finally did make it up and back to our truck.  I was never so relieved to see that beautiful Tundra!  When we got home, it was all I could do to drag myself into the bathroom for a quick shower then flop into bed and rest.

Recommendations for this hike:  DON’T attempt if it looks like rain as the roads become impassible.  DO drink LOTS of water, more than you think you need.  There is scarce little shade offered by junipers on this trail.  DO use copious sunscreen and a wide-brimmed hat.  DON’T plan an early afternoon summer hike if you can’t take the heat and sun.  DO watch the weather and if it appears rain is on the way, get the heck out of there.  Where all the arches are located is an exposed bench of sandstone which equals a lightening rod.  DO bring a wide angle lens and a polarizer.  DO have fun!!

Will I do this hike again?  Heck yeah, if I start earlier or go at a cooler time of year.  The views from anywhere on the trail are awesome, and the arches are icing on the cake.  The hike itself is pretty easy, except for the last climb up the canyon wall.  I would love to spend more time exploring every nook and cranny of the fascinating features of Rattlesnake Canyon and its arches.