Channeling Edward Abbey in Arches Nationwide Park

62 Parks Traveler started with one simple goal: to visit every US National Park in one year. The enthusiastic backpacker and nerdin Emily Pennington saved, built a tiny van in which she can travel and live, and set off. The parks as we know them are changing quickly and she wanted to see them before it is too late.

Pennington is on the road again and is committed to following CDC guidelines during the COVID-19 pandemic to ensure safety for yourself and others. She visits new parks as they open up and adhere to the best security practices.

Desert Solitaire is a book that should come into the hands of anyone wishing to visit Arches National Park. The 1968 volume reports Edward Abbey's time as a park ranger when the area was a national monument, as well as freeways, paved roads, and upgraded campsites began to threaten this once-abandoned Utah rock wonderland. (Although the book has recently come under fire because of its callous male perspective, it provides detailed insight into a wilderness area in the river.)

Like every good, overcrowded tourist, I read it from front to back before I went to Arches, but nothing on its 336 pages could have prepared me for what I found when I ventured into the park.

I arrived before 9 a.m. and was shocked to find that the visitor center parking lot was already full of cars. Damn it, I thought to myself, I better move. I got into my van and drove to the end of the main road to hike one of the longest trails in the park – the eight-mile Devils Garden Primitive Loop.

When I got there, I was dismayed to find that this parking lot was already overcrowded with vehicles. Families of five crawled around on nearby boulders, and the constant buzzing of RV generators sent my nerves to war.

Call me Edward Crabby.

Next one

The author on the parking sign
(Emily Pennington)

Park Avenue Trail
(Emily Pennington)

Delicate arch viewpoint
(Emily Pennington)

I raised my chin and threw my shoulders back to feign confidence. I was determined not to let the crowd overwhelm me. The path led across a series of seven massive stone arches, each of the color of fired clay. The best known among them is Landscape Arch, the longest arch in North America. I stood under the sandstone giant and was curious to see how such a thin rock crust could last for centuries in the form of a rainbow. Even though the visitors swarmed around me, the arches felt like little miracles in the midst of so much chaos.

When I stepped onto the primitive trail section of the loop, I hoped that climbing and the mild exposure would rather ward off casual hikers, but this luck never came. Instead, I watched a shy couple anxiously walk down a class 2 sandstone slab with their children. It made me flinch.

A separation from my planned itinerary seemed inevitable to soak up the soul of the park. I jumped back into my minivan and headed south, driving along a two-mile path I had never reached: Park Avenue.

The sun was low in the sky, bathing the sandstone pillars that surrounded the path in amber light. The air was calm, fresh and calm. "Broooowk!" A raven croaked to my left as it flew across the sky and landed on one of the massive courthouse towers. I followed the path half a mile downhill and watched the sun sink like a balloon toward the horizon.

To avoid the usual crowd on the Delicate Arch Trail, I drove through the park and found a place for my car near a short side walk to a lesser known vantage point of the orange horseshoe that defies gravity. As the sun went down, diffuse clouds filtered the honey desert light until the world around me felt like a dream. I put my tired body on a small rock near half a dozen other people who saw the show.

Through the long lens of my camera, I could see hundreds of visitors high up on the plateau fighting for their position and climbing around under the famous arch. I took a few photos, took a deep breath and smiled, thankful that I wasn't one of them.

“Industrial tourism is a threat to the national parks. However, the main victims of the system are motorized tourists. They are robbed and rob themselves. Unless they are ready to crawl out of their cars, they will not discover the treasures of the national parks and will never escape the stress and turmoil of the urban-suburban complexes that they had hoped to leave behind for a while. Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire

62 Parks Traveler Arches Info

Size: 76,679 acres

Place: Eastern Utah

Created in: 1929 (national monument), 1971 (national park)

Best for: Hiking, autocamping, geology, climbing, cycling

When to go: Spring (35 to 82 degrees) and autumn (30 to 88 degrees) offer the best temperatures for exploring the park. Winter (22 to 52 degrees) is also a good time to visit while the higher mountains are still snowed in. Avoid a visit in the summer (60 to 110 degrees).

Where to sleep: The Adventure Inn, a family-run gem in nearby Moab, is just a seven-minute drive from the park's entry point. Rooms are affordable and free hot breakfast and high-speed internet are included.

Where should we eat: Antica Forma has perhaps the best pizza in all of Utah. The chefs get up early and make 200 pounds of homemade mozzarella cheese each morning to throw on their wooden cakes.

Mini adventure: Check out Delicate Arch. While most visitors opt for the three-mile walk to the base of the arch, you can instead hike to the nearby lookout and avoid some of the hordes of tourists. The short walk to the Lower Delicate Arch Viewpoint is flat and accessible, while the less obstructed top view involves a steep half mile climb.

Mega adventure: Hike through the Devils Garden Primitive Loop. Meander through a series of seven remarkable arches and climb through narrow sandstone canyons on a 13 km path in the heart of the park. Go early to defeat the crowd.

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Main photo: Emily Pennington

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