Continuing an occasional series having to do with Edward Abbey and Utah's national parks
My wife and I enjoy visiting Arches National Park; we just don't care for the crowds. She’s an artist and I’m a writer, and there’s plenty to explore among its myriad fins, palisades, and grottoes without even seeing its signature arches, which are mobbed during most of the year. We usually go in midwinter, but this year we arrived a little late--in this second week of February it already feels busy, with dozens of vehicles passing by on the main park road.
We’ve arranged to meet our daughter for an impromptu family campout, but rather than head to the park’s sole campground at Devils Garden, which is closed anyway for repairs, we opt for an undeveloped site six miles from the park boundary on public BLM land. It’s far enough from Moab to be free of other campers, and in the three nights we stay here we see no one else. Just the way we like it.
Our camp has a sandstone cliff to blunt the wind, a firepit, a corral filled with tumbleweeds, and a nice view across the valley. This spot will serve as our base for exploring some less-visited parts of Arches, which we will access from old mining roads on its north side. Relics of a uranium boom which drew hopeful prospectors seventy years ago, the roads are now used mostly by ranchers and a small but increasing number of recreationists like us.
After setting up camp we drive back into the park in order to hike a short but fun trail which leads to an arch in what is known as the Klondike Bluffs section. It was here in the 1920s that an itinerant prospector from Hungary named Alexander Ringhoffer came across a hidden opening in a fin of sandstone, as well as other curious and remarkable sights. He called these to the attention of an agent of the Denver & Rio Grande Railroad, who set the publicity wheels in motion for what became, a few years later, Arches National Monument.*
This was an enjoyable hike, but our main ambition was to check out another canyon system in less accessible part of the park. A relatively short drainage, it features numerous short side canyons and alcoves formed in the lovely Entrada Sandstone. We arrive at the unsigned trailhead late in the morning after weaving our way through a maze of roads, also unsigned. (Bring map and GPS.) A cattle trail leads us down into the canyon and to the park boundary, which is marked by a fence. Beyond this lie miles of delightful hiking underneath canyon walls sculpted into wavy, sensuous forms, their beauty accented by the low-angle winter sunlight. Erosion has hollowed out a half-dozen caves in places, some high up, others at ground level. One of these features a hole in its ceiling, through which water would pour in during rainstorms. We view a couple of small arches, none as grand as those higher up in the main part of the park. Nonetheless they add an aspect of discovery to the hike.
This small canyon system was made part of Arches National Park in 1998, thanks to legislation supported by Utah’s normally anti-preservation Congressional delegation. The livestock grazing which had been ongoing in the canyon for more than a century was ended after a negotiated buyout of the grazing lease by the Grand Canyon Trust. The legacy of cattle use is still apparent in the weedy, exotic grasses which blanket the canyon floor from wall to wall. Recent cow tracks indicate that livestock trespass still occurs. Park rangers don’t patrol this out-of-the-way section very often, but given time, perhaps the native vegetation will return.
We were seeing a face of Arches reminiscent of the 1950s, when it was still a national monument and lacked paved roads. This was a remote outpost on the cusp of modernization, later to be memorialized in a book written by a sometimes seasonal ranger named Edward Abbey. His 1968 bestseller, Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness, put Arches on the map, despite his admonition that the place where he spent two summers in 1956 and 1957 no longer existed.
Tower Arch, Arches NP. National Park Service photo by George Beam.
During Abbey’s sojourn at Arches, its superintendent, Bates Wilson, approved a new, high-standard entrance road into the monument. The monument’s fate was thus sealed, and Abbey knew it. He even coined a term for what was in store for his favorite spot on Earth: industrial tourism. The best-known chapter of Desert Solitaire describes what happened not just at Arches, but in each of Utah’s national monuments at that time—new high-standard park roads, new comfort stations, new visitor centers, all designed to speed the traveler through the park and on to his or her next destination.
And they came, in numbers that would have astonished Bates Wilson and his contemporaries. Arches hit the million-visitor mark in 2010 and last year, in the midst of a pandemic, it drew more than 1.6 million visits. (This figure includes repeat visits, so the actual number of visitors was somewhat less). Ed Abbey bemoaned this influx back when it was a fraction of today’s tally, reflecting on the “baroque streams of automobiles pouring in and out, all through the spring and summer, in numbers that would have seemed fantastic when I worked there.” He famously exhorted his readers to get out of their machines and walk or crawl out into the desert until blood marked their trail. Only then, he believed, could a visitor begin to truly experience the place.
By now Abbey’s denigration of mass tourism has become a cliché, drawing remonstrations from academics and writers who label his viewpoint as elitist. I guess that makes me and my family elitist, too, since we normally shun the crowds. Elitism has a bad rap in America. It carries connotations of snobbery, a put-down of hardworking ordinary folks who can afford only one vacation a year and who want to take in all the sights they’ve heard about or seen on social media.
The newly bladed entrance road to Arches in the late 1950s. National Park Service photo, courtesy NPS Southeast Utah Group.
We saw some of those folks, or so we presumed, in the parking lot where we began the second hike of our visit. This was a long trek along the route of a buried natural gas pipeline that was unfortunately rammed straight through Arches in the mid-1950s. These hikers, by contrast, were enjoying the short, easily followed trails that led to several notable arches, and they seemed to be having a good time. One young couple was photographing a raven than posed patiently on a guardrail post, waiting for a snack or some crumbs. They were probably staying at a motel or B&B in Moab, and despite the limitations imposed by the pandemic they were taking in a little of our country’s scenic patrimony. I can hardly begrudge them this.
More problematic are the devotees of high-octane power sports who fan out into BLM lands within a thirty-mile radius of Moab, raising clouds of dust and making a racket we would just as soon avoid. This segment of the recreating public is somehow not considered elitist, although the machinery they employ, and the beefy pickup trucks and trailers they need to transport their equipment, probably cost more than the mortgage on my first home. We stay away from their haunts.
Arches’ fame increases each year, as does the dependence of Moab-area businesses on continuing this increase. For decades the Park Service has floated ideas to manage or limit the numbers of people entering the park, but opposition from business owners and tour operators has derailed the plans. As a result, so many cars enter the park that rangers are often forced to close the entrance gate for a few hours until enough people leave. It's managed chaos, not a viable long-term plan.
First established as a national monument in 1929, Arches was finally granted national park status in 1971, three years after Desert Solitaire appeared. Annual visitation at the time was a mere 200,000, but park status, along with completion of the paved road leading to Devils Garden, boosted its renown as a tourist Mecca. It’s still possible to find solitude here as long as one goes during the steadily shrinking off-season, and chooses trails or routes that attract fewer users. Our pipeline route was not easy to follow, and from a distance it makes a vivid scar on the landscape, but we had it to ourselves, and it took us to the brink of an attractive canyon which few visitors to the park ever see.
Bates Wilson, Arches' first superintendent and a visionary park advocate. National Park Service photo, courtesy NPS Southeast Utah Group.
Fortunately for Arches and its sister park, Canyonlands, the Park Service decades ago specified that overnight lodging and other major tourism development would remain outside the parks’ boundaries. This concentrated the hotels, restaurants, tour services, jeep rental companies, aerial gondolas, nighttime tour boats, and other accoutrements of modern tourism within Moab and Spanish Valley. This once-quiet town has morphed into a full-scale national park gateway and shows no sign of slowing down. The explosion of interest in jeeping, dirt biking, off-roading, mountain biking, river rafting, heli-hiking and other forms of high-intensity recreation means that the BLM and State of Utah lands surrounding town are being used at and beyond capacity. “Moabization” has become a term of fear and derision among those who wish that recreational and second-home development would stay far from their towns.
All this is old news for anyone who has been coming to southeastern Utah’s canyon lands for very long. One either joins the modern fun industry or makes peace with it however one can; there’s no stopping it, and without protective designations such as national parks, national monuments, and wilderness areas, it would take over the whole of the Colorado Plateau. Cactus Ed’s one-time “back of beyond” is now Adventureland, a bankable commodity that elevates real estate values as surely as a ski resort would. Call me elitist, but I still favor the quiet spots, the out-of-the-way canyons, the places where solitude outweighs sport.
After hiking the gas pipeline that last day in Arches, we drove down the main park road past the incoming tourists in their SUVS and RVs, turned off onto an unmarked gravel road, and parked the truck. Consulting an old aerial photo, we wandered a short way into the desert, seeking a spot which has become a place of pilgrimage for certain desert lovers. We managed to find the site, which was marked by odd detritus: a buried water tank, a length of rusted iron pipe, a concrete pier anchored in the ground. This is where the Park Service maintained a small trailer for its seasonal rangers during the old days of Arches National Monument. It was here that a young Ed Abbey, then an aspiring novelist, showed up on the last day of March, 1956. In the first chapter of Desert Solitaire he recounted how he drove the narrow, winding, dirt-and-sand path around junipers, over slickrock, and into and out of dry wash beds, reaching the trailer in a howling snowstorm long after dark. In the two seasons he spent there, the second with his wife and young child, he took notes and gained inspiration for what became, twelve years later, his most famous book.
The new entrance road into Arches was constructed along the steep ledges behind the monument headquarters. National Park Service photo.
Standing at the old trailer site, I took in the view Abbey described so well in the first chapters of Desert Solitaire. The hoodoo rocks were still there, the slickrock balds, the junipers, the distant views to the Book Cliffs and the La Sals. I tried to ignore the park road that lay close by, where vehicles of various sizes were heading to and from the park’s official trailheads and viewpoints. I got a sense, limited as it was, for what he saw and felt and heard during that first spring and summer. The land was still there, but the lives we live and the expectations we hold have all changed. Our shiny new devices have irretrievably altered our understanding of life. That’s how it goes.
I suspect that if Ed Abbey were alive and still writing, he would have us pick up our smartphones and tablets and heave them against a rock. It turns out that access to information, at the scale we see in today’s online world, poses some of the same challenges to experiencing wild nature as the internal combustion engine did in his day, and still does.
I can only be grateful that our national parks retain a little of the mystery and beauty that Ed and his spiritual forebears in the Colorado Plateau once knew. For that to continue, we must be willing to give up a little of our customary ease and convenience, just as the visitor to Arches in 1956 had to contend with bad roads, flash floods, and a lack of modern bathrooms. Our parks will continue to grow increasingly popular, and only through forbearance and careful choice will it remain possible to find a degree of solitude in them, as we enjoyed on our trip.
The rest is up to us, as we relentlessly drive on into a future none of us can know. Back at camp, it is now morning, and the sun is lighting up the far rim. The air is chill and clear, and a slight breeze stirs. An owl issues one last call from somewhere down the valley. We stuff our sleeping bags, roll up the foam pads, fold up the tent, put it all in the truck, and drive off to rejoin the traffic heading home.
Photos by author unless otherwise attributed. All rights reserved.
* For more on the early days of Arches, see chapter 11 of Wonders of Sand and Stone.