Nature’s Sculpture Park

Should you shield the canyons from the windstorms you would never see the true beauty of their carvings.

~Elisabeth Kubler-Ross

Day four of our cross-country road trip found us at the entrance of my second most anticipated stop, the highly famed Arches National Park. We had arrived early to try to stay ahead of the heat and the crowds, and I consulted our newly attained park brochure as we drove past towering desert monoliths. There were many short hikes on our agenda that day, but Vince and I thought it best to tackle the longest one before the midday heat became unbearable.

We headed over to the Wolfe Ranch parking area, loaded up water bottles, slapped on some sunscreen, and then set off to see the most iconic arch I can personally think of, Delicate Arch. This is the artful looking arch that adorns the Utah license plate, and I’d wager it’s the first image that comes to most peoples’ minds when they think of Arches National Park.

The park brochure labeled Delicate Arch Trail as difficult, citing heat, narrow areas, and washes that can be slippery as some of the various treacheries that may await us. Although the heat was a pressing concern for me, I wasn’t too worried. The trail was 3 miles round trip, and gained only 480 feet of elevation, so if we made sure to keep hydrated I didn’t think that there was much chance of disaster befalling us.

The hike indeed started out fairly easy, following a well marked path that climbed uphill gradually until disappearing at the base of a massive sandstone wash. Countless other hikers dotted the hill ahead of us, looking increasingly tiny as some of them neared the top of the steep, flat stone. Vince and I took a moment to drink some water and then began our uphill slog. This would be by far the most difficult stretch of the trail, but we kept putting one foot in front of the other and before long, we were at the top of the wash looking down at the vast expanse of wilderness below.

After this one steep section the trail flattened out, and we enjoyed an easy and relaxing walk along towering cliffsides, at one point stopping to scramble up to a notch in the stone wall where we got our first glimpse of Delicate Arch.

Immediately after that we came upon the “narrow” section of trail. I can see where this may be a little treacherous on an icy day, but on the calm morning we were enjoying, the width of the trail was hardly a concern.

This narrow section was the last remaining bit of the hike, and soon the cliff on our right opened up, giving way to an unobstructed view of Delicate Arch.

Many other hikers were spread out around the viewing area, and a line of people were queued up waiting for a chance to get their pictures taken underneath the arch. This made it extremely difficult for me to get any pictures sans humans, so I waited for a quite a while, only able to snap one or two shots at a time as one group would leave the arch only to be replaced by another one within seconds. Still I wasn’t about to give up. I’d traveled 1,500 miles and then walked through blazing heat to get to that spot, and I was not leaving without at least of couple of tourist-free photos.

In the end my patience was rewarded, and I was able to get pictures from multiple different angles.

Neither Vince nor I was eager to stand in line endlessly waiting to stand under the arch, so we found a spot that was more than six feet from anyone else and just sat and took in the view for a while.

Eventually we got up and started the trek back to the parking area. This time we stopped at an offshoot of the trail that led to a rock with fanciful looking carvings of bighorn sheep, horses with riders, and some sort of dog. This Ute artwork was carved at some point between AD 1650 and AD 1850.

As an artist, I always derive a mixture of awe and happiness when I see ancient artworks. It’s so cool to me to think of how long humans have been creating renderings of the world around us. Long before pencil, paper, paint, or canvas, humans used the tools that were available to them to make art. To me, it represents an innate aspect of humanity that spans across time and space. Somewhere inside of every culture, maybe even every person, lurks the desire to create. It’s a common thread that links us with each other and with people of the past.

Once I was done feeling sappy about the petroglyph, Vince and I walked the short distance remaining back to the parking lot, and then we drove back to the park entrance to essentially start over from the beginning, stopping at everything we’d skipped earlier that morning.

We pulled over a few times just to stare at the cliffs along the side of the road.

Then we stopped at took the short hike around Balanced Rock. The precarious pillar stands at 128 feet, dominating the relatively flat landscape that surrounds it. It looks as though the boulder could fall from its top at any moment, and technically speaking it can and will someday. The forces of erosion that create all of the bizarre rock structures in Arches are still at work, changing and shaping the park today. Someday, balanced rock will be unrecognizable, as will all of the arches.

Walking the 0.3 mile loop around Balanced Rock took barely anytime at all and soon we were on the move again, in desperate search of a parking spot at the Windows Loop Trail. Luckily, we managed to find the last remaining spot, and we stepped back outside into the now oppressive midday heat.

The Windows Section manages to pack a lot of amazing sites into a relatively small area. There were four arches to see, and we would have to hike less than two miles to do so.

Our parking spot was closest to Double Arch Trail, so that’s where we started, hiking an easy quarter mile to the base of what would be my favorite of all the arches we’d see that day.

There was no mystery as to how Double Arch earned its name, and the sight of the twin arches against brilliant blue sky was nothing less than awe-inspiring. While the contrast between bright red rock and deep blue sky looks striking in photographs, the pictures truly cannot do justice to just how gargantuan Double Arch feels when you are standing beneath it. Looking up at it spider-like legs, I couldn’t help but feel dizzy as my eyes tried to take it all in.

A nearby hiker was kind enough to take a picture of me and Vince underneath the higher arch, which I think offers a better sense of scale.

Next up, we walked to the other side of the parking lot to the Windows Trail. By this time, the intense heat was starting to wear me down, but I tried my best to still appreciate the beauty of the trail despite feeling utterly exhausted. We made brief stops at the North and South Window Arches, but I was more intrigued by Turret Arch, which rose from the desert in the opposite direction.

I began to feel excited again when the trail looped back around and we were finally moving toward Turret Arch. When we arrived at its base, Vince disappeared to go find any rocks to scramble around on. I am still leery of bouldering (if you’ve been following this series you know that I broke my leg earlier this year…well a fifteen foot fall while bouldering is how that happened), so I was happy to just enjoy the arch and leave the climbing to Vince.

Turret Arch turned out to be a contender for favorite arch, only barely losing out to Double Arch. Standing inside of it, I had a perfect view of the windows, framed between it two sides.

I happily sat in the shade of the arch while Vince scurried around some nearby rocks. The break from the sun was just what I needed, and soon I felt refreshed enough to hike back to the parking lot where I got a much needed snack, and drank half a liter of water.

Neither of us knew what to do next, so we decided to just drive until we saw something we wanted check out. That landed us as the the trailhead for Sand Dune Arch.

This short, but alluring trail of soft, red sand cut through a narrow opening between towering fins of rock. The trail dead ended shortly beyond Sand Dune Arch, which was a smaller arch in a more intimate setting. There were few other hikers in the area so it felt peaceful and quiet, and took me back to exploring the red desert of Wadi Rum.

I must admit that the novelty of seeing arches was beginning to wear off by the time we got back in the car. I was hot, tired, and hungry and it would not have taken much convincing to get me to call it a day and go find some food. Vince however, wanted to press on a little longer. So, we drove to end of the main park road where we parked near the Devil’s Garden trailhead. Devil’s Garden is an expansive section of the park that has arches strewn about on hikes that can last as little as one and as many as seven miles.

While I had agreed to go on one more hike, I was not in the mood to tackle seven miles. In fact, I couldn’t even be bothered to hike the two miles it would take to see Landscape Arch, the longest arch in North America. Instead we decided to take a short offshoot to Pine Tree Arch, and it ended up being a beautiful little walk.

The Devil’s Garden area ironically reminded me of Garden of the Gods in Colorado Springs. The landscape was mostly filled with large red fins rising out of scrub grass. Pine Tree Arch was carved out of one of these fins.

Standing beneath it was cool and peaceful, and again a little bit dizzying.

I was glad that we had made it out there after all, despite how worn out I felt. On the hike back though, we made one last detour to look at Tunnel Arch, and it was underwhelming enough (at least compared to everything else we’d seen that day) that we felt confident in our decision to head back to Moab to find food.

After a delicious dinner and a very brief bit of souvenir shopping, I was feeling completely refreshed. In fact, we both had enough enthusiasm back that we decided to take one last drive up into the park, where we appreciated some final glimpses of its beautiful rock sculptures in the waning evening light.

This would be our last evening in Moab before turning our route North towards Idaho. I was a little sad to be leaving Utah the next day, and I can’t wait until I get an opportunity to go back there and explore more of its vast natural beauty. The best days of our road trip were still ahead of though, so it was hard to feel too upset when there were still so many adventures in our immediate future.


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