Arches National Park High Point Trip Report

Elephant Butte (5,653 ft) on "The Windows Section" quadrangle

Date: April 19, 2003
Author: John Mitchler

Park Entrance Fee: $10 per vehicle. No permit required.
Contact information: Telephone (435) 719-2299; NPS website

Team: Gerry & Jennifer Roach, Peter & Gwenda Jamieson, Chris Haaland, John Mitchler, Dave Covill, Andy Martin, Greg Griffith.

Overall Impression: This gem is a wonderful rock climb on a sandstone hulk in the middle of the beautiful eroded landscape of east central Utah. The easiest route to the summit requires good route selection, rock scrambling, lower Class 5 ledge climbing, and rappeling. Bring a harness, 120 ft rope, rappel device, anchor slings, ascendor, approach shoes, and appropriate high desert clothing. A short rope is comforting for two "problems" along the route. A helmet is not normally worn although care must be exercised with loose rock.

Approach: The entrance to Arches National Park is along US191, five miles north of Moab and 26 miles south of I-70 (exit 180 at Crescent Junction). A visitor center is at the park entrance on the north side of US191. From this parking lot, go 9.1 miles to the "Windows" turnoff. At mile 6.2, stop and look to the right and notice the petrified sand dunes field with Elephant Rock in the distance. At mile 9.1, turn right (east) on a road that goes to the "Windows" area which has several impressive arches. Proceed only 1.2 miles and take a paved turnoff on the left (east) for 0.1 miles to a small loop parking area. Notice the Owl Rock spire to the right which usually hosts climbers.

Climb: From the parking lot, hike east over bare rock and sand towards the mass of Elephant Rock. This is a magically beautiful environment. Be observant and select the proper narrow slot canyon; it being the one jumbled full of boulders (photo). Climb up, over, and around sandstone boulders and ledges, gaining elevation into the butte. One such ledge is a rounded ten-foot high affair on your right that can be carefully friction-walked (or have the first person up set a hip belay that allows others to hand-over-hand climb the rope up the easy slope). At one point, the drainage comes to a theater where a ten foot wall ledge is encountered which presents a climbing "problem" (photo). It can be scaled to the left, or have the strongest climber gain the top and set a belay to let others climb a short rope up and over it on the right.

Follow the canyon until it ends at a platform with a 40 ft drop on two sides which I call the crux (photo). Here, look to your left and notice bolts in the rock which can be used to set an anchor for rappeling down off the platform (see photos). The rappel curls to the left, passing two ledges until it reaches the grass and sand of the canyon floor. From the bottom of the rappel, continue east and and immediately pass through boulders and reach the barren sandstone slope of the upper butte (photo). Scramble up this slope staying more to the right than the left, and watch for a crack in the upper ten foot cliff. I call this crack the upper "problem" (photo). Some may wish to use a short rope here, although the climb is relatively easy (just narrow squeeze) as you gain the rolling surface of the butte's top. The high ground lays to the left (northeast) with a register set into the sandstone rock (photo).

To descend, retrace your route back down through the crack and down the sloping sandstone face. Choose either to 1) stay right and use your ascendors to climb back up the rope from which you used to rappel, or 2) stay left and enter a drainage which has a series of small water pools (photo). This drainage narrows down considerably until it ends in an overhanging ledge. Several pipes are in the sandstone on the left and allow an anchor to be set from which you can rappel down ten feet on the ledge and then 30 feet free rappel in air to a large platform (photo). From there, scramble down off a couple rounded ledges and reach the valley floor. Walk across sand and barren rock to the west and then northwest (right) to the parking lot.

On our trip, anchors were already in place at both rappels. Consider your options when you get into this butte. You may wish to leave your rope in place at the first rappel and check to see if the pipes are still in place for the drainage rappel off the ledge. If they aren't there then you'll need to use an ascendor on the rope you left. But while you're on the summit, if somebody for some reason removes your ascendor rope, then you'll need to set an anchor on the drainage ledge for a rappel. Be prepared.

Although Gerry's been to this summit ten times, it's the first time he used the narrow drainage ledge rappel to exit. There may be other routes up this bulk. The rangers I spoke to didn't know much about this climb. Unfortunately, we didn't linger in the park to explore the numerous arches and sheer cliffs of the Entrada and Navajo Sandstones. I think I will go back to this place.

My set of photos can be found here. We took many others but I selected the best ones to represent what the climb is really like.

Trip Statistics: From about 5,127 ft to 5,653 ft for a gain of 526 ft with an additional 70 ft up and down along the route. We reached the summit in 1 hr 45 min at a sustained pace; add more time for route finding and setting anchors.

Road Log (miles) from the "back-door" NW side (Dave Covill):

0.0 Exit #185 at Thompson. Road quickly turns to dirt headed south. Pass by a natural gas procesing facility shortly. Proceed due S across a few washouts, not too bad, can be passed with 2WD.
6.2 Reach a T-shaped junction at base of small ridge/bluffs to S. Go right (W) on good dirt road.
7.3 Reach another T-intersection. Go left (S) on good dirt road. Pass by small fenced enclosure. Road curves SE and goes down middle of gentle Salt Valley, nice sandstone formations on both sides, especially the N side.
13.6 Reach Arches NP boundary, marked by fence, open gate, cattle guard.
13.5 Turn right 0.1 mile prior to the above-mentioned gate, go SW 0.6 mile to base of bluffs, find nice camping spots near road cut into side of hill.

0.0 Zero odometer. Park boundary fence at far NW edge of park on Salt Valley dirt road. Proceed SE on good dirt road, wind up left-hand ridge near the 8 mile mark to gain elevation up to plateau.
9.0 Reach pavement on park road. Turn right and head E then SE back towards main section of park.
16.0 Reach turnoff for Balanced Rock & Windows section of park. Turn left (E) onto this paved road.
17.0 Reach far W end of Elephant Butte, and notice small paved turnoff for a ten car parking area here. Turn left (N) into here, proceed 0.1 mile and park.