Monday, May 18, 2020

Delicate Arch

Delicate Arch at sunset and the La Sal Mountains

3 miles round trip, 550 feet elevation gain
Difficulty: Easy-moderate
Access: Paved road to trailhead, Arches National Park entrance fee required

Imagine Utah. What came to mind? More likely than not, Delicate Arch, one of the most iconic landmarks of the American Southwest. The image of the arch's red sandstone illuminated by sunset lighting with the La Sal Mountains in the backdrop is ubiquitous in American culture, having decorated our currency, license plates, and endless Utah tourism advertisements. The hike to this symbol of the Southwest in Arches National Park near Moab is easy enough for most people to do, making it an extremely popular destination. Despite the crowds, Delicate Arch is a must-see; if it's become cliche, that's only because the arch's incredible natural beauty is universally understood.

There are a couple of things to note here, as this is a hike popular with tourists who may not hike frequently. First of all: this is a hike. It's not a hundred-meter stroll on a paved walkway, so you should prepare for this accordingly. Arches National Park sits in Utah's high desert and sees intense temperatures each summer, so it is imperative to bring water and to bring enough of it. The hike is not hard, but it does involve ascending a slickrock slope, so wear appropriate shoes. There's also a stretch of the trail that is blasted into a cliff that can be treacherous in icy conditions, so check the trail conditions beforehand if you arrive in winter and make sure you have the appropriate gear to hit the trail. If you come to the arch to see the sunset, understand that there is no lighting on the trail after dark! You must bring your own flashlight or headlamp.

I hiked to Delicate Arch during a November trip to Moab with my mom. The primary purpose of the trip was to do this hike- my mom had been wanting to see Delicate Arch close up ever since our family first visited the park in 1995 and viewed the arch from afar at the roadside viewpoint across Salt Wash. The trailhead is a short drive from Moab: from the town, we took US 191 north across the Colorado River and took the turnoff on the right for Arches National Park. We followed the park road into the park, following it uphill past the turnoff for the Windows, and turned right onto the Delicate Arch Road. We parked at the Wolfe Ranch Trailhead just a mile down the Delicate Arch Road to the left. While the trailhead parking lot is quite large, this is an extremely popular hike so be prepared.

A wide, level trail started from the parking lot and ran east. Wolfe Ranch, the first site of interest on this hike, was just outside the parking lot, featuring two cabins: a small log cabin with windows and doors and a nearby hovel, barely sticking out from the ground. John Wesley Wolfe was one of the first European American settlers in the Salt Wash, moving out to Utah with one of his sons from Ohio in the late 19th century. Wolfe and his son built and initially inhabited the hovel, maintaining a garden by building a small dam on Salt Wash. Wolfe's daughter Flora moved out to Salt Wash with her husband a few years later but found the tiny hovel unacceptable for habitation, so the Wolfes built the larger cabin. Although the Wolfes later moved out to Moab, their desert dwelling survives.

Wolfe Ranch
Leaving Wolfe Ranch, the trail crossed a bridge over a wash that surprisingly lush given the desert environs. After the bridge, we came to a junction: the main Delicate Arch Trail plowed straight ahead while the Petroglyphs trail broke off to the left. We took the trail to the petroglyphs, which would rejoin the Delicate Arch Trail a little later.

This trail led us to the foot of some cliffs, where we saw a panel of petroglyphs. This rock art panel depicts humans on horses and desert bighorn sheep; it was carved by the Ute people, who inhabit the Colorado Plateau and were the namesake of the state. The petroglyph was carved after the initiation of the Columbian Exhange, as horses were reintroduced to the Americas by Europeans. As with all rock art, it is illegal to touch or deface these petroglyphs; prior visitors respected these sites so that you can see them today and you should do the same for future visitors.

Ute petroglyphs near Wolfe Ranch
The Petroglyph trail followed the base of the low cliffs back to the Delicate Arch Trail. We rejoined the Delicate Arch Trail, which began a gentle ascent onto a low hill. From this part of the hike, we had good views when turning back to the spires of the Windows district of the park, including a view of the large opening of South Window.

South Window from Salt Wash
The trail was fairly flat for the first three-quarters of a mile, following a wide and well-built path. Around three-quarters of a mile, the terrain changed: the trail led onto long stretch of slightly sloped slickrock. The next third of a mile across the slickrock was the primary ascent of the hike: there was no longer any defined trail, although there was a clear beaten path from all the hiking boots over the years that have traveled up and down this slickrock. The grade was not very steep but the slickrock was uneven at times.

Hiking up the slickrock
At the top of the long slope, the trail swung to the left, following a small wash up until entering another area of broad slickrock. Cairns directed us onto a path blasted into cliffs for our final approach to Delicate Arch. The trail here is not narrow but there are dropoffs to one side: in winter, snow can make this section treacherous, so bringing microspikes or Yaktrax might be a good idea if you come during snowier months.

Final approach to Delicate Arch
The trail was carved into the rock high above a small canyon. Across the canyon, we spotted alcoves that are probably arches-in-the-making. Now at a higher elevation, we had some nice views out over the desert to the north, as well.

Landscape near Delicate Arch
The trail ended at the rim of a wide sandstone bowl. The eroded sandstone fin of Delicate Arch rose on the other side of the bowl, with the La Sal Mountains in the backdrop. Tourists milled about the rim of the bowl, some walking over to the base of the arch itself. It's important to be careful here: visitors have slipped into the bowl and died from falls.

Delicate Arch bowl
The arch was initially known as Salt Wash Arch or Schoolmarm's Bloomers by locals, who named it for its location and for its resemblance to comfortable women's pants before the arch achieved international renown. When the surrounding landscape- which holds the world's largest collection of natural arches- was first protected in Arches National Monument in 1929, Delicate Arch was not even part of the protected parcel. Its current name came when the monument was surveyed in the 1930s; the monument itself later gained popularity when Edward Abbey wrote about his experience as a park ranger in this desolate country in Desert Solitaire. Ironically, Abbey's complaints about tourists treating nature as a drive-thru experience resulted in tourists from all over the world arriving and turning Arches National Park into exactly such a place.

Delicate Arch and the La Sal Mountains
Delicate Arch is carved into Entrada Sandstone, the formation responsible for most of the natural arches in the park. Arches National Park is part of the Colorado Plateau, a region between the Rockies and the Basin and Range that, unlike surrounding geologic structures, has minimally deformed sedimentary layers. The Entrada Sandstone near Moab is underlaid by Navajo Sandstone and then a layer of salt formed when an ancient sea in what was then known as the Paradox Basin evaporated. This salt eventually liquefied from the weight of the overlying rock, forming salt domes that cracked the layers of sandstone above into thin fins. These rock rins have since been weathered into the over 2000 arches that dot this national park.

Delicate Arch and the Windows
I hiked around the edge of the bowl to the foot of the arch. There was a queue of visitors near the base of the arch waiting their turn to have their photo taken with this icon; I chose to pass but enjoyed the beautiful views of the arch itself. My mom and I waited to see sunset on the arch, then returned to the trailhead in the dark by the light of our headlamps.

Delicate Arch
You've probably already heard of Delicate Arch so I don't need to spend much effort convincing you to go; but when you do go, prepare for crowds and make sure you're prepared for the conditions during the time that you choose to hike. This is a fantastic landscape and of course you should see Delicate Arch- just make sure you're prepared so that you'll have an enjoyable and safe experience.

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