Arches history day: A story of fanciful formations, a polarizing protector and troublesome traffic

Images of Arches National Park, Utah, date not specified | Photos courtesy of Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News
This historic photo shows the Marching Men formation near Klondike Bluffs, Arches National Park, Utah, circa 1940s | Photo courtesy of NPS/Richard B. Freeman, St. George News

FEATURE – The Biscuits, Buccaneer Rock, Dark Angel, Eye-of-the-Whale, Ham Rock, Marching Men, Parade of Elephants, The Three Penguins, Tower of Babel — all these colorful, imaginative names can be found in Arches National Park.

Some are head-scratchers, such as Duck-on-the-Rock, which many visitors might think requires a little too much imagination to agree it actually resembles waterfowl. However, there are other formations that are appropriately named and take practically no imagination to agree their names fit, including Balanced Rock, The Three Gossips and The Poodle.

To call Arches a grand geologic spectacle is an understatement. Not surprisingly, it contains the largest concentration of natural arches in the world, over 2,000 of them concentrated in just under 77,000 acres, along with many other geologic formations that can take on any number of resemblances, depending on who one asks.

The park website explains how they formed this way:

“First, geologic forces wrinkled and folded the buried sandstone, as if it were a giant rug and someone gathered two edges towards each other, making lumps across the middle called Anticlines. As the sandstone warped, fractures tore through it, establishing the patterns for rock sculptures of the future. … The forces of erosion carved layer after layer of rock away. Once exposed, deeply buried sandstone layers rebounded and expanded, like a sponge expands after it’s squeezed (though not quite so quickly). This created even more fractures, each one a pathway for water to seep into the rock and further break it down.”

Millions of years of erosion caused by wind and water created this “breakdown” in large fins of Entrada sandstone that created the arches and other formations visitors see today. Due to constant erosive forces, all arches will eventually fall, just as Wall Arch in Devils Garden did in 2008. 

Other more recent major events showcasing the constant erosion in the park was when Skyline Arch doubled in size after a large boulder fell from it in 1940. Additionally, a 60-foot slab fell from Landscape Arch in 1991.

These petroglyphs just off the Delicate Arch Trail provide evidence of Native Americans who use to frequent what is now Arches National Park, Utah, March 31, 2018 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

Native Americans

Native Americans did not live in what is now Arches National Park, but there is plenty of evidence of their forays into it. They used the land to quarry “chert” for making arrow points and other chipped stone implements. They also searched for food in what is now the park. What they thought of its scenery will always be speculation, John Hoffman noted in his book “Arches National Park: An Illustrated Guide.”

The Archaic Indians, whose culture lasted from about 8,000 to 3,000 years ago, were hunter-gatherers who lived in small, kin-related bands. Evidence of the archaic are in split-twig figurines fashioned to resemble animals, which were found 10 miles southeast of the park in Moonshine Cave on the north bank of Mill Creek. Anthropologists have suggested that they were used as fetishes “to invoke magical powers for successful hunts,” Hoffman wrote. 

Starting at around 1000 A.D., the Fremont and Anasazi people populated the area. Different than the Archaic, they engaged in agriculture and left petroglyphs and cliff dwellings in the area similar to those found in Mesa Verde National Park. The Utes were the Native Americans that the first settlers from The Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints encountered when they arrived in the area in the mid 19th century.

Early settlers

No one truly knows the true identity of the first white man to set eyes on what is now Arches National Park, but there are plenty of possibilities. The first possible penetration by Europeans could have been a party led by Juan Maria Antonio Rivera, who traipsed through the territory in 1765 in search of silver. Another Spanish expedition that came in 1813 to trade with the Utes along the Sevier River could have entered what is now Arches, Hoffman wrote. Those traveling the Old Spanish Trail in the 1830s and 1840s probably came close to the park and forded the river near its present-day boundary.

This portrait shows what John Wolfe looked like at the time he was living on his ranch, which today is the trailhead to Delicate Arch, circa 1898-1910 | Photo courtesy of NPS, St. George News

In 1855, the Huntington Expedition, led by William Huntington, whose purpose was to explore the area and speak with the Navajos, came through Moab Canyon on the park’s western border. This group came to a “jump” similar to Peter’s Leap in southwestern Utah, where the wagons had to be let down by ropes to traverse the precarious drop. That “jump” was located just across the highway from where the visitor center stands but was eliminated through grading during the construction of U.S. Highway 191. 

The first attempt at settlement came just after the Huntington Expedition and became known as the Elk Mountain Mission, named for the nearby mountain range now known as the La Sal Mountains. This group built a rock fort and a log corral near a grove of Cottonwood trees at the northwest corner of the current town, but their attempt was short-lived as Indian hostilities broke out, killing three of the potential settlers, so they packed up and left. Permanent settlement did not take place for another 20 years by a mix of ranchers, prospectors and farmers 

In 1880, Henry Penney started operating a small ferry to cross the Colorado River near the location of today’s Moab Bridge. A few years later, Norman Taylor began another ferryboat operation, but in 1897, Grand County took over the service with a larger ferryboat which operated until 1912 when the first bridge to span the river was completed.

Possibly the first settlers within what is now Arches National Park were John Wolfe and his son, Fred, who established a ranch in 1898 where the Delicate Arch Trailhead is now. The elder Wolfe was a Civil War veteran who injured his leg at the Battle of Vicksburg in 1863, requiring the use of a crutch the rest of his life. The pair came from Ohio. It is unknown what inspired them to establish a ranch in the desolate location or how they even knew about it, Hoffman wrote. One theory is that they came seeking a drier climate which might have improved the pain in the senior Wolfe’s leg.

A small 17-foot by 15-foot cabin they built in 1906, fashioned from cottonwood logs, still stands today (a flash flood destroyed an earlier cabin). They also built a corral, a dam for irrigation water and a root cellar, used for storage of root crops and other vegetables. 

The pair left in 1910 and several other ranchers used the cabin until it was acquired by the National Park Service in 1948. 

This historic photo shows prospector Alexander Ringhoffer, considered “The Father of Arches” in action, Arches National Park, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of NPS, St. George News

National Park status

There are several men who can take some credit for literally putting Arches on the map, leading to its designation as a national monument first, then a national park. John “Doc” Williams, Moab’s local doctor in the late 19th and early 20th century, did a lot to promote the conservation of natural wonders in southeast Utah. Another early advocate of the Arches landscape was Loren “Bish” Taylor, who, as Moab’s newspaper editor, regularly let his readers know about the beauty of the surrounding scenery. Taylor loved exploring and describing the rock wonderland just north of the frontier town.

Hungarian immigrant Alexander Ringhoffer also became a significant advocate of Arches and became, in Hoffman’s mind, “the Father of Arches.” The miner and prospector made his first expedition into what is now Arches with his sons and son-in-law in December 1922, visiting what is now known as Klondike Bluffs, which he called Devil’s Garden.

After seeing the vast array of spectacular sandstone monuments, Ringhoffer contacted representatives of the Denver and Rio Grande Railroad, encouraging their representatives to see the area. Ringhoffer personally escorted railroad representatives on jaunts into what is now the park to show them its natural wonders and to photograph them. Frank Wadleigh, the Denver and Rio Grande’s passenger traffic manager, personally wrote to first National Park Service Director Stephen Mather, extolling the virtues of the land and suggesting it become a national monument, according to Hoffman.

A government surveyor surveyed the area but mistakenly thought what is now known as “The Windows” (what Ringhoffer called Window Castles) and Ringhoffer’s Devil’s Garden were the same place. Moab’s newspaper presented an article detailing that survey and photos from it, which Wadleigh saw, causing him to write to Mather about the geographical discrepancy. 

Coincidentally, a later government surveyor examined the fins and arches on the east ridge of Salt Valley, which he thought was Ringhoffer’s Devil’s Garden, so he gave it that name. This is the name that stuck for this locale and the Devil’s Garden of Ringhoffer’s imagination became Klondike Bluffs instead. 

All name confusion aside, it was Ringhoffer’s efforts that brought Arches into the consciousness of the right people to preserve it. Mather made a formal recommendation for Arches to become a national monument in January 1926, but the Secretary of the Interior at the time, Hubert Work, opposed adding more national monuments, advocating the return of some national monuments to the states to be state parks instead, Hoffman wrote.

Ray Lyman Wilbur, the Secretary of the Interior appointed by Herbert Hoover, who was elected in 1928, was much more favorable to Mather’s plans for Arches. Only a month after the administration took office, Wilbur recommended that Hoover sign an executive order creating Arches National Monument. That signature occurred on April 12, 1929, setting aside 4,250 acres in two detached sections, The Windows, containing 1,920 acres, and Devil’s Garden, with 2,600 acres, Hoffman reported. 

The man responsible for the monument’s name was Frank Pinkley, who was the monument’s first superintendent. He originally suggested the name in a 1925 letter to Mather.

This historic photo shows early Arches visitors enjoying the view of the Parade of Elephants in The Windows, Arches National Park, 1945 | Photo courtesy of Utah State Historical Society, St. George News

Interestingly, when Arches first gained national monument status, it did not include the very area that started the push to protect it, Ringhoffer’s Devil’s Garden. President Franklin D. Roosevelt expanded the monument to 33,680 acres in 1938, which encompassed what is now Klondike Bluffs.

Many of the park’s most enduring names came as a result of a scientific expedition in the park in the winter of 1933-1934 led by Frank Beckwith, editor of the Millard County Chronicle. Beckwith named some of its most prominent features, including Delicate Arch, Landscape Arch and Tower Arch.

Delicate Arch is one of the most famous natural arches in the world and a Utah icon, appearing on its license plates and its National Park quarter.

John Van Cott, in his book, “Utah Place Names,” called it “one of the grandest and most photogenic of Utah’s natural arches.” Early cowboys called the arch “The Schoolmarm’s Pants,” or “Bloomer’s Arch” and other names, but the present name demonstrates a more artistic, aesthetic approach, Van Cott wrote.

But Delicate Arch might have been a more accurate name for the park’s Landscape Arch or Skyline Arch. Large slabs of rock have fallen from both their spans in the last 80 years. Another arch that is delicate in the park is Broken Arch, which has a narrow crack in its crest.

In Arches’ early years, transportation was a challenge as there were no paved roads. Early superintendents complained of the bad roads that included a lot of ruts that couldn’t be graded until they were wet, right after a rainstorm.

Ringhoffer himself was the first to access Arches via an automobile on his excursions with railroad officials. Harry Goulding was the first to drive into Arches after its designation as a national monument, outfitting his Ford with special tires to better negotiate the sand. 

In the 1940s and ’50s, traversing Courthouse Wash could be treacherous. Several times during that span it flooded, stranding numerous motorists. Starting in 1958, road projects began that eventually resulted in 26.5 miles of paved roads, “providing motorists entry into rugged terrain which previously had been largely inaccessible,” including The Windows and Devil’s Garden, Hoffman wrote. 

“Managers of the park knew in the 1940s that Arches would become more and more of an attraction because it was right off of a major highway (now U.S. 191),” said Arches’ Archivist and Collections Manager Peekay Briggs. 

Improved transportation led to expanding visitation as well as even greater protection as the park was doubled in 1969 by President Lyndon B. Johnson’s administration. It achieved national park status just over two years later, on Nov. 16, 1971, during the Richard Nixon Administration. 

Edward Abbey was a polarizing environmentalist inspired by his work in Arches National Park, Utah, date unspecified | Photo courtesy of NPS, St. George News

Arches’ Most Famous Advocate

During the 1956 and 1957 seasons, Arches National Monument’s lone seasonal ranger living in a little trailer near Balanced Rock would start his trajectory of becoming one of the most controversial environmentalists in U.S. history. Arches was his main inspiration. 

In fact, author Terry Tempest Williams called Edward Abbey, the “Mark Twain of the American desert,” stating that he was “bad behavior and big-hearted ideas.”

In his article in a winter 2018 issue of “National Parks” magazine, marking the 50th anniversary of Abbey’s most revered work, “Desert Solitaire” (first published in 1968), Todd Christopher wrote that Abbey had an “anarchistic brand of environmental advocacy that makes him a polarizing figure to this day — and one can’t help but feel that’s the way he’d like it.”

“It’s not just a love letter to the land,” Christopher explained of “Desert Solitaire.” “Abbey’s physically and psychologically vivid portrait of the desert became a rallying cry for its preservation against the forces of development.” 

Edward Abbey was to Arches what John Muir was to Yosemite, a fierce protector and advocate. To them, the two respective parks they loved were sacred: nature’s cathedrals. 

One of the main messages Abbey tried to get across in “Desert Solitaire” is that national parks need to be protected and left the way nature intended them, without large-scale development. If Abbey would have had his way, for instance, there would be no cars in national parks.

“The motorized tourists, reluctant to give up the old ways, will complain that they can’t see enough without their automobiles to bear them swiftly (traffic permitting) through the parks,” Abbey wrote. “But this is nonsense. A man on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in 100 miles.”

In a sense, Abbey considered his writing in “Desert Solitaire” an obituary.

“Most of what I write about in this book is already gone or going under fast,” he wrote in the book’s preface. “This is not a travel guide but an elegy. A memorial.”

Many would consider Abbey extremely prescient in his foresight.

In perhaps the most famous chapter of the book, entitled “Polemic: Industrial Tourism and the National Parks,” Christopher wrote that “Abbey prophesies and decries a future where the parks are overrun by motorized tourists and reduced to little more than theme parks.”

One of the places near Arches where Abbey’s legacy is alive and well is at Back of Beyond Books, a bookstore that derives its name from a phrase used in Abbey’s novel, “The Monkey Wrench Gang,” and which features an entire bookcase devoted to his works prominently located just inside the front door. 

According to Christopher’s story, the bookstore is a place where Abbey “continues to find an audience” because it sells 600-700 copies of “Desert Solitaire” a year.

In contrast to those who pay homage to him in Moab, just over five miles up the road at Arches National Park headquarters, Abbey has almost no presence in the park’s archives or historical record, Briggs noted.

“There was some interest where his trailer was located, but most other mentions in our records are random newspaper clippings,” Briggs explained. “In the words of the former museum curator, ‘Arches was far more important to Abbey than Abbey was to Arches.’ And as far as I can tell, no one has been able to disprove that statement, although some fans like to claim anecdotal evidence because Abbey is important to them.” 

It would be easy to guess that Abbey would be flabbergasted by what he would see in Arches today with the traffic congestion caused by crushing visitation.

The line of cars to enter Arches is regularly backed up, taking 45 minutes or more to get into the park and sometimes requiring closure of the park for a few hours to relieve the pressure, Arches National Park, October 17-20, 2019 | Photo courtesy of NPS/William Pedro, St. George News

Modern challenges

Challenges Arches has experienced over the last 20 to 30 years are the same challenges that other iconic parks face, including Zion, Grand Canyon and Yosemite, Briggs said.

“We must balance between protecting cultural and natural resources and allowing for visitor enjoyment and access — Arches is not unique in that respect,” Briggs said. 

Case in point is the line of cars waiting to enter the park on busy weekends, which, in some cases, has necessitated closing the park for a few hours at a time. That is not the kind of experience park visitors are expecting and is a definite drag on visitor enjoyment. To rectify this situation, Arches is looking at options similar to what Zion is currently considering — an advanced reservation system and even a mandatory shuttle system similar to Zion’s. Paving the Salt Valley or Willow Springs roads at the north end of the park to create another entrance has also been discussed.

The increase in visitation does not only wreak havoc on the traffic and parking situation, but away from the pavement as well. Due to the overuse of the Fiery Furnace, the park implemented a reservation system which resulted in some controversy, Briggs noted. It has also implemented a reservation system in its lone campground near Devils Garde

The park has also experienced an increase in social trails — trails caused by hikers not sticking on designated paths — and has ramped up education efforts to inform visitors not to step on biological crust, formerly known as “cryptobiotic soil,” Briggs explained. This important soil layer consists of living organisms such as lichens, moss and bacteria that literally keeps the soil together and helps reduce erosion.

 As with many other national parks, it is easy for park management to diagnose Arches’ problems. It’s the remedy for them that is difficult, largely due to lack of funding.

“We compete for funding at almost every level — against other agencies and within the NPS and even within the park — what divisions get the share of that funding and how we are allowed to use some of it,” Briggs said. “In order to preserve the characteristics of the park, and to follow legislation mandating protections, we have to know and understand the resources. In the past 30 years, Arches, as part of the Southeast Utah Group, has built a Resource Stewardship and Science division to study and protect park resources.”

In fact, one of the things that could steer the park away from a mandatory shuttle is funding, especially for maintenance of the fleet.

One can guarantee, though, that one solution to Arches’ crushing visitation that Abbey might have advocated will never come to pass: eliminating cars altogether. Such a solution would be completely against one of the founding mandates of NPS, to provide access and enjoyment to the parks for all Americans.

Hikers traverse the trail to Double Arch and other attractions in The Windows, Arches National Park, Utah, March 31, 2018 | Photo by Reuben Wadsworth, St. George News

Visiting Arches

Arches is an approximate 4 hour, 45-minute drive from the St. George area by heading north on Interstate 15 until its intersection with Interstate 70, then following I-70 east until Exit 182, where southbound U.S. 191 leads to the park entrance just over 26 miles from the exit. 

Arches boasts a variety of hikes, many of which are ideal for families with young children. For instance, kids will enjoy strolling down Park Avenue, exploring The Windows as well as playing in the sand at Sand Dune Arch. 

Two of the most popular trails are Devils Garden (which includes Landscape Arch) and Delicate Arch. Fiery Furnace is also popular, but, as previously mentioned, visitors need an advance reservation to hike through it.

The best times to visit are fall, spring and winter as summer temperatures can be scorching. During the winter, visitors will see the smallest crowds and have the opportunity to see the formations with a different perspective, a light dusting of snow.

Those desiring to hike popular trails will want to arrive early to ensure a parking spot or delay their hike until later in the afternoon. As a general rule, parking is most congested from 10 a.m. to 2 p.m.

For more information about Arches, visit the park website.

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About the series “Days”

“Days” is a series of stories about people and places, industry and history in and surrounding the region of southwestern Utah.

“I write stories to help residents of southwestern Utah enjoy the region’s history as much as its scenery,” St. George News contributor Reuben Wadsworth said.

To keep up on Wadsworth’s adventures, “like” his author Facebook page or follow his Instagram account.

Wadsworth has also released a book compilation of many of the historical features written about Washington County as well as a second volume containing stories about other places in Southern Utah, Northern Arizona and Southern Nevada.

See all of the features in the “Days” series.

Email: [email protected]

Twitter: @STGnews

Copyright St. George News, LLC, 2019, all rights reserved.

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