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A delicate balance at Arches National Park

Delicate Arch Iconic Delicate Arch is the best known among the park’s more than 2,000 arches. | Photo by Byelikova Oksana/stock.adobe.com

It was a kind of heresy. A perverse form of pilgrimage. On a hot afternoon last July, Shane Henry and I drove into a small patch of Utah desert the writer Edward Abbey called “the most beautiful place on earth.”

We’d come to Arches National Park not only to explore the ethereal sandstone formations but also to finish a little work. Henry, a AAA field cartographer, was completing research for a new road map of the park.

Desert Solitaire

Copies of Desert Solitaire are available at Back of Beyond Books.

We’d both loved much of Abbey’s 1968 memoir, Desert Solitaire, about the time the author spent as a seasonal ranger at Arches. Hailed by the New Yorker as “an American masterpiece,” the book is so seminal, the National Park Service sends a copy to every incoming ranger at Arches. The local bookstore in Moab has a hard time keeping it in stock. And even decades after Abbey’s death, pilgrims flock to Arches to honor the prickly author known as “Cactus Ed.”

But—and here’s where our visit might have gotten a little sacrilegious—Abbey also railed against automobiles in Arches and other national parks.

“Let the people walk,” he wrote. At the time he lived in the park, in the mid-1950s, Arches had only dirt roads. It was a little-known national monument with few visitors, which was just the way he liked it. In fact, when he spotted wooden survey stakes for a new paved road in the works, he claimed to have hiked 5 miles pulling them up and throwing them away. “A futile effort in the long run,” he wrote, “but it made me feel good.”

The road was built, and as far as Abbey was concerned, it was the ruin of Arches. Chief among its victims, he argued, were the visitors, who he believed would never experience the wild magic that lay beyond the pavement.

Arches National Park map

A draft of the new Arches National Park map.

I wasn’t so sure he was right about that, and when I heard my colleague was working on a map of Arches, I thought I’d tag along. I wanted to see what had become of the park Abbey had so revered, and I wondered how a new map could affect the area. I couldn’t have picked a more charged moment.

Visitor numbers at Arches had been climbing steadily for years, but the pandemic drove even more Americans to the park. In fact, for much of 2021, rangers were routinely closing the front entrance for hours to control crowds, a drastic measure that frustrated thwarted travelers and made national headlines. And Arches was hardly alone. Unprecedented crowds were straining popular parks from Acadia to Zion.

Into the wild

Arches National Park entrance

AAA field cartographer Shane Henry at an alternate park entrance.

Given the headlines, I braced myself for what we might find as we turned off the highway in our 4-wheel-drive Ford F-150 Mapping Unit truck. Instead of entering Arches through the front gate, however, Henry wanted to take a back route through the original entrance Abbey had used. So we drove along Willow Springs Road, bumping and rolling over the rough dirt track for miles—4x4 required—until we encountered a lone sign: ENTERING ARCHES NATIONAL PARK.

There wasn’t another soul in sight.

I hopped out and breathed in the hot, dry air. Gnarled junipers and scrub dotted the desert. In the distance, buttes and mesas rose. A pale blue sky stretched to the horizon.

We drove on, searching for a spot some consider sacred.

Abbey had grown up in Pennsylvania, served overseas in the military, and earned a master’s degree in philosophy before landing his seasonal ranger job at Arches. He lived in a trailer inside the park with a view of the La Sal Mountains, several arches, and a balanced rock that, he wrote, “looks like a head from Easter Island, a stone god or a petrified ogre.”

It was here that he slid on his belly observing snakes; studied his favorite juniper, hoping to “make a connection through its life to whatever falls beyond”; and generally reveled in “the center of the world, God’s navel, Abbey’s country.”

The trailer is long gone, and no signs mark the site, but we hoped to find it. Henry had brought a grainy photo taken years earlier that purportedly showed the trailer and its surroundings. By studying landmarks, he thought he’d identified the site. He pulled off the road and cut the engine.

“I think it’s right up there,” he said, pointing to a dusty rise 50 yards away.

Careful not to trample sensitive soil, we walked up a narrow path. “I guarantee the people who made these footprints were looking for Ed’s spot,” Henry said. We saw something resembling a manhole cover over an underground tank, as well as an old waterline. Moments later, Henry pointed to a clearing: “I think his trailer sat right there.”

Indeed, the wide, flat spot matched Abbey’s description. Balanced Rock stood a quarter mile away, ever the rocky ogre. Several arches rose in the distance. And through the haze, the mountains shimmered.

I’d arrived. Like Walden Pond and a few other sites, this spot was hallowed ground for a certain kind of traveler. Abbey’s rendering of this wilderness had inspired in me, and countless others, I suspected, a deeper appreciation for the outdoors and fierce writing about it.

My reverie was short-lived, however. Henry pointed to the tops of cars breezing by a short distance away. “That’s the main road,” he said. “The one Abbey didn’t want.”

It was time to see what had become of “Abbey’s country.”

The search for balance

Henry and I drove past the cliff faces of the Great Wall and the imposing sandstone Tower of Babel to the park visitors center. By now, the temperature had soared well into the triple digits, keeping visitor numbers in check. Indeed, the park’s front gate had remained open all day. The center was buzzing. Rangers were fielding questions, and the gift shop was doing a brisk business in T-shirts and mugs bearing miniature arches.

Karen Garthwait

Karen Garthwait, a National Park Service ranger in Utah.

I met Karen Garthwait, a veteran Utah ranger. After chatting about the recent crowds, I asked what she thought of Abbey’s opposition to cars in the park. She’d read Desert Solitaire and could empathize.

“With such a strong love of place, it’s understandable to want to protect that place, and possibly even save that place for yourself,” she said. “Who hasn’t had that feeling?”

But the Park Service is charged with both preserving parks and providing for people’s enjoyment of them. “There’s an inherent seeming contradiction in that,” Garthwait said. “I say ‘apparent contradiction’ because I believe that a balance is possible.”

While the challenge seems particularly modern, the Park Service has struggled to define and achieve a balance since its establishment in 1916. Its first director, Stephen T. Mather, initially worried that too few Americans were visiting parks and viewed roads and cars as essential to the agency’s future. But almost from the beginning, park administrators have grappled with traffic problems.

Garthwait acknowledged that spontaneously closing Arches’ front entrance for hours at a time wasn’t a good long-term solution. And since our chat, in fact, the Park Service announced it was planning to try a timed-entry reservation system at Arches in 2022.

Considering the strain, I asked Garthwait if she still found magic in the park. She didn’t hesitate. “Early, early morning,” she said, “before the crowds come—when they’re still eating their pancakes in town—you get that early-morning light that kisses the orange rock and turns it bright red.”

She looked off, as though picturing the scene, and added, “Maybe a couple of birdsongs. That’s my jam.”

Reconsidering Abbey

My jam is hiking, but given the heat, I’d have to wait until morning. So I wandered Moab, where Henry and I were staying. A gateway to Arches, which is located 5 miles away, the town is a popular base for mountain bikers and off-roaders. Even in the 100-degree-plus temperatures, visitors on Main Street were shopping and dining under misting machines.

I stopped into Back of Beyond Books, which specializes in titles on exploration, Native American cultures, the Four Corners, and the Colorado Plateau. Opened in 1990 to honor Abbey a year after his death, the store stocks Abbey’s many titles as well as others’ books about him. These days, not all of them are entirely flattering.

Desert Solitaire hit stores at the height of the ’60s counterculture, when many young Americans were protesting the Vietnam War and ready to abandon civilization for nature.

For them, “the book was a kind of balm,” said Roderick Frazier Nash, professor emeritus of history and environmental studies at UC Santa Barbara and the author of Wilderness and the American Mind. “They thought, I can be an archdruid in the wilderness.”

These days, however, even many who admire Abbey’s love of the desert are critical of other attitudes he expressed. In her 2018 book, Desert Cabal, Utah writer Amy Irvine takes Abbey to task for a range of issues, but especially his view of our place in the outdoors.

She recoils at his use of “Abbey’s country,” noting that Native Americans—including Ancestral Puebloan, Fremont, Ute, and Paiute tribes—had lived in the area for millennia.

Also, Desert Solitaire doesn’t mention Abbey’s wife and son who sometimes lived with him in the park. “I know it’s a device,” she writes. But she insists the rugged individualism Abbey espoused is no longer viable: “We are on our way to being cows crammed together in a feedlot. To survive … we’ll need intimacy with people every bit as much as place.”

Back of Beyond Books

Books line the outside of Back of Beyond Books in Moab, Utah.

That idea, in particular, resonated with Shari Zollinger, the book buyer at Back of Beyond. As we chatted outside, the Utah native recounted her own discovery of Arches during a solo motorcycle trip in 1995, when Moab was “a dusty little town.” She fell hard for the area and for Desert Solitaire.

But, as is the case for so many others, Zollinger’s feelings have evolved. “It’s really romantic to think you’re going to walk out in the desert alone and get your aha moment,” she said. “But Desert Cabal is saying it’s a community effort. Let’s walk out there together and have a conversation.”

Conversations are also important to have now in Moab, she said. Residents are struggling with the influx of visitors and the town’s growth. Souvenirs on Main Street might tout the “Wild and Free” life—coffee mugs for sale display the phrase—but locals are debating the price of all the new development. “Some feel that Moab is becoming overrun,” she said. “We’re trying to find a balance.”

There was that word again. Balance.

‘Let them walk’

Park visitors

Visitors drive through Arches early one morning.

It was on my mind again as Henry and I drove into Arches the next morning. Henry had been meticulously noting the conditions of every dirt road so that map users could tell whether they’d need 4-wheel-drive for a given route—critical information for those seeking wide-open desert or the dispersed camping accessible via dirt tracks just outside park boundaries.

I’d come to realize that plenty of park visitors were willing to leave the pavement, and the map Henry was creating could help them to do so more safely.

Meanwhile, I wanted to explore more of the park on foot. “Let them walk,” Abbey had written, and now, I would.

Double Arch

Visitors hike the short trail to Double Arch.

Shortly after sunrise, Henry and I pulled up to the trailhead for Double O Arch. As he drove off to do some charting work, I found I had the trail around me mostly to myself. I climbed for a couple of miles to a small ribbon of sandstone known as Partition Arch. A lone hiker sat nearby, looking through the formation’s opening at the rocky desert below.

Partition Arch

Komal, a 22-year-old hiker, admires Partition Arch, among the park’s more than 2,000 arches.

Komal was 22 years old and driving cross-country to a new job in San Francisco. She’d never heard of Abbey, she said between bites of granola, but she loved the park. “I’ve never seen anything like it before.”

A few minutes later, she took off, and I was alone, exulting in the view and the silence. I recalled something ranger Garthwait had told me: Most visitors congregate in a few spots. You don’t have to work too hard to find a little solitude.

I had a very different experience elsewhere in the park, when I scrambled up slickrock and wound along a rocky path with at least several dozen other hikers. My goal remained hidden until I rounded a bend and spotted it: Delicate Arch, the park’s most iconic landmark.

Delicate Arch

The 52-foot-tall Delicate Arch in Utah’s Arches National Park is accessible via a 3-mile round-trip hike.

I’d seen its image adorning countless Utah license plates, but nothing could have prepared me for the sight. The massive arch stood several hundred yards away at the edge of a cliff and glowed brilliant orange against a powder-blue sky. At least 100 other hikers were nearby, basking in the sun and taking in the view. Some sat around a kind of natural rocky amphitheater. Others waited in line to pose for a photo.

At a different time in my life—perhaps when I’d first read Abbey decades earlier—I might have been annoyed by the crowd. Not now.

Every one of us had just endured an agonizing 18 months. Some had perhaps lost loved ones to the pandemic. Others, like myself, were taking our first tentative steps back out into the world. The gathering struck me as a quiet, reverent celebration, but not of Abbey’s country. This was our country.

Jim Benning is travel editor of AAA publications.

*  *  *  *  *

Cadillac Mountain

Sunrise from the top of Cadillac Mountain in Acadia National Park. | Photo by Harry Collins/stock.adobe.com

Protecting America’s ‘best idea’: national parks

Our national parks are “the best idea we ever had,” author Wallace Stegner famously once remarked, and these days, record numbers of Americans seem to agree. In 2021, parks across the country were reporting record-shattering visits—and strain. As a result, government and industry leaders are exploring ways to alleviate overcrowding.

Among the proposals being discussed: creating more national parks and monuments. “Economics 101 is if you have an increase in demand, one way to meet that is with an increase in supply,” said Senator Angus King, an independent from Maine who cochairs the Senate Subcommittee on National Parks. “That’s one of the options that we’re going to be looking at.”

Of course, travelers are flocking to Yosemite and Yellowstone for one-of-a-kind valleys and geysers—features that can’t be replicated by an act of Congress. The National Park Service oversees 423 parks, but roughly half of all visits in 2020 were logged at the top 23.

To manage the unprecedented crowds, officials have implemented a range of pilot programs, from requiring reservations to enter during busy months (Yosemite, Glacier, and Rocky Mountain) to requiring reservations to simply drive a beloved route (Acadia’s Cadillac Summit Road).

Tourism marketers are making changes, too. In 2013, Utah’s Office of Tourism launched its “Mighty 5” campaign using TV commercials, magazine ads, and social media to raise awareness of the state’s national parks.

The result? “We went from people not understanding our offering to having intense congestion in at least 2 of the national parks,” said Vicki Varela, managing director of the Office of Tourism. “So, we started pivoting.”

In 2017, the agency began promoting less-crowded destinations, including Goblin Valley and Goosenecks state parks, and in 2019, added messaging to attract visitors who will stay longer and explore more deeply.

In addition, the office now works with park-adjacent communities to manage development, and partners with nonprofits to promote responsible recreation. In short, Varela said, “The marketing message has become much more nuanced.”

Making such changes, to both messaging and management, is part of a pressing nationwide conversation that extends to the Halls of Congress.

Senator King, who loves to road-trip in his RV, likely spoke for many travelers when he remarked at a hearing in July: “Watching the sunrise from the top of Cadillac Mountain is a wonderful experience. Staring at taillights of the car in front of you as you’re trying to get up the mountain to find a parking place? Not so much.” —J.B.

ACE Employee Jen Warren holding the Arches map

Free AAA Arches map

The new AAA Arches National Park map is available at your local AAA branch.

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AAA Arches National Park map

The new AAA Arches National Park map available at your local AAA branch.

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AAA Travel Alert: Many travel destinations have implemented COVID-19–related restrictions. Before making travel plans, check to see if hotels, attractions, cruise lines, tour operators, restaurants, and local authorities have issued health and safety-related restrictions or entry requirements. The local tourism board is a good resource for updated information.

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