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Desert Solitaire Country

“This is the most beautiful place on earth…

For myself I’ll take Moab, UT.

I don’t mean the town itself, of course, but the country which surrounds it- the canyonlands. The slickrock desert. The red dust and the burnt cliffs and the lonely sky – all that which lies beyond the end of the roads.”

— Edward Abbey – Desert Solitaire – A Season in the Wilderness

After leaving Monument Valley I continued my trek north into Moab, UT – gateway to “where adventure begins” as the tourist guide points out and also the gateway to nearby Arches National Park.

My first day there, I wandered into the very nice local bookstore – Amazon hasn’t put everyone out of business – and picked up the 1968 cult classic on the Park – “Desert Solitaire” by Edward Abbey.

In 1956 and 1957, Abbey worked as a seasonal ranger for the United States National Park Service at Arches National Monument (now of course a national park). During his stay at Arches, Abbey accumulated a large volume of notes and sketches which later formed the basis of his first non-fiction work, Desert Solitaire.

In it, as one review summarized – Abbey vividly describes the physical landscapes of Southern Utah and delights in his isolation as a back country park ranger, recounting adventures in the nearby canyon country and mountains. He also attacks what he terms the “industrial tourism” and resulting development in the national parks (“national parking lots”), rails against the Glen Canyon Dam, and comments on various other subjects.

Reading this book each evening after a long day in the field was an interesting backdrop to my own exploration of the Park. And, it got me thinking about what Abbey called “industrial tourism” – clearly he would not have appreciated all the “improvements” at my previous two stops.

But I digress – no politics here – after all, Abbey was not only known for his environmental advocacy and criticism of public lands policies, but he was also know for his anarchist political views too…

So, back to your regularly scheduled programming….

Compared to many National Parks, Arches NP is small. It may be small, but it’s uniqueness lies in its incredible scenery and stunning number of arches. In fact, over 2,000 arches are located in the Park’s borders.

But it doesn’t stop there as the Park contains towering sandstone finds, massive balanced rocks, along with formations labeled as pinnacles and spires. And, some of the formations look like very recognizable icons – isn’t that the MGM Lion near “Double Arch”


And, like my previous two stops, it is millennia of erosion by rain, snow, wind, and all the rest of Mother Nature’s forces that bring about the creation of these spectacular formations.

Like many things in life that need to be properly classified, arches aren’t arches until the holes expand to more than 3 feet in width or height. So, you have your super small arches and then you have your “super-sized arch” – Landscape Arch – the longest in the Park and the largest in the world – 290 feet long and only 6 feet thick at its narrowest point.

One of the most recognized arch in the world is Delicate Arch. Like the formations in Monument Valley, it is an icon of Utah and the American Southwest – you’ve seen it everywhere – on magazine covers, computer screen savers and license plates. But photos do not adequately convey the stunning beauty that hits you as you come over the ridge and see the arch in person for the first time –

simply amazing, incredible, spectacular, extraordinary …needing more superlatives here folks…

when you stand under it, the arch towering above your head, slickrock bowl around you – the snow-covered La Sal Mountains in the distance – got to tell you – It is truly a spectacular sight. Well worth the hike on an unseasonably warm day.

Abbey wrote of Delicate Arch “…There are several ways of looking at Delicate Arch. Depending on your preconceptions you may see the eroded remnants of a sandstone fin, a giant engagement ring cemented in rock, a bow-legged pair of petrified cowboy chaps, a triumphal arch for a procession of angels, an illogical freak, a happening…. If Delicate Arch has any significance it lies, I will venture, in the power of the odd and unexpected to startle the senses and surprise the mind out of their ruts of habit, to compel us into a reawakened awareness of the wonderful-that which is full of wonder.”

And, like the formations I wrote about at Monument Valley, the formations here have names too – “Three Gossips”, “Turret Arch”, Garden of Eden”, “Balanced Rock”, “Double Arch”.




And, the similarities to my stop at Monument Valley didn’t stop there – yup – more movies – an extraordinary set for film makers.

Near “Double Arch” young Indiana Jones was filmed; John Wayne rode by in Commancheros and Rio Grande; Thelma and Louise rode here too before flying off the cliff at nearby Dead Horse Point State Park. And Will Smith was filming nearby while I was there – Far Earth.

Lots of movies have seared this scenery into your memory banks – very cool.

The American Indians also used this area for centuries too. They left the evidence of their presence in the pictographs and petroglyph panels. The ones along UT279/Potash Road are particularly interesting.

Sadly, my time here was too short. Moab is a mecca for adventure seekers of all kinds – signs all over town scream “adventure” and “expedition”. Outfitters all over town stand ready to take you – rock climbing/canyoneering/kayaking/off-roading/rafting/mountain biking – and more.

Wow – lots to do – guess I’ll need to return one day.

Now, like I suggested about a few places I have stopped at – put this part of the American Southwest on your “bucket list”. After all, a few millennia from now, they’ll all be gone – not like Abbey predicted though ( I hope) but it’s the same fate for all these formations – erosion will wear away the sandstone and they’ll all collapse – so don’t delay – point yourself to UT folks…

And, by the way, if you come to photograph Arches, I highly recommend doing some homework on capturing the sense of place that is Arches. Just as I did at the Grand Canyon with Adam Schallau, I reached out to one of the areas finest photographers who calls Arches and the region his “office” — Bret Edge of Bret Edge Photography – he has a very nice gallery right in town with some great images of the area to feed your imagination. Unfortunately, Bret was unavailable to guide me during my brief stay but we had a great visit in the studio and he was very generous with his time and local knowledge. He also put me on to a great iTunes app that really helped me quickly get on to some great locations that I probably would have never found given my brief stay there – in fact, Adam, Bret and another photographer have a few apps available at their iPhotoGuide site – check it out.

Take care – safe travels – see you down the road


3 Comments Post a comment
  1. suzanne #

    wish i could have been ther beautiful

    July 5, 2012
    • Stephen #

      wish you were too – the stops since Sedona have been amazing

      July 6, 2012

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