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Delicate Arch – A Treasured Icon
by Marcia Hafner

Delicate ArchYou could search the whole world over and still not find the density of sandstone arches that exists in Arches National Park. With so many arches to choose from (over 2,000 have been catalogued), Delicate Arch is probably the most popular and most endearing to the majority of people that come here. It’s the unique shape, the jaunty placement on the skyline that has captured everyone’s imagination. This horizon-hugging arch has been imprinted on a large audience by commercials, billboards and advertisements. It appears on Utah license plates and government stationery.

A postage stamp with that familiar image came out in 1996 to commemorate Utah’s centennial anniversary of statehood and in the winter of 2002, populations around the world watched The Olympic Torch pass through its famous portal. In a sense Delicate Arch has become the poster child for Arches National Park, as well as a treasured icon for the state of Utah.

Over the years the name has changed, but it’s still the same arch. Local cowboys called it “The Chaps” and “The Schoolmarm’s Bloomers.” It received its current name in the winter of 1933-34 from Frank Beckwith, leader of the Arches National Monument Scientific Expedition, who was exploring the area at that time. Ironically, Delicate Arch was not included inside the original 1929 boundaries when Arches was designated as a national monument (it became a national park in 1971). That didn’t happen until more land was acquired in 1938.

Entrada sandstone is the major building block in arch formation in this little corner of the universe. It all began ten million years ago when erosion started stripping away more than 5,000 vertical feet of the original underlying rock, opening up cracks in the anticlines. Water seeped in, washed away loose debris and eroded the cement that held the sandstone together, leaving behind freestanding fins. Ice formed and its expanding pressure broke off bits and pieces of rock until many of the fins collapsed. But some, with the right balance and hardness, survived as arches.

A long-distance view of Delicate Arch can be yours just a few hundred steps up the trail from the Delicate Arch Viewpoint parking area. For an up-close personal point of view, however, you have to hike a moderately strenuous 1.5-mile trail. Delicate Arch will not come into view until the very last minute, so if you’re planning on bagging a very special arch, be prepared to go the distance. My advice is to take your time and enjoy the scenic journey that opens up to constantly changing views of The Windows, Cache Valley, the southern expanse of the park and the majestic La Sal Mountains.

Wolfe CabinThe trail begins at the Wolfe Ranch parking lot where John Wesley Wolfe and his son Fred in 1898 quickly saw the advantages of putting their ranch here. They had a steady water supply from Salt Wash and close proximity to the railroad stop at Thompson Springs (just a mere one day wagon ride away). John’s daughter, Flora, her husband and their two children joined them in 1906. Anxious to please his daughter, John replaced the original cabin with a more modern wood-floored structure and that intact building and root cellar are found adjacent to the parking lot. In 1910 the ranch was sold and the family moved back home to Ohio.

To get there from Moab, go three miles north on Highway 191 and turn right into the entrance of Arches National Park. Then drive 11.5 miles, where a sign to the right will direct you to Delicate Arch.

Immediately after walking over the bridge, a short side trail leads to a panel of petroglyphs that were chipped out by the Ute Indians, who moved into southeast Utah around 1300 AD. The inclusion of riders on horseback on this panel reflects a period of time after 1650 when the acquisition of the horse had changed their way of life.

Returning to the main trail, the first half-mile is easy walking on a well-defined gentle dirt path that is bordered on the north side by a very long, sweeping alcove. That steady drip of water has encouraged the production of an extensive hanging garden. When the dirt changes to slickrock, the trail disappears and the uphill climb gets serious. Big piles of rocks called cairns will now be your guide.

At the second cairn, stop, take a deep breath and look behind you. The diminished appearance of the parking area will make you realize that you’ve already come a long, long way.

Eventually the trail weaves in and out of a jumble of large rocks and into a wash where the junipers, pinyon pines and Mormon tea like to grow. Next comes the rock stairwell followed by a narrow ledge that bumps into the side of a steep cliff. On the other side of this skinny ledge is a huge drop-off. On this north-facing section of the trail, snow and ice tend to stick around during the winter and after being on a dry trail this might come as a big surprise. Use extreme caution even when the footing feels secure! If it doesn’t feel right to you, turn back!! One false move and it’s a long hazardous plunge of 100 feet or more down a slippery precipice. By now, you are so close – just around the corner 52-foot tall Delicate Arch, highlighted against the snow-white La Sal Mountains, suddenly pops into view.

Even on this off-season chilly day, I am still very surprised to discover that no one else is here as I carefully walk past a cavernous, steep-walled bowl to navigate around this intriguing arch that at certain angles looks like a fossilized tooth. A short time later an enthusiastic foursome from Great Britain shows up and I take great pleasure in watching the wonderment of this group that is getting their first in-depth glimpse of this treasured icon.

Note: If you go in the spring, summer or fall, start your hike early while parking spaces are still available. Keep in mind that in the summer there is little shade and hot temperatures can be deadly. Wear a hat, use sunscreen and carry plenty of water. Better yet, try to avoid hiking during the heat of the day.

Cryptobiotic soil garden
Cryptobiotic soil garden

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