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Delicate Arch Overlook – A Distant View Of A Treasured Icon
by Marcy Hafner
You could search the whole world over and still not find the density of sandstone arches that exists in Arches National Park. Over 2,000 have been catalogued, and with so many to choose from, Delicate Arch with its jaunty placement on the skyline is at the top of every visitor’s must-see list.

Captivating everyone’s imagination, this popular span has been used in commercials, billboards and advertisements, as well as appearing 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. Delicate Arch has become the poster child for Arches National Park as well as a treasured icon for the state of Utah.

Originally referred to by local cowboys as “Cowboy Chaps,” another common name was “Old Maid’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 a national monument. That didn’t happen until more land was acquired in 1938, and Arches’ status wasn’t bumped up from a monument to a national park until Richard Nixon’s administration in 1971.

Most of the arches in this park, including Delicate Arch, have been formed out of Entrada Sandstone, and scientists believe this process has occurred during the last million years. In most cases the foundation for an arch is a narrow sandstone wall called a fin. Water acts as the sledgehammer when it seeps into the cracks, freezes and then expands with so much pressure that chunks of rocks fall out, until eventually there’s an opening. Most fins collapse, but those with just the right balance and hardness survive as arches. Even today this process continues, as old arches die and new ones are born.

For an up-close, personal view of this blockbuster structure I occasionally hike the moderately strenuous 1.5 mile Delicate Arch Trail to sit within its gaping jaws and touch and observe its massive sandstone frame. Today, however, I’m in the mood to witness its vision as a horizon-hugger – an image that only comes from a long distance view.

To get to the trailhead, I drive three miles north on Highway 191 out of Moab to the entrance to Arches National Park. From the visitor center I drive 11.5 miles and turn right at the sign for Delicate Arch. Then driving past the parking area for the Delicate Arch Trail, I continue on to the end of the road where parking is available for the Lower and Upper Delicate Arch Viewpoint trails.

As I arrive the sun is just starting its heat-blasting journey above the horizon, and I heartily welcome the partial cloud cover and the soft caress of a cooling breeze. The calendar might say early September, but summer still drags on and on!

The flat turf on the Lower Trail makes for an easy-going five minute stroll to the first viewpoint where I am mesmerized by the impressive stance of Delicate Arch over a distance of three-fourths of a mile. After that inspiring pause I proceed once again along on a soft dirt path bordered with a rail fence to begin the gradual half-mile climb to the second viewpoint. Eventually this Upper Trail wends its way to a streambed, where precious water sometimes flows, allowing lush vegetation to flourish along its banks: cottonwoods, junipers, sagebrush, Prince’s plume, squawbush, rabbitbrush, snakeweed, Mormon tea and singleleaf ash. Then after high stepping up a series of rock stairs, I arrive at the second signed viewpoint for another fantastic look.

Seeking an even closer observation point, I continue following some well placed cairns, piles of stacked rocks that act as guides, over the gray slickrock to a precipice. Here I make an abrupt halt - any further would be hazardous to my health! This extra footage offers me a spectacular view. In all directions and clear to the horizon I am virtually surrounded by a panorama of mesas, plateaus and a variety of globular-shaped rock formations. Directly below as I scan a cliff wall down to a canyon floor bursting to the gills with a profuse growth of green vegetation, and then jumping my gaze to the other side, there it is the star of the show – the lofty profile of Delicate Arch.

Plopping down to study this astounding structure I make out a steady parade of stick-figure hikers scampering around and under its immense girth – a formation literally 44 feet high and 33 feet wide. Half a mile away my long distance view portrays a whole different perception – a delicate looking arch hugging a slanted slickrock floor as it protrudes above the skyline. Perhaps this perspective is what gave this arch its seemingly contradictory name.

What are the odds that this geological feat could ever have happened? And how long can Delicate Arch maintain her precarious position? Sadly, the day will come when gravity will win this ongoing battle; then our precious icon will come tumbling down the cliff wall to land in the graveyard of the giant-sized boulder-field below. But hopefully our beloved arch will stay with us far, far into the future of geological time.

In my teeny quickly disappearing patch of shade, I savor the call of the raven – the antics of a chipmunk – the enchanting trills of the rock wren – and the wondrous workings of an ever changing geology. The benign appearance of wispy clouds - a foamy film of fluff that slowly drifts along - offers little promise of coolness or rain. But the seasons will soon be changing, and oh I am so ready to say hello to the frostier days ahead when I can indulge in the bounteous treasures of this majestic park while enjoying the glorious crispness of fall, as it gallops on into the serene off-season solitude of winter.
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