Large Rocks With Holes

Published: November 2nd 2012
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Delicate Arch at sunsetDelicate Arch at sunsetDelicate Arch at sunset

The iconic photo that every visitor to Arches wants, and many get
I headed out of Green River heading southeast.

The road crosses flat desert every bit as dull as the day before.

Snow covered mountains appear in the distance, the La Sal Mountains.

As the road goes on, red mesas appear in the distance and get closer.

Eventually, a wall of them forms looking like a smaller version of the Waterpocket Fold cliffs.

I’ve reached a slip fault, where part of the land dropped.

Arches National Park

The road runs along the base of the cliffs.

Eventually, another set of cliffs appears on the other side, creating what looks like a canyon.

It’s another slip fault.

What on earth could create something like this?

A sign appeared for Arches National Park, and I had my answer.

This part of Utah was once a shallow ocean.

A huge layer of salt accumulated on the floor.

The land then rose and sand covered the salt.

The sand then compressed into sandstone.

Water percolates through the sandstone, very slowly, the same process that creates the springs in Zion Canyon (see Parking Hell in Scenic Heaven).

It dissolves the salt underneath, leaving empty
Slip FaultSlip FaultSlip Fault

The slip fault wall on the way to Arches National Park
areas behind.

The sandstone ultimately can’t support its own weight and cracks.

The process has created thousands of thin sandstone fins, which are found all over the area.

Once the fins form, erosion goes to work.

Rain and ice wear away the sandstone from the sides.

In many cases they meet, creating a hole in the rock.

If the rock is large compared to the hole, it forms a window.

If the hole is nearly the same size as the fin, it becomes an arch.

Early explorers were not always distinct about the two, so many windows are called arches and vice versa.

Both natural arches and windows are distinct from natural bridges, which must span a watercourse and are created by water.

Arches appear in only a few parts of the world, but in huge numbers in those areas.

Arches National Park has the largest collection of all, over two thousand.

All those arches in an easily accessible area have made this park very popular.

Unlike the time when nature writer Edward Abby worked here (see Few People Can Go Here, and We Like it That Way), thousands of people now crowd
Park AvenuePark AvenuePark Avenue

A small portion of the rock fins in Park Avenue
into the park.

They have created the Arches parking war.

The park deliberately limits the size of parking lots to avoid environmental damage (which can be substantial in a desert).

Many more people want those spots than can get them.

The predictable result is that people squeeze in cars wherever they will fit, and treat the subsequent fines as part of the price of visiting.

I managed to find a spot where I needed to, but only by visiting at the tail end of the season.

Things have not gotten as bad as Zion, but they are clearly heading that way.

The visitors’ center talks about a proposed shuttle system to alleviate these problems.

If they implement it, park managers need to find sufficient parking near the park entrance or it will simply dump the parking issue on the closest town like Zion did.

After the entrance station, the road climbs the fault wall.

This creates a feeling of anticipation, like the one often created deliberately by the entrances to theme parks.

It then enters an unearthly world of deep red tall but narrow rock fins.
Balanced RockBalanced RockBalanced Rock

A huge boulder on a tiny pedestal in Arches.

Most have vertical grooves on the side.

They tower high above the roadway.

Some have knobs on the top like the hoodoos of Bryce Canyon (see Hoodoo: a Weird Name for Weird Rocks).

Early settlers called this area Park Avenue, thinking it looked like New York City skyscrapers.

After Park Avenue, the highway enters an area of tan slickrock alternating with desert scrub.

More rock fins appear in the distance, with the La Sal Mountains beyond.

Some of the fins have large spires.

One of these looks like a huge boulder standing on a tiny pedestal, the Balanced Rock.

It used to have a second one nearby but erosion toppled it in 1975.

Soon or later, erosion will conquer everything here (but create replacements too).

During this stretch, I saw my first arches within the park.

Two appeared in a set of rock fins a good distance away, the Great Wall.

Both are named, but neither one appears on the park map.

It’s a reminder that this park has so many the names can’t possibly fit.

Past another set of fins,
Skyline ArchSkyline ArchSkyline Arch

Arches' newest arch, created by a rockfall in 1948
the road forks.

The left branch quickly reaches Panorama Point, an overlook of a huge valley, the Salt Valley.

The view is from some other world; red rock fins tower in the distance, otherwise it’s all slickrock and desert scrub.

The view stretches to the La Sal Mountains, dozens and dozens of miles.

The only sign of humanity is cars on the highway.

Many visitors don’t realize the fragility of this view.

Arches National Park only protects a small portion of the visible land.

The rest is controlled by other federal agencies, notably the Bureau of Land Management.

Companies have lusted for years after the mineral wealth that may lie under that land, and Utah state government mostly supports them.

The point was driven home when President George W Bush ordered the BLM to auction mineral leases on land within view of the park in 2008.

A federal judge later invalidated the process, but the threat remains.

One day, this pristine view may contain oil derricks, strip mines, and worse.

The road drops into the valley from the overlook.

At the bottom it forks
Salt ValleySalt ValleySalt Valley

The Salt Valley with the La Sal Mountains behind it
again, and the left branch climbs the other side, heading for a large complex of red pinnacles.

It passes close by, where the pinnacles become a huge complex of red spires.

These are the Fiery Furnace, named for the color.

It contains dozens of arches and other features.

It’s also so difficult to navigate that all but the most experienced desert hikers get hopelessly lost.

Hikers in this area must either join a guided tour or prove their abilities to the rangers beforehand.

Devil's Garden and Landscape Arch

The road finally ends at a seemingly large parking lot in front of another complex of red rock fins, the Devils Garden.

It’s the start of the second most popular hiking trail in the park.

Despite the size, I got the only available space in the lot.

During summer, when crowds are at their highest, this place must be an absolute nightmare.

The Devils Garden Trail is my first encounter with a very important desert organism that covers all of southeast Utah.

Undisturbed sand in this area is covered with little black mounds.

They are composed of vast bacteria
Firey FurnaceFirey FurnaceFirey Furnace

The maze of fins called the Firey Furnace

These bacteria secrete mucus that binds sand particles together to form the mounds.

Other vegetation can then germinate in the soil.

This cryptobiotic crust is all that keeps the soil from washing or blowing away, literally holding the desert together.

Stepping (or riding or driving) on it will instantly destroy it, causing damage that lasts for hundreds of years.

The trailhead has a large sign showing hundreds of tiny creatures screaming as a Godzilla sized boot hangs over them.

Hikers must stick to rocks, washes, and established trails.

The sign puts it memorably: “Don’t Bust the Crust”.

The Devils Garden Trail shows the main delight of a hike in Arches, seeing unusual features in all sorts of places.

The fins themselves are unlike anything else, and the arches even more so.

The thrill of seeing arch after arch quickly fades, but the most memorable are well worth the effort.

The trail starts by passing directly between two fins.

It wraps around the end of one of them, showing that the fin is about a yard wide.

It then follows the top
Devil's GardenDevil's GardenDevil's Garden

Start of the Devil's Garden trail
of a hillside next to a much larger and longer fin.

A fork appears heading downhill into a complex of three fins.

It reaches the bottom and turns left, revealing an arch hidden to this point.

Pine Tree Arch perfectly frames a pine tree under the arch, although the hole is small enough to actually be a window.

The trail goes right through the arch to the tree.

The main trail continues along the large rock fin.

A few little windows appear.

It finally ends and the trail crosses desert scrub to a large group of red spires in the distance.

Getting closer, a thin ribbon of sandstone appears in front of the spires.

It’s the same color, so it looks like something of a mirage.

As the trail continues, the ribbon becomes more distinct, and sky finally appears underneath it.

The ribbon connects two thin rock fins in front of a third.

It’s very long, and looks fragile enough to collapse at any moment.

The trail finally reaches a point where people can’t get any closer.

The ribbon
Pine Tree ArchPine Tree ArchPine Tree Arch

Often overlooked arch on the way to Landscape Arch
is Landscape Arch, the oldest arch in the park and the largest in the world.

It’s 306 feet long but only six feet thick.

Erosion has been working on it for a long time, and it really will collapse one day.

The trail used to run right under it, until a chunk the size of a door fell off in 1991.

A visitor managed to capture the event on film, which is now reproduced on a sign.

The rock fin next to Landscape Arch contains a window, Partition Arch.

Thanks to its famous neighbor few people pay much attention to it, and some may not even know it’s there.

Landscape arch has a wrong sounding name, since it doesn’t show any real landscape.

In fact, early explorers called it Delicate Arch due to its fragile look.

A National Parks surveyor produced the first official map of the park in the late 1930s with a list of notable arches.

On this map, he switched the names of Landscape and Delicate Arches, and the mistake stuck.

By sheer coincidence, these are the two most
Landscape ArchLandscape ArchLandscape Arch

Landscape arch, the world's longest natural arch, with a starburst. I got this photo by framing the sun on the edge of the arch
famous arches in the park!

Most people want to photograph the arch with the sun at their back.

Full light will fall on the arch and the fin behind it, bringing out the detail.

With the sun in front, it falls behind the rock fin putting the arch in shadow.

The way to deal with this, if possible, is to find a spot where the sun is behind the arch instead of the rock fin.

Even better, frame the sun on the edge of the arch, making it appear to be split by a starburst!

The Devils Garden trail continues beyond Landscape Arch to many more arches.

Most people turn around at this point, though.

I joined them, to ensure I had time for the rest of the park.

Windows Section

The right branch from the first road fork follows a long tall rock fin.

Along the way a sign appears near a pullout for Cove Arch.

The sign has an arrow pointing almost straight up.

Sure enough, the window appears near the top of the fin.
Cove of CavesCove of CavesCove of Caves

The genesis of future arches

Without the pointer, I never would have noticed it.

At the end of the rock fin the road passes through a gap and then follows a group of fins that look like large sandstone mounds.

They reminded someone of a Parade of Elephants in a circus, and the name stuck.

Near them is another large rock fin that shows how arches form.

It’s filled with large but shallow recesses, the Cove of Caves.

These will eventually break through the fin to form a series of arches.

The highway ends in another parking lot surrounded by three groups of rock fins, with a big set of sandstone mounds behind them.

The fins are huge.

One contains two deep and tall recesses near an arch.

The other two have large visible holes, windows.

This part of the park is called the Windows Section.

It has about the density of windows as other parts, but some of them are quite dramatic.

From the parking lot, one rock fin has a huge hole in it that frames the sky, North Window.
Parade of ElephantsParade of ElephantsParade of Elephants

Pachyderm shaped fins in the Windows Section

A trail hikes up a hill to the window, which steadily grew in size as I got closer.

Close to the window, it framed a massive view of the desert beyond, showing exactly where the name comes from.

The window is unbelievably large, 93 feet wide and 51 feet high, even though it’s only half the height of the fin.

North Window should have a matching South Window.

The only thing next to it is a huge sandstone boulder.

The trail wraps around the boulder to the other side.

There, all at once, South Window appears.

It’s almost a mirror image of North Window, with nearly the same size and huge view.

Hikers can climb through it if they wish.

The trail then heads for the next group of rock fins.

From this angle, one fin has a tall spire next to a small window and then a long curving arch.

Someone thought this looked like a cannon, so it got the name Artillery Arch.

At the arch, turn around to see why this area has the name Windows Section.

North (left) and South (right) Window, forming a pair of glasses with a huge nose

The view shows North Window and South Window with the huge boulder between them, looking like a giant stone pair of Groucho Marx glasses!

The hike back from Artillery Arch shows the big wall of rock fins a short distance from the other side of the parking lot.

A trail goes to their main feature, Double Arch.

Along the way it passes something special, tiny windows in the rock fin.

These are baby formations, the genesis of future arches.

From the parking lot, Double Arch looks like one slender arch.

As the trail gets close, a second arch appears behind the first one.

The two arches meet at the near wall, creating a V.

It’s what geologists call a pothole arch.

It started out as a deep alcove in the wall, which became a really wide arch.

Water then collected on the top of the arch.

As it froze and thawed every winter, the pool cracked the roof until it fell, creating two connected arches.

The official trail ends at the rock fin close to the first of
Artillery ArchArtillery ArchArtillery Arch

Artillery Arch and neighboring window
the two arches.

The fin under the arch is slanted but climbable.

Many people do, to see the view through the middle of the two arches.

The arches themselves are large enough that this view can only be photographed with a wide angle lens.

Delicate Arch

By this point in the day, the sun is starting to drop.

I hustled back to the main road and took the right branch of the second road fork.

It enters a red slickrock valley, Cache Valley, and reaches a huge parking lot next to a very old looking cabin.

Despite the size, it had only one free parking spot, which I managed to get.

This lot sits next to the most popular trail in the park, particularly near sunset.

To see the view I want, I had to get there rather early to ensure a spot.

The heavily used trail first passes the cabin next to the parking lot.

Only one settler ever tried to ranch in this area, one John Wesley Wolfe, in 1898.

He quickly discovered that the soil barely supports plants, never mind
Double ArchDouble ArchDouble Arch

The most famous pothole arch in Arches, a wide arch where the middle fell to create two.
enough to graze cattle, so he moved on elsewhere.

The cabin was his, a simple two room building made of native cedar logs.

Soon after the cabin, the trail crosses Cache Wash on a long bridge.

The wash has water in it!

In this park I’d almost forgotten what a stream looks like.

The wash is the reason Wolfe chose this particular area, because the rest of the park is dry as a bone outside thunderstorms.

A spur trail branches to the left.

It goes to a large rock with figures of bighorn sheep scratched in it.

This is Ute rock art, yet another style of petroglyphs.

It’s the most accessible panel of rock art in the park.

Past the rock art, the trail passes over little sandy ridges alternating with washes.

Cliffs appear in the distance, including one containing a nice arch.

A big slope of red slickrock appears in the distance, and the trail heads toward it.

After hikes like Devil’s Garden, this trail is downright dull.

This doesn’t detract from its popularity, as I encountered a long
Wolfe RanchWolfe RanchWolfe Ranch

Home of the only man to try ranching in the arches
string of people on it.

The trail had better reach something worthwhile.

Instead, it reaches the slope of slickrock and disappears.

Clearly, the path is up the slope.

The question is where, because it has no cairns or other markings to follow.

The trail’s huge popularity becomes an advantage here, because groups of people are climbing the slickrock already.

Following them seems like a good idea.

Gradually, I was able to see the places where the rock was smoother, due to the scraping of thousands of boots.

Finally, two large cairns appeared high in the distance.

I headed for them, and reached the top of the slope.

I made it through, but wouldn’t want to try that in the dark (which has implications for later).

After the slope, the path is marked by cairns.

It enters a series of washes, alternating with climbs over sandstone slabs.

The scenery is better than the early stretch, but still pretty ordinary.

Things get better when the path crosses a section of open slickrock surrounded by little knobs.

That leads to
Wolfe Ranch rock artWolfe Ranch rock artWolfe Ranch rock art

Ute style pictographs near Wolfe Ranch in Arches
a large and obvious fin in the distance.

The trail reaches the base and follows it to a ravine.

Now things get interesting.

Starting at this point, the trail builders blasted a shelf into the side of the fin.

It’s about four feet wide, and perfectly flat.

The shelf gradually climbs as it wraps its way around the fin.

It shows a beautiful view of slickrock ravines alternating with other fins.

At one point, it passes a window, high in the fin.

People can climb to it, although the ascent is really steep.

The drop beyond the shelf appears nasty too.

The shelf is also so crowded it feels like a sidewalk.

What on earth could be worth this hike?

The trail so far pales compared to most of the park, yet it’s filled with people.

They can’t all be gluttons for hiking punishment.

At the end of the rock fin, the reason just appears, all at once.

The trail builders deliberately designed it to get that effect.

The trail ends on a slickrock shelf above
Slickrock hillsideSlickrock hillsideSlickrock hillside

This is the trail. Try finding it in the dark
a steep narrow bowl.

The far side contains a multi-story freestanding arch, which frames a huge view of the mountains beyond.

Delicate Arch, the arch in question, stands above the thousands of others in the area because it’s the only one that stands alone.

Every other arch is part of a fin or attached to a wall.

This arch is a tight horseshoe attached to the surrounding rock only at its bases.

It’s absolutely beautiful.

The view behind it is pretty special too.

This arch is the most famous natural feature in Utah.

It’s pictured on nearly every Utah license plate.

It ranks with Yosemite’s Tunnel View (see The Lazy Hikers’ Scenic Viewfest), Yellowstone’s Old Faithful (see Thar She Blows, Captain), and the central Grand Canyon (see A Dam Large Attraction) as the most iconic vista in the National Park system.

Find any book on the National Parks, and it’s likely on the cover.

That’s why so many people crowd the otherwise underwhelming trail to get here.

While the arch does look fragile from the right angles, the name “Delicate Arch” doesn’t seem to fit it well.

Delicate Arch in daylightDelicate Arch in daylightDelicate Arch in daylight

The most popular wilderness photo in Utah
fact, the view behind it leads toward something referencing the landscape.

As noted back at Landscape Arch, it’s called Delicate Arch because the names of the two arches were accidentally switched by the first park mapmaker.

Hikers with high confidence in their slickrock hiking skills can stand directly under the arch.

The edge of the bowl is a sloped curve.

Hiking around the rim brings people to the arch.

It’s a slickwalk throughout, crossing rock tilted about as steeply as the initial descent to Upper Calf Creek Falls (see Desert River Walks).

The walk has no handholds, so anyone who slips will fall to the bottom of the bowl.

Rescue, despite the people all around, will be very difficult.

Walk carefully!

I made it, and it was thrilling.

By now, the sun is low in the sky.

I deliberately timed the hike to see this.

Lots of other people timed it that way also.

The ledge and the rim of the bowl below are now absolutely covered in people, many with expensive cameras.

The rest had pocket cameras and cell
Delicate arch and bowlDelicate arch and bowlDelicate arch and bowl

The arch with the bowl in front of it

From what I could tell, not one person DIDN’T have a camera at this point.

As the sun got low, they started yelling at the last people under the arch to move.

Delicate Arch is always iconic, but it looks best at sunset.

The low rays turn the arch deep red, then dark red, and finally just dark.

Once the show ends, people need to get back to the trailhead in fading twilight.

It’s much harder hiking than getting here.

The first part of the trail, the ledge, is obvious enough.

The second part, through the washes, is tougher but manageable with the cairns.

It also has a long string of people to show where the trail is.

I still had enough light to see in this part, hiking as fast as possible.

The path then hits that slope of slickrock.

It has absolutely no markings where to go next, except for the obvious path in the sand at the bottom.

That path is much less obvious in the dark.

I had just enough light to find it, plus the people streaming down the
Popular placePopular placePopular place

Did I mention people like to photograph this arch at sunset?
rock in front of me.

I reached it before light faded out.

Sunset arch viewers must ensure they can get past this point in twilight or it could become a really long night.

The rest of the trail was pretty obvious.

Everyone in Arches leaves after the sun sets.

It caused painful traffic, basically a long line of cars all the way to the exit.

Normally, the incredible scenery would make a backup like this tolerable, except that I can’t see any of it in the dark.

Finally, I made it back to the main highway.

Ten minutes later, I entered Moab.

After a week in southern Utah, this place appears downright surreal.

Unlike the rest of the area, Moab looks like a normal tourist town!

It’s filled with hotels, restaurants, services, and guides aimed at adventure travelers.

While that means lots of chains, it also means a livelier atmosphere than the rest of the towns I’ve seen combined.

To pick one example, most Utah towns have a single restaurant licensed to sell alcohol, if
Delicate Arch closeupDelicate Arch closeupDelicate Arch closeup

Delicate Arch from the rim of the rock bowl
they have one at all.

Utah’s arcane liquor laws are part of it (see Parking Hell in Scenic Heaven), but the residents of most towns are also Mormons who don’t drink.

Moab does the restaurant scene one better by having a microbrewery.

Their food is quite good, because drinks can only be served after ordering food first.

They also can’t offer samples.

I had dinner at Moab Brewery, where the burgers were good and the beer was great.

Moab has many motels.

Spring through autumn, every one is full.

I want something a little less generic, so I booked a room at the Mayor’s House.

It’s a Bed and Breakfast in the home of a former mayor of Moab.

The building is located on a residential street a ways from the downtown bustle.

The rooms are small, but the rates are low by Moab standards, the owners are knowledgeable, and the breakfasts are filling.


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