June 23, 2021 – To the Moon and Back

A new state for both of us.

We drove north to Utah’s most northern border which meant we were very close to Yellowstone and the Grand Tetons. We could smell them in the air, that’s how close we were to them. But first, we had to take a detour and see the moon. Yellowstone would have to wait a few more days. So, let me tell you about our short time on the moon, and then we’ll get on with the granddaddy of national parks, all in good time.

Not far from the moon is the little town of Arco, where we stayed for three nights.
Only in Arco, where the first nuclear reactor was built near the town in 1955.

It amazes me that during the 1920s when laissez faire government dominated the post-war, pre-depression era, 11 national monuments that remain in existence today were designated. Among them is Craters of the Moon National Monument & Preserve that was declared in 1924 by President Calvin Coolidge. What is even more amazing is how it and many other parks and monuments came to be in the first place– through the passion and dedication of visionaries that insisted these lands be preserved and protected.

On our way to the moon.

Before describing a fascinating story of a fascinating Idahoan explorer who took up photography to document his adventures, let me introduce you to Craters of the Moon. In short, the park service describes it as a “weird and scenic landscape where yesterday’s volcanic events are likely to continue tomorrow.” On the Snake River Plain in Idaho are three young lava fields covering a half million acres. For about 15,000 years up until about 2000 years ago, lava erupted through several deep cracks that all together are known as the Great Rift.

Craters of the Moon, a landscape like no other on this planet.
Past volcanic activity shapes and colors these mountains.

When you come into Craters of the Moon, you will not see a large volcano like Mt St. Helens, for instance. Instead, you’ll see fields of rugged lava flows with several volcanic cones, cinder cone fragments and lava tube caves. This harsh landscape was created from fissure eruptions, along cracks in the earth’s crust. The eruptions were many, but relatively mild, thus producing several small cinder cones and extensive lava flows. Each cinder cone is a small volcano, the highest rising about 600 ft. Long ago, it would have been twice as high before the top blew off.

A cinder garden where wild buckwheat grows.
With little water and nutrients available, these little plants give each other plenty of space in between.

How did Craters of the Moon get its name? Here’s where the story of how it became a national monument turns interesting. During the late 1800s, people who traveled this area found nothing to love about the inhospitable lava beds that posed only as an obstacle to travel. One of Idaho’s most enthusiastic promoters thought differently. In 1918, Robert Limbert’s interest in the area piqued when he heard of a species of dwarf grizzlies. He made a couple short trips into the area and while he never found his grizzly, he did discover a great interest for exploring the lava fields.

A life-size photo display of Robert Limbert at the Robert Limbert Visitor Center.

In May 1920, Limbert, his Airedale dog Teddy and friend WC Cole went out with 2-weeks provisions. Weighing in at 55 lb, his backpack included a large camera and a rifle. By this time, Limbert had become a well-known naturalist writer for magazines like Outdoor Life. To illustrate his articles, he became a photographer. He set out to discover the lava fields with intentions of recording his discoveries on film.

I love Limbert’s description of the lava flow.
“Perhaps the strangest features of this flow are its color and texture. Its tint is a deep cobalt blue, with a glossy finish, resembling varnish or wavy sea of grays, purples, blues, and blacks.”
Lichen adds yellows and reds to the basaltic lava.

After walking several miles through sagebrush, they came onto their first lava flow, thick piles of sharp, irregular rocks. Limbert described it this way – “Like a pile of millions of cups and saucers where every time you took a step you slipped and, every time you slipped, you cut yourself”. The trek over the irregular rocks took its toll on the dog whose paws became raw. Limbert and Cole took to carrying the dog or waited for him to pick his way through the rock. At one point, Limbert cut patches of leather from his jacket to cover and protect the dog’s feet.

The park has a nice paved walking path through the jagged lava flows.

They crossed 28 miles of jagged lava flows during the first three days of the trek. Setting up camp at night was near impossible with very little level space to lie down upon. Waterholes were located by following old Indian or mountain sheep trails and watching birds drop down from the sky to drink water. After 17 days and 80 miles, they completed their journey upon arriving at the base of the Pioneer Mountains. Limbert summarized his experience this way – “To stand and gaze with amazement mingled with fear at things of which the world knows nothing…passing alone through volcanic craters…crossing miles of folds of rock similar to the folds of a huge blanket was indeed an experience never to be forgotten”.

A lava tube cave.
The lava fields were more colorful than I expected.

After that, Limbert continued to explore the area (without the dog) and brought scientists and civic leaders with him while arguing for the protection of the volcanic region. During these trips, he made over 200 still photographs and 4,000 feet of motion picture film. Limbert described his experiences vividly with stunning photo essays accompanying his articles in newspapers and magazines, the most prominent of which was in the March 1924 edition of National Geographic. Limbert also sent President Coolidge a scrapbook with pictures and descriptions of his experience in the Great Rift. Within two months following National Geographic’s publication of ‘Among the “Craters of the Moon”, Coolidge proclaimed the establishment of Craters of the Moon National Monument.

Under the Wilderness Act of 1964, Craters of the Moon was designated in 1970 as the first wilderness area in any national park unit. In 2000, its territory was expanded by 495, 000 acres. By the way, Craters of the Moon is not an extinct volcanic area, rather it is dormant. In other words, those volcanoes are not dead, they are only sleeping – for now.

At one point, park management tried to remove dwarf mistletoe, a native infectious parasite that slowly kills their host, the pine tree. Consequently, the park cut down 6000 trees only to discover their removal caused more harm than simply allowing the native parasite organism to live among the trees as nature intended.
Limber pine and juniper pine are the dominate tree species in the area. A part of the park is called “tree mold” where lava incinerated trees leaving cavities molded to the shape of the tree.
Native American rock rings. People lived in the Snake River Plain before and after the volcanoes erupted.
Walking on the moon.
Plant life on a cinder cone.
Somewhere between Craters of the Moon and Arco, on Highway 26/93.

June 17, 2021 – Utah’s Headquarters

Our campground on a hill, overlooking Deer Creek Reservoir in the Wasatch Mountains near Provo.
After spending several weeks climbing rocks and hiking through canyons, a few days at Deer Creek State Park gave us some deserved respite.
Casual hikes in the hilltops along the reservoir was all we needed for a few days.

At this point, Utah’s colorful landscapes within premiere parks were the crème de la crème of our travels. For the past three weeks we had been exploring Utah’s iconic rock landscapes by way of four national parks, three state parks, and three national monuments. It was time for a change and a little down time. Utah’s exquisitely expressive rock formations will always remain vivid in our conscious and will be what identifies Utah for us. But while Utah’s geological history became front and center in our travel lessons, the state’s human history also piqued our interest. After several weeks among its national parks, we had additional time to spend in Utah as we necessarily drove through Salt Lake City on our way to Idaho. Consequently, we stayed in the Great Salt Lake area for six days, first at Deer Creek State Park near Provo and then north of SLC in Ogden.

Camped at Deer Creek SP gave us a chance to visit BYU’s impressive Museum of Art in Provo.
This is one of the paintings I found in the Museum of Art’s “Becoming America” exhibit. I was taken aback by “Lift up Thine Eyes” with so much detail and depth. I dare you to guess the artist. I was surprised to learn who it was, having thought of him as an illustrator rather than a painter.

Looking up in the museum’s lobby from various perspectives, I could not stop photographing these translucent filaments that refracted rays of light like a giant prism. This is the work of artist Gabriel Dawe.

Up until then, the fact that Utah is often identified as a “Mormon State” stayed on the back burner of our minds while we explored its remote and wild desert regions. It was only during our time in Bluff that we thought about Mormons while learning the fascinating story of how and why Bluff was founded. Each state in the union can claim it’s fame from something unique to it, and I suppose the fact that two thirds of Utah’s population (about 2 million people) identify themselves as members of the Church of Jesus Christ of the Latter-Day Saints is quite a unique quality.

Visiting the museum was a history lesson. The artist, CCA Christensen is known for his paintings depicting the history of the Latter-day Saints. In this painting, members of the church are chased out of Missouri by angry mobs.
In this beautiful painting by CCA Christensen, the Latter-day Saints cross the Mississippi on Ice, during the initial exodus in 1846. By 1869, approximately 60,000 Latter-day Saints pioneers journeyed west.
The artist Maynard Dixon is known for his paintings of the American West. Here, he illustrates Brigham Young standing before his followers with the scriptures in one hand and a plow in the other. Presence of the Divine is evident in the clouds.

Indeed, Utah is the only state where most of the population belongs to one church. As the President of the Church, Russell M. Nelson is given the exclusive right to receive revelations from God on behalf of the entire church or the entire world. The president is the highest priesthood authority on earth. That’s a lot of power for one person. One Man and one Church equals the majority rule in Utah.

Temple Square was undergoing massive renovation while we visited Salt Lake City. We were able to take the walking tour but certain buildings were still closed due to Covid. A significant impetus for the renovation was the 5.7 earthquake that shook SLC in 2020.

And by the way, during our tour of Temple Square that was led by two very young and enthusiastic members of the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, I never once heard the word “Mormon”. Later, I learned that in 2018, President Nelson said that God had “impressed upon my mind the importance of the name he has revealed for his church”. Thusly, the church announced, that its members should no longer call themselves Mormons, or even use the shorthand LDS. Instead, they should use the full name Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints, or Latter-day Saints for short. Because Nelson is revered as a living prophet, the announcement came with divine weight.

A monument to the pioneers that walked the Mormon Trail while pulling handcarts. By the way, proper use of the word Mormon, such as Book of Mormon or Mormon Trail remains acceptable.
In the halls of Utah’s state capitol, a statue of Brigham Young looms large. Who says religion and politics don’t mix?

So, the church that has been popularly known as the Mormons or Mormonism, wants people to stop using the ‘M’ word. As a person not associated with the Church of Latter-day Saints, or any Church for that matter, I can understand their reasoning. The word ‘Mormon’ has often been used to identify a specific group of Christians that don’t fit in with the other kids on the playground of Christianity. I have witnessed ridicule and derision toward Mormonism and this was in far-away Michigan where it’s doubtful many Mormons reside. One of the reasons for a certain disdain has to do with polygamy, although Utah was granted statehood in 1896 on the condition it ban polygamy. However, perceptions die hard.

In addition to Temple Square, we visited the state capitol where across the street, women’s suffrage was being recognized at the visitor center. The visitor center building was where Utah women cast the first votes on February 14, 1870. What is given can also be taken away. In 1887, that’s exactly what happened to women’s right to vote in Utah.
Rescinding women’s right to vote in 1887 was an act by Utah’s legislature to reduce the power of the Church by removing half its voting numbers. This outraged many people, including Emmeline Wells, who became a leading figure in the suffrage movement. In 1896, equal suffrage was included in the State Constitution.
Martha Hughes Cannon became a leader in Utah’s suffrage movement after Utah disenfranchised women in 1887. In 1896, she became Utah’s first female state senator after defeating her own husband. One can only imagine their dinner table conversations.

No other Church community can claim a “Great Migration” in the U.S or as great of a colonization as the Latter-Day Saints. The fact the Great Mormon Migration occurred from Illinois to Utah was due to the growing influence and power of its charismatic leader and founder, Joseph Smith. By 1847, Smith’s relatively new Church was expanding in numbers and gaining a foothold in Illinois politics. Outsiders perceived it as clannish and of course, there was the seedy polygamy issue. Following Smith’s murder by an angry mob, his successor Brigham Young gathered up the church members and convinced them to get out of Illinois where violence and persecution against them were ramping up.

(We spent a couple hours walking around the newly renovated state capitol. Take a look at this slideshow and you’ll see why we spent so much time there.)

So, with handcarts and a handful of slaves to help them on the way, Young led his followers to a secluded place where they could prosper – the Promised Land. The pioneers made the 1300-mile trek from Illinois to Utah and on July 24, 1847, found themselves in the Salt Lake Valley where they settled – without the approval of the Mexican government or the indigenous people already living there, of course. Once settled in the valley, the pioneers proceeded to spread out far and wide across the Utah territory, forming a strong foothold in the area.

One of the places settled in the great lake basin was Antelope Island on the Great Salt Lake. At the state park, you can visit a working ranch and museum where Mormon pioneers lived and worked for several decades. And yes, that is a bison in the distance. And that white stuff, is salt.
In the museum, you get an idea of pioneer life on Antelope Island. Brigham Young’s portrait is very much a part of the scene.
The Great Salt Lake is experiencing its lowest levels of water in almost 200 years. Here you can see the road that crosses the lake from Salt Lake City to the island.

(Here is a slideshow with photos from our day spent on Antelope Island, where the bison and antelope roam free.)

Because the combination of religion and politics should never be brought up in conversation, I will leave you with one final point of interest – Utah’s state motto. It is one word – ‘Industry’. Do you know the significance of a state motto? It is representative of what is valued most by a state. For Utah, it is the legacy of its pioneers that relied on industry to survive in a place where few material resources existed. But then again, so did many people back in those days, including those already living there.

One last view of our time in Ogden, a few scenes from its historic downtown area:

Next to what was then 5th Street, a Union Station opened in1869 with the completion of the First Transcontinental Railroad. Fifth Street became 25th Street in 1889, and by then was a popular hub for travelers and became the center of activity in Ogden.
Everything is historical in Ogden, even the beer! Apparently, the street was once known for lots of illegal and immoral activity including prostitution, gambling and drug dealing. So much so that it was rumored Al Capone deemed Ogden too wild of a town for him.
Now, downtown Ogden is a quiet place with some nice horse sculptures.

June 10, 2021 – Land of the Sleeping Rainbow

About 18 miles of Utah’s state road 24 passes through the northern edge of Capitol Reef National Park. This was our introduction to the park as we had to drive it to get to our campground in Torrey, our home for one week.

The Earth is old and wrinkled, and those wrinkles make the Earth look distinguished. The most prominent of them is in Utah. Earth’s crust has many “geologic wrinkles” where movement along a fault caused one side of the fault to shift vertically upward, creating a monocline or “step-up” in rock layers. Before all that happened though, sedimentary rock accumulated for hundreds of millions of years, forming distinctive layers that give evidence to time periods when rivers and swamps, deserts, and shallow oceans with tidal flats existed. Along the way, great tectonic forces uplifted these rock layers.

A view of Capitol Reef NP, looking east from scenic highway 12.
Gooseneck views are common here in Utah. This is Capitol Reef’s Goosenecks overlook, where Sulphur Creek runs below. This was our first stop on our first day in Capitol Reef.
A view of Capitol Reef with our campground location to the west and the routes to the Capitol Gorge and Grand Wash hiking trails.

The Colorado Plateau is a quarter million square-mile region contained in Utah, Arizona, New Mexico and Colorado that was uplifted relatively evenly. This maintained the sedimentary layers in a horizontal position, such as what you see in the Grand Canyon. Those eye-catching buttes that make the American southwest so iconic are “erosional islands” among the once continuous plateau of horizontal rock layers. I’ll get back to the phenomenon of erosion later because it is the secret sauce of the southwest landscape that we come to admire, and it plays a large role in earth’s wrinkles.

Hiking through a Capitol Reef rock canyon, I felt as humbled as I do paddling through the Everglades’ cathedral of mangrove trees.
Petroglyph from the Fremont Culture.
One early morning, I seemed to have the canyon to myself and it was magical.

Somewhere in the Colorado Plateau is a grand exception to the horizontal layers of rocks. It is the Waterpocket Fold, a “100-mile-long warp in Earth’s crust”, and what the Navajo referred to as “Land of the Sleeping Rainbow”. About 50-70 million years ago, an ancient fault was reactivated causing movement in the earth’s crust. The west side of the fault shifted upward about 7,000 feet higher than the east side. Basically, the layer cake was tipped severely. It is a classic monocline, and this one is the largest of its kind on earth.

So many strange and wonderful landscapes to explore in Capitol Reef.
I was enchanted.
I wandered off into this intriguing volcanic canyon area and could not keep myself from wandering further and further. Every view was a new one.

That wrinkle is what eventually caused the creation of Capitol Reef National Park. Remember what I said about erosion? If only one thing is learned from our time spent exploring New Mexico and Utah is that erosion is what makes this landscape stand out among all others. And we owe it all to water. Of course, deposition of sedimentary rocks over hundreds of millions of years and great shifts in tectonic plates are the basic ingredients, but erosion is the spice.

The Fremont River. Water is everything that is Capitol Reef.

Capitol Reef National Park centers around the Waterpocket Fold. Waterpocket is the name given to the ongoing erosion of rock layers in the monocline, the small depressions in the sandstone layers formed by water. Those eroding tilted rock layers provide us “colorful cliffs, massive domes, soaring spires, stark monoliths, twisting canyons and graceful arches” to view in total amazement and wonder. It is erosion that inspires artists and explorers, and it is what inspires the creation of national parks.

After a hike through Capitol Gorge, we stopped in Fruita, where apples, apricot, cherry, peach, pear, and plum trees grow.

Water attracted farmers to the Waterpocket Fold, beginning with the ancestral Puebloan and Fremont people. Petroglyph panels provide beautiful evidence of the Fremont Culture, named from the river that flows through the park. Looking east, Mormon (Latter Day Saints) settlers exploring the high plateau west of what is now Capitol Reef saw water snaking through the cliffs and domes of the Waterpocket Fold. The original community called it Fremont River and where the river joined Sulphur Creek, established “the Eden of Wayne County”. In 1902, the name of the self-sufficient settlement was changed to Fruita, in recognition of the fruit orchards cultivated by the 10 or so families that made it their home. While much of the settlement is gone (a few buildings have been preserved), the orchards remain and visitors can pick fruit when in season or more easily purchase tasty fruit pies.

And where remnants of the Eden of Wayne County can be found.
The white-tailed deer love Fruita.
What’s not to love. Very close to this orchard is Capitol Reef’s campground.

The Fruita residents were so proud of their little piece of heaven that in 1921 they organized a booster club to promote it. Local Ephraim Portman Pectol organized a nation-wide campaign to get the word out that he and his neighbors lived in paradise, many referred to as Wayne Wonderland. Pectol got elected to Utah’s legislature in 1933. He immediately contacted President Franklin D. Roosevelt and asked him to create “Wayne Wonderland National Monument”.

The Mormon Registry, a more modern petroglyph.
Coming into the park from the west side, on my way to Grand Wash.

He must have been quite convincing and perhaps Roosevelt himself visited the Waterpocket Fold and did not require convincing because in 1938, he signed a proclamation to create Capitol Reef National Monument. The original name did not stick and for that I am relieved (does a Chevy Chase movie or a Mike Meyers character come to mind?). The name ‘Capitol Reef’ by the way came from the many large white Navajo sandstone domes that resemble many capitol buildings in the U.S. including the one in Washington D.C., and for the fact the ridge crust of the Waterpocket Fold presents a barrier to travelers, much like a reef in the ocean.

“Whereas certain public lands in the State of Utah contain narrow canyons displaying evidence of ancient sand dune deposits of unusual scientific value, and have situated thereon various other objects of geological and scientific interest; and Whereas it appears that it would be in the public interest to reserve such lands as a national monument, to be known as the Capitol Reef National Monument…”

-Proclamation No. 2246 on August 2, 1937, Page 136 by President Franklin D. Roosevelt

In 1971, Congress legislated an act to establish Capitol Reef National Park, signed into law on December 18, 1971 by President Nixon. And that is the story of how a wrinkle on earth became a 254,000-acre national park. Well played Earth.

Enjoy this slideshow from my time spent in one of Capitol Reef’s canyons, the Grand Wash.

While staying in Torrey, we spent most of our time in Capitol Reef, but we did take one day to make a long scenic loop drive to continue exploring Utah.

We headed south on scenic route 12 through Grand Staircase-Escalante and visited two state parks, Escalante Petrified Forest and Kodachrome before topping the day off with Bryce Canyon NP.

Enjoy this slideshow from our day trip.

And we also took another day to explore the Fishlake area, northeast of Capitol Reef. It is there where we saw “The Trembling Giant”, also known as the “Pando”. And we saw our first marmot!

A beautiful day trip through Fishlake National Forest on the western edge of the Colorado Plateau.
The Pando is a clonal colony of individual aspen trees, known to be a single living organism by identical genetic markers. These trees have one massive underground root system!
We did see nesting white pelicans and black-crowned night herons, but all I have to show for it is a lone marmot. Can you find it?
Overlooking one of the many creeks in Fishlake National Forest.

June 3, 2021 – Ode to a National Park

Our routine was to enter the park before sunrise before the crowds and heat, and get out by noon. Always when exiting the park, a long trail of vehicles were lined up at the entrance gate.

Famed author and anarchist Edward Abbey wrote in his 1968 book “Desert Solitaire: A Season in the Wilderness” the following: “No more cars in national parks. Let the people walk. Or ride horses, bicycles, mules, wild pigs – anything – but keep the automobiles and the motorcycles and all their motorized relatives out.”

One way to see Utah’s wilderness is with a 4wd jeep. We considered renting one in Moab, but didn’t pursue it after two rental places we contacted were booked. So we stayed (mostly) on the paved scenic roads.
Meanwhile, next to the jeep rental in Moab is the tire place where our truck’s tires were being checked for alignment and abnormal wear. Our highway tires are perfect for towing the fifth wheel, but not so much for 4-wheeling on Utah’s rugged back roads.

Bringing Abbey into this blog is apropos given that his book is written from the stacks of notes and sketches made while working as a ranger for Arches National Monument in 1956-57. Back then, the monument was mostly inaccessible to the casual tourist, it was pure rock wilderness filled with arches yet to be discovered. Abbey, whose fictional book ‘The Monkeywrench Gang” inspired the radical EarthFirst! movement, first fell on my radar screen when I lived in Tucson, during which time Abbey passed away in his home in Tucson on March 14, 1989 at the age of 62. I’ll come back to Abbey later.

Arches National Park, 60 years after Abbey explored it. If you were to zoom in on this photo, you would see a hundred or so people standing along the edge of the rock near the sun burst. On the right side of the image, notice the narrow rock standing out to the left of a flattop rock. That is a side view of Delicate Arch
If you stood in front of Delicate Arch and pointed toward the right side of the image frame, you would be pointing toward me when I shot the image above, from afar.

Arches National Monument was established in 1929 and became a national park in 1971. 202,100 people visited Arches during its first year of National Park status. Compare that to 1,659,702 in 2019. Granted, that’s almost 50 years in passing, but look at it this way – from 1999 to 2009, visitor numbers increased from 869,980 to 996,312, a modest 14.5%. From 2009 to 2019, the park saw a 66% increase. Not far from Arches, the much larger Canyonlands National Park experienced a 68% between 2009 and 2019.

As early as 7 am, a train of visitors are climbing up to see Delicate Arch.

In addition to the exponential rise in visitation to these parks, something else struck me as interesting. With respect to visitor numbers in national parks, Arches doesn’t make the top 10 list. The second most visited national park is Yellowstone (a relatively low 4.26 million visitors in 2019 compared to previous years), which is a far second from Great Smoky Mountains that had over 12.5 million visitors in the same year. Yellowstone National Park is a whopping 3471 square miles compared to Arches National Park’s measly 119. Therefore, visitors per square mile in Arches is 242 compared to Yellowstone’s one! And I will go as far as to suggest that the most concentrated number of visitors within Arches at any given time is at the famed Delicate Arch. And I will say the same about Canyonland’s famous Mesa Arch.

The early morning sun blazed and temperatures rose on the 1.5 mile trail to Delicate Arch.

On its website, the National Park Service describes Arches as a ‘red-rock wonderland’. “Visit Arches to discover a landscape of contrasting colors, land forms, and textures unlike any other in the world. The park has over 2,000 natural stone arches and hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive rock fins, and giant balanced rocks.” Oh my gosh, what could possibly be more appealing to a nature photographer than that? Indeed, photographers from all over the world come to Arches and Canyonlands to photograph the icons – Delicate Arch and Mesa Arch, respectively. Google Mesa Arch images and see hundreds of photographs of the exquisite rock formation with sun rays peaking behind it.

On my way back down from Delicate Arch where late comers take the time to play on the rocks for photo opps.
The number of visitors making the climb to Delicate Arch steadily increases as the morning wears on.

Both Arches and Canyonlands popularity can be attributed partially to social media. In 2010, Canyonlands Mesa Arch became #Instafamous when Microsoft used a picture of it at sunrise as one of its default backgrounds for its Windows 7 operating system. As of July 10, 2021, Mesa Arch (#mesaarch) has 371,000 Instagram posts, and the slightly less popular Delicate Arch (#delicatearch) has about 1/3 that amount at 127,000 posts.

The view as seen coming down from Delicate Arch.
A scene at dusk in Arches National Park.

We left our RV at 5:30 am and made a beeline to Delicate Arch trailhead only to find a ¾ full parking lot at 6:15 am. When we drove out of the park at about 10:30 am, the entrance gates were closed, due to full parking lots, a regular occurrence this year. On some days, the gates are closed for up to five hours. This is the “post” covid park visitation explosion. Even without the dependable Europeans, Arches has experienced record visitation this summer. The last nine months have been Arches’ busiest season since becoming a national park. Several parks are experiencing the same thing and most challenging is that there are a lot more first-time visitors who are unfamiliar with national parks and the mission to preserve their resources.

Mesa Arch about 2 hours past sunrise. Amazingly, this arch looks bigger in photos than in reality.

For 10 years or so, Utah photographers have lamented the demise of Delicate Arch and Mesa Arch as unique photo opportunities. For years, many had enjoyed relatively unknown locations within the national parks with few other photographers muscling in on “their territory”. Not so anymore. No one can keep a secret on Instagram. Mesa Arch in Canyonlands is probably the most photographed rock formation in Utah and if you want to capture “THE shot”, you better know the protocol, and there are plenty of photographers willing to share that information. The protocol is to arrive at Mesa Arch several hours before sunrise and claim your premium tripod real estate before the crowd of 5-legged photographers show up to line up elbow to elbow, tripod leg to tripod leg in front of the arch waiting for it to present a light show of glowing red rock. Each photo taken only slightly different from the other, and every morning, several new images of Mesa Arch are created and posted to social media.

Not “THE shot” but it is a splendid sight.
About 30 minutes or so before we arrived at Mesa Arch trailhead, I am certain the parking lot was filled with vehicles for the iconic sunrise shot so many photographers come here for.
Vivian’s sister Laura, standing at 5′ in front of Mesa Arch.

As a photographer wandering freely across the U.S., I had no desire to stand in a line of 5-legged photographers shooting the same scene. Don’t get me wrong, there is a perfectly good reason to photograph Mesa Arch at sunrise. It is a genuinely spectacular scene. But frankly, it looked spectacular two hours after sunrise when I was there with the iPhone selfie group. I am a drive-by tourist believing that our RV travel strategy to “see it all first, then go back to specific locations for quality time” might one day allow me to really explore the exquisite wilderness of Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. In fact, Vivian and I would love to paddle a few days through the canyons on the Green River or take our tent into remote backcountry areas within the Colorado Plateau. And we will one day. But for now, we are experiencing the park like 1.6 million others.

From one of the many overlooks in Island in the Sky, behold the canyons of Canyonlands National Park.
The Green and Colorado Rivers run through Canyonlands National Park. Difficult to see from afar, but there are vehicle and mountain bike trails that run along the edge of those deep canyons.

Which brings me back to Edward Abbey, who despite his curmudgeon ways (which frequently came off as sexist or racist) was passionate about preserving Arches and all that is southwestern wilderness. Abbey resided in a rundown trailer far away from anyone while working in Arches. He wrote about his solitary time in the red-rock wonderland as well as his personal musings on the bureaucratic nightmare of the national park service, the evils of government, tourism gone bad, and of course, the church of the wilderness. He absolutely loved the wilderness. Completing the quote above, Abbey wrote: “We have agreed not to drive our automobiles into cathedrals, concert halls, art museums, legislative assemblies, private bedrooms, and the other sanctums of our culture; we should treat our national parks with the same deference, for they, too, are holy places.

Early morning in Canyonlands National Park.

Indeed, Vivian and I hold a special reverence to these public lands we call national parks. We have also lamented on the increased numbers of visitors to Everglades National Park (our winter home), the new online system for primitive camping reservations, the lack of funds to maintain the pristine beauty of the glades and the overall management goal that appears to be nothing more than increase visitation. I get it, these are public land. We are glad to have seen Delicate Arch and Mesa Arch along with a million other visitors. But we also know there is far more to Arches or Canyonlands National Parks than iconic images and Instagram selfie shots. And there is more to Everglades National Park than an alligator lying next to a boardwalk. There is much more than meets the eye, as there must be.

And yes, I did take a shot of Delicate Arch, with unknown person for scale.