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A Tale Of Two Arches
article and photos by Marcy Hafner

You could search the whole world over and still not find anything that even remotely showcases the astounding rock structures found within the 119 square miles of Arches National Park. Endowed with more than 2,000 recognized arches, it has the largest concentration of sandstone arches on this planet. Along with a stunning display of colossal sandstone fins, massive balanced rocks and soaring pinnacles, it is a geological bounty of spectacular sandstone scenery that draws hundreds of thousands of visitors every year.

Almost all the arches in the park are made of Entrada Sandstone, and water erosion has usually been the main factor in their formation. It begins at weak points within the sandstone, when chemicals in the water dissolve the cement that was binding the rock particles. Then expanding pressure from water and ice slowly breaks off pieces of stone until many of the fins collapse. But some with the right balance and hardness have survived as arches. Geologists believe that most arches were created within the last million years, but these stone figures don’t last forever - since 1929 forty-two of them in the park have collapsed.

To get to Arches National Park, drive five miles north from the center of town on Highway 191 to the entrance station. An individual seven day pass for motorcycles, bicycles, and walk-ins costs $5.00 and a seven day vehicle pass, which covers all occupants, costs $10.00. An annual local pass for Arches, Canyonlands, Hovenweep and Natural Bridges can be purchased for $25.00. The Devils Garden Campground, which has 52 sites, is open year-round, but quickly fills up during the busy tourist season.

Parking for Sand Dune Arch is on the main road approximately 17.5 miles from the entrance to the park. After leaving the parking area, the first 100 yards of the trail are on a smooth, easy-strolling path. All of that changes when I take the right fork for Sand Dune Arch where a layer of deep sand involves an aerobic work out - which fortunately doesn’t last very long.

Unlike many arches that are seen from a long distance, Sand Dune Arch is shyly tucked away – a treasure that can only be observed by walking the short distance between two fins – a narrow passage with a girth only wide enough for one person! Then it widens out into a huge sandy courtyard where the sharp green foliage of the scrub oak and skunkbush contrast strongly with the reddish-brown interior sandstone decor. A whiff of the strong skunkbush aroma is hard to ignore - the sour taste of the edible red berries as unappealing as the smell of the plant! But those bitter berries can be steeped to brew a tart beverage similar to lemonade.

Just 30 feet wide and eight feet high, this relatively small-sized arch offers a lot of the unexpected. Rather than the normal hard rock floor, Sand Dune Arch instead provides a sandy slope, which is a huge “sand box” for kids and a cushy place for the parents to relax. Another surprising gift is that since it is squeezed in between jumbo-sized Entrada Sandstone fins, it receives little sunshine, which makes it a shady haven during the summer heat.

I slog along the upper reaches of sand through the arch and beyond to the base of the wall where a lower bench makes a perfect outdoor sofa. Once comfortably seated, I am enchanted with the few slivers of sunshine that manage to peek through openings in the high towered walls - a cathedral effect of ribbons of light softly streaming across the rocks, sand and arch. It is early in the day and most of the time, I have this soothing sanctuary all to myself – only the echoing voices of several ravens and the high-pitched calls of the white-throated swifts pierce the golden silence.

Finally leaving the inner sanctum of this unique arch, I return to the main trail and take a right for Broken Arch. Crossing a grassy field where the blackbrush, Mormon tea, saltbush and winterfat thrive in the deep, well drained soil, I don’t have to walk far before its curvaceous frame pops into view. The Entrada Sandstone of this arch, which is 43 feet high and 59 feet wide, is capped with a layer of the Moab Tongue of the Curtis Formation. Even from a long distance the deep fracture in that white-colored sandstone, which gives the arch its name, is obvious.

As the flat terrain gradually ends, I enter the land of the fins, where water flows more readily along their drainages. What a difference that extra moisture makes – the growth of a natural botanical garden of pinyon pines, junipers, cliffrose, oaks and singleleaf ash.

At the final approach a sign advises “Trail Continues Through Arch.” This trail can be followed all the way to the campground. A family group enters the scene from the north side and their excitement bubbles over as their adjectives spiral into the superlatives of “awesome” and “humungous” when they discover that they really can walk through the heart of this massive arch!

The elevation of 5200 feet makes me feel like I have entered a panoramic, open-air theater where a picture framed view appears across the field revealing a big jumbled rock formation that juts up sharply against a pasty blue sky. Looking in the other direction, the performance moves along as the mesas and buttes of the Colorado River corridor roll on and on over a vast distance towards the majestic backdrop of the La Sal Mountains.

This is a scene that is too special to be rushed on by, and during my long break I contemplate the tale of two very different arches - the cool seclusion within the towering walls of the secretive Sand Dune Arch versus the sunny wide-open, big picture effect of Broken Arch. Each has its own special personality and appeal, which is what makes this 2.6 mile round trip walk so intriguing.

Cryptobiotic soil garden
Cryptobiotic soil garden

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