By Craig Davis, Craigslegztravels.com
They don’t come just to see the famous arches at Utah’s Arches National Park.
Many visitors feel compelled to worship them.
Something about these natural wonders of erosion evokes a visceral, reverential reaction.
We witnessed it time and again. As people climb the rocky path to one of the gaping apertures in sandstone, eyes widen, mouths gape as if attempting to mirror what their eyes are seeing.
A woman with closely-cropped hair and wearing a cape as a cloak had the look of a disciple as she hiked up the stone steps leading to the North Window Arch just before sunset.
“I can’t get over this,” she said, amazement in her voice. “Isn’t this something? Now I’m complete.”
Definitely a Disciple of the Arches.
The sentiment is contagious because it is pure joy. It explains why more than 1.5 million visit the park each year and there are usually long lines at the entry gate most mornings.
There are more than 2,000 arches in the park, and they are something special to see. And to capture for personal posterity, either with cellphones or sophisticated cameras.
Returning the next morning, we pulled off at the Skyline Arch, one of the most accessible just off the roadway. Two artists stood atop a rocky rise painting the scene with all its subtle variations of color cast in the morning light.
Judging by their appearance and gear, these weren’t tourists on a day trip. I wondered how many arches they’ve painted in the park. Perhaps not the first time for this one.
Some of the formations have names
And their work is likely not limited to arches. It doesn’t take an artist’s eye to see there is a lot more to Arches National Park than arches.
In most cases you have to go hiking to see arches. Stunning rock formations are all around after passing through the entrance station and beginning the climb up the main roadway.
The most impressive structures have names that are readily identifiable.
First stop is the Park Avenue viewpoint with a mile-long trail into the canyon amid the massive Courthouse Towers, which includes the Baby Arch, Three Gossips, Ring Arch and Tower of Babel.
Can’t miss Nefertiti’s Head, or the creatively named Three Gossips, which clearly resembles three men in earnest conversation.
It did feel as if we had been set down in a gigantic primitive culture turned to stone and locked in time.
The most notable non-arch in the park is the gravity defying Balanced Rock, which looks like a wary alien keeping watch on everyone who passes. Nature’s work of tomfoolery stands 128 feet tall, just off the roadway about nine miles into the park.
All of that before we’d seen the first arch.
They are scattered along the 16.3-mile Arches Scenic Drive. Most famous, the iconic Delicate Arch, is off Delicate Arch Road. It requires a three-mile walk on a trail, rated as difficult, to get a close look at the elegant 60-foot symbol of Utah. There are two viewing points where you can see it from quite a distance.
Parking is limited, though, and was filled with the vehicles of arch seekers, so we continued on and made a detour to Fiery Furnace, which was uncrowded and offered a different look than we encountered in the rest of the park. The jumble of reddish boulders, fins and crevasses is worth the stop.
The end game in Arches National Park is Devils Garden, which offers several hiking trail options, ranging from a pleasant walk in the park to primitive. The longest is over 7 miles and offers a view of Landscape Arch, the lengthiest arch.
Once again, parking is an issue in this busiest part of the park. We circled until a spot came open.
It was worth the persistence. This is a must-see part of Arches National Park, and there is a communal feeling in exploring it.
People on the trail were from all over the world, speaking every language imaginable. One feels like a pilgrim on these trails on a shared trek with strangers into the distant past.
A man from Quebec, Canada, handed his cellphone to Fran and asked her to take a photo of him. He proceeded to disappear off the main trail into a precarious off-limits area. This brought an immediate rebuke from several hikers.
That could be attributed to the sense of being on sacred ground when you visit Arches National Park. And rightfully so.
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Moab base for adventure
Visiting Arches National Park, you’ll likely stay or stop in Moab, four miles away.
Moab has the feel of a ski town, but instead of snow the focus is on dirt. It takes pride in grittiness. They even sell Moab Dirt T-shirts in gift shops on Main Street.
Those who aren’t coming to ogle sandstone arches mostly come to ride dirt bikes on hundreds of the most challenging dirt bike trails in the world. Or to explore the same trails and others in four-wheel drive vehicles and ATVs.
You see them buzzing around town, the bikes and assorted off-road vehicles that appear as strange land crabs with oversized tires instead of legs, the occupants in body suits reveling in the griminess of it all. There are various outlets that rent whatever appeals to your dusty, desert exploring tastes.
Moab has the reputation as one of the premier adventure areas, not only in the West but anywhere. In addition to hiking, biking and off-roading, the menu of outdoor activities includes white-water rafting on the Colorado River, climbing, canyoneering, jetboat tours, horseback riding, guided tours of the National Park, scenic flights, zip-lining and more.
This is the modern Wild West.
Cowboy way in Moab
I wondered what it was like a century ago before Moab was about recreation and all about eking out a living in an unforgiving environment.
The answer was found at Pinyon Tree Gift Shop on Main Street in a book called “Last of the Robbers Roost Outlaws.” Author Tom McCourt tells the tale of Bill Tibbetts, whose exploits in the area in the early 1900s were worthy of the title.
Tibbetts was a genuine Moab buckaroo who spent much of his life in and around Moab and ran cattle in what is now Canyonlands National Park, about 30 miles away from town.
Tibbetts held his own in conflicts with rival cattlemen, fought the law on charges of stealing horses — he claimed he was framed; evidence suggests he may have been — and actually busted out of the Moab jail. The clerk at the gift shop said he knew some Tibbetts relatives that remain in the area.
Tibbetts, who died in 1969, might not recognize much about Moab today, but the ruggedly beautiful surroundings where he carved his legacy remain as untamed and alluring as then, albeit considerably more crowded.