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Arches National Park

October 11, 2010

Arches National Park is our favorite park on the Grand Circle. This is mainly because of the Delicate arch. This iconic, beautiful, delicate arch completely took our breath away the first time we saw it. After having seen photos of the arch in travel magazines and on NatGeo documentaries and being prominently featured on license plates in Utah, seeing the arch for real was an unforgettable experience.

Also unforgettable was the arduous hike up the stone mountain. The only thought which kept me going was that “I have not come this far to miss seeing the Delicate arch and a stone mountain is not going to keep me from it” … and of course the knowledge that a steep climb all the way uphill meant an easy stroll downhill on our return (which turned out to be false reassurance for different reasons!).

We started our day very early, the drive from Bryce Canyon National Park to Zion National Park is not a short one – it’s 5 hours! We got to Arches by noon and upon talking to the rangers at the park HQ, we found out that this park is extremely drive-able. One can drive around to see some of the main sights like Balanced Rock, Park Avenue, Sheep Rock, Three gossips etc, but to get to some of the actual arches, you have to stretch your legs a fair bit. We drove around easily to get to the main highlights, including Petrified Sand Dunes, Panorama point, Salt Valley overlook and the famed Fiery Furnace Point overlook. There are ranger led programs that take you inside the Fiery Furnace, but those were filled up when we got there. You need to reserve in advance. Here’s a link to all the arches / hiking trails inside the park. For a guided tour inside the Fiery Furnace, make reservations here.

One of the first sights we saw was “Park Avenue” which I’m sure the Flintstones would have proudly proclaimed to be their very own skyscraper New York skyline. Tall, very tall, thin, flattened rocks, lining up along the desert “highway”. We felt like we had been shrunk and placed in a giant’s city, where these huge rock slabs were giant city skyscrapers and we were like ants, gaping open-mouthed.

There were these rock formations which were named spot on! The “Three Gossips” and “Sheep Rock”. The three gossips was my favorite, they look exactly like three ladies (wearing Victorian-style dresses) who were looking into the distance and talking about all the people around them, gossiping about this and that and turning up their snooty noses. Don’t they look exactly like that!? And sheep rock of course, looked exactly like a sheep. Whoever named these did not have to use much imagination. Wind, time and erosion had perfected their sculptures to look exactly like the real thing. By the way, these look like they don’t amount to much size in the photo, but if you look carefully, you will see a white car at the bottom right of the photo – see how tiny that car is?! Now imagine how tiny we would be standing next to these massive rock sculptures. Awe-inspiring is an understatement. Everything in Arches is giant-size!

Arches can get pretty hot in the middle of the day! It’s nothing but desert, red sandstone, and barely any trees for respite from the hot sun overhead. The hike to Delicate arch 3 miles long and not an easy one, the recommendation is to do the hike either in the early morning or late afternoon. To avoid a sunstroke, we decided to start hiking up to Delicate arch by evening around 5PM so that we could get there in time for sunset. After seeing the rock formations, we started the hike to the other famous arch – Landscape arch – which is the world’s longest natural arch, it spans more than a football field! The trail to Landscape Arch is 2 miles long and a dusty path among the sand leads to many other arches close by. The walk is mostly on flat ground, but walking on the sand makes it harder. There were tons of cacti plants blooming all around us, and lovely flowers that burst out of the sand with intense color and beauty.

The landscape arch was absolutely beautiful. The huge natural arch is a sight to see! It looks so fragile and extremely vulnerable to even a strong wind, yet it has stood up the forces of nature and the sands of time and is still there for us to see year after year. Although how much longer it will last, only time will tell. In 1991, three big stone slabs fell from the underneath portion of the right arch, forming the thinnest section of the arch. How much longer that will hold up, one can only guess. NPS closed the trail underneath the arch after the slabs of rock fell down.

There were plenty of other small and big arches that we walked amongst and beneath, each time looking up in awe and feeling tiny as a bug. Can you spot the two of us underneath this “Window in the Wall” arch? Just about barely! After seeing our fill of all the other arches, we reached the trailhead for Delicate arch to begin our arduous ascent (3 mile roundtrip). The sun was going down, so at least the heat wouldn’t be too bad. Refreshed with water and filled with new energy to see the Delicate arch up close, we started our ascent on what I fondly came to call the “freaking endless stone mountain”. It’s a steep ascent all the way up-hill and although we had done several days of hiking earlier in the trip, our legs still felt like they were turning into rubber with each step. As we climbed higher, the scenery around got more and more spectacular, and that was one of the things that kept us going. We made it to the top after close to an hour or so of climbing!

 

 

The park service has not made it easy to get to this arch. They have not made an easy path up the mountain, nor have they put up nice big signs that say “turn left here” or “go straight ahead”. We prefer it this way. This allows us to explore without having a sanitized experience of everything being provided to us and having things made easy all the time. The strenuous hike was “as nature intended” and that made this experience all the more valuable.

There are “cairns” or piles of stones along the mountain sides, which indicate where the right path is. In the daytime, these are clearly visible and easy to follow. As you climb up the steep stone pathway, you won’t catch sight of the arch at all. It’s not easily visible from the trail. Then suddenly, as you turn a corner, you see it for the first time and believe me, that is the most memorable sight anyone could have ever hoped for! As we rounded that corner, the sun was starting to set and the arch was lit up in a golden glow. The sight above is what we first saw of the arch! Isn’t it gorgeous!? To get a sense of size, see the 4 tiny people standing to the far left of the arch.

There were tons of people sitting all around the “amphitheater” which surrounds the arch. Everybody had a tripod and camera handy to capture this once-in-a-trip (for some, it was once-in-a-lifetime) experience. The arch sits on top of a natural terraced amphitheater. It feels like the arch is conducting it’s own show and the audience is all around, waiting with bated breath on the amphitheater seats. Quite surreal.

As the sun started to set, the colors of the red sandstone rocks glowed with unreal beauty. People started getting closer to the arch to stand underneath it, admire it from up-close, touch it and feel it. You can see K standing underneath the arch, doesn’t he look tiny! We settled down in a cozy spot near the arch. It felt great after our long trek up, this was so totally worth it! Even if you don’t do anything else in Arches National Park, make sure you do the hike up to see the Delicate Arch. Do not be satisfied by the 1 mile easy hike which takes you to a viewpoint to see the Delicate arch from afar, that is just not the same as being able to stand underneath this fragile architectural wonder of nature.

All around us, the people grew quiet as the sun set. There was actually not much chatter at all, given there were easily around a 100 people sitting around to watch the sunset on the arch. A feeling of contentment was palpable all around. A line of people formed next to the arch to get an opportunity to go underneath it and have somebody on the opposite side take a photo of them under the most famous arch in the world! We just sat there feeling extremely happy.

 

We came for the arch, and stayed for the sunset. The skies in the distance glowed a fiery red, and the clouds added much drama to the horizon. The arch soon stopped glowing when the sun went down, but the skies were still alive with fury.

Although we had wanted to start our descent with sufficient daylight, we were so tempted to stay for the entire sunset that we threw caution to the wind. Soon the “amphitheater” emptied out, with everybody starting their way down. We stayed behind with just 4-5 people who were relaxing underneath the darkening skies. We had the Delicate arch all to ourselves! After another half-hour of admiring it up-close, we halfheartedly headed down the trail again. The sky was turning pitch-black and the stars were starting to pop out one by one. Armed with flashlights and brimming with joy, we made our way down.

The unfortunate truth with hiking down the stone mountain with piles of stones for trail markers, is that everything looks like a pile of stones in the dark! We flashed our lights left and right and thought we saw cairns (piles of stones) and headed in the direction only to find out that it was a boulder or a bush or a shadow. With rising panic, we realized that we could easily be hopelessly lost if we strayed too far from the trail. The fact that this was a cliff mountain with sheer drop offs on either side did not help. And to add to our fear, there was not another soul around. We had not realized that hiking our way back in the dark would make company unlikely.

After a couple missteps in the wrong direction, we found the trail, only to lose it again. A sense of fear and panic was settling in, we had taken an hour to make our way up and if we had to search for every trail marker on our way down like this, it would take so much longer! And thoughts of “what if we got lost so hopelessly that we couldn’t find our way down?“, “what if we had to wait until daybreak to see where we were going?“, “what if we encounter some hungry animals and we become their dinner?” , “what if some malicious person has made up a cairn just at the edge of the cliff?” … the “what if ….” scenarios sound hilarious when recounted now, but at that time they rang truer than a bell.

Thankfully luck was on our side. Just when we had spent close to what seemed like eternity looking around for the next cairn marker, we heard voices behind us. Sigh of relief! We had never been more glad for company. A couple was making their way behind us, and wonder of wonders, they did not even have a flashlight! When they approached us, we noticed that the lady was very pregnant, perhaps 6-7 months along. Wow, what fearlessness and energy to do this hike when so pregnant! The friendly couple reassured us that we were on the right path, and the guy was from Utah, born and brought up in this area, so he knew his way very well around, and they didn’t need flashlights because the moon was out and their eyes were adjusted well to the dark. Trusting them, we turned off our flashlights too, and they were right! The stone cairns were easier to spot without the lights bouncing off of all the stones and casting misleading shadows. We made our way down more confidently now. When we reached our car and were safely inside, we couldn’t stop laughing out loud! It was all the adrenalin rush of having had our own mini-adventure and mini-panic-attack! That hike was unforgettable.

The area around Delicate Arch (actually, all of Arches) is not lit by artificial lights at all, so once your eyes are adjusted to the darkness, there is a gorgeous night-sky to behold. A gazillion stars, twinkling benevolently down at us. And this added excitement during the hike down endeared the Delicate Arch all the more to us. The next time we go to Arches, K and I have vowed that we will do the same hike again, and make sure to go down only after sunset. This time, there will be no fear or panic, just the thought “we can do it again“.

 

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