Feature: Once the subject of paeans by Edward Abbey, can Arches NP survive the crowds?
As always, I arrived too late. The time to be here, the real sweet spot? I missed it. Try a good half-century ago, I was told by locals, before the place was discovered by the outside world, back when it was still Arches National Monument and not yet a designated park, just a dusty backwater in southeast Utah inhabited by a few old cowboys, desert castaways, Latter-Day seekers, and a handful of tourists who’d perhaps made a wrong turn somewhere. The roads — a pure, unpaved hell — tended to discourage folks. Fifty, maybe 60, people a day made the four-mile drive from the highway to the front gate, where many simply turned around and headed back the way they came. (By contrast, 4,000 visitors now amount to a slow day at Arches.)
The mid-1950s was a time when one could plausibly claim to be the “sole inhabitant, usufructuary, observer and custodian” of Arches, as Edward Abbey did in “Desert Solitaire,” his classic 1968 account of two seasons spent as a park ranger there. A “rather personal demesne,” he called it, with “league on league of red cliff and arid tablelands, extending through purple haze over the bulging curve of the planet to the ranges of Colorado — a sea of desert.” All of it, he wrote, “lies beyond the end of the roads.”