Exploring the unbelievable desert landscape in Utah

When most tourists cut south from the broad swath of interstate pavement on I-70 onto Highway 128, they have one thing on their minds: Moab. They want to go off-roading, mountain biking or rafting. Just an hour to go …

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Twenty minutes into their final stretch, when they hit the big rollovers where the car feels like a rollercoaster, a series of towers emerges from the skyline from the east.

These bizarre formations, some up to 700 feet in height, sit at the base of Utah‘s La Sal Mountains, where time and water have eroded the landscape in such a way that only these fantastical spires remain.

February 25, 2012: Dave Allfrey climbs the final section of Ancient Art. Photo courtesy of Chris Van Leuven
David Allfrey climbs the final section of Ancient Art. Photo: Chris Van Leuven

A lone highway sign points the way down a short road leading to a five-site campground. No amenities other than toilets and a few tables mark the pay site. Despite its simplicity, rarely have I seen such memorable sunrises and sunsets as I have while camping in the Fishers overlooking the Colorado Plateau.

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The bulbous, vertical Fisher Towers turn fiery red when the light hits them just right. A short line of steps leads out of camp toward The Titan, the largest tower in the group. The first time this muddy tower was climbed was in May 1962.

The author on the summit of the Titan after climbing the Sundevil Chimney. Photo Chris Van Leuven collection.
The author on the summit of The Titan after climbing the Sundevil Chimney. Photo: Courtesy of Adam Papilion

The out-and-back walk to reach the base of The Titan is an easy 4.4-mile jaunt — easy, that is, if you’re carrying just water, snacks and a camera and aren’t loaded down with heavy ropes and assorted climbing hardware.

Hiking here in this maze-like chasm, complete with ladders to get past the steeps, is unforgettable and strongly recommended. Just don’t come in the summer, as it’s too hot.

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Many days of the year, climbers can be seen high on the towers. For moderate to experienced climbers, the main draw of the Fisher Towers is reaching the top of Ancient Art. This must-do tower, known for its corkscrew summit (which is somehow climbable), looks like it’s about to crumble to the ground. And in some ways, it is: Many of the towers in this group shrink a few inches a year due to rainfall.

In fact, on July 31, 2014, the 40-foot-tall formation known as The Cobra lost its broad head during a storm. The Cobra is in the vicinity of Ancient Art. This makes the Towers a must-see site and an example of our ever-changing world.

Though hideously exposed, Ancient Art is secure and safe climbing, at least by Fisher standards. It has many protection bolts and overall is not particularly difficult to get up or down — that is, if the wind isn’t howling.

One bit of warning: The summit block rocks back and forth under your feet.

Though there are countless other routes to choose from in the Fishers, most are extremely difficult. “ln all of Canyonlands, no single grouping of towers is as grand and majestic as the Fishers; but by the same token, no other group of towers is as intimidating or outright dirty as these mud covered giants,” the late Eric Bjørnstad wrote in “Rock Climbing Desert Rock III: Moab to Colorado National Monument.”

This area is also home to extreme sports such as BASE jumping, wingsuit flying, speed flying and highlining.

This is a place where visitors can (if they’re lucky) view climbers and BASE jumpers ascending the towers, jumping off the top, gliding gently between the spires and landing softly on the ground.

To learn more, pick up “Hiking the Southwest’s Geology” and “Rock Climbing Utah.”