Arches National Park: Utah’s Ancient Skyscrapers
As you approach Arches National Park you know it’s going to be breathtaking, mostly because the vermillion and ochre rocks sloping up on either side aren’t impressive enough to be included in the park. It is only after your car passes the entrance and begins creeping up the rising road, that you can appreciate the sheer scale of this place. (Notice I said ‘appreciate,’ not absorb.)
The first pullout is named Park Avenue – because Moab and New York are clearly interchangeable. One is an outdoor wonderland, while the other is a cultural and foodie megalopolis. However, there is one area of overlap: skyscrapers. Sure, New York has 5,818 high-rises, which is more than the total number of Moab residents, but Utah can brag about its own Park Avenue, a group of stone towers, which stretch like fingers towards the sky.
Move over, Manhattan
Next up is the La Sal Mountains Viewpoint, which serves up a panorama of rocky hillocks and of course, the namesake mountain range, which contains six summits above 12,000 feet. When it comes to mountains, size definitely matters. Utah, not to worry, you’re as naturally endowed as Rasputin – just don’t stand next to Colorado at the urinal.
La Sal means “the salt” in Spanish
Speaking of large organs, the Tower of Babel, Courthouse Towers, and Organ formations will appear on the right. To the left are the Three Gossips, which are an assembly of hoodoos with their misshapen heads bent together, doubtless stirring up trouble. Perhaps they’re spreading rumors about how the Courthouse Towers have a sealed juvie record, or maybe they’re just lamenting the fate of the fallen double arches that are believed to have once stood in this section of the park.
A hoodoo is a tall, thin spire formed from rock. They are often compared to totem poles.
Before visiting Balanced Rock, be sure to pause at the Petrified Dunes Viewpoint. Now I’ve seen petrified rock, a petrified dog (Bambi was hunkered down in the car’s footwell for the duration of her trip to Arches), but never petrified sand. These dunes were created two hundred million years ago, just in time for the dinosaurs to spread out a towel, slather on the SPF and catch some rays. Over time, the sand was squished down under sediment, morphing into Navajo Sandstone.
Wanna make a wager on when it will fall?
Balanced rock is the geological equivalent of a waitress trying to hold ten plates at once – it doesn’t seem possible or advisable but it’s a pretty cool sight. The rock is deceptively large, standing at fifty-feet high. Follow the trail to get an up-close look.
At this point, I should mention dogs – Arches National Park is not designed with them in mind. You canine companion is banned from all of the trails, even if carried (believe me, I checked). Dogs are restricted to wandering around parking lots. As we had nowhere convenient to stash Bambi, we took turns approaching the rock formations. Translation: I jogged/dashed up stairs and along trails, like a mountain goat on speed.
Windows that you’d really hate to clean
After Balanced Rock, make a right to explore the Windows section of the park, which was my favorite section by far. Veer left, up a fairly steep set of stairs, toward the North Window. There you can clamber inside the window and stand under the arch, which frames a stunning vista. It made me feel simultaneously insignificant and god-like. If I could hit pause on one moment in the park, this would be it.
Further along the trail are the South Window and Turret Arch. As you walk between the two, be sure to turn towards the parking lot, for a view of the Double Arch opposite. The trail to the Double Arch can also be accessed via the parking lot.
Double the fun!
The saturated colors of the rocks are overwhelming. It’s like entering a child’s drawing, where the sky is still blue but, instead of green, the land is red with daubs of black. I pitied the white-tailed chipmunk that scampered across my path– it had no chance of being camouflaged against such a backdrop.
Head back to the main road then pull into Panorama Point (it showcases the salt flats) on your way to the Delicate Arch. If you’re crunched for time, I’d suggest bypassing this section and continuing on to the Devil’s Garden. By car, the viewpoints for the Delicate Arch are disappointing because it is so far away that it appears small. However, many choose to gain a better perspective of the arch, by hiking the three-mile trail to reach it. The trailhead is at Wolfe Ranch.
Wolfe Ranch consists of a root cellar; a one-room cabin, with solid log walls and roof; and corral. In the late 1800s, a man named John Wesley Wolfe left Ohio and settled in this isolated region of Utah. He kept a herd of cattle, grew a vegetable garden and ordered quarterly supplies from the Sears, Roebuck and Co. catalog. No, Sears didn’t deliver to Nowhere, Utah. Wolfe had to retrieve his goods from the nearest station – a day’s journey away.
From Wolfe Ranch, continue on, to Devils Garden, stopping at the thematically named Fiery Furnace. You can weave your way through this maze, but it is highly recommended that you do so on a ranger-led tour. This is not an area that welcomes the directionally-challenged.
Today we are equipped with scientific explanations for the formations in Arches, but it’s easy to see how people in times gone by took one look at the rock that resemble tongues of flames, and devised the name Fiery Furnace.
They had no way of knowing that Arches National Park sits on a thick layer of rock, which is balanced on an unstable salt bed. As the salt moves, the surface rock rises and sinks, causing domes and depressions. Add in the impact of water seeping into the rock then freezing and melting, and the result is the arches found throughout the park.
Salt Flats: Put your tongue back in your mouth
Sand Dune Arch, while not the most spectacular, charms your inner kid (or your actual ones). To reach it, you must traverse a narrow rock passageway, to emerge into a walled chamber, where the sky acts as a ceiling. The floor is formed from sand – not damp, solid sand, but a soft, orange kind that sneaks into your shoes and remains trapped between your toes for days.
Call Jenny Craig before squeezing through here.
A yellow flowered-tree blazes with color in the center of this enigmatic place, which seems better suited to a fantasy novel than to our world. After plowing through the sand, glance up and to your right. Light filters down between the gaps in the rock, causing Sand Dune Arch to softly glow.
The last arch I approached was Skyline Arch. As indicated by the name, the arch is high above the trail, with blue sky showing through the opening. From here, you can end your visit to Arches at the Devils Garden, where there are a number of trailheads leading deeper into the park.
Although the vastness of Arches gifts you with moments of solitude, when you can pretend your fellow tourists don’t exist, it has definitely already been ‘discovered.’ The park has served as a location for several Hollywood movies, the most famous of which include Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, City Slickers II and Thelma and Louise. Even so, you won’t run out of places to explore. Arches National Park is a geological buffet that keeps you coming back for more.
- Arches National Park is located five miles north of Moab, right off highway 191. Coming from Moab, it is just after the turn off for highway 128.
- There is a $10 admission fee per car.
- We spent about 4.5hrs in Arches but could not hike any of the trails, due to the dog. You could easily spend a day or several days trekking the various trails.
- Your admission ticket to the park provides you with access for seven days.
- Pit toilets are available throughout the park and are helpfully marked on the map you receive after paying the entrance fee. The toilet opposite Balanced Rock was rather pungent, so avoid that one if you can.
- There is a campsite at Devils Garden. Reservations are required between March and October. (Leashed pets are allowed here).
- Elevations within the park vary from roughly 4,000 feet to a little over 5,500 feet.
- Wear sunscreen and bring layers as temperatures can drop or climb 50°F over the course of one day!
- Stay on the designated paths to avoid trampling the cryptobiotic crust. Cryptobiotic means ‘hidden life’ so, although you may only observe black smudges on the ground, be assured that these microorganisms are present in Arches and it’s important to preserve them.
- Take plenty of water with you, especially if you intend to hike. You can refill water bottled at the visitor’s center.
- It may sound obvious but there are no gas stations within the park. Fill up before your visit.
- Wear hiking boots or sneakers, as the ground is uneven and rocky.
- PS. Don’t expect your cell phone to work here.
- P.P.S. Does anyone know the collective term for hoodoos? Whodunnits? Answers in the comments section, please!
One paw. This really stunk. I had to sit in the car much of the time while the humans took turns running back and forth to see the arches.
Lane & Juliet
The writing and photography team behind Southwest Compass, the travel blog for the American Southwest.