My first order of business after waking up was to find a campsite. Staying in the hotel was a nice treat, but too expensive to do every night. The campsites at Arches National Park were still full, so I drove a few miles north to a campsite run by the Bureau of Land Management in the Colorado River canyon. The nice thing about my annual park pass is it grants me access to all National Park Service, Bureau of Land Management and Bureau of Reclamation facilities. I hoped the river would keep the area cooler than the top of the mesa.
Once my campsite was secure I drove back to Arches NP. Since the park exists to protect the thousands of natural arches, I should explain their creation. And yes, I did say thousands. Geologically, the area is entrada sandstone on top of navajo sandstone on top of salt. With the weight of the rock above it, the salt behaved like a fluid, causing the top rock layers to buckle and form narrow ridges or fins. Slightly acidic rain soaked into the entrada sandstone working its way down until blocked by the navajo sandstone. This blocked water dissolved the calcium in the entrada sandstone causing it to weaken and crumble, thus forming an arch. Whereas natural bridges are formed by erosion, natural arches are formed by chemical reaction. To be given a name, an arch must be at least three feet wide. The first arches you will run into at the park are The Windows, large side by side arches.
I explored the park until the sun started setting and hiked the 1.5 mile path out to Delicate Arch, the most famous arch in the park. I would become very familiar with this hike over the next few days. I anticipated there may be a handful of people out there trying to photograph the arch and the sunset. Imagine my surprise when I came around the final bend and found a natural amphitheater-like bowl crowded with over a hundred people. Most famous natural arch of all time? I found a spot to set up my camera to get the arch with the sunset and waited for the sun to move into position. People, couples generally, were posing under the arch getting their touristy pictures taken. Then a women walked over and stood under the arch taking abstract photos. Close ups of the rocks, top of the arch against the sky, etc. For several minutes. You could hear the crowd grow restless. Finally, the photographer sitting next to me stood up and yelled out "ARE YOU DONE YET?!?!!" The women sheepishly walked away while the entire crowd applauded. Or to use an SAT analogy, mother bear:cub::photographer:sunset photo.
I treated myself to an actual dinner in Moab, with pecan pie dessert, and then tried to get some sleep. The key word being "tried". Remember my idea about the river keeping the campsite cooler? Well, I didn't take into account the sun hitting the canyon walls all day long. Thermal mass for the win. Or loss, in this case. After sunset, the rocks gave off the heat they had absorbed during the day. I was laying nude, on top of my sleeping bag, in an open tent with no air flow for three hours. And then finally around two in the morning the temperature dropped and I was out like a light. By far the most miserable and uncomfortable night of sleep during my trip. In fact, it ranks up there in my life too.
The next day I decided to explore the area outside the park. The first thing that caught my eye was the giant excavation project surrounded be fences marked with radiation warning signs. I mean, how could you not be curious? We don't have that type of stuff on the east coast. From what I could observe, the entire operation was divided into a dirty side and a clean side. The dirty trucks brought containers filled with contaminated soil from the excavation to a transfer station were the containers were lifted onto the clean trucks and hauled up to railroad tracks to be loaded onto a train. And the process was reversed for empty containers. I did a little research later and found out this is part of the Department of Energy's UMTRA Project.
Beyond UMTRA, the road follows the Colorado River downstream and dead ends at a large potash plant. The salt beneath the sandstone is very rich in potassium, which is used in fertilizer. After being brought to the surface the salt is processed and shipped out by rail. Also along this road is the trail out to Corona Arch. Someone mentioned Corona Arch to me earlier and it stuck in my mind for some reason, like I had heard it before. As it turns out, I knew of the arch through a popular rope swing video. The arch is the same color as the rock wall it is attached to, so it just seemingly appears out of nowhere, like one of those Magic Eye puzzles. Those are people sitting beneath it to give it a sense of scale. It's a pretty big arch. Much bigger than Delicate Arch.
After exploring and dinner it was time to head back out to get more night sky photos. Again, I made the hike out to Delicate Arch, but it was a different story this time. Following trails marked with rock cairns is easy enough during the day, but is nearly impossible at night. I used my GPS to follow the trail, but as you can see, I wasn't doing very well. The red line is my track and the dashed line is the actual trail. At one point I was over 500 feet off the trail.
While hiking I was slightly concerned that I would be alone at the arch. Having the run of the place would be nice, but let's face it, being out in the middle of a desert, alone, at night, is a bit scary. I guess I really didn't have anything to worry about; it wasn't going to be cold and it was extremely unlikely I would run into a mountain lion. But there was still that uneasy feeling in the back of my mind. Well, once again I underestimated the popularity of the arch because there were two other photographers out there. I know it doesn't sound like a lot, but I was still surprised. One photographer soon left and the final photographer started doing light painting photos of the arch. For those unfamiliar with the technique, you shine a light on a key subject during a long exposure at night. In this case he was using a flashlight with a red filter to illuminate the arch. I "stole" some of his light painting for my photos and thought they turned out great. Until I saw them hours later on my larger laptop screen and realized I had accidentally bumped my tilt-shift lens, adding a few degrees of tilt. With the lens tilted, the image quickly goes out of focus on the left and right sides, ruining the stars. Ugh, so close to another great photograph.
It turns out my bad luck for the night wasn't over. I was walking back to the other photographer when the lens, my brand new tilt-shift lens, bumped into a rock outcropping and the lens cap popped off. I immediately lost sight of the cap in the pitch black as I heard it slide down the bowl-like rock formation. The sliding got fainter and stopped, just long enough for me to think "Man, it's a good thing it didn't go over the edge" and then I heard a hard bounce, and more hard bounces and finally silence. I figured there was a way to the bottom of the bowl, but the other photographer discouraged me from making a rescue attempt in the dark. I reluctantly gave up and walked back to the parking lot with the photographer. Which was just as much fun as the hike out to the arch.
The next day I immediately went to the visitor center and had a ranger confirm there was indeed a way to the bottom of the bowl. Before attempting a rescue I wanted to take advantage of the late morning light and see Landscape Arch, the park's most impressive arch in my opinion. Given it's proportions, I understand why it was given the name, but I think this arch should really be called Delicate Arch. It's span is 290 feet, nearly a football field, and at one point is only six feet thick. Pieces have also fallen or collapsed within the past twenty years, which sounds pretty delicate to me.
It was finally the moment to attempt my lens cap rescue and hike out to Delicate Arch, for the third time. Of course it was almost noon, the hottest, and least photogenic, part of the day. The hike was sweaty and the bowl was already crowded with people, which I expected given my earlier experiences. In the daylight I quickly found a way down to the bottom and began looking. The black lens cap was clearly not on any of the exposed rocks, so the only place it could be was the sandy clump of brush in the center. After a few minutes of searching I saw a round black plastic object. I started getting excited. Could it be? My missing lens cap? Nope. It was just an old, dirty, 52mm Canon lens cap. Not. Even. Close. Unfortunately, there was no happy ending to this story. The lens cap was lost for good and I had to buy a new one when I got home.
Dejected, I returned to my campsite to pack my things. The relentless sun had caused the tent to get so hot that insects refused to crawl or land on it. The first for this entire trip. Then it was a relatively short drive to Canyonlands National Park, my next destination.