A magnificent national park in southern Utah puts on a cool rock show.
Delicate Arch, a 60-foot-tall curve of sandstone, rises from the edge of a cliff in southeastern Utah’s Arches National Park like a hallowed gate. Framed within its bow is a classic desert tableau: sagebrush, a riddle of reddish canyons, and distant mountains. Of all the bizarre rock formations that dot the deserts of this region, arches may be the most mind-boggling, simply for the sheer improbability of their existence.
The park has one of the densest arrays of natural arches in the world, more than 2,000 of them, and each one marks a rare climax in an ongoing geological drama. “None of the landscape is ‘done,’” says Assistant Superintendent Paul Henderson. “The very forces that created the arches are still present and still creating them.”
Pressures deep within the earth thrust the land here upward, creating parallel vertical cracks in a layer of soft sandstone that happens to sit atop water-resistant, clay-rich rock. Over tens of thousands of years, rain has run into the cracks and eroded them into corridors, leaving behind narrow walls of red sandstone. Moisture gathers at the base of these fins and freezes, cracking the rock until it crumbles and leaving holes that create arches.
But it didn’t have to be this way. Too much or too little rain would ruin the process. And then there’s the matter of time: Visitors would miss the show entirely if they came just 100,000 years too early or too late—the blink of an eye, geologically speaking. Delicate Arch, one of the wispiest, most fragile of its kind, is liable to crumble much sooner than that.
A 26-mile road winds through the park’s outlandish scenery, and visitors don’t even have to leave their cars to see arches and other strange formations: spires, exposed red rock, petrified sand dunes.
But to begin to really understand the place, visitors are wise to stretch their legs on some of the walking paths. In seven miles round-trip, the Devils Garden Trail leads through red canyons, passing six arches along the way, some tucked into alcoves, others grand and showy, such as 306-foot-long Landscape Arch, one of the world’s largest. Farther south, in the Fiery Furnace’s maze of tightly packed fins—potential arches every one—rangers lead three-hour tours in which hikers squeeze through shoulderwide slot canyons and tiptoe along the edges of sandstone cliffs. “We take you to the places you wouldn’t find on your own,” says Sharon Brussell, the park’s program manager.
While the park’s campground hosts overnight visitors, many travelers stay five miles away in Moab, a lively jumble of rafting and rock-climbing outfitters, pizza parlors, and saloons, flanked by imposing sandstone cliffs. The town always seems to feel upbeat, since both residents and visitors are here for the same reason: to enjoy the red rock playground. Come evening, locals haunt Milt’s Stop & Eat (356 Mill Creek Dr., 435-259-7424, miltsstopandeat.com), a diner dating back to 1954 that uses grass-fed beef in its burgers. Grizzled river guides and spandex-clad couples mingle at the Moab Brewery (686 S. Main St., 435-259-6333, themoabbrewery.com) for pints of Rocket Bike Lager and locally brewed root beer.
The most remarkable vistas lie beyond Moab’s beautiful location. Many visitors explore the area by raft and mountain bike, but one of the best ways to see the desert is to seek stillness. And a great place to find it is the empty expanse of rocks at Arches’ La Sal Mountains Viewpoint in early morning or late evening. The area’s grandeur is immediately obvious, but its smaller beauty reveals itself slowly. Sit in silence and you’ll begin to notice a cottontail, a mule deer, or even, if you’re lucky, an elusive kit fox. Hear the wind sigh as it brushes over the desert, and feel the heat of the sandstone ebb as evening falls.
“Later in the evening, that low-angle light makes everything look richer, oranger, redder,” Brussell says. “There’s no other sound than what’s in your head. It’s so peaceful and humbling and impressive. If somehow I can get people to experience that even once, they’ll understand what this place really has to offer.”
Arches National Park lies at the center of an arc of geological spectacles that runs from southwest Utah to northern Arizona and includes these six parks.
- Zion National Park is known for its slim, deep canyons—serene tan, red, and pink stone cathedrals that rise as high as 2,000 feet.
- An expansive theater crammed with hundreds of orange-hued sandstone spires and stands of ponderosa pine, Bryce Canyon National Park looks like a forest petrified in stone.
- Capitol Reef National Park’s claim to fame is the Waterpocket Fold, a nearly 100-mile wrinkle in the earth that encompasses big white sandstone domes, a valley of monoliths, and verdant orchards planted by Mormon pioneers.
- Utah’s Dead Horse Point State Park offers arguably the country’s best single view of the Colorado River. From a 2,000-foot cliff, gaze over a giant bend rimmed by greenery and snaking canyons, with the La Sal Mountains beyond.
- Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park on the Utah-Arizona border protects huge mitten-shaped buttes that rise out of paper-flat desert, a landscape famous for cameos in John Wayne movies and other westerns.
- One mile deep and as wide as 18 miles in places, Arizona’s Grand Canyon and its beige-and-red-striped staircase cliffs can’t fail to take your breath away.
This article was first published in July 2014. Some facts may have aged gracelessly. Please call ahead to verify information.