June 3, 2021
They say the early bird catches the worm. But in Moab, Utah, the early bird catches brisk hikes to incredible sunrises—and way fewer crowds. And so I found myself breezing past a shuttered entrance booth at Arches National Park around 4:30 in the morning.
I ascended the switchbacks of the park roadway onto the high plateau of its expansive interior. Overhead I saw a vast canvas of stars, occasionally blacked out by one of the park’s hulking sandstone monoliths.
About 20 minutes in, I arrived at the Wolfe Ranch parking area: the point of departure for ascents to Delicate Arch.
Headlamps and slick rock
The ascent from Wolfe Ranch to Delicate Arch clocks in at just over 1.5 miles with a vertical rise of roughly 500 feet. The hike follows a worn path with small cairns during sections traversing smooth rock. You can view the famous formation from a distance at a point further down the roadway. But this hike provides the only safe route for getting up close and personal with the park’s largest free-standing arch.
Perhaps unsurprisingly, this hike gets mobbed during the daytime. It also features little to no shade along its steady ascent. But a sunrise or sunset hike avoids both these pitfalls for anyone with a headlamp and a small sense of adventure. It also provides for some amazing mood lighting.
My headlamp was low on battery, providing a somewhat feeble glow to illuminate my immediate path. I didn’t mind this so much; it allowed my eyes to still take in all the stars, along with the faint glow of dawn at the horizon. I could see the trail ahead of and behind me, dotted with a couple dozen other headlamps. Despite being only 5 am, the trail already had a decent amount of traffic!
Upwards towards the arch
The ascent grew a bit steeper as I approach the high, rocky ridge upon which Delicate Arch holds court. The trail alternated between sandy desert path, through scrub brush, and bare slick rock. The sky grew lighter, and a crescent moon hung just above the horizon.
The final stretch of trail levels out after some gorgeous stone steps carved directly into the red sandstone. The trail then traverses along an awesome “sidewalk” carved out of a cliff face. On the way, you pass the oft-neglected “Twisted Donut Arch” which itself would make an excellent payoff for a hike in pretty much any other state.
Fun facts about Delicate Arch
It’s not at all clear why “Delicate Arch” has the name it does, aside from the fact that any free-standing sandstone arch must be necessarily “delicate” in a geological sense. A rumour persists that “Landscape Arch” and Delicate Arch had their names accidentally swapped by an errant surveyor. Having seen the former just the day before, I definitely understand how that rumour came to be. As a fan of design and photography, I think a better pair of names for these formations would have been Landscape Arch and Portrait Arch. That was a bad attempt at a joke 🙂
Before government officials had their say in the matter, locals gave it fun nicknames like “Cowboy’s Chaps” and “Schoolmarm’s Bloomers” … and yeah … it kinda does look like both of those things.
I found the arch impressively massive in person. The central opening rises 46 feet and spans 32 feet wide. In other words, a four-story building could fit comfortably inside the arch.
The formation has become a sort of Statue of Liberty for Utah, appearing on one of its three standard license plates. The Olympic Torch run passed through the archway ahead of the 2002 Salt Lake City Olympics.
The arch sits at the edge of a big, natural amphitheater of sorts, with ample stadium seating composed of natural rock bands. I always knew the arch was quite scenic, but I never realized its setting was equally stunning. The arch perches atop a massive cliff face. And past it, you have views of nearby cliff bands and snow-capped peaks farther afield.
I took a seat amongst a couple dozen other hikers, pulled on my sweater, and kicked back awaiting the main event. More early risers slowly trickled in. And soon enough, the sun peaked above the horizon to bathe the rock in a warm, orange glow.
The direct light proved fleeting. Within 20 minutes, the sun had risen above a thick cloud layer to the East. I couldn’t complain though. I preferred the sky with its patchy Toy Story clouds that morning. At any rate, it was time to descend back to the car to grab breakfast.