MY FIRST VIEW OF THE DESERT near Moab, Utah, comes into focus as the rising sun darts across red rocks stacked in layers across the landscape. Light snow left a dusting of ice crystals on the face of the stone, glittering like a million tiny lights as the dawn sun briefly catches it. It’s the sort of sight that can actually take away your breath, a moment when the concept of magic blurs with reality.
The drama increases in nearby Arches National Park. The rock itself, though predominantly rust-red in color, also glints in shades of green, black, orange and even purple, depending upon the amount of iron contained within sections and the specific geologic forces that shaped its composition.
Formed naturally of sandstone, more than 2,000 rock arches and windows punctuate the park landscape. New ones are in the process of formation all the time, thanks to the erosive action of wind, rain, snowmelt and the cracking that occurs when water freezes in narrow clefts and fissures.
Beyond these iconic, evanescent bridges of stone arcing against the sky, the park also presents a humbling collection of towering pinnacles; domes; hollow, honeycombed tafoni formations; otherworldly rock hoodoos; and massive boulders suspended at the tops of narrow, soaring plinths, including the 3,500-plus-ton Balanced Rock. Given that the area encompassing the park likely took millions of years to form, the notion of seeing everything in one trip proves a daunting prospect — which is where the skill and insight of a local outfitter becomes priceless.
“Pre-tour custom designing is imperative, especially due to the distances between destinations around Moab,” offers Brian D. Murphy, CEO/founder, Utah Luxury Tours (a Division of Luxus Travel, Inc.). “We cater to distinguished travelers who are accustomed to concierge travel-planning services and touring privately, with a fully escorted touring experience from the time they arrive ʼtil the time we hug them goodbye at the airport.”
The guides who make up Murphy’s team are local, including his business partner, Lukas Sigmund, the company’s original tour designer and lead guide. For those wishing to see and experience park highlights such as Delicate Arch, Tunnel Arch, the Devils Garden and the Petrified Dunes, Utah Luxury Tours can build an itinerary that eliminates the navigational and parking worries and allows visitors to concentrate on the sites themselves.
Whether you choose a guide or decide to go it alone, Murphy recommends including locations typically overlooked or missed entirely, such as the hike up and down the Grandstaff Trail. The route ranges in difficulty from easy to moderate, meandering over a small stream in several different spots. At the end of the canyon, hikers will find the Morning Glory Natural Bridge, the sixthlongest natural rock span in the United States.
He also suggests driving up to the La Sal Mountains, following the 28-mile La Sal Mountain Loop Road for a different perspective of the high-altitude desert, or the oft-overlooked Park Avenue hike, offering a mile-long walk through high desert country.
While Delicate Arch consistently rates as a must-see for first-time park visitors, Landscape Arch is frequently skipped because parking at nearby Devils Garden can be tough to find. But it’s worth the effort; though the path beneath it is closed due to frequent rock falls, this span is regarded as one of the longest natural arches on the planet.
Wondering when to go? Murphy suggests April and May are ideal; depending upon the amount of snow delivered that winter and how much moisture is in the ground, the desert can burst into spectacular blooms. He also recommends October, when the crowds have largely dispersed and mild temperatures make hiking and exploring particularly enjoyable. If a visit is on your own bucket list, don’t delay. In 2008 the famous Wall Arch succumbed to the relentless forces of gravity along Devils Garden Trail, and there’s no predicting when other astonishing and dramatic sites may also be forever altered.
INFO TO GO
The closest major airport to Arches National Park is Salt Lake City International Airport. From there it’s about a four-hour drive to the town of Moab and Arches National Park. Two closer local options are Grand Junction Regional Airport, located in Grand Junction, Colorado, approximately 1.5 hours via Interstate 70; and Canyonlands Field Airport, about 18 miles from Moab. These regional airports have limited services, with some connections to Salt Lake City. Rental cars are available from all three options, and the drive passes through stunning scenery. If you’ve contracted with a local outfitter, inquire about pick-up and drop-off choices.
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