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Trips : Utah : Arches National Park : Delicate Arch

Delicate Arch could very well be called the "signature arch" of the park... even of the state. Many state license plates feature the outline of this famous formation.

The hike to Delicate Arch is about 1.5 miles one-way. The most popular time to take this hike is late afternoon so that you can experience sunset at the arch. The trail is marked very well, so you won't need to worry about getting lost on the way back after sunset. You should, however, bring a flashlight and an extra layer of clothes. It can cool down quickly after sunset in the desert. In the summer time be sure to take along plenty of water as well.

"Starting the Delicate Arch Hike... gravel trail"
Arches National Park, Utah
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Starting The Hike
The hike to the Delicate Arch starts out easy enough. The first portion of the trail is a gravel path, with only a few ups and downs to contend with. As you start out on this trail, you should definitely take the brief side trip to see the ancient petroglyphs of Sheep Rock. It only takes a few minutes, and it's well worth it.

The trail will curve around and up and over a few small hills, and will eventually cross the ridge that you see on the horizon. It's not a difficult hike, but it is a bit more difficult than a simple walk.

"Walking on Slick Rock"
Arches National Park, Utah
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Eventually the gravel trail is replaced by a surface called slick rock. There is a reason for that. The surface of the sandstone laid down millions of years before has been worn smooth by wind, rain, and about a zillion footsteps from other hikers. The wind abrades the surface with airborne sand, kind of like a huge sandblaster. The sand is essentially like very small bb's, and you know what happens when somebody tries to walk on a floor that has had marbles strewn about. That's what can happen with slick rock. Because the rock is so smooth and the sand particles so round, it can really be treacherous.

If you are keeping score, the two people at the edge of the horizon are my folks (hey, you try keeping up with someone from Colorado) and the person in the middle is my wife. I figured out a way to slow my Dad down later on; I bought him a tripod for Christmas. Why use a tripod? Look at the photo techniques page for some reasons you should consider getting and using a tripod.

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"Scenery along the Delicate Arch trail"
Arches National Park, Utah
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Slick Rock Trail
The slick rock can be easy or difficult, depending on the conditions. However, looking to the left it is easy to see why the trail was laid out the way it was. There was a rough ridge that parallels the trail for a while; eventually you will work your way around it. But it is certainly easier to walk on the relatively flat slick rock rather than hike up and over the ridge.

One of the fun parts of photography is that you really get used to looking around. Too often we are focused on the destination and not the trip.

Hey, that's not a bad philosophy to get through life with, either!

"Piles of stones called Cairns mark the trail"
Arches National Park, Utah
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When the trail is gravel, it is easy to keep track of where you are going. The trail on the slick rock is marked with stone cairns, which is a fancy word for "pile". As long as you can spot the next pile of rocks, you are still going in the right direction.

That's why it is important to bring a flashlight if you plan on being out after dark. The piles seem to be strategically placed so that when you stand by a cairn the next is visible within the range of your light.

"Layers of Sandstone"
Arches National Park, Utah
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Are we there yet?
After a short hike up the slick rock slopes the trail levels out for a while. The next part of the hike is along the top of a ridge. Here you can see the clear layers of sandstone left behind. If you look close, you might be able to spot a cairn or two. This really isn't a bad hike, at least in seasonable weather. During the winter months there are a few spots that get tricky because of ice.

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"Formations formed by wind and rain and time"
Arches National Park, Utah
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The formations along the hike have been sculpted by wind, rain, snow, sun, and -- most important of all -- time. It is really amazing what Nature can do given a chance.

Here you can see a picture of some of the stone formations along the hike, and due to the strategically placed sun, my shadow in the lower right corner. And yes, if you are wondering, I meant to do that. This time.

The last few hundred yards of the trail are on a north facing cliff. The trail had been cut with dynamite decades ago. They apparently decided that the trail only needed to be three to five feet wide, so they stopped there. As a result this part of the trail can be tricky in the colder months. Why? Because snow collects on the north side of stone formations. In this case, on the trail. Where people walk. When people walk on snow, it gets packed. When snow gets packed, it tends to eventually turn to ice. So, what they did by designing the trail this way was to create a pretty scary end to what is otherwise an easy hike.

"Delicate Arch"
Arches National Park, Utah
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At The Arch
But in the end, it is all worth it. At the end of the trail you turn the corner and there it is. Scenery, jumping out and slapping you in the face. Saying, "Hey, wasn't that last bit of the hike worthwhile?"

And truly, it was. This picture is more of the "classic" Delicate Arch shot. In fact, this is the emblem that you will find on many Utah state license plates. Those are the La Sal mountains in the distance. One of my favorite books about Utah contains many pictures by David Muench, and he had managed to take a picture with the full moon through the arch. We were not there at the right time for that. I was later told that the full moon is only visible through the Delicate Arch during the Winter Solstice.

In a guide book I had seen a picture of the Delicate Arch from the other side. From this picture, you can't see that there is a steep drop just behind the arch, so there is limited room to set up a tripod. Much less your own feet. So on one trip I decided to retrace my steps and see if I could find a different vantage point to wait for sunset.

I went back down the trail and worked my way across the stone looking for a way to see the arch from the other side. Eventually I was successful. I found the perfect spot! There was a nice flat area to set up the tripod, a bit of shelter from the wind, and the fact that there was a sheer drop on two sides all the way down to the valley below didn't bother me a bit! What did bother me was the fact that my water bottle, my wife, and -- most importantly -- all of my camera equipment was still back on the other side of the arch.

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So I retraced my steps and gathered my equipment. This particular trip was in March, so the ledge was nice and icy. If you are counting, this is the third and fourth time (there and back) that I crossed this portion of the trail.

"Delicate Arch from a Southern Vantage Point"
Arches National Park, Utah
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Here is a shot taken before the sun really started to go down that shows the overall "big picture" (pun). You can see the arch, and the small dots of people that are wandering around. This is -- without a doubt -- one of the most dramatic arches in the park. Most of the arches are not free standing like this one, they are contained in a cliff or some other wall-like formation. (For some excellent examples of this type of arch, you might want to check out the tour of the windows area.)

Notice in this shot that the shadow of the arch is getting to be fairly long? The sun is still about thirty minutes from the horizon in this picture, so we really weren't getting the full effect that I was looking for. (If you aren't sure what I'm talking about here, you can check out my photo tip on Sunrise and Sunset effects.) As we were sitting there on the edge of the cliff, waiting for the sunset, I was busy changing lenses, camera orientation, doing all sorts of composition tests so that I would be ready. And guess what, after all of the testing? I ended up taking the picture at a basic 50mm focal length. Which is the original lens that came with my camera. All those fancy lenses, and..., well, just don't tell my wife.

As the sun started going down, it disappeared behind the clouds. I was a bit frustrated, but I could see a small sliver of sky between the clouds and the horizon, so even when my wife started suggesting that we leave, I said, "No, please, just a few minutes more." And were we ever glad that we stayed.

"Day's Final Light Illuminates the Delicate Arch"
Arches National Park, Utah
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The Final Moment of Light
Just before the sun dipped below the horizon, it squeezed in between the mountains and the clouds to send a final blast of crimson light across the landscape. You can see the effects on the picture shown here. Notice how much longer the shadow is than the one up a little higher?

This is probably one of the most dramatic shots I have taken. And the crimson color is natural, it was not enhanced during the scanning process. I did take the picture on a special film called Velvia (made by Fuji) that does enhance colors a bit, but trust me, we really did see the glow on the rocks. I snapped about a dozen pictures at different focal lengths, different compositions, and so on while the sun was hanging on the horizon, but this is my favorite.

Once the light show was over, we quickly packed up our camera equipment and started down the trail. We had a flashlight, but it was not needed as the twilight sky still provided enough light to see. And the best part: since we had moved, we did not have to cross the icy trail of death again!

We have been back to Arches National Park several times since this trip in 1997. However, we have never since been fortunate enough to see the amazing Moment of Light that we captured on film on that first trip.

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