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Exploring Beautiful Arches National Park (PHOTOS)

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Ever since I first saw pictures of the mystifying red rocks of Utah, I wanted to visit Arches National Park.

After looking at the map, however, the place seemed so remote that I wasn't sure I'd ever get there.

Recently, I visited friends in Grand Junction, Colorado, a small town on the west-central edge of the state right next door to Utah. It was so named because its location is the confluence of the Colorado (a.k.a. Grand River) and Gunnison Rivers. It also turns out to be the gateway to several national parks -- including the Arches!

Although my hosts at "The Junction" are avid outdoor enthusiasts, I didn't expect to go on a mile-and-a-half hike in 100+ degree heat. But that's exactly what we did in order to see the Delicate Arch, a signature landmark that is pictured on the Utah license plate.

Fortunately, my friends knew how to handle such extreme conditions, and I had an engaging experience trekking in those hot and beautiful desert lands.

To protect ourselves from the searing heat, we did a series of things. We left home at 6 a.m. for a two-hour car ride so we would be in the cooler morning temperatures. As we prepared for our hike, we put cool-offs around our neck, hats on our head, sunglasses on our eyes and sunscreen on our arms, legs and ears. We drank lots of water, used bandanas to wipe off the sweat and sucked on hard candies to keep our mouths moist.

Heat in the arid West is intense and penetrating but shade from a bush, tree or boulder can be at least 10 degrees cooler and provide some refreshing relief and a welcome rest. Although it looked pretty silly and seemed unconventional, our umbrellas shielded us from the hot sun while we walked. Many of our fellow trekkers commented to us about their wish to have brought such cover.

Finally, a walking stick not only made me look and feel like a professional hiker, it provided me with an extra "leg" to climb the long stretch of slick rock, navigate the trail's various rugged "stairways" and feel a little more secure on the high five-foot wide ledges right around the corner of the arch.

My walk in Arches National Park helped me discover why hikers like to hike. For them, it's a goal-oriented adventure that is utterly irresistible both in reaching the end of the trail and in enjoying the eerie journey amid millions of years of geology, erosion and natural "art." Hiking in parks like Arches is not just ground for them to cover and a pin point on a map, it is a real live experience of wonderment.

Hiking also allows you to feel the Earth under your feet and sense the quiet of the desert's surroundings. Maybe you'll see a lizard scurrying across your path. Maybe you'll realize that the plants and animals that live there yearn for life, while those dead bushes and trees are still intent on leaving their twisted legacy for posterity. Maybe you'll be like those people who find hiking in Nature puts them in touch with God and Creation.

I got a taste of all these things during my hike to Delicate Arch, which took a good hour to reach although most people (without straggling youngsters) could probably do it in 30 to 45 minutes. Actually, my look at the first third of the trail freaked me out when I saw tiny silhouettes of humanity bobbing about on the yellow-orange slick rock.

Walking on it, however, wasn't as bad as it looked, and it gave me the confidence to know that I could make it to the end of the trail. Nevertheless, each high point we climbed and each turn we rounded, fooled me into believing we were within steps of our destination. The arch is only visible at the end of the trail.

At times I wanted to quit, but I trudged on to avoid being rude to my hosts or to look like a wimp. Besides, there was nowhere to go but way up to the arch or way back to the parking lot. We all pressed onward mostly in silent concentration. I tried hard to hold back any annoying complaints until I couldn't do it any longer -- 10 minutes before the end. That's when I decided that Delicate Arch was a hoax. I vowed to kill my host by flinging him over the side of the mountain.

I huffed and puffed with each step as I made the gradual climb upward 480 feet to the arch whose altitude is just 400 feet shy of a mile above sea level. It was a quite struggle to climb, I admit, especially in the oppressive heat and sun.

Then came the reward of finally seeing the amazing 65-foot tall Entrada sandstone arch as it majestically yet humbly stood there overlooking a huge valley with the La Sal (meaning "salt") mountains in the background.

Hiking to the Delicate Arch was well worth the climb, even for an inexperienced and out-of-shape hiker like me. After all, such grand achievements are not meant to be easy! I felt I was in a dream just standing in the presence of the arch.

I satisfied myself by sitting and staring at it from a distance while most other hikers continued toward it in order to touch it and be photographed next to it. The ledges were a little too steep for me to chance this last bit of adventure.

Hiking back to the trailhead was much easier because it was downward, although it was a bit hard on my toes. (I can only imagine what it was like for those hikers who wore flip flops!) My breathing was less winded compared to the climb upward.

Cairns (pile of rocks) pointed the way on the most efficient paths and some provided human-made, human-scale "artwork" that complemented the giant, globular boulders and rock formations that surrounded us.

I have to admit that despite my reservations about the hike to Delicate Arch, making it has inspired me to return to Arches National Park on another day to take on the challenging Fiery Furnace hike. It is three hours long and requires greater physical stamina and determination to make it. (A slim, fit body would help greatly, too.) Because of the fragility of the area, only a limited number of hikers are admitted twice a day for a ranger-led experience, which is previewed in an NPS video.

Actually, the park has over 2,000 natural stone arches (an arch must be three feet across to qualify), in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins and giant balanced rocks, according to the National Park Service. These structures formed because they lie atop an underground salt bed, which was deposited 300 million years ago when a sea covered the area and eventually evaporated. Debris from floods, winds and ocean currents was compressed into rock, some of it a mile thick.

Because salt under pressure from this hard rock is unstable, the salt bed shifted and buckled, liquefied and repositioned itself. Faults in the Earth also made the surface more unstable. Ice, wind and water erosion on the salmon-colored Entrada Sandstone and buff-colored Navajo Sandstone contributed to the development of the arches and most of the rock formations in the park that are dubbed with such fabulous names as Mule Ears, Courthouse Towers, Three Gossips, Sheep Rock, Tower of Babel, Park Avenue and, of course, Balanced Rock. In the background far away is the Parade of Elephants, which can be seen at the Delicate Arch's trailhead.

Also there is Wolfe Ranch, the site of John Wesley Wolfe's 1898 homestead. The disabled Civil War veteran, and his son, Fred, built a 100-acre homestead (and a dam) on the Salt Wash. Apparently, they had enough water and grassland to raise cattle. Wolfe's motivation was the belief that the drier climate would relieve the nagging pain of his leg injury. A weathered log cabin, root cellar and corral are all that remain of the primitive ranch Wolfe operated for 10 years. The remoteness of his home and the starkness of the surroundings make you wonder how the family was able to stay put before it moved back to Ohio.

The Wolfes weren't the only ones to inhabit this area. Hunter-gatherers came here 10,000 years ago and used the microcrystalline quartz they found for their stone tools. Two thousand years ago the Pueblo and Fremont peoples cultivated maize, beans and squash, and lived in stone "condo" villages like those preserved at Mesa Verde National Park. Evidence of their habitation is found in rock inscriptions, pottery shards and other artifacts.

Native Americans apparently never lived in the Arches on a year-round basis, though they certainly roamed the area searching for wild game, useful plants and rocks for tool-making. The petroglyph panel near Wolfe Ranch is believed to have some images of the indigenous Ute people on horseback, which probably date back to 1776. (The Utes adopted horses only after the Spanish introduced them.) The Old Spanish Trail, a trade route linking Santa Fe and Los Angeles, ran along the same highway past the Visitor Center that is today used by the park's one million visitors.

In June 1855 the Mormons attempted to establish a mission in what is now the town of Moab (population 5,000), but conflicts with the Utes caused them to abandon that effort. In the 1880s and 1890s, ranchers, prospectors and farmers permanently settled the town.

As word spread about the area, Alexander Ringhoffer, a prospector, began the process of gaining support to create a national park. He wrote The Rio Grande Western Railroad in 1923 to persuade railroad executives interested in attracting more rail passengers to lobby Congress in support of his project. On April 12, 1929, President Herbert Hoover signed the legislation creating Arches National Monument. On November 12, 1971, Congress changed the status of Arches to a National Park.

The Moab area is a mecca for biking, climbing, hiking and whitewater rafting devotees with campsites available along the Colorado and Green Rivers. A variety of lodging options and other information on activities and events is available through the Moab Information Site.

The Arches Park has attracted artists and authors, too. Loren "Bish" Taylor, who became editor of the Moab newspaper in 1911 at age 18, frequently featured the beauty of the red rock country. Edward Abbey, a seasonal park ranger in the late 1950s, wrote a memoir of his experiences in his 1968 classic, Desert Solitaire.

For more information, see the Arches National Park website.

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