Arches National Park
text by Susan J. Tweit

Excerpted from America's Spectacular National Parks

Background image: Arches National Park
"Delicate Arch"
Photograph by Scott Smith.

STEPPING OUT OF HIS PARK SERVICE HOUSE TRAILER before dawn on his first morning in Arches, new ranger Edward Abbey was captivated by the wild landscape of rust-colored sandstone studded with arches, monumental balancing rocks, finlike walls, and buttes. "This is the most beautiful place on earth," he wrote, beginning the journal that would eventually become Desert Solitaire. Others agreed. Designated a national monument in 1929, after officials of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad lobbied director of the National Park Service Stephen T. Mather, Arches was enlarged in 1971, and made a national park.

Small enough to explore in a day, large enough to feel wild, 114-square-mile Arches is named for its unique concentration of natural rock openings--there are more here than anywhere else in the world. The park contains more than 2,000 natural arches, ranging in size from squeeze holes just three feet in diameter (the smallest opening that can be called an arch) to the longest one, Landscape Arch, measuring 306 feet from base to base.

The reason for the profusion of arches is a simple one: salt. Deep under the layer-cake arrangement of sedimentary rocks that makes up the Colorado Plateau lies a 3,000-foot layer of gypsum and other salts deposited by an ancient evaporating sea. Salt deforms under pressure. As sediments accumulated in everthicker, ever-heavier layers atop the layer of salt, the siltlike rock began to flow like warm silly putty, growing thinner where the overlying rock layers were thickest, doming up where the layers above were thinner. Arches sits on a dome, where the salt layer pushed up and cracked the overlying layers of sandstone in a regular pattern of joints. Over the eons, water, snowmelt, frost, and ice have seeped into the joints and flaked away at the rock, whittling it into thin, isolated fins, then carving big blocks out of the fins until holes cut right through, forming arches--thousands of them.

Arches' arches rise from a largely bare, slickrock "pavement" of yellowish or rust-red Navajo sandstone, a massive layer of fossilized dunes deposited in a Saharalike desert millions of years ago. Stunted piñon pines and junipers dot the slickrock, rooting where soil collects in joints in the rock, and a riot of colorful wildflowers bloom from April to October, watered by snowmelt and summer thunderstorms. This seemingly barren landscape is home to the same desert-adapted animals as the rest of the Colorado Plateau, rattlesnakes to mountain lions, kangaroo rats to harvester ants.

Many of Arches' collection of arches and other rock sculptures are visible from the main road, which climbs from the Visitor Center up past Courthouse Towers and The Great Wall, and ends at Devil's Garden at the north end of the park. Here, the Devil's Garden Trail leads to Landscape, Double O, Pine Tree, and other arches clustering along the east side of the park's largest drainage, Salt Wash. The Windows section, accessible off a side road that leaves the main road not far from Balanced Rock (near the former site of Abbey's house trailer), contains another dense collection of arches, including North and South Windows and Double Arch, all reached by short trails. Delicate Arch, perhaps the park's most famous arch, rises near the Cache Valley on the park's eastern edge.

Like most Colorado Plateau parks, Arches is hot in summer, with daytime temperatures routinely rising above 100° F, and bone-chillingly cold in winter. Spring and fall bring the most clement temperatures. but spring winds can whip up sandstorms, and fall may mean snow. Harsh, dry, forbidding--still, Arches is an intoxicating landscape. As Abbey wrote in Desert Solitaire, "In this glare of brilliant emptiness, in this arid intensity of pure heat,...all things recede...annihilating all thought and all that men have made to spasms of whirling dust far out on the golden desert."

Text © Hugh Lauter Levin Associates. All rights reserved.