ARCHES NATIONAL PARK, Utah — I am seated on a narrow ledge waiting for the setting sun to add a golden glow to the famous Delicate Arch in Arches National Park. A tripod is wedged between my knees. There is not a lot of room here, and a misstep could result in a nasty fall.
Far below, a lone hiker with a backpack walks by — just a small figure diminished by the large arch above him. Then, the light of the setting sun arrives. The red rock begins to glow, and everything else — the trail's 480 feet of elevation gain, the almost precarious perch and more — is swallowed up by the grandeur of the scene.
There are more than 2,000 natural arches in Arches National Park, and although they may not be golden, they do serve up a visual feast. However, the scenic dining table has become a bit crowded, particularly in summer, when more than 500,000 visitors pass through the gates of one of our more spectacular national parks. This despite temperatures that can soar to above 110 degrees. People planning to visit this extraordinary park are advised by the rangers to arrive during the spring, fall and winter months.
We took that advice and decided to visit in late winter. As famed photographer Tom Till, who lives in nearby Moab, Utah, said of the park, "It is a place where it is not so formidable as Zion National Park in terms of getting around. There is pretty good road access, and there is always something new to find." But it is much more manageable in the so-called off-seasons.
Arches is not a big park — just a compact 120 square miles with mostly paved or maintained roads. It is very much a hiker's park and many people do just that. Without a doubt, hiking is the best way to explore, but there is one exception. The Fiery Furnace area requires visitors to sign up for a ranger-led hike because it is easy to become lost among the twists and turns, and that can invite tragedy. There are two ranger-led hikes a day, and reservations fill up months in advance.
Unlike natural bridges that are created by flowing water, the arches are the product of a different type of erosion. Some 150 million years ago, soft red sandstone was deposited here that eventually became the "fins" seen throughout much of the park. Over the centuries, these fins were eroded by wind, ice and water. Some of their walls collapsed, and the result was the arches.
My longtime partner, Gloria Cortes, and I have been to this park several times, but each time we tell ourselves that we must come back. Despite the park's relatively small size, there is so much to see that just one or two visits, or even three or four, don't do you or the park justice. Park interpretive specialist Sharon Brussell, who observes that "the park has pods of coolness," quickly adds, "We're not saying don't come to Arches, but don't come when it is so crowded. For example, in the summer, arrive before 9 a.m. or after 4 p.m. Do like the animals do — take a nap in the afternoon."
Arches also is one of the older national parks. President Herbert Hoover designated it a National Monument in 1929, but his proclamation covered only a small part of the area, really just two disconnected segments. President Franklin D. Roosevelt expanded the area in 1938, and Lyndon B. Johnson added more terrain to the monument in 1969. Two years later, President Richard Nixon upgraded Arches' designation to that of a national park. Writer Edward Abbey was a ranger at Arches and kept a series of journals that became the foundation for his 1968 book, "Desert Solitaire," which drew more attention to the region.
What many visitors do not realize, although many movie and commercial producers do, is that Arches is the centerpiece for some of the best film locations to be found anywhere. The surrounding area offers such a wide range of visual options that a location scout could fill several notebooks with his or her observations.
For example, there are the amazing Fisher Towers. Not heard of them? Well, actually, you have seen them. Remember the recent Citibank commercial of a woman buying climbing gear and then you next see her on top of a stunning red rock formation? That formation is part of the Fisher Towers, the tallest of which — the Titan — soars more than 900 feet above you. Getting there involves an easy 16-mile drive northeast of Moab. The hiking trail is well marked, and there is a campground and restroom. Allow about three hours to hike the trail, and be sure to carry water. The towers face west and become very hot during the summer months. Also, watch out for people above you. Fisher Towers are famous among rock climbers, and the setting is spectacular. Luke Malatesta, a well-known climber, says, "As big and as cool as the Towers are, they still are pretty delicate. You get on top, and there are these crazy little ecosystems with sego lilies and crypto gardens created from seeds dropped by birds."
For a different experience, head 32 miles southwest of Moab to Dead Horse Point State Park and one of the most photographed vistas in the world. Rising 2,000 feet above the Colorado River, this park has miles of easy hiking and biking trails and jaw-dropping views. But how did the park get such a bleak name? Legend has it that in the late 1800s or early 1900s cowboys herded wild horses onto the point, which was used as a corral. Then, for unknown reasons, some of the horses were left in the corral, where they died of thirst. Among the movies shot here were "Thelma & Louise," with its dramatic end in which the two women drive off a cliff into the Colorado River far below, "Mission: Impossible 2" and "John Carter," among others.
Another popular place is Castle Valley, where scenic rock formations greet you at the entrance. Standing watch over the valley are formations called the Priest and Nuns, the Rectory and Castle Rock. Located along La Sal Mountains loop road, Castle Valley can be spectacular from either direction, but the favored route for most travelers is from the south because you get to see the area while descending from the mountains. Rumor has it that people have driven off the road while staring at the view.
There are also impressive arches outside the national park such as the very large Corona Arch and the grand Wilson Arch, which looms along Highway 191 about 25 miles south of downtown Moab. In fact, the variety of the breathtaking scenery and things to do — from sky diving to Hummer tours to white-water rafting on the Colorado River, plus the amazing park itself — will keep us coming back.