All the Pretty Arches

Roadside Attractions on the Road from Moab to Monticello

Wilson Arch

There was a big muddy puddle blocking the road to Looking Glass Arch, and I had to walk the last half-mile. Not long ago I wouldn't have walked. I would have gotten the truck stuck ankle deep mud trying to get through. Or, more likely, I just would have turned around and made a mental note to return later, maybe next summer, when the road was dry. But nowadays, I don't mind walking as much. For starters, you see a heck of a lot more when you walk, a proportionately larger amount than you see when you drive, even though when you drive you are going faster, so theoretically you 'see' more. Walking the last half-mile to Looking Glass Arch, I saw the land rumple into stone, saw slickrock rise from sand, smelled sage in the breeze, and felt the mud of the road beneath my feet.

There was mud in the road because it has been raining today - lots of showery rain, maybe 15-minute showers followed by summer-like sun. The seasons are changing. Luckily, I brought a jacket with me, because by the time I got to the arch it was beginning to blow rain again. There was no one else here. I left the road and walked up into the bowl of rock beneath the arch. It is not dissimilar from a mirror. Halfway up the storm is in full swing, and gusts of wind blow into the bowl beneath the arch and swirl in a great maelstrom. Rocks from the cliff above fall off and explode on the slickrock next to me. I barely make it up to the arch, just high enough so I can look in and see what is on the other side. Despite the storm, looking through the arch is like viewing a portal into another world.

Southeastern Utah has thousands of arches. There is, of course, Arches National Park, about 23 miles north of here in Moab, which has so many arches you can't hardly swing a dead cat without hitting one. Arches is even home to Delicate Arch, the most beautiful and extraordinary of them all, which graces about half of the state's license plates. But the national park is merely the highest concentration of arches. Along U.S. Highway 191 south of Moab, there are scores more; every few miles there is a sign saying arch on the left, or arch on the right.

Lopez Arch On the same day as the storm at Looking Glass Arch I went to Lopez Arch, which is another five miles south. By the time I got there it was sunny, and I could see for a hundred miles around, and could even see new September snow in the nearby La Sal ('The Salt') Mountains. There was a pullout for the arch, but no real trail. I ducked through a barbed-wire fence and found a faint hikers' trail leading downhill, which I would lose and find again. The trail led to a dry wash that had a few puddles in it and a few cottonwoods. But the arch was somewhere above, so I climbed above the stream into a slickrock basin. A channel of rainwater ran down from a cliff above. The sage smelled new and powerful in the aftermath of the rain. Finally, I found Lopez Arch, the tiniest one I'd ever seen, high up on the cliff wall, just barely big enough to stick my head through and see the Lisbon Valley on the other side.

Arches are usually formed when thin walls of freestanding sandstone erode on each side, and eventually a 'window' or hole in the rock appears. In Arches National Park, most of the arches are in the weathered remains of a 600-foot thick layer of Entrada Sandstone that was laid down by ancient seas between 145 million and 200 million years ago. During that time, sediment from beaches and shorelines deposited silt and sediment that built up as seas retreated and advanced, and eventually the silt was compressed into the rock we've got today. Later on, a layer of salt beneath the rock began to push upward, creating pressure and causing the sandstone to crack and fault into fissures. And as the sandstone rose, it was exposed to more precipitation, which speeded along the erosion process. As more sandstone became exposed, more weathering took place, and eventually the arches were formed. In much the same way, arches eventually collapse upon themselves, but as more rock is exposed more arches form. Geology is alive and kicking in southern Utah.

Of course, all this talk of 'millions of years' is a little hard to grasp. I mean, it's hard to think in terms of decades, much less centuries. A million is incomprehensible, especially when it means a rock is being chipped apart, grain by grain. So then, let me offer an Alternative Theory To The Formation Of Arches: once, while standing afront of Delicate Arch in Arches National Park on a fine May day, I overheard this conversation.

Father to Daughter: Melissa, do you know how the arches were formed?
Melissa (pause, then thoughtfully): Woodpeckers, daddy. Woodpeckers made them.

Hole in the Rock You know, I've been talking about all these holes in the rocks but still have not talked about the hole in the rock, better known as Hole N' The Rock. Hole N' The Rock is a true piece of Americana. Rocks are nice to look at, I suppose, but even better to live in? The Christensen family would seem to think so. About a century ago the family set up shop here (about 15 miles south of Moab) on the Moab-to-Monticello stage route where they offered water to travelers. Besides the water they also began blasting holes into an enormous sandstone cliff. During World War II brothers Albert and Leo opened the Hole N' The Rock Diner - America's Most Unique Dining Room, they said - and the place became famous. During the uranium boom of the 1950s, the diner became a regular stop for prospectors on the hunt for money. The diner was later expended into the Blue Room, a private club for drinkers. By the time the digging and blasting ended, the Christensens had 14 rooms in the mountain, each complete with Albert's sculpture, paintings and dead animal heads. A true time capsule, it is also one of the most famous of Utah's holey rocks.

There is one other arch of note along U.S. 191. It is Wilson Arch, and is close to Lopez Arch. From the parking lot below, you look up at the arch to see whole families standing right in it - it's a very easy hike to get up there. I scrambled up the hill and stood under the bowed rock. By now, all the thunderstorms had cleared out, and the sky was blue and pale from horizon to horizon. Standing above Joe Wilson Canyon (named for a local rancher) it was easy to daydream and wonder about how far I could see into the distance.

Thanks to: the Monticello Super 8. At 7,000, Monticello is higher and cooler than Moab, about 45 minutes north. It is also much slower-paced and lacks tourists. The Super 8, with an indoor pool, is at the north end of town.

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