Final steps of a journey: Delicate Arch awaits just around the bend. — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
The trail to Delicate Arch narrows just before you reach it.
One side hugs an unforgiving vertical rock wall, the other drops away to a steep slope. It’s a path you’ll want to walk carefully, particularly on days like my visit, when the needle-sharp blue of the Utah sky above Arches National Park can go bloodless and gray-white, layered with clouds that striate the glamorous distances Edward Abbey chronicled in Desert Solitaire.
The heavens become a chalky reflection of the layered earth you’ll traverse. There’s 65 million years of it and you’ll go slowly if you’re smart – as much for savoring as safety – when flurries blow in to powder and wet the rusty rock of the trail as they had that morning.
“You’re close,” a hiker volunteered, passing cheerily to my left with ease, no worries for the precipitous potential fall lurking inches to the right of his lightly treading feet.
His grim-faced partner came silently steps behind, eyes down, body stiff – his alter-ego, clearly more conscious of her boots on the slickrock than the 65-foot geological icon she’d been looking at moments before.
I hadn’t seen it yet, but I knew my experience would be vastly different.
Skyline Arch is an easy .04-mile walk. A large boulder dropped from the arch's arc in 1940, essentially doubling the size of its opening. — Photo courtesy of A.D.Thompson
A couple decades earlier, I was a college girl, just back from spring break. The sky was bright and wintry, the great lawn of the campus wet with springy rain – here a bit of patchy green, there the purple of a crocus, the yellow of a daffodil.
I was class bound when I spotted my friends, Joe and Melissa, down the bustling corridor, waving this exciting, novel thing that was all the rage back then: an envelope of recently developed vacation photos.
Piercing blue sky that almost hurt to look at. Gnarly, silver-green juniper. Cacti. Wildflowers. All growing, impossibly, from rock that seemed colorized with the brilliant, warm hues of a Pantone wheel. Coffee and caramel. Sable and sand. Umbers, raw and burnt. Salmon pink. Navajo orange. Marmalade. Fire. Cider. Yam.
I was hungry and breathless, my feet itchy for want of a walk.
The last was a showstopper: Joe and Melissa beneath a behemoth bow, stratified formations visible through it, all around it – a roiling, peach-colored ocean that stretched to the horizon.
It was a time before I’d heard the term “bucket list,” but in that moment, the Delicate Arch burned itself into mine. And it stayed there for 23 years.
Tapestry Arch and its impressive escorts. Gorgeous on approach. — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
I have a friend who lives in Salt Lake City. We grew up in the same place, near the ocean. I am a sailor’s daughter, at ease with waves and knots and slurping naked clams off the shell, but I sort of agree with his assessment that the mountains are more egalitarian, particularly as I watch lithe, luxe properties consuming Florida’s coastal real estate (and once-free ocean views) at an alarming clip.
Sadly, the day I fly into SLC, there are views for neither prince nor pauper. The Wasatch to the east and north, the Oquirrh (“oaker”) Mountains to the west are consumed by cloud and fog. Rain and soggy snow are pervasive, but as I make my way south – Provo, Price, Green River – it begins to dry out, and before long the sun beams. The copper-threaded earth is an infinite alien landscape.
In a couple more hours, the patina patches give way to the startling, Road Runner-cartoon backdrop of Moab and the magnificent Arches National Park.
Seeing Delicate Arch first would be like stealing home, though. I want to run all the bases.
The next morning that funky-miserable weather is back, but I am raring. Flurries makes the slickrock slicker on the way to The Windows; I marvel that I’ve come all the way to the desert to see snow.
Snow in the desert. The Sand Dune Arch trail is short, but one where hikers with wee ones may want to linger. — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
Visitors are sparse. Some are a bit grumbly over the weather. My eyes, however, are as wide as the three massive arches themselves (North, South and Turret). Extended to its longest form, an easy two or so miles on the trail will show you all three sights, along with the wild, natural architecture of Double Arch (a rare breed, formed by water – not wind) and an array of colorfully named formations on the way.
By the time I make it to Sand Dune Arch, the Utah blue is doing a fast creep across the open meadow where I’ll head shortly, but inside the petite slot canyon the snow is still falling with gusto in peculiar little orbs, like packing Styrofoam or Dippin’ Dots. This is a shorty – about .3 miles – but nooks and interesting features, along with the calf-challenging sand terrain, make it a unique one.
Broken Arch is a bit of a misnomer, though it does have a pronounced crack. — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
By the time I emerge, so too, has the sun. It makes short work of the snow as I begin the Broken Arch Loop in a counterclockwise direction, which had me at the namesake formation straightaway. From this side it’s a more difficult scramble to the photo-op that this almost heart-shaped frame of rock affords. And I did feel a bit love-drugged once through its wide aperture.
It was there I encountered four twentysomething trekkers – two men, two women – attempting a group selfie and offered my services. One man politely declined before his enthusiastic partner snatched the camera.
“Let her take it!” he shouted. I snapped a few frames. The chatty boy chatted.
“The park ranger said we picked a good day,” he chirped, eyes pie plates, arms gesturing, burning off a blue flame of energy as he spoke. It was chilly, but the sun was back and blazing, the sky broad and brilliant. Only few errant bits of the white stuff remained in shady little crags. Water was rising from the rock in vapor, the snow now a vampire dispatched.
Though this shot was taken from the road, there are numerous places in Arches for views of the La Sal Mountains. — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
“She said this weather scares away a lot of people so the park is kind of empty,” he announced, scratching at what passed, just barely, for chin whiskers. These hikers were the same age I was when I’d flipped through those vacation snaps. In fact, I realized with amusement, this was likely their spring break. “She said most people never get to see the arches with snow on them. We’re all really lucky!”
They thanked me again and headed off, and I plunked down where they’d been, gazing off toward the silvery La Sal Mountains, marveling at all that snow, at what the relative elevation might be to where I sat. Mercifully, Arches is a bar-free zone. My phone was nothing but a clock and a camera, so I’d have to wait a bit to learn that Mt. Peale, the highest peak in the range, clocks in at nearly 13,000 feet above sea level.
Utah goes on (and up) forever I’d eventually realize. The mountain that seems close enough to touch is actually 50 miles away. It’s just that big, that wide, that grand. Glamorous distances. Abbey really nailed it.
Actually, so did the kid. I felt pretty darn lucky.
Tapestry Arch: The last steep scrabble is worth it. — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
Tapestry Arch is not unlike the whole of Arches National Park. The view changes, almost literally, with every step, every charming hiker’s cairn passed. This imposing beauty is flanked by dramatic proto-arches that share the same sandstone framework. It is a steep clamber at the end, but well worth the reward of lying down in its maw while wisps of cotton candy blow past against the azure, seeming more like dandelion seeds – like something you could catch on the breeze then blow off again on the wind of a romantic wish.
Delicate Arch had been one of mine for 23 years. And so I saved it for last, smiling briefly at the pained face of the heights-averse woman before rounding that corner and feeling my tummy go nervous the way it does before the rollercoaster hits the big drop, before a job interview, before a barnburner of a kiss.
A view from a ledge: the author's first photo of Delicate Arch. — Photo courtesy of A.D. Thompson
The arch stood at the far end of what felt like a natural amphitheater sloping down into a deep bowl. A six-story sandstone starlet. An utter spectacle. Visitors milled beneath like ants, trading cameras, patiently waiting for their own showstopper photos. I’d get mine later on.
Right then, I hopped up on the far end of the oval shelf and sat awhile, a tiny bird perched on the edge of an ancient coliseum where wind and rock had been battling for an eon and still do on the daily.
Clouds were pervasive, but at that moment, allowed the sun in. The arch cast a slanted shadow, the layers of rock popped in vivid stripes – brick, blood, rose, spice.
And it was so beautiful, I cried.
Bucket list stuff, when you cross one off, has a way of making you realize you could have done it sooner. I won’t wait 23 years for the Northern Lights. I promise.