Rock formations, canyons the attraction in Southern Utah

December 12, 2009 

It's 3:30 p.m., and I'm heading up the hill to see Delicate Arch in Arches National Park just outside of Moab, Utah. I want to be there in plenty of time to take pictures of the arch at sunset.

I'm not alone. Delicate Arch is the most photographed arch in the park. It is uniquely perched atop a cliff in a sandstone bowl. I will ascend nearly 500 feet to get there over slickrock and sandy gullies. In miles, it is three round trip.

I take my time as the elevation is nearly 5,000 feet, and it's slow going. Sure-footed outdoorsy people dressed in Patagonia quickly pass me, but I don't mind. I'm a smeller of the roses.

My lack of speed allows me time to appreciate the stunning geography of the area. This climb to view Delicate Arch is a view itself each time I stop. In the distance I see the La Sal Range, a snow topped grouping of mountains that are part of the southern Rockies. Below me the slickrock surface swirls like a pebble tossed into a lake challenging my hiking boots and agility. Sometimes referred to as petrified sand dunes, slickrock is sandstone eroded by wind and water to a rounded sandpaper surface.

In addition to slickrock, features like spires, sandstone fins and eroded monoliths are also visible. Arches National Park lies atop an underground salt bed, a remnant of when the sea covered the terrain millions of years ago. The overlying earth was estimated at one time to be a mile thick. Subsequent erosion by wind and water has left an unusual collection of natural features including more than 2,000 arches in this park alone.

If that's not mindboggling enough, Arches is only the geographical tip of southern Utah's natural wonders. There are literally thousands of miles of sculpted land.

I'm excited to see Delicate Arch and forego my aching knees and feet to continue. Soon the large spans of slickrock give way to narrow sand-filled passages between boulders. Wispy, hardy trees eek their way through crevices and surface cracks, their thorns snagging trekkers' clothing as they squeeze by.

People on their way down encourage me with comments, like "it's just around the corner," but I've been hearing this all the way up. I soon realize it's finally the truth as I approach a small trail along a steep cliff. A couple of footfalls to the left and you're a goner, but I'm not turning back now. After a few hundred feet I round the corner and there it is, Delicate Arch, much larger than I expected and daunting in the golden afternoon sun.

The old timers referred to the arch as the schoolmarm's bloomers and I immediately see the resemblance. Sunset isn't for another couple of hours, so I sit down and observe this unique place and its visitors. There are at least 50 photographers including one workshop group perched on the surrounding rocks. A group of school kids race out into the sandstone bowl to have their picture taken beneath the arch.

When dark clouds shroud the sun obscuring the impending sunset, I decide to head back down. I don't want to hike this dicey terrain in the dark especially since I forgot my headlamp and the batteries in my flashlight are low.

My base for this trip is Moab, Utah, 233 southeast of Salt Lake City and 354 west of Denver where I started. It's a small town of about 6,000 residents. As a result of its growing popularity as a back county jumping off spot, the population is increasing. Arches National Park is only five miles from town center and Canyonlands National Park another 30 from there. Surrounding public lands abound drawing bikers, hikers, four wheelers and rock climbers.

I'm finding one visit to Arches is not enough to consume its grandeur so I'll return several times over my week's stay. I want to take photographs at different times of the day as well as hike and contemplate.

I wake up before sunrise one day to catch the morning rays cast their hue on Landscape Arch, a skinny stretch of rock anchored between two monoliths.

Double Arch is another don't miss. It's two arches in one, a labyrinth of crisscrossing sandstone. Balancing Rock disappoints me as I've seen much better examples of teetering rocks in the park.

I'm visiting at the perfect time of year -- October. Hotel rates are slightly reduced and I don't have to compete with summer tourists nor endure stifling temperatures.

I meet dozens of Europeans and handfuls of Australians who are here to cycle, hike and climb, however the majority of visitors appear to be American retirees leisurely making their way from one monument to another.

After feasting in Arches National Park, I move on to nearby Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park.

On this swath of desert, the Colorado River and the Green River have cut and scraped away at the land for eons creating canyons, a thousand feet or more in depth. The 30-mile drive into the park is a pleasant cruise through high desert. I'm delighted when I see desert big-horn sheep munching along side of the road oblivious to slowing motorists

Canyonlands is located on the Colorado Plateau as are Arches and Dead Horse Point State Park.

I have yet to comprehend how the land pretends to be flat at first glance until you are at a canyon edge. I think of the pioneers heading west and encountering this stretch of earth only to retrace their route in order to forge on.

Canyonlands and Dead Horse Point State Park are akin to the Grand Canyon. Each offers spectacular views of miles upon miles of canyons.

These parks are mainly explored through one's eyes, however the more adventurous can backpack through them. There are some primitive roads to the bottom thanks to early mining. Today, the occasional drone of motorcycles and four-wheelers pierce the silence.

Southern Utah is a pleasant surprise. I didn't expect such a vast area of geographical wonders or the formations to be so mesmerizing. The trip has been an appetizer to sample other areas such as Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, my next stop.

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