741 Miles: Arches National Park

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Smooth rock canyons of Park Avenue near the park entrance

Utah – that famed state of red rocks jutting out of great expanses of sand being grilled under a scorching sun that hangs above a cloudless blue sky. This is the land Archaic peoples have called home for millennia, before Puebloan, Fremont and Ute people took over as they scourged for food. Here, water, extreme heat (and at times extreme cold), and salt underground have conspired to create hundreds of crimson-hued rocks with amazing formations.

That’s what runs through my mind as we leave Richfield and cruise through Interstate 70 to the Arches National Park. We’re on a twelve-day road trip around much of the western U.S. Just two days before, we were in Seattle, where we got off the ship, and after a few hours of rendezvous with friends there, we hightailed it to L.A., slept at a motel, and waited for the bus to pick us up the next morning. Soon, we hit the road, lunched at Barstow, picked up a few more passengers in Las Vegas, and went on. There’s 60 of us, including the 15 in our group (Lola Vangie, who’s based in L.A. skipped this trip), and most are exchange students using their free time to travel with their parents.

We spent the first day on the road to Utah, where we stop at Cedar City for the night. After a quick breakfast during a stop at a gasoline station somewhere near Richfield, we head for the park near Moab. As the road stretches to the desert, the plains soon give way to steep hills. Soon the sun ascends from behind a mountain, shining full strength on a majestic landscape of red rocks and green shrubs.

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The distinctive rock formation of the Balanced Rock near the park’s center

A couple of taps on a live microphone snaps me back from my daydream. “Hello, hello,” Richard says. “Folks, we are here now at the Arches National Park.” He proceeds to give a short background about the park, gets down the bus to pay our fee at the entrance station, gets in again, and in a few minutes, we’re inside. The park is spread out in an area where a sea flowed around 300 million years ago. The sea evaporated, leaving a salt bed across the Colorado Plateau. As time passed, the salt bed was gradually covered by residue left by floods, winds and oceans, and the resulting debris hardened and eventually became rock. The weight of the rock exerted too much pressure on the salt below it, so the salt layer adjusting itself, in the process pushing the rock layers up, creating domes, while other sections plunged, creating cavities.

Because of the presence of faults in the area, cracks form in the sandstone layer. Erosion then enlarged the surface cracks, isolating narrow sandstone walls, or fins. Ice formed in those cracks during winter and melted during summer. This process repeated itself until bits of the sandstone chipped away, eventually cutting through some of the fins. The resulting holes became large enough that arch-like formations were created.

Our first stop is at the La Sal Mountains Viewpoint. Located at the south of the park, the area provides a panoramic view of rock formations and for a few minutes we admire the view. We’re soon whisked off near the center of the park, where the Balanced Rock stands. This 128-feet natural structure, one of the park’s more famous attractions, has a big rock on top that resembles, as Lola Auring puts it, a giant sweet potato. “It’s not going to be there for long, however,” Richard says. “In a few decades, the constant erosion will weaken the support of the rock on top, causing it to fall down.” In fact, there was a smaller similar structure beside the Balanced Rock until it fell in 1975.

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People exploring the southern part of the Double Window arches

Heading east, we reach the park’s Window section, where the Double Window Arches are located. Joanne, Paolo, Ate Sean, Tito Boy, Chio and I climb the South Window, where we gaze into the horizon, feel the wind blow, and relish the thought of being at the top. For an hour, we’re free of concerns, surrounded by vast desert punctuated by red rocks, all under the southwestern sun. We then double back near the visitor center for our last stop, the Park Avenue, named such because the smooth, tall rock formations resemble skyscrapers. An hour later, we leave the park and head east.

It’s two hours past noon by the time we reach Fruta in Colorado. The landscapes of Utah are still visible near the horizon, but it’s clear we’re leaving the desert now. It’s a little less hot and the plants look different here. We’re headed to Denver for the evening, before going to South Dakota the next day.

We have our lunch. It’s going to be another long afternoon.

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