A guide to hiking Utah’s Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park

“Is that the trail?” I asked Steve, my longtime adventuring buddy. Not out of frustration or worry. I was more amazed at how this trail was marked, which is hardly at all. So you know, Steve has led me off trail only once in 10 years along dozens of hikes. He’s that good as a navigator.

“Matt — any idea?” I asked my other friend, who was head down in his GPS app, trying to decipher the snaking mess that was our location against the supposed “trail.”

A map of a hiking route in Fiery Furnace.

The official ranger-led hike is about two miles, but if you opt to explore on your own, your trek may be much longer.

(Blake Snow)

Before I move on, you need to understand that GPS works only within 10 feet of your actual position, which is pretty amazing for triangulating satellites that are thousands of miles away. But not quite amazing enough for those afraid of getting lost on one of the most exclusive hikes in America: Utah’s Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park. One wrong step here, and you’ll be backtracking, head scratching and disorientingly wondering whether you’ll ever find the trail again in this maze of red rock, slot canyons, towering arches, divisive fins, giant spires and blue skies.

And that’s the fun of it. Here’s what you need to know — what I wish I’d known — before visiting this mostly safe and contained playground for an afternoon or more.

Utah’s Fiery Furnace is a 30-minute drive from Moab, Utah. It’s one of the only protected wilderness areas in the national park system. Open to only 75 people a day (and no reservations longer than seven days out), it’s also one of the hardest park permits to score. Compared to other hikes, Fiery Furnace is more of a moonshot when it comes to crossing its Martian terrain. “Everyone but the park rangers get lost,” our guide told us during a pre-hike orientation. “Not even GPS will save you, so it’s best just to meander and go with the flow.”

She was right about all but one thing: Although GPS tracking in the popular AllTrails app spectacularly failed to keep us on path, it did help us get out eventually so we could make it to our next hike in Arches. But if I could have a redo, I would have accepted the guide’s advice and planed for more time and mindless wandering in this special place among an already special southern Utah.

Towering red rocks at Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park.

Be sure to look up, down and all around as you walk through this otherworldly maze.

(Blake Snow)

Speaking of the orientation, it’s mandatory. After picking up your $10 permit, you’re required to enter a small conference room and watch a 10-minute video about what the hike demands in terms of water, following the so-called trails and complying with the strict environmental and preservation regulations. You’ll even be verbally tested on what you watched, and the rangers won’t let you leave until you get the answers right.

After that, you’re on your own. Literally and figuratively.

During our hike, our party of three encountered just three other groups in the three hours we were inside. We jokingly exchanged pleasantries and accepted that none of us knew where we were going. But we did offer helpful tips of where we had been. “There’s a cool arch back there… Watch out for the giant gap ahead… Stay to the left or you’ll dead-end at a cliff.”

I say Fiery Furnace is mostly safe because I had to jump a gap and nearly tripped into what would have been severe injury some 20 to 30 feet below. Whoops. It’s not necessarily a physically demanding or overly technical experience. But parts of the furnace are tricky, and I wouldn’t advise anyone in poor shape to go inside. But able adults and sure-footed children regularly make their way through. For everyone else, there’s a stunning view of the furnace from the oncoming road and official viewpoint.

Scenes from freelance writer Blake Snow's trip to the Fiery Furnace canyon in Arches National Park, Utah.

The view on a trip to the Fiery Furnace canyon in Arches National Park, Utah. (Blake Snow)

Blue skies and red rocks  in Arches National Park, Utah.

Blue skies and red rocks inside Arches National Park, Utah. (Blake Snow)

Three smiling people make hand gestures at Fiery Furnace.

The author, center, and his hiking pals made it out of Fiery Furnace in time for their next Utah trek.

(Blake Snow)

While hiking the furnace, you can expect several arches, a sea of balancing rocks and mushroom like toadstools, massive cliff walls, incredibly tight slot canyons, layers upon layers of sandstone fins that divide the landscape and even a few open spaces. There are deep canyons, dead ends, sweeping vistas of distant formations elsewhere in the park, and a deafening amount of silence.

My friends and I lunched in the spring shade of Surprise Arch, a natural stone arch sandwiched between two massive rock walls. I have no idea how it or any of us got here. But there we were, dining al fresco in this otherworldly place.

If venturing the unknown of Fiery Furnace all alone doesn’t appeal to you, park rangers offer guided tours several times a day to permitted guests.

For the lucky few who enter Fiery Furnace, my advice is this: Get rid of your GPS — at least until you’re ready to leave. Plan for a few extra hours inside, if not an entire day. Meander. Get lost. By all means hike — but don’t expect your average point to point or loop trail. You probably won’t see the whole area, and that’s a good thing. There’s reason to return and have an experience that’s entirely new.

The ranger was right. Just go inside and enjoy the view.