Pilgrimage to Delicate Arch (Arches National Park, Utah)

November 5, 2016

Delicate Arch stands proudly atop a scenic vista at Arches National Park.

Delicate Arch is considered by most adventurers and travelers to be the most iconic arch in the United States. It is not the tallest or longest arch in our country, but it is easily the most charismatic with its stunning “sunset orange” color and proud, free-standing position which perfectly frames the La Sal Mountains. People travel from all over the world to see, no….experience, Delicate Arch, and I can’t imagine that any have been disappointed at the end of the 1.5 mile hike up “slick rock” to get their first view of this magnificent monument.

I must admit that I was a little presumptuous about hiking up to Delicate Arch after I settled in to our campsite at Arches National Park. Although I planned to visit the arch on the second evening of our stay, I found myself saying things to other visitors like, “Yep, I have to do the tourist thing and hike up to Delicate Arch at sunset tomorrow.” Well, shame on me for being so flip because as I write this, I’m almost brought to tears just reliving the experience. Delicate Arch has its own gravitational pull. As you turn the final corner of a not-so-easy climb to its location, the great red monument, which stands 80 feet tall at its top, pulls at your soul. I’m serious folks!

My trek to Delicate Arch began at about 5:00 P.M. I had already had a long day of hiking to other arches since before daylight but I figured the 1.5 mile jaunt up the hill would be a cakewalk. As I exited my car, I saw a park sign instructing all hikers to carry at least two quarts of water up to the arch. I thought, “Two quarts for a 3 mile hike?” Then I remembered that I was in the high desert and during summer, the temps easily exceed 100 degrees F. It was 65 degrees when I began the trek and I had a liter of water in my shoulder bag so I knew I would be fine.

I made one last check that I had all the camera gear I needed, as well as a headlamp to get me back home in the dark. As I began my trek, I immediately noticed what reminded me of ants moving up the “slick rock” about 500 feet in elevation above me. Yes, they were hikers, and they seemed so far away! I felt like I was witnessing more of a pilgrimage than a hike.

The first part of the trail is of crushed gravel and little grade. After a while, you step onto “slick rock,” which I have previously described, and begin the upward climb of 500 feet elevation gain to the arch. At no time during the climb do you see the arch, so I found myself asking descending climbers, “Am I getting close?” It seemed that no matter how far I ascended, the response was always, “You still have a ways to go.” As usual, I was in a big hurry to ensure that I arrived before the photographer’s “Golden Hour” so I was hiking way too fast for my fitness level. When I was about three quarter way up, I was really panting hard. Soon I found myself stopping at each directional rock cairn, resting for 20 seconds, and then proceeding to the next cairn. Of course, my pride caused me to control my panting when I met people coming down. I didn’t want them to think I was out of shape! On the other hand, I didn’t want to drop dead right on the trail as a gentleman had done a few weeks before our arrival.

After climbing the slick rock trail from the second part of the hike, you then began the final ascent on a moderately wide ledge of rock with some significant drop-offs. The ledge is plenty wide unless you have a fear of heights. It was then that I noticed some hikers clinging to the rock face to avoid the edge of the walkway.

One of the wonderful things about the hike to Delicate Arch is the dramatic design of the trail approach, which denies you even a glimpse of the arch until you take your final steps upward and round the corner of a tall bluff face. I knew what to expect from looking at videos before our trip but I still wasn’t prepared for what I saw when I stepped around that corner and witnessed the monument.

The first thing I noticed upon arrival at Delicate Arch was that I had never heard such a hushed silence among a group of so many people. Yes, that’s right — there were over 100 people at the site. The hike to the arch was indeed like a pilgrimage and the monument itself evoked quiet respect. Fortunately, unlike Mesa Arch, there was room for everybody to spread out, almost like in a stadium.

Soon I found a spot where I could sit comfortably with my tripod over my lap and wait for the magic light. I was in a safe position on the rock, but I noticed several younger folks creeping farther down the slick rock toward the great bowl below the arch. The deceiving slide down into the bowl has fooled people before, and required helicopter rescues, so I cringed a bit as they slid, butt first, closer and closer to the point of no return. Don’t get me wrong — the place is safe, as long as you don’t do anything stupid.

As I sat in my strategic position, enjoying the wonderful afternoon, talking with other photographers and watching young lovers wrapped in each other’s arms, transfixed by the arch, I began to worry that I wouldn’t be able to get a good photograph because of all the people standing under the arch for snapshots. A tour guide who was sitting next to me eased my concern by saying that everybody somehow knew when to clear away from the arch at shooting time, right when the sun hit the horizon. I was a little skeptical so I would have to wait and see.

As the sun kissed the horizon to my right, I looked through my viewfinder to see the arch in full glow with the La Sal Mountains in the background. My friend had been right, of course. There was not a soul anywhere near the blazing arch. It was such a spiritual moment of complete silence, which lasted only 10 minutes, that I had to remind myself to capture the fleeting beauty with my camera.

Before long, it was all over as the great arch lost its glow and returned to its natural red color of Entrada Sandstone. A young couple had arrived and plopped down next to me only a few minutes before sunset, almost missing the event. I said, “Hey, you guys almost missed it!” The woman replied, “Oh, we’re just here for the stars tonight.” I learned they were astrophotographers, and I met many more coming up the mountain as I descended.

About half-way down the trail, I couldn’t see the cairn markers anymore so I stopped and donned my headlamp. By the time I dropped off the slick rock and back onto the proper trail, it was pitch dark. Although I could see other hikers coming down, I tried to pretend I was all alone to ensure I could be comfortable navigating solo. It really wasn’t necessary because there are only three or four turns on the entire trail where a person has to pay attention.

On the way down, I met a woman who was panning her flashlight about the trail. I learned that she had lost her sweater on the way up. She was discouraged because it was her favorite sweater, an heirloom from years gone by. I told her that I suspected it would be hanging on a sign at the trailhead, just waiting for her. When we made it to the bottom, she squealed and ran toward the “take plenty of water” sign where her sweater awaited. She thanked me for giving her hope and I reminded her that there are a lot of nice people in the world even though it hasn’t seemed that way lately.

As I loaded my gear in the dark parking lot, I couldn’t resist taking a look at the glowing red arch on my camera’s LCD screen. It sure looked like a nice shot but I knew it didn’t matter, really. Even the most diligent photographer knows when the experience completely overwhelms the technical objective. Besides, how could I ever convey the beauty of Delicate Arch with a picture?

The next morning, Joyce and I were up before dawn, visiting Landscape Arch, the longest arch in the U.S. We had the arch all to ourselves, except for the nicest young man you could ever meet, a kid named Zack, who had slept in his car. I realized that the power of the arches, the great monuments of Arches National Park, was just as strong whether in a large group or with only a few friends. It was good, really good, either way.

Thanks for looking,


Email:  Natureframes@Rocketmail.Com

Gallery of Images/Print Information:  DannyBrownPhotography.Com




6 comments on “Pilgrimage to Delicate Arch (Arches National Park, Utah)”

  1. Aha, another place I have actually visited, but it looks even more wonderful through your eyes…and lens! Deepa.

  2. Totally awesome.

  3. We vicariously relived this hike and experience through your words, Danny. Great job! (And I was one of those clinging to the cliff wall!)

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