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Hiking to Delicate Arch, Arches National Park

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There is no more important landmark in Utah, than the one that graces the state’s welcome signs, license plates, and tourism advertisements.  Even so, I hadn’t made the hike up to the base of Delicate Arch during my previous two visits to Arches National Park.  The first time, I didn’t have enough time, and instead, viewed the arch from an alternate viewpoint (which still required a hike).  The second time, I was visiting during a rainstorm — hardly an appropriate time to make the trek up to a high, exposed point.

This time I had my priorities straight.  I made Delicate Arch my first goal, and I planned to make the hike even though I was still feeling the lingering effects of the food poisoning, back on Day 1.  So let’s start back at the trailhead:

The hike begins at an often-crowded parking area (I was lucky–the clouds must have discouraged some hikers this day).  Just as you begin the hike, you pass the Wolfe Ranch cabin…

John Wesley Wolfe and his son settled along Salt Wash in the late 1800’s.  His daughter moved to the ranch in 1906, along with her husband and children, and insisted that a more modern cabin be built–one with a wooden floor.  This is the cabin that still exists today.  The Wolfes lived here until 1910, when they returned to their home state of Ohio.

A bridge takes you across Salt Wash…

… and you soon pass a varnished rock, with some very well preserved petroglyphs, left by the Ute Indians sometime between 1650 and 1850.

Just beyond the rock art, the trail makes a steep climb, then follows the landscape up and down a couple of times…

… until you reach a very large slanted slab of sandstone.  At this point, I knew that the rest of the hike was going to be a slow-and-steady, one-foot-in-front-of-the-other effort.  The hill isn’t terribly steep, but it does seem to go on forever, and there are no easy spots, or (on a sunny day) breaks from the Utah sunshine.

As you gain elevation, don’t forget to turn around and see the view, looking back through Salt Valley.

Once you’re near the top of the slant, the trail turns left, and takes you through a strange area that’s almost flat, and has pockets of sand and plant life scattered amongst the sandstone features.

There’s plenty of interesting formations to hold your interest as you pass through this part.  But it’s somewhat of a bewildering place.  I felt like I didn’t know exactly where I was, since the rocks surrounded me, and I could no longer see the Salt Valley or any other landmarks.

Just before arriving at the destination, the trail turns west again, and crosses over a shelf on the north side of the hill (the far side from Delicate Arch).  This part is great for several reasons: one…

…you get a fantastic view of the valley directly below your feet on the left-hand side, and two, your view of Delicate Arch is completely blocked until you come upon the “Wow” spot…

… and Delicate Arch is suddenly in view.

Sure, you’ve seen this picture a thousand times before, but nothing can compare to seeing the famous arch in person.  It’s much bigger than I expected, and its location at the edge of the cliff seems impossible.

The area between the “Wow” point and the arch itself dips down into a large bowl.  You have to walk around on the slanted edges of the “bowl” to reach the arch itself.  The slant gets gradually steeper, the further down you go, so don’t allow yourself to be lured into a false sense of balance.

There are plenty of places (other than the postcard viewpoint) to view Delicate Arch.  You can walk around about 180 degrees, to the far side of the arch…

… and even step back into the sandstone hills behind it.  And yes, you can walk directly underneath it too, for the perfect picture (assuming you have someone with you to take the photo — I did not).

There’s plenty of room up here, on the slanted edge of the bowl, so take off your backpack and relax for a while, and enjoy the view.  Quite remarkably, cell phones work here, so you can send a picture to your friends, and make them jealous.

The hike to Delicate Arch is 1.5 miles, one way.  Keep in mind, it’s almost all uphill (a gain of 480 vertical feet) on the way up, and almost all downhill (only slightly easier) on the way back.  Bring water with you any time of the year, but in summer, bring an extra bottle.  The hike will be brutal in hot, sunny weather.

There are also a couple of ways to get down to the other side of the bowl.  The tough way is to climb down from the foot of Delicate Arch (I watched one person come up this way–it’s steep).  You can also split off from the main trail (just before the shelf), but I don’t know exactly where to find this side trail.  I didn’t think I’d get a good picture from this angle (the opening in the arch wouldn’t be visible from this area), so I didn’t try very hard to find the side trail.

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