The Arches are about seventy seven thousand square acres of sandstone buried in the stomach of Southern Utah. These are however, the most majestic seventy seven thousand square acres anywhere in the western hemisphere. Relatively small in comparison to it’s brothers throughout the country, the park covers a compact area of highly condensed sandstone structures and arches, housing more than two thousand within park limits. The park is open all day every day, affording you access to some of the most magnificent sunsets and milky-way panoramas anywhere in the world. The mere concept of the place is staggering, much like the old growth forests of the pacific coast, Arches is a window through time, the remnants of an ancient world whose foundations predate the Jurassic.
Around three hundred million years ago Utah was sunken beneath an enormous sea. Obviously, this sea evaporated, leaving behind a bed of salt thousands of feet thick in some places. Over another few million years, the mountains to the northeast eroded, covering the salt in sediment. Skip ahead a further hundred million years, and it’s the Jurassic. Utah is covered in high desert, and the sandstone starts to build up underground. The weight of this new blanket of earth atop the salt causes it to shift and bubble, resulting in the petrified dunes visible throughout the park. Finally, everything began to settle. Since then, in the couple hundred million years it took to get to now, the sandstone has been slowly eroding away, carved by the elements into the mind blowing contortions which populate the Arches.
The first thing you should know about the Arches is that it’s still a high desert ecosystem, even today. Which basically means it gets crazy hot, seriously, dangerously hot. During the afternoons it breaks one hundred easily, and some of the hikes are incredibly strenuous. Due to the noon heat, the morning and evening are the best times to see that park, not to mention they provide the best lighting for the landscape. Even without the sun though, it still stays around eighty degrees or higher well into the night, and heat stroke is definitely still a risk. Another thing worth noting is that while the park doesn’t house a particularly large rattlesnake population, those that it does have are much more likely to be out when the sun is not. That being said, they mostly stick to the areas off the trails; and as Arches is considered almost entirely off limits save the trails themselves, this works out nicely for both us and them.
One of the first things you’ll come to while driving through the Arches is Park Avenue, a spectacular range of sandstone towers which form a canyon deep into the heart of the park. Immediately you feel as though you’ve stepped into a spaghetti western, and any minute a herd of some kind will come thundering through the mouth of the canyon. The bed of the canyon winds along the path set for it in stone, banking ever so slightly on the corners as if travelling with some great unseen speed. The peaks of the towers and walls look fragile enough to knock over with a well thrown rock, as they sit perched in the heat of the sun. A line of ‘primitive’ trail snakes down out towards the horizon, striped in shadows cast by the sandstone looming over it on both sides. Staring deeper into the canyon, you begin to notice the land change from a dusty red to a lush green, as the flood plains and basins at the end of the tunnel come into focus. This part of the park is especially great at sunset, when the harsh shadows of the sandstone walls divide the canyon in two, separating the night from the glowing red stone.
As you travel onwards from Park Avenue, you’ll begin to notice the towers cropping up in the eastern section of the park. Laying in a great valley between the center of the park and Elephant Butte at it’s eastern edge, the towers are a series of gigantic sandstone monoliths which dot the landscape, rising hundreds of feet into the air. Driving up towards Devil’s Garden you’ll notice more and more of them begin to pop up throughout the valley. First small, then large, then clustered, before finally launching back into a solid piece of canyon wall. The larger of them stand alone, hundreds of feet tall with at least a quarter mile of space in every direction, they guard the land with stalwart indifference to the elements. Off in the distance the spires of the Butte march ever onwards, forming a great bowl around the eastern section of the park. They cascade across the horizon, catching the light in the windows between the towers, casting a grasping shadow into the valley below.
Everywhere you look the fragility of the land can be seen, worn on it’s exterior and to it’s very core. The layers of sediment, each formed over millions of years, create delicate rings which rise through the landscape, interrupted only by the absence of stone. Each tower and facade has a skirt of crumbled rock and sand piled at it’s base, evidence of the elemental war being waged on the land. Lopsided structures and impossible angles become commonplace, rock twisted into shapes you never imagined possible, bubbling out of the land and stabbing up through the valleys. The whole setting seems completely alien, almost unreal. It’s a section of the Earth literally being recycled before our eyes. What was once a sea floor, turned into a desert of sand dunes, then eroded away in the final step of it’s transition into something entirely new. The few remaining bits of earth which had the tenacity to make it through this far are slowly being torn back down. Since the late seventies, over forty arches are known to have toppled, and every year the land falls further into peril. Humans are having a mixed effect on it’s degradation, working to preserve it but also polluting it with our heavy presence, something of a double edged sword for the Arches. However, it’s a landscape that is inevitably slated for destruction, and though it won’t occur within our lifetime, someday the wind and the water will level it until not a single arch remains standing.
After reaching about the halfway point along the main road, you will begin to encounter the option of turnoffs. These turnoffs lead primarily into arch filled areas, each ending near a grouping of the more famous ones, with trails leading off into the deeper parts of the park. The first one of these you come across will take you down to the Double Arch, and the Windows, both North and South. While the Windows are cool, a sort of long bridge formation containing two massive arches which gaze out on the canyon below, the Double Arch is the main reason to come to this turnoff. Positioned about a half a mile from the parking lot, the Double Arch is a spectacular sandstone formation, in which a pool of water collected atop a sandstone column, slowly eroding out the top and the sides until it formed a prism of connecting stone bridges. A hike up the smooth chunks of stone which are cobbled together, forming the base of the Arch, takes about twenty minutes to complete one way. The rounded surfaces of the stone are separated by great cracks in the ground, where one section has been raised above the other with tectonic force. The huddled mass can be slightly treacherous to climb if you don’t have hiking/climbing shoes, but the view from the top is more than worth the extra effort. Standing beneath the colossal beams of the arch, looking down onto the windows and the towers below, it would be breathtaking if the wind weren’t about to literally blow you clean through the loop of the arch.
However when it comes to the arches themselves, there’s one that stands out from the rest. The world famous “Delicate Arch”, has become the the backdrop for the state, and a symbol of the wild west. Seen on license plates, billboards, postcards, stamps, and everything inbetween, the Delicate Arch is synonymous with the Arches themselves, and no trip here would be complete without making the hike to see it. Reached via the second major turnoff travelling north towards Devil’s Garden, the Delicate Arch trail is about a three mile round trip through desert terrain of varying difficulty. Starting out mild, the path takes you up through some inclines and around a few bends as you approach the midsection of a canyon wall. Make it over the wall, and the path essentially disappears, replaced by a series of guide stones which lead the remaining mile up through the sandstone hills. About halfway through the trek, you will begin climbing the slopes of the canyons themselves, where no real path exists, and footing is first come first serve. While nothing like climbing in the Rockies, the sandstone leading to Delicate Arch is still not a hike to be taken lightly. The hike up the canyon can be quite strenuous, and the heat can be absolutely killer. The park recommends about two quarts, or half a gallon of water per person on most of the more difficult hikes, at any time of day. Tackle the hike however, and you will be rewarded with a view you won’t soon forget.
Delicate Arch stands about sixty five feet tall, made from Entrada sandstone, and was originally named “The Chaps” after it’s distinctive and easily recognizable structure. The one and only problem with this arch is the vicious catch 22 of it’s fame. The spot is constantly packed due to the arch’s legendary status and relative ease of access. A clear shot of the arch is impossible most days, with a queue of people waiting by its side so they can have their picture taken inside the ring. Considered one of the most endangered arches in the park, it is also the most heavily trafficked, which essentially means you should go now, and see it while it’s still standing. Even so, mob or no the trek up to Delicate Arch is worth every drop of sweat wasted on the sandstone floor. It sits, poised on the brink of existence, an image of the west that only remains in our minds and on tv. The sun hitting it’s earthy red surface as it sets far to the west, sending the silhouettes of the towers stretching across the land, while a cowboy rides off to some mysterious location. Amongst a field of thousands, only Delicate Arch conjures the images of tumbleweeds and orange skies, it’s odd, walking past I felt a need to salute it, such an idyllic relic of the American west.
Though it may not be the largest of the parks, the gorgeous high desert of the Arches stretches for as long as you can imagine it, rolling out beneath the sun. It’s an easy place to get lost in, not the kind of lost where you need a map, but the kind where you forget what year it is, what you do for a living, why you spend time anywhere other than here. It’s removed from the world in both it’s appearance and it’s atmosphere, a place where the brutal cycle of regeneration moves on unperturbed by our many pokes and prods. The wind and the rain wreaking havoc as they have for millions of years, sculpting the land into the most beautiful of shapes, before wiping it away without any remorse. What I’ve covered here is but a fraction of the Arches, an appetizer of sandstone when compared to the vast array of attractions it has at its disposal. Above all though, a single minute spent here in the right light, can paint you a picture worth any drive, any hike, and any journey.