The Delicate Arch. It is probably the most recognizable symbol of Utah. So much so, that we’ve put it on our license plates. And when something is as much of a part of a state’s identity, like Mt. Rushmore or Old Faithful, it usually means it’s a giant tourist trap. This makes it hard to appreciate the beauty of something when you are constantly being elbowed out of the way for someone else to take a picture. So our expectations were set pretty low as we drove out from Devil’s Campground in Arches National Park and pulled into the Delicate Arch trail head. At first, it was hard to believe, or that any moment a tour bus should be rolling in. But there were only 4 cars in the parking lot when we arrived around 8AM. “Where was everyone?” We said to each other, “Isn’t this place supposed to be mobbed with people?”
Utah had a mild winter, and compared to east coast standards, it was more like a mild spring. And this gave my girlfriend and I the perfect opportunity to go camp in Arches National Park on the first weekend in February. We headed down to Southeastern Utah after work on Friday and drove into the park during the night. Since the night hid all the rocks on our way in, when we unzipped the tent the next morning, we were seeing all those incredible red rock formations for the first time. It felt like another planet or at least a movie set that was filming a space odyssey on an alien planet. We woke up early enough to watch the sunrise over the LaSalle Mountains to the East and illuminate the true warmth of the rocks that surrounded us.
After a quick breakfast, we pulled away from the campground and drove back towards the entrance of the park. We turned left at the sign for Delicate Arch and found a parking spot in the seemingly vacant parking lot. There were only 4 cars, which meant, at most, there could only be 16-20 people ahead of us on the trail. Shocked, and slightly confused, we threw our packs on, grabbed the cameras, and headed up the paved national park trail. The arch is 1.45 miles from the parking lot and goes up in elevation about 600 ft. Not that bad compared to most trails. The trail travels across various rock formations, gulches, and slabs. In the early morning light, I was astonished by the red walls to my left and the valley that drops off to my right. Very little vegetation grew up from the soil to hide that beautiful landscape. And even better, we kept passing groups of people and photographers returning to the parking lot which meant there would be fewer and fewer people at the arch.
It wasn’t until we reached the portion of the trail where it was cut out of the sandstone wall, that we learned how lucky we were going to be. A younger woman passed by us and asked where we were from. After explaining that we had just moved to SLC, she mentioned that we were about to have the Delicate Arch to ourselves! Apparently, she led on, during the peak tourist season, the 4ft wide trail that we were standing on turns into a jam-packed traffic jam. Half the hikers would have to lean against the side to let others pass by them. The trail turns into something that resembles a line for a ride at Disney world, rather than a hiking trail in nature. But at that moment, we were the only 3 people on the trail.
Still processing that fact about how packed this trail could get, we veered off trail to the see the view from the Twisted Doughnut Arch. At that moment, we saw it for the first time. The Delicate Arch, standing all by itself on top of this red, sandstone plateau. The arch was oriented in a way that it seems to be the center-point of a rock amphitheater that surrounds it. And like the woman said, we had it almost entirely to ourselves.
We rounded the corner on the trail, and headed down to the arch, only to be dwarfed by its size. 60 feet above, the arch towered over our heads. The contours and texture of the rock is just as unique as the feature itself. The original sandstone fin was gradually worn away by weathering and erosion, leaving the arch. It all started with one tiny hole through the fin, and over time, wind and water forced the hole to grow larger and larger. Only time, wind, and water have created this incredible feature. And yet, we marvel over art installations and architectural masterpieces that were constructed using human involvement, power tools, and heavy equipment. This structure has existed all this time without the help of any of those tools.
During that February day, temperatures were in the 60s and the sun was shining, yet there were only two other groups of people hanging out around the arch. We had dozens of minutes to ourselves with the Arch, taking picture after picture with the Arch and an empty foreground and background. Since this trip to Arches, I’ve seen arches all over the state of Utah and in all of Utah’s National Parks. Each arch is incredible in its own right, but the Delicate Arch stands in a class of its own. And even though most people do not get the opportunity to see this arch in complete, or near complete, solidarity; it is worth making the trip to see it.