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.”
Bringing Abbey into this blog is apropos given that his book is written from the stacks of notes and sketches he 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 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 and not far from Arches, the much larger Canyonlands National Park experienced a 68% increase.
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.
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.
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.
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 close 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.
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. You must 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.
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.
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.”
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. It is imperative for our national parks there be much more to them than meets the eye.