A Little Desert Solitaire
Twenty-seven hours in Arches National Park
Mountain valleys have this way of cozying up to their inhabitants, and Aspen and the Roaring Fork valley are no exception. Living in Aspen, Colorado, cradled by the valley walls, the embrace of the landscape is ever-present. Where else can you inspire people on a snowshoe tour, meet world famous scientists, run into Kate Hudson, and see The Wood Brothers?). Toward the late reaches of February, however, one often becomes aware of the ruts that the valley carves out for us during the winter season. Just as the ever-snowy West End roads are diveted by the slow meander of cars to and fro, the mind of the valley inhabitant can often run its course in similar ways from day to day. Some of these ruts are literal––the skin track at Highlands, the divets in icy sidewalks from many a trek to work, a usual seat at the brewery––and still others deepen from within.
So, feeling rather rutted in early March, combined with an extraordinarily-rare two days off in a row, I planned a quick overnight trip to Arches National Park and the town of Moab, in Utah. Early on Saturday morning I packed my car, drove down valley, met I-70 and headed west. After about two and a half hours of 80mph and This American Life podcasts, upon recommendation from several people (“Follow the Colorado!”), I turned south onto highway 128, which follows the Colorado river in it’s southwesterly flow from the I-70 corridor and heads straight into Moab.
Driving highway 128 was an incredible treat. The narrow two-lane road cuts through huge open swaths of BLM land, and the snow-covered La Sal mountains that emerge rise improbably from the scrubby landscape. I arrived at the Big Bend BLM campground at around 11:30 A.M. to find that there was precisely one campsite available. I knew to expect crowds, but I didn’t quite realize the extent to which people flocked to the desert this time of year. I suppose I’m not the only one who was in search of escape.
I set up my tent at my campsite in the canyon beside the Colorado, dropped my sleeping bag and pad inside, exchanged very accomplished looks with my campsite-neighbors, and drove into Moab. After a quick stop at the grocery store for some food and water, I drove another 25 minutes to the entrance to Arches, where I was greeted by a line of at least 50 cars waiting to get into the park. I was a mixture of appalled and relieved––I was really hungry, so I sat and drowned my annoyance in salt and vinegar potato chips until I reached the front of the line.
Finally after a brief eternity I reached the park ranger at the gate, who sold me the Annual Pass to the national parks that I asked for, and in I went into the park. From the park entrance the road climbs several hundred feet via switchbacks which scale the side of a large canyon––the RVs which so often frequent America’s national parks provided amusement with sprinkles of terror as I watched them negotiate the very precarious climb. The reward for negotiating the road is another really amazing view of the La Sal mountains, this time from a higher perch. I began to explore.
“The Tourist Thing”
When I told my boss Jim that I wanted to get away to the desert for a while, but that I only had two days, he told me to go to Arches and “do the tourist thing.” What he meant by this is to drive up the single road into Arches and stop and explore the easy-to-get-to viewpoints along the road and to stop into the visitor center and learn about this place. While I certainly wanted to experience the place, I was a little apprehensive to do “the tourist thing” because I don’t quite like feeling like a tourist. I decided that the first day I was going to “do the tourist thing,” and that I was going to awaken exceptionally early on Sunday morning and try to find as much solitude as I could.
So, my first stop on the park road was at a rather amusing place called Balanced Rock. It’s exactly what it sounds like:
When I got home and was researching this travelogue a little more closely, I learned that the trailer that Ed Abbey lived in during his time in Arches as a ranger, catalogued in his book Desert Solitaire, was right near Balanced Rock. On this warm, sun-drenched Saturday in march, cars streamed into the Balanced Rock parking lot and past us on the road. I can only imagine Ed Abbey, from a vantage point similar to mine as I took the above photograph, writing:
“How to pry the tourists out of their automobiles, out of their back-breaking upholstered mechanized wheelchairs and onto their feet, onto the strange warmth and solidity of Mother Earth again? This is the problem which the Park Service should confront directly, not evasively, and which it cannot resolve by simply submitting and conforming to the automobile habit.” — Ed Abbey, Desert Solitaire
Alas, I got back into my car and drove to one of the “gems” of Arches, Delicate Arch. This is the arch that’s on the Utah license plate, so naturally I figured I had to see it. I drove for about 30 minutes into the park, where I was greeted by yet another parking lot chock full of cars, hikers, children, school groups, college spring break trips, coolers, potato-chip bags, sunhats, Brigham Young University t-shirts, and just general humanity. I pretty seriously considered leaving the parking lot and finding somewhere where I could be a little further from this writhing mass, but I decided that I would regret not going to see this arch. After about a 40-minute walk across slick rock, weaving in and out of groups of people, I arrived:
Delicate Arch is truly amazing to behold. Most of the arches in the park are formed within a much taller and wider rock formation, but Delicate Arch stands on its own. This is rather unusual given how arches form. Basically, with the evaporation of an ancient inland ocean around 300 million years ago, several miles of salt remained on the ocean floor. As layers of sedimentary rock formed over the salt, it liquified from the pressure and formed “salt domes.” As rainwater fell and seeped through the upper cover layers of sandstone, the salt dissolved and the salt domes disappeared. As the support of the salt domes diminished, the rock above sagged and cracked in an almost perfect parallel fashion.
As rainwater seeps into those parallel cracks, it widens them, creating fins of rock. In addition, the water hits a much harder and less-porous rock layer beneath the sandstone and remains at the bottom, eroding the sandstone from the bottom. As the fins erode from the sides and the bottom, a hole opens up in the fin. That, folks, is how arches form.
Anyway, as you can imagine, the area around Delicate Arch was totally packed with people, despite the hike to the arch being labeled at “strenuous.” As I approached the arch, my eyes immediately left the arch and rested upon the plateau directly behind it which, notably, had zero people on it. I ascended.
The views from this point brought me deep into the desert. Though I knew 75 people lurked just a glance away, looking east toward the desert and the La Sal mountains I couldn’t help but feel like I was in the middle of nowhere.
Growth in The Desert
Truly spectacular as the sweeping views of the mountains and the surrounding desert were, I found myself drawn to the myriad very unfamiliar plant species that were growing all around me (that’s the incessant curiosity from the Roaring Fork Valley talking, I suppose). Take a look at this tree:
This is a piñon or pinyon pine. Specifically, this is the Colorado Piñon (Pinus edulis). Upon further research, I learned that these pines are the North American source of pine nuts, a very tasty addition to things. Up in the Roaring Fork valley these plants generally do not grow, especially in the higher elevations near Aspen. As I continued through the park, these guys were everywhere. In my visit to the Park Visitor’s Center on the way out, I learned that these trees are very common in Arches and in the surrounding desert, and they grow together with one of my favorite plants, the Juniper:
This is the Utah Juniper (Juniperus osteosperma) and they can get old. According to the Arches visitor center, the oldest Utah Juniper has been dated at over 1,275 years old. Juniper is the second half of the park’s most common plant community, the pinyon-juniper woodland. As you can see in the above photo, these plants can cling to very rocky places, in an almost improbable fashion. My favorite part of the juniper plant is their berries, those little blue spheres on the ground. They’re used to make gin! Within the blue casing is a little corn kernel-like seed.
However, what I noticed most about the plants in Arches is that they’re clinging to life in hardly any soil. Check this one out:
This plant is growing straight from a crack in the rock. Pretty amazing, right? Another cool plant-related thing that I found was this gall in a pinyon pine needle, formed by the spindlegall midge:
I picked up this needle because it was bulging in the middle, so I cracked it open. Sure enough, I found those little orange specks––very early-stage spindlegall midge larvae. They’ll eventually grow in the safety of the inside of the needle, then hatch into little flying midges. Just another one of the amazing strategies for life in the high desert.
Sunset in the Desert
One of the main motivators of my Arches trip was to revisit photography, a passion of mine that I’ve recently neglected. Before my departure I began researching photography in the desert and learned that most landscapes are highlighted during the sunrise or sunset hours––the “golden hours,” as photographers like to call them. With that in mind, I structured my “tourist day” to catch some of the sunset. However, I got a little caught up in a trail that I found on the side of the road after hiking Delicate Arch, and just barely got back to my car in time for the sun to begin to set. I raced down the road to my intended viewpoint: the Windows arches. What I found was a truly spectacular set of scenes.
I sat on a deserted rock and watched the sky until I was too cold to watch anymore.
The next day I awoke in my camp at 4:30 A.M. to the very surprising sound of my iPhone alarm slicing the quiet murmur of the Colorado river. I packed my sleeping bag and pad as a very light patter of raindrops began to hit the fly of my tent––a bad sign. I woke up early so I could catch the sunrise, and the sound of rain made it quite evident that I would be doing no such thing. As I crawled out of my tent, disturbing an uncountable number of beetles crawling along the sand with the light of my headlamp, the rain subsided. I packed everything into my car and started toward Arches. It was around 5:00. I ate a blueberry muffin. I think a banana too.
As I drove I saw no other people. The park entrance was wide open––no lines, no gates, no rangers, nothing. It almost seemed as though I shouldn’t have been there, but the sign which said “Open 24 Hours A Day” urged me forward. I flew through the park by the light of my high-beams, a process which took many fewer minutes compared to the traffic-laden slog that was yeterday’s arches experience. “Thank goodness,” I thought.
At the end of the park road I stopped, turned off the car, and was immediately struck by the darkness. I had never been in a place so dark before. There was no moon. The clouds covered all available light from the stars. I couldn’t see my hand in front of my face. The darkness was rich, velvety. You could almost inhale it. I realized quite quickly that this was the kind of darkness that I was terrified of.
I sat in my car trying to figure out whether I was too chicken to get out of it and start walking. As I sat, another car arrived. It was 5:45. I got out of the car and just stood, staring into the only landmark I had, the map light inside the pickup that just pulled up. I watched the guy in the truck get out, put on his rain jacket, and start walking. I got back in my car, dismayed that I’d no longer be alone on the trail, and decided to wait until it got a little brighter. As I had this thought, a steady desert rain began pelting the windshield. “Damn it,” said I.
After another three minutes of being indecisive about the darkness and the weather, I got out of the car, put on my shell jacket and pants, loaded the camera and an avocado into my pack, and started walking through the rain. My headlamp slowly dimmed as the sky began to brighten, and I realized that this was maybe the best way to experience the early morning desert in rare form: when it was wet.
The rain was a rather spectacular sight once the sun rose. All of the oranges, yellows, and greens deepened their shades. Though the cloudy skies and wet weather made photography challenging, I was thrilled to be out there on the trail. I went arch-hunting, and found some true gems. Like this one — Navajo Arch.
Check out that pine tree just hanging out under the arch. Sweet, right? I also found some amazing plant life, not limited to this amazing pinyon pine that was curling it’s way out of the crack in the sandstone.
This walk offered me the opportunity I was looking for: to be very alone in the desert. In fact, starting from my departure from my car around 5:50 A.M. to my return to the main sightseeing trailhead at 11:30, I didn’t see a single other person. Just arches, views, plants, and footsteps. Some of those footsteps weren’t mine:
Part of the beauty of the “primitive trail” that I was on was that I was walking across the tops of the rock fins that form by the erosion of the sandstone along the cracks leftover from the dissolution of the salt domes underneath the sandstone layer many years ago.
After five or so quiet and wet hours, I emerged back into the parking lot to greet several hundred people getting out of their cars to see what they could. I wished at that moment that I could tell all of those people to break away from the crowds and go exploring where they could be alone with the rocks and the soil.
I couldn’t, though. I got back in my car, drove South to Moab, had a small lunch at a café on the edge of town and, refreshed, rejuvenated, and excited to get home, I drove East back to Aspen.