Hector had been looking forward to Arches National Park since before Project 100 began, and his enthusiasm grew as the year progressed and we made our way closer to the Southwest. I, on the other hand, thought to myself before visiting Arches, “Here we go again… more red rocks. How can this place possibly be different from what we’ve already seen in Utah?”
Yet, after exploring the park for a few days, I couldn’t help but be impressed. The rock formations at Arches are different from those elsewhere in the Southwest, and the park packs a punch of remarkable scenery into its 76,000 acres (roughly one-tenth the size of Yosemite). At 2,000 and counting, it has more natural stone arches than anyplace else in the world. Simply put, Arches has zing.
The arches here formed in a layer of porous Entrada sandstone deposited on top of a thick salt bed. Heavier than the salt below it, the rock settled into domes separated by parallel cracks. Erosion over thousands of years shaped these cracked domes into thinner fins of rock. Those fins continued to erode until openings appeared, and gradually, those openings grew into arches and windows.
We spent a full day hiking in Devil’s Garden at the end of the 18-mile paved road that runs through the park. This fantastic area has a 7.2-mile looping trail leading to arches, fins and incredible array of other rock formations. Sections of the loop are considered primitive, with challenging wayfinding and hand-over-hand scrambling required in some areas, making this the park’s longest and most treacherous hike.
In places the trail led over narrow ledges and along the bare tops of fins, and we had to watch for cairns marking the way. One section took us up a steep incline of slickrock covered in a thin film of fine sand. Some hikers doing the reverse loop hesitated at the top of the incline looking for a way down, and others simply slid down on their backsides. Our uphill route seemed easier, but not by much. Somehow I managed to cling to the rock and creep up the slope, but behind me Hector found himself slipping as he hugged the rock. He would have slid down on his belly if another hiker hadn’t reached out a hand to keep him in place while Hector felt around for a better foothold. Eventually we both made it to the top.
When we weren’t climbing on rock, much of the sandy earth between the fins had the consistency of floury cookie dough, slowing our hiking pace. But that was just as well, because the landscape is so striking here that you’d miss too much rushing through it.
Traversing the rugged back-country terrain gave us incredible views of Double O Arch, Private Arch, Partition Arch, Navajo Arch and the comparatively wispy Landscape Arch. With a 306-foot span from base to base, Landscape Arch is the largest arch in North America and the fifth-largest in the world.
As solid as many of the arches might appear, they continue to evolve with erosion working its magic and sections of rock simply dropping from the arches. Several rock falls from Landscape Arch in the 1990s prompted the Park Service to close a loop trail running under it in the interest of visitor safety.
The next day we took in most of the remaining hikes, which are easily done in a short span of time because this park doesn’t have many miles of hiking trails. We started with Sand Dune Arch and Broken Arch near the end of the park road. (Broken Arch should be renamed Kissing Lizards Arch, don’t you agree?)
We then moved on to Delicate Arch. The trail climbed through numerous stretches of slickrock to what is arguably the most famous stone arch in the world, appearing on postcards, T-shirts, posters and an untold number of Arches souvenirs, as well as on Utah license plates.
We sat at the natural rock amphitheater below Delicate Arch for perhaps an hour simply contemplating the landscape, the arch, rock formations near and far, and the Cache Valley below us. The air seemed to buzz with a wondrous electricity here. Not many other places in the world have left me so awestruck.
In the afternoon we drove to The Windows. This section of the park is full of buttes, fanciful rock formations in the Garden of Eden and several windows (which are really arches). We took the short trail that circled the North Window and South Window and then headed over to Double Arch, whose southern span has the tallest opening in the park at 112 feet above ground level.
Our last stop for the day was Balanced Rock, another one of the park’s “rock stars.” This 3,577-ton sandstone boulder sitting askew on its stone pedestal made me wonder what it would take for the boulder to topple from its perch. Could a strong earthquake do it? Thousands of years of additional erosion?
Like Redwood National Park, Arches is one of those places where walking in the midst of such mighty natural features can overwhelm and make human visitors feel insignificant. However, we found the massive rocks energizing and inspirational. And if the inspiring scenery puts you in a contemplative mood, you don’t have to walk very far to get your fill of zing.