Arches National Park: 'The shock of the real'

Formations at Arches National Park include Double Arch.
Formations at Arches National Park include Double Arch.

Visitors don’t accidentally find themselves in Arches National Park. Located on the sparsely populated eastern border of Utah, the park is a half hour south of I-70 and 470 miles east of Las Vegas.

It was on my must-see list last spring when my wife, Linda, and I briefly toured four national parks in the Southwest.

I’m not sure why I was drawn there. Perhaps it was cartoons of the Flintstones and Roadrunner. Or the Utah picture license plates with the iconic Delicate Arch. Or the spirit of iconoclastic author Edward Abbey, who spent two years as a seasonal ranger at the park in 1956-57.

Though Arches National Park is located on the Colorado River, it is unlike other parks downstream. River-based erosion is not the main event.

The arches were formed after up to 1,000 feet of Entrada sandstone was deposited atop taffy-like salt beds. The 300-million- year-old former seafloor was squeezed like toothpaste into domes or flattened under the rock’s weight. Sandstone cracked into fins, and freeze-thaw cycles chipped pieces away.

Potholes, windows, and arches are now scattered throughout the 76,359-acre park.

With more than 2,000 arches, it offers one of the greatest concentrations in the world — and the longest; Landscape Arch spans 290 feet. To be considered an arch a structure must span three feet in any direction.

No two arches at the park are sculpted alike, from the iconic Delicate Arch to the improbably long Landscape Arch to the over-active Double Arch.

In some places arches even frame other arches and baby arches form in walls next to mature arches that look ready to fall down any minute. Red sandstone fins brilliantly contrast against blue sky.

Our visit

We arrived just in time to catch the afternoon light — and wound up stopping at each of the viewpoints on our way in, hoping to catch sunset at the iconic Delicate Arch.

It took two trips to the trail-head parking lot to find a parking space, but by that time the sun was near the horizon.

Time was running out as we made our way up the Entrada Sandstone trail.

I was prepared for a letdown. Could this aged rock-star perform to its reputation?

How could there be any awe left over after seeing the photographs?

Earlier that morning, we had caught sunrise in Bryce Canyon — an epic experience. I did not dare ask for more.

Yet as we climbed a sidewalk-wide sandstone ledge and rounded the corner to see The icon, Delicate Arch, we saw a glowing frame for the snow-capped La Sal Mountains. Photographers with tripods scrambled to record the last few seconds of magic light.

It was worth every step of the strenuous hike up the 480- foot elevation and 1.5 miles of sandstone trail.

Walking back down the trail under razor bright stars and moonlight, we were just able to pick out the path, marked by cairns and a worn path in slick rock.

Bats whisked, black against the indigo night sky, scooping up insects as we crossed the bridge over Salt Creek, too bitter to drink.

Abbey’s description of Delicate Arch in “Desert Solitaire” echoed in my mind as we walked back to the car:

“The shock of the real. For a little while we are again able to see, as the child sees, a world of marvels. For a few moments we discover that nothing can be taken for granted, for if this ring of stone is marvelous then all which shaped it is marvelous, and our journey here on earth, able to see and touch and hear in the midst of tangible and mysterious things-in-themselves, is the most strange and daring of all adventures.”

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