My Deadly Hike to the Delicate Arch
· 17 min. read
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Utah is known for a lot of things, but it's their national parks that make it world-renowned. The state is not only home to Arches National Park, but also Canyonlands National Park, Zion National Park, Fishlake National Park, Capitol Reef National Park and Monument Valley, to name a few. It's a rugged, diverse, beautiful and deadly state unlike any other in the country.
Although I spent plenty of time in Salt Lake City, the reason for my trip was to explore Arches National Park midway down the state. For those who have ever been, the park is a three-and-a-half-hour drive from Salt Lake City, and the highway will take you through blown out mountains, fields, small cities and old towns. If you have a full tank of gas leaving Salt Lake City, you should get to Arches without a problem. If you need gas, Provo, Spanish Fork, Price or Green River, among many other communities, all have gas stations. If you need to fill up before going back to Salt Lake, Moab is just a little south from the park and is the perfect place to rest and refuel.
Arches and Canyonlands National Parks cost $30 per vehicle or $25 per motorcycle to enter. These passes are good for seven days. If you want to visit other parks around southern Utah, it would be best to get the Southeast Utah Group (SEUG) Annual Pass for $55. This covers Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and Hovenweep and Natural Bridges National Monuments. If you want to visit national parks in other states, or outside of the SEUG, it would be best to get the America the Beautiful National Park Pass which is $80 a year, or $20 a year if you're a senior. Seniors can also get the America the Beautiful National Park lifetime pass for $80.
Pricing for the parks can be confusing, especially if some of the places you want to explore are on Navajo reservations. Thankfully, the park staff can help you find the best pass for your stay. For me, it was the 7-day $30 per vehicle pass, even though I only needed it for 2 days.
If you arrive at the park (at least Arches National Park) before it opens or after it closes you can still get inside. You could in theory explore the park without paying, but I don't recommend it. 80% of the money goes to maintaining the park and improving it, and some parts of the park could really use the help. If you happen to arrive after it closes (like I did) you can buy a pass the next day or pay for a pass over the phone when they reopen.
In my time in Utah I spent two days in Arches National Park, although one of those days involved driving there and back. I took in a lot of the park the second day, but I only took in one of the hikes the first day: the hike to the Delicate Arch.
There are three ways to see the Delicate Arch, but only one of them is worth doing. The first is a short, 100 yard (91 meters) walk to the Lower Delicate Arch Viewpoint where you can see the arch. It's a pretty obstructed view and isn't worth it. The next is to hike to the Upper Viewpoint, which is a 1 mile or 1.6 km roundtrip. It's a better view, but it isn't fantastic either.
The best way to see the Delicate Arch is to hike the 3 miles or 4.8 km roundtrip hike up to the arch to see it in person. However, this is the most challenging hike in the park. It may not seem like a long hike, but it's gruelling . Even the official website says that park rangers often have to rescue people who underestimated the trail's difficulty.
Not only is the hike long, but a lot of it is on sheer rock. This means that signage is scarce and there isn't a visible path to follow. Although park regulations tell people to stay on the trail, once you get about halfway into this hike, there is no trail. By that point, you are in a rocky, thorny desert by yourself.
I am not an expert hiker, nor did I know how long this hike was, nor did I know how difficult this hike was, nor did I heed the warnings before entering the hike. I didn't bring water or food and I left with only a little light left in the sky. I believed I could make it.
And I'm lucky I did.
The hike starts off going past the Wolfe Ranch, and then a little while past ancient petroglyphs. After this, the path winds up a hill and fades into the rock, sand and shrubs. If there are other people on this part of the path it's easy to navigate.
As you get further in, however, you must climb an escarpment. About halfway up you will encounter a sign with an arrow on it, that on windy days blows either straight or to the left. You should go left at this point, although it's hard to tell.
I met a few more hikers on the path, coming down from the arch. One of them asked how much further down it was (which is never a good sign) and then asked if I had a flashlight. I told him I had my phone's flashlight. He said that was good because I was going to need it.
A few minutes later I passed an older gentleman. We both chuckled about the lack of signage. He then said there were three people behind him and that was it. About ten minutes later I met them. After that, I was alone.
It was sometime around that point that I got lost. The sun had set and there was a rumble of thunder on the horizon. I knew I was getting close to the arch, but I couldn't see it. Without a path to follow, I wandered into the desert, not knowing if I was going the right way or not.
I had expected there to be no service in the park, but even if there had, I only had limited roaming data. Thankfully, this was the one thing I had prepared for. Before leaving Salt Lake City, I downloaded an offline Google Maps version of the entire state of Utah, including the park. Although my phone was on Airplane Mode to conserve data, it still tracked my location. I was able to take out my phone and check where I was? and somehow, I had gone very far past the arch, heading east into the desert.
I circled back and hiked towards the arch again, but I couldn't see it. I used my phone as a flashlight and climbed onto a rock formation to look around. Technically, this is against the rules, as climbing is forbidden. But I had no idea where I was and where to go? not that it helped any. Every direction I looked at was solid blackness. I climbed down and kept hiking. I knew I was close, but I just couldn't see it. I began following a stone trail, but it slowly got narrower and narrower, and then steeped and steeper. Eventually, I was using my hand as support against the stone wall. This wasn't a trail at all.
I doubled back and went around the rock formation. I was in a clearing and found what appeared to be an actual trail. After a few minutes of hiking, I came across a sign. It said "Trail" and an arrow the way I came.
How!? I couldn't understand. There was no trail!?
I then wandered back into the darkness until the next rock formation. My phone said that was the Twisted Donut Arch. I couldn't see anything in the dark, even with my flashlight. It just looked like stone.
A little while later my map said I had arrived at the Delicate Arch, but much like before, all I could see was blackness. I sat on the rock bench, turned off my flashlight and sat in the dark. Slowly my eyes adjusted, and I saw the archway against the stars. It was a dark silhouette against a dark sky. I tried taking long exposure shots of the arch to use what light I had. I tried 20-second shots with low ISO and high ISO, I tried it with a high f-stop and a low f-stop. All my pictures just came out black.
I wondered if I should try to get closer to the arch, so I shined my phone towards the trail down to it. The stone trail twisted, turned and faded away. Although I had gone this far, it wasn't worth the risk.
I decided then to hike back, using my phone as a flashlight and a map. I couldn't see the trail at all, and I frequently walked too far or ventured astray. I missed the path to the escarpment and had to backtrack to it. Then I wandered down, going too far and backtracked again. Once I stood on the edge of a gaping canyon, with nothing but a black void in front of me. I would later figure out this was where people would see the arch from the Lower and Upper Viewports, and where two people fell off and died last winter.
I backtracked again.
I found my way back to the escarpment and began hiking down the sheer rock. As I shuffled down, I saw a small light far ahead on the horizon. I wondered if it was a star or a vehicle, but it weaved and bobbed like a person. It was too far to call out to, but I knew it was something or somebody. I flashed my light at it and waited to see if it would flash back. It just glowed a stable, moving light.
Eventually the light disappeared behind trees or an obstacle and I was alone in the dark again. The night had gotten cold and I could see my breath in the light from the flashlight.
I had found the trail but knew I had a long way left to hike. I was sore, tired and cold, but I had to keep going. As I went, I kept thinking I heard a noise around me, like a crackle or a crunch. I decided to call out and see if anybody was there.
In response I heard the cry of coyotes.
Suddenly I wasn't as tired as before. I had been in the park for hours at this point and had a long way left to go.
For what seemed like an eternity I walked through the layers of darkness, crunching on rocks, with my ears on high alert for any sounds behind or beside me. I eventually found the winding path near the petroglyphs, and then the old Wolfe Ranch.
Ten minutes later I arrived at the parking lot. I expected to see a lamp marking the entrance to the parking lot or some explanation for the light I saw. Instead, it was nothing. I found my car sitting alone and got inside. Two and a half hours after starting the hike, I sat back in my car, locked the doors and turned on all the lights. I shinned the brights out into the park, expecting to see a coyote. I saw nothing. Instead, I just backed up and drove away.
I arrive in Moab about a half-hour later. I was exhausted, thirsty, hungry and dirty. I went through a drive-thru at McDonald's and ordered about $30 worth of food. I wolfed it down in my car until I felt sick, and then found the nearest hotel and went for a long hot shower.
The next morning, I would return to Arches National Park and visit the Lower and Upper Viewpoints of the arch. It wasn't as spectacular as the night before, but it was a lot easier.
That day I had foolishly underestimated the ruggedness of the park. The next day I would return more prepared to hike the park and tackle longer trails. But, as long as they were, nothing was as exhaustingly frightful as the hike to the Delicate Arch.
If you're planning to do this hike, I recommend the following:
- Bring bottled water
- Bring trail mix or snacks
- Download the park onto your phone with Google Maps
- Bring a flashlight
- Bring a friend
- Don't go during sunset
The official website says park rangers often have to rescue people from that hike. I am lucky I wasn't one of those people.
Have you ever hiked in Arches National Park? Have you ever gone to the Delicate Arch? Tell me about your experience in the comments below!
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Categories: Hiking, USA, Utah