I grilled a pair of hot dogs for an early dinner at my campsite. Wasting no time, I quickly cleaned up after myself and put my grill away. There was a deadline in my head and it was fast approaching. I needed to leave the campground soon if I wanted to make it to Delicate Arch in time for the sunset.
Landscape Arch is astonishing, Double Arch and the Windows are remarkable, but Delicate Arch is the crown jewel of Arches National Park. And catching Delicate Arch at sunset, like I did that evening in late August, is truly awe-inspiring.
I, as usual, had done my share of research and had planned on watching the sunset on Delicate Arch weeks, if not months, in advance. But I had to time the hike just right, otherwise I could have to wait at the arch for an hour or more, or worse yet, I could arrive late and miss the light show altogether.
The distance between the Devil’s Garden Campground and the trailhead at Wolfe Ranch was just over seven miles. I made quick work of that and arrived at the large parking lot with what looked like minimal time to spare. It was still hot and sunny, but the sun had begun its descent some time ago.
The parking lot beside the trailhead may have been big, but it was packed with cars. I wasn’t excited about the prospect of jockeying for position along the trail with throngs of hikers, but it certainly didn’t surprise me. After all, I was about to hike to the most famous arch in the world.
At just three miles round-trip, the Delicate Arch Trail is not long by any means, but it’s also not especially easy. The trail gains 480 feet in a relatively short distance and is completely exposed to the sun. There is some decent scenery along the way, but this hike is all about the end result, the incomparable Delicate Arch.
The trail began by crossing over Salt Wash on a small footbridge. Then I continued along the path as it became wide and well-defined. The gravel trail was level for the first half mile. I was quickly one third of the way to my destination, and it took very little effort.
That’s when things got a little more interesting. The trail dissolved into a steadily climbing slickrock slope. The slickrock area was very wide and exposed. Nothing grew on this stretch of smooth, barren stone. Thankfully, the slickrock was not the slightest bit slippery. That can be deceiving though. Once the rock is wet it can be dangerously slick. On that beautiful sunny day, the walk along the rock was pristine.
While the slickrock may not have been slippery it was quite steep. Almost all of the elevation gain happened along the trek up the smooth sandstone. Thankfully it didn’t last very long. One thing that aided me was that I made the climb in the early evening when the temperature was no longer intolerable. Climbing that stretch of slickrock in the afternoon, however, would be more difficult and possibly dangerous under the blistering sun or during an afternoon thunderstorm.
Rock cairns, or piles of small stones, guided the way up the large stone hill. The trail markers were rarely necessary; as it was fairly obvious you had to travel up the slickrock. Furthermore, the amount of people traversing the giant slab of rock made it easy to know I was going in the right direction.
As usual, I found the large crowd of hikers along the trail to be a nuisance. The noise and traffic they created took away from my personal enjoyment. But since the undefined path that spanned the slickrock slope was so wide I was easily able to dodge and move around most of the other hikers. I moved quickly, passing nearly everyone I saw, to insure I’d arrive at the arch in time for the sunset.
Views of sandstone domes and red rock formations were abundant along my climb up the smooth rock. Regrettably, I did not stop to appreciate or photograph the scenery as I was too focused on getting to the end of the trail before most of the other hikers. Sometimes I still forget that slowing down on a hike helps me better appreciate my surroundings. It also makes it easier to notice little things along the way, but when the trail is crowded it’s hard for me to take it slow.
Atop the slickrock mound I continued on the trail until I reached an exposed section shortly before my destination. The path transformed yet again, this time into a narrow ledge that hugged a sheer rock wall. There was a steep drop off to my left and a tall smooth sandstone wall to my right. The shelf was only a few feet wide, so there was enough room for two people next to each other, but I stuck next to the wall since I’m afraid of heights.
The ledge slowly curled its way around the large wall beside it. I didn’t realize it at the time, but Delicate Arch sat on the opposite side of that wall. The way the trail hooked to the right and around the wall it looked like the trail would drop off the cliff. The ledge rises subtly over the length of its 600 feet.
I eventually rounded the final stretch of the fin. And then, like magic, a wondrous scene appeared before me. Delicate Arch, in all its glory, stood tall on the edge of a large sandstone bowl. The stunning arch, a display in itself of what erosion can do over a tremendous amount of time, is precariously perched upon a cliff.
There was a large step that led to the top of the rim of the great bowl. I climbed up and over the step and then found a place nearby to sit down and relax. I took a break and looked on in wonder, surveying the immaculate landscape. The arch was easily the focal point of the scene. One of the more startling things about it is that it is a freestanding arch in the middle of a barren, windswept environment. Most of the park’s arches are contained within large sandstone fins or cliff walls. The wind and other natural elements were the driving force behind the creation of the arch and it continues to persevere through their assault today. Although, the sensational arch looks like it could topple over the cliff at any moment.
A couple dozen others were atop the bowl near me. There was ample space for people to rest, take photos, and simply enjoy the natural splendor of the landscape. Several hikers had made their way down the smooth curve of the bowl to the base of Delicate Arch. Those people were walking around the arch, leaning against it, and taking photos from beneath it. Their presence was telling when it came to the size and scale of the arch. It was 45 feet high and 33 feet wide, which may not seem that big compared to some of the others. However, it became evident just how huge it was by the way it dwarfed the people beside it.
The view of the arch from where I sat was the one that I had seen so many times before, just never in person. Delicate Arch is one of the most photographed natural rock formations in the world. Its likeness is showcased on the majority of Utah license plates, not to mention countless books, magazines, and paintings across the world.
Everything about the arch was incredible. The intricacies and imperfections of it, the color, and the view through and around it were all fantastic. Upon close inspection the subtle details were more apparent. There were small cracks, striations, and wrinkles throughout the light brown rock formation that looked more like something built my man than nature.
I considered walking down the side of the bowl to the base of the arch, but decided not to for a couple of reasons. First off, I’m not all that sure-footed, so I’m pretty sure I’d fall on the way down the smooth steep slope. Secondly, I could tell I was only minutes away from the sunset I craved and did not want to risk missing it from such a great spot.
It was a good thing I stayed put, because within a few minutes the sunset was upon me. The fading light cast by the sun spread across the floor of the sandstone bowl and then Delicate Arch. All of the red rock was illuminated by a soft warm light. A few people still stood beside the magnificent arch, ruining the image for those of us on the rim. That’s when out of nowhere, a robust middle-aged foreign man yelled at the people to get out of the way. He spoke very broken English, but definitely got his point across. The people quickly scrambled up and out of view.
Then the ground and the arch transformed from a pale grayish-brown color to a beaming golden-orange. The arch glowed radiantly. The beautiful landscape before us seemingly came to life and went from stunning to absolutely awe-inspiring. Camera shutters clicked in unison and a chorus of oohs and aahs surrounded me. Adding to the display was the scene through and past the arch. A long, multicolored plateau behind the arch glowed in the fading light. Farther out, the La Sal Mountains turned shades of blue and purple, mimicking the sky above. The whole scene was magically illuminated. It was easily one of the most amazing sights I had ever seen. The arch itself was awesome, but seeing it transform under the setting sun made it inspirational.
I sat and watched, fully mesmerized, until the bright colors became muted and I was certain the show was over. It was getting dark so I figured I better start my hike back to the trailhead.
The thought of hiking over the steep ledge section in the half-light of the evening worried me. Thankfully, it was the first thing I encountered, and there was still ample light remaining. I passed over the ledge with ease. The long slickrock slope was also relatively simple to descend. The twilight sky provided just enough light to make it down safely, but I did have to be much more careful walking down than on the way up. The home stretch down the wide, more defined path took me no time at all. It only took me half an hour to descend the entire trail.
It was fully dark by the time I got back to my campsite. I started a fire and relaxed in front of the dancing flames with a couple of cold ones. I was physically exhausted after the long day of hiking, but was still riding an emotional high from the sensational scene at Delicate Arch. I relived the day’s highlights in my head before eventually turning in for the night.