There are essentially three different ways to see Arches National Park and still get an idea of what the place is all about. You can drive it. You can short-hike it. Or you can really take your time and venture to some of the more remote locations.
At just over 76,000 acres, it’s actually considered one of the smaller national parks in the United States, making it possible to do a day-long driving tour that covers most of the main sites along the central road. As the driver on this cross-country odyssey, I had to keep one eye on the road while admiring formations like the Three Gossips and Balanced Rock, but I still got a pretty good look at them. And Angela and the boys were able to get an excellent look and take pictures as the road often snakes close to many of the more interesting vistas.
It’s an easy and relatively flat drive, and I can appreciate those who want to remain in the blissful cool of the car air conditioning and still be able to check this park off their list.
But the family wanted to get a closer look at some of the more famous arches, so we picked several destinations and set out on a series of short hikes to take us from the parking areas to more scenic (and static) vantage points.
We did the short hike to the Delicate Arch viewing area because it’s easy and totally necessary if you’re visiting Arches NP. After all, it IS the most famous of the arches, as demonstrated right there on the commemorative quarter. Then, after short hikes to see Double Arch and Sandstone Arch, we decided that a longer trek was necessary.
Which brings me to the third and most incredible way to experience the majesty of Arches National Park: a long and lonesome hike into the deep isolation of this alien landscape.
We began a few hours before sunset on the Devil’s Garden Trailhead and followed the trail northwest, visiting Tunnel Arch and Landscape Arch before winding our way past the Navajo Arch and walking into the fading sunset. The marked path here disappears into the red and brown soil, and in the failing light, one can imagine he is finding this land for the first time.
The relatively remote location of this hike meant few other people were present. The only family who had been intermittently sharing this hike with us had long ago retreated to the safety and familiarity of the parking area. And with them, they had taken their uncommonly loud children, complaining incessantly about the sand and the heat and the lack of wifi.
We have imperfect but wonderful children in whom we have instilled a respect for nature, for quiet, and for adventure. When we were finally alone on this hike, completely alone, with only the four of us surrounded on all sides by silent desert and stoic rock, and the sun sinking past the red horizon, we proposed to slow down. Relax. Let the night close in around us. And see what the darkness would bring.
Somewhere far removed from the bustle of tourists starting their cars and making for hotel rooms or steak dinners or campsites in Moab, our movements stuttered to a standstill, gazing, dumbfounded at the endless heaven that had opened before us.
Someone, breathless, uttered, “We should lie down in silence,” and, like a command from the cosmos we all did. Head to head in a circle with four corners, feet sprawling to the cardinal directions. North. South. East. West. And, in everlasting quietude, we watched the universe spiral around us, flinging us into that cold, achingly beautiful display of galaxies and exploding novas. Violent beyond understanding. Yet held, transfixed, frozen forever by the immovable rocks of Arches National Park.
Not even the bugs made a sound. The birds and the winds were quiet. For hours we watched the world tilt on its axis, becoming drunk with wonder, and, rising at last, we staggered back to the world of men.
There are three ways to see Arches National Park. And all three will leave you with a profound appreciation for this place.
But, if you want to have a transcendental experience, then hike to the farthest reaches of the park. Lie down in the red dust at night and watch in silence. And emerge as something more than human. Do just that.