ARCHES. Here is a desert land of bizarre stone formations and eery silence, of a majesty that haunts the imagination

By , Special to The Christian Science Monitor

`WEAR comfortable shoes and be sure to take plenty of film.'' Good advice for any traveler, and especially one going to Arches National Park in southeastern Utah. The scenery here is magnificent, but many of the most spectacular sights, such as Delicate Arch and Landscape Arch, are not prepackaged and conveniently placed at the side of the road.

Sightseeing here will ensure that you get some vigorous exercise, as well as plenty of photos to show the folks back home.

The first thing you'll want to see is Delicate Arch, the graceful arc of rose-colored stone that has become the symbol of the park. Officially named Delicate Arch, unofficially it has been labeled Chaps for a Bowlegged Cowboy.

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The hike to the arch begins at a tiny structure named Wolfe's Cabin, about 12 miles from the park's visitor center. The trail is a moderate three-mile round trip, up and over the rocks, with little ``ducks'' or piles of stones along the path marking your way. It's a good thing there are those stone cookie crumbs, because you can't see the arch as you climb. Just when you are beginning to wonder if you are on the right track, you round a wind-swept bend and suddenly the arch looms up in front of you.

The drama of the moment makes tired feet and burning-hot sun seem like petty details.

Delicate Arch is artistically displayed: mounted on the edge of a rocky plateau that drops off abruptly into a deep chasm, with a backdrop of snowy mountain peaks built up behind it. The arch, which stands 12 feet high and spans 17 feet, is of a lumpy irregular form, the hardened Play-Doh of some nameless giant child.

Like many formations and creatures of this earth, arches have life cycles. First the forces of nature -- frost, wind, rain -- and the pull of gravity chisel a hole in the rock that, over millenniums, becomes the center of an arch. In time, the relentless battering will topple the arch, all the while gouging out new ones to take its place.

Sit for a minute: Give yourself time to consider the majesty of the scene and tuck it away in your memory.

Most travelers can't seem to resist walking a few more yards to stand under the arch and have their picture taken. The first known photograph of Delicate Arch, in fact, is one of these souvenir shots: a woman, sunbonnet off as she poses for posterity, and her two kids say cheese under the famous curve. That woman was Flora Stanley, and she was living with her father, John Wolfe, in that little cabin you saw at the start of the trail to Delicate Arch.

John Wolfe, a Civil War veteran, had a small cattle ranch here and had written home extolling the peace and quiet of the place, bragging that the nearest town was a day's ride away.

Eventually Flora and her family came to live on the remote ranch, a decision she came to regret. The weather was extreme; a desert land with temperatures over 100 in the summer and zero or below in winter. And there was the wind, howling over the rocks like a raging banshee and moving whole sand dunes from one spot to another. Nor was she thrilled with the peace and quiet, or the long months without female conversation and companionship. In desperation, once she made the all-day trip to town, hoping to a find a woman to talk to. But as circumstances would have it, there were no women out on the street that particular day.

Soon after, Flora and her family moved into town.

Because of its rather formidable environment, Arches has not been a permanent home for many. It seems destined to be one of those places people are always just passing through. Ute Indians, trappers, miners, mountain men, outlaws, even the ubiquitous Butch Cassidy, all have been to Arches, and have kept on going.

Several visitors have left traces of their passage through Arches. The Utes etched petroglyphs of bighorn sheep on the canyon walls and painted bizarre pictographs of human beings with pointed bodies, straight out of ``Chariots of the Gods.'' Even Kilroy was here: An obscure fur trapper, Denis Julian, engraved his name and the date, June 9, 1844, on a blank rock.

Arches' most famous resident is probably the writer Edward Abbey. He was a temporary park ranger here in the '50s and came to love this stark and stony land. His classic work on the environs, ``Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness,'' is good reading for people planning a trip to the park. To put it in a nutshell, he considered Arches ``the most beautiful place on earth.''

And indeed it is beautiful. The park stretches over 74,000 acres, each and every one decorated with an imaginative array of sculptured rocks.

There are lots of arches, of course, patiently waiting for the arrival of some dazzling triumphal procession. Balancing rocks hover in midair. Human, animal, and architectural look-alikes spring up at every turn; the Tower of Babel, Queen Nefertiti, the Parade of the Elephants. So don't put away your comfy shoes after Delicate Arch, for three more interesting areas remain to be explored: the Windows, Park Avenue, and Devil's Garden. They are all reached by the 18-mile paved road that threads through the park.

In the Windows section, you can drive along the three-mile road, stopping at the view points for short hops, 200 to 400 yards, to the most notable sights: the Spectacles, Turret Arch, and Double-O Arch. At Park Avenue you can stroll for a mile down a canyon ``street'' lined with stone high-rises that give the eerie sensation you are either in a deserted city or on an abandoned movie set.

Landscape Arch, the best-known arch after Delicate Arch, is in the Devil's Garden area. The trail winds through a rocky labyrinth past bushes of blackbrush and Mormon tea, shaded by an occasional pinon pine or juniper. The hike is a mile-and-a-half round trip, and for company you will have tuneful canyon wrens, darting lizards, and graceful redtailed hawks wheeling overhead. A slow but steady pace helps you get into the rhythm of this natural world.

Landscape Arch is a marked contrast to Delicate Arch, as oversized and sturdy as the other was petite and fragile. The stone curve spans 291 feet and is 106 feet high. It has had its share of climbers, some of them even successful; but most of us can enjoy it from the ground quite nicely, thank you.

As you continue to poke and putter about the park, you will not run into the hordes that tramp through Yosemite Valley or pour off tour buses at the rim of the Grand Canyon. Arches is the road less traveled, situated on US 163 and 191, five miles northwest of Moab.

Before you leave the Arches area, you might want to try ``Canyonlands by Night,'' a whimsical two-hour boat trip down a nearby stretch of the Colorado. Spotlights pan over the cliffs while a folksy narration details the history and geology of the land: a homegrown sound and light show. Moab Visitor Center has all the details.

You'll take your time packing away your walking shoes and cans of film, savoring the last moments here. Abbey tried to articulate what it was about Arches that so appealed to him, what its pull was. After a noble effort, he could only conclude, rather lamely, that there was ``something'' about the desert.

That ``something'' makes a trip to Arches a special journey. Practical information

The park has no restaurants, lodges, or gas stations, and there is only one campground. Noncampers often stay in Moab, five miles away, which has many of the chain accommodations: Best Western, TraveLodge, and Ramada Inn.

Details can be obtained from the Moab Visitor Center, 805 North Main Street, Moab, Utah 84532.

The park is open all year round, and the admission for the day is $1, which entitles you to all the trails you can hike as well as entrance to the Visitor Center, which has a small museum and short, introductory slide show.

For more information about the park, write to Superintendent, Canyonlands National Park, 446 South Main Street, Moab, Utah 84532.

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