Trying to be a Hero in Arches National Park

After hiking all over Arches National Park the previous day I branched out. I spent most of my morning in neighboring Canyonlands National Park. Then I moved on to Moab, where I enjoyed my afternoon before returning to my campsite in Arches for dinner.

Back at camp, I was relaxing on my final night in the park. The following morning I planned to stop at Capitol Reef National Park before moving on to Bryce Canyon National Park for two nights. But first, I had one last night in Arches. I was happy with the way I spent my time in the park, embarking on almost every hike that Arches had to offer. I then remembered that I really hadn’t hiked much of the trail directly across from my tent, aside from the short distance to Tapestry Arch on my first night. So, I figured I’d grill myself some dinner and then head out on the short hike in the early evening.

I was casually cooking some hot dogs on my grill when I heard a park ranger’s radio going crazy with activity. There was a ranger pacing in front of the restrooms, talking hastily with someone on the other end of his radio. I couldn’t help but eavesdrop on the conversation from a distance. I wasn’t certain, but it sounded like someone was lost on a trail and a search and rescue mission was going to commence.

Once the radio traffic slowed down for a minute I walked over to the ranger and asked him what was going on, unsure if he’d actually share anything with me. He did. He first asked if I had recently hiked the Broken Arch and Sand Dune Arch Trail that starts right next to the restroom where we stood. I said I hadn’t, but that I was planning on hiking that trail as soon as I finished my dinner. I think that convinced him to tell me the rest.

He said a man had gone missing on the trail, and then gave me his full description. He was an Asian in his 60s or 70s that spoke no English. He had apparently left his family at their campsite and embarked on the short hike by himself. The hike is only about a mile round-trip, yet he had been gone for over four hours, which seriously concerned his family. A big issue early on in the rescue effort was the language barrier. It was very difficult for the family to successfully provide accurate and useful information to the park rangers.

I returned to my site and quickly ate my hot dogs. Then I tossed some extra goods in my backpack, just in case. I brought way more water than I would typically need as well as an extra flashlight and some food for the short hike in case I found the missing person. I was at the trailhead within a couple of minutes. The ranger told me to keep an eye out for the missing person and said that a search and rescue team would be out soon.

The trail was wide, level, and sandy from the start. The difficult aspect would be the exposure to the sun, but it wasn’t too bad for me since it was early evening and not as hot.

I was soon back near Tapestry Arch, where I stood two days earlier. I examined the arch from a distance, but my mind was focused on the missing hiker. I wanted to be the one to find him and help bring him out safely. I was hoping to play the hero. I have no Search and Rescue training. In fact, the closest I have would be the class I took on First Aid and CPR in High School ten years earlier. Still, I felt like I could help and I really wanted to.

The searching aspect of my hike complicated things. In a way I wanted to slow my pace way down so I could be more observant. That way I could also be quieter and listen better. That all made sense to me; however, there was also another idea in my head. Maybe it would be a better if I moved quickly down the path in an effort to cover more ground faster and, ideally, find the guy sooner. I ended up doing a combination of the two. I’d go slow for a bit and explore more, then speed up and cover more ground. I’m still not sure if it made sense, but it seemed like a good idea at the time.

Even though most of my thoughts were with the missing hiker, I still enjoyed the hike. I stopped at Broken Arch for a couple minutes. First off, the arch isn’t actually broken. There’s a crack and a black streak down the center of it, but it is still solid at this time. It’s a mid-sized arch, a little wider than it is tall. The area around the arch was mostly open, so I didn’t expect to find the man there.

I moved on quickly, farther south toward Sand Dune Arch. Broken Arch was probably close to the halfway point. The sandy pathway cut across the arid desert. I stuck to the trail, like any smart hiker would. But the more I thought about it, it was not likely that the missing person would be found on the trail. He most likely saw something that intrigued him and then ventured off trail for a closer look only to get lost. He probably figured he could walk a short distance away from the path and then return easily enough. Although, he could have simply lost his way and got confused, then likely went in the wrong direction, only to get farther off track. Another possibility was that the man simply got too hot and exhausted with it being midday, so he decided to step off trail for a break in some shade.

Meanwhile, I hiked on to Sand Dune Arch. This was a relatively small arch sandwiched between two sandstone fins. While Broken Arch was slightly wider than it was tall, this one was far wider than tall. Sand Dune Arch is just eight feet high, but thirty feet wide. As implied by its name there is plenty of sand in the confined space. The entire area between the two fins and under the short arch is covered by soft sand. It didn’t look like there was anywhere in the area where the man could be. I figured he must have been back at the opposite end of the trail near Tapestry Arch where there were some trees and other variables in the terrain.

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I started back towards the trailhead. There is another trailhead along the main park road, closer to Sand Dune Arch, but that wouldn’t have done me any good since my car was at my campsite. I moved swiftly along the easy trail once more, because I was convinced the missing person was nowhere in that area.

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When I was back in the open area of the desert, not far from Broken Arch, I heard a loud noise overhead. I looked up to find a small plane flying by. It was probably only a couple hundred feet above the ground and appeared to be surveying the area. I was certain that was an escalated effort in the Search and Rescue mission.

Within a few minutes I was almost back to the trailhead within the campground. I heard a group of people nearby, evidently part of the search crew looking for the man. The ranger’s radio was crackling a lot again. Once I got back to the start I told a ranger there that I didn’t see the missing person anywhere. He said thanks for looking and to have a good night.

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It was still early in the evening and while it didn’t look like I’d be able to be a hero that night, I was still hoping to help. I walked over to where the Search and Rescue team had set up a little farther down the campground road. I asked if I could help in any way and also offered more water bottles and flashlights. They appreciated the offer, but said they had everything under control. Apparently the plane spotted the missing hiker and a few people were nearing his location at the moment. Satisfied, I returned to my site and started a fire.

About a half hour later I saw the missing man arrive at the trailhead under his own power. Two park rangers flanked his sides. He looked exhausted, but alright. The whole Search and Rescue team was waiting there to welcome him with his family. The rescue crew consisted of about ten people, two dogs, three trucks, and one plane. It was a group of well-trained volunteers, based out of nearby Moab. They combined their efforts with the park rangers to succeed in their mission. It was a happy ending for the missing hiker and his family and a fine way to end my time in Arches National Park.

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