In honour of July 4, Independence Day in the Unites States, let’s go to Utah, arguably home to the country’s most beautiful national parks. To Arches, the mightiest of Utah’s “Mighty Five” (Arches, Bryce, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands and Zion). Home to the highest concentration of natural arches on earth. Where Delicate Arch, considered among the most impressive of our planet’s natural wonders and the most iconic of them all, adorns postage stamps and the state’s license plates.
A lot more than Utah-plated vehicles crowd Arches National Park. On a slow day, more than 4,000 carloads arrive to see the park’s more than 2,000 natural red-sandstone arches, what Edward Abbey, in his 1968 classic, Desert Solitaire, describing his two seasons here as a park ranger, called “natural engagement rings.”
On a slow day in April, Magellan and I made the pilgrimage along a cairned route, ascending on the slickrock for an elevation gain of 600 feet in a mile-and-a-half hike to Delicate Arch, hidden on a perch (elevation 4,480 feet) above an enormous bowl.
“How come they look like that?” we ask.
About 300 million years ago, saltwater from a nearby ocean, repeatedly flooding and evaporating, left deposits thousands of feet deep. About 10 million years ago, this process slowed. Erosion stripped about 5,000 vertical feet of rock, forming domes and anticlines. Rainwater, ice and windblown sand infiltrated through cracks in the rock. The salt valleys began to collapse, setting the stage for the formation of arches of solid, Entrada sandstone, “pinwheeling” stone staircases, towering turrets and “fanged crags.”
On the same day, we hiked for almost eight more miles among the highest concentration of natural arches on earth in Devils Garden. You won’t be in solitude here either.
It’s the most popular trail in Arches National Park with paved parking stalls for 150 vehicles. “Most visitors—unfit, unambitious, unprepared for a genuine hike, and incurious—turn around after ogling Landscape (Arch), allowing you to continue in relative tranquility,” write Kathy and Craig Copeland in their Utah guidebook Hiking From Here to WOW.
Edward Abbey, bemoaning what he called “industrial tourism” and the National Park Service’s development of Arches for better “accessibility” (more traffic), wrote the same thing fifty years ago.
Let the people walk. Or crawl, or bicycle. Anything to get them out of their cars and preserve what little wilderness remained. I entreat you, get out of those motorized wheelchairs, get off your foam rubber backsides, stand up straight like men! like women! like human beings! and walk—walk—WALK upon our sweet and blessed land!
In a year of Edward Abbey’s life, about 25,000 people visited Arches—today it’s 7,000 times that!
National Park Services (NPS) wanted to protect this area as a park in the 1920s but Secretary of the Interior, Republican Hubert Work, opposed it. The NPS took the story to The New York Times in 1926, Work resigned in 1928 and in 1929 President Herbert Hoover made Arches a national monument.
It wasn’t until 1971 after Edward Abbey’s activism that Arches became a National Park and more than doubled in size, to 76,679 acres. “Wilderness,” wrote Abbey, “we may need it someday not only as a refuge from excessive industrialization but also as a refuge from authoritarian government, from political oppression.” Good thing he wasn’t alive to see the desecration of national parks and monuments under #45.
Having newly acquired a few beginner photography skills, Magellan and I captured dozens of images of Arches.
Jeff Ruch is a director of the non-profit Public Employees for Environmental Responsibility. Like many others, he is vocal about the withering of US national parks as a result of overcrowding, habitat loss and a shrinkage of park staff, especially scientists. Fresh thinking on conservation, development and access is needed to ensure the future of America’s parks.
May this park be conserved for the next fifty years, and the years that follow, and may you and yours be present to receive the rewards of fresh thinking, as Edward Abbey (he said he was “not an atheist but an earthiest”) hoped for in his “Benediction.”
May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds. May your rivers flow without end, meandering through pastoral valleys tinkling with bells, past temples and castles and poets’ towers into a dark primeval forest where tigers belch and monkeys howl, through miasmal and mysterious swamps and down into a desert of red rock, blue mesas, domes and pinnacles and grottos of endless stone, and down again into a deep vast ancient unknown chasm where bars of sunlight blaze on profiled cliffs, where deer walk across the white sand beaches, where storms come and go as lightning in clangs upon the high crags, where something strange and more beautiful and more full of wonder than your deepest dreams waits for you—beyond that next turning of the canyon walls.
Abbey, Edward. Desert Solitaire. Tuscon: University of Arizona Press. 1968.
O’Connor, John. “The Balancing Act of Arches.” The New York Times. July 2, 2018.
Truer, David. “Return the National Parks to the Tribes.” The Atlantic. May 2021.