Park History: Arches National Park

How would you describe Arches to someone who had never been to the Southwest? You could try to explain the landscape by comparing it to the old Flintstones cartoons, but what if they weren't familiar with the Flintstones? Do you think they'd believe you if you said Arches was a cathedral of rocks, where gravity doesn't always work, where the sunsets stain the cliffs?

“From (writers) Edward Abbey to Terry Tempest Williams, there’re all kinds of people who talk about red-rock country,” Paul Henderson, the operations chief for the National Park Service’s Southeastern Utah Group that includes Arches, Canyonlands, Natural Bridges National Monument and Hovenweep National Monument told me when I asked him to explain the lure of southeastern Utah. “Nowhere else will you see the assemblage of geology that we’ve got here. We’ve got all of it – mesas, buttes, needles, goblins, natural bridges – and it happens to be a really cool palette of colors.”

Arches National Park was under construction for millions of years. In fact, it still isn't finished, as erosional forces continue to sculpt and chip away at the landscape. Over the millennia erosion has created more than 2,000 arches in the park, ranging from small, three-foot spans to Landscape Arch, which measures 306 feet from base to base.

How did all this come to be? Here's how the Park Service explains the geologic forces at work:


Arches National Park lies atop an underground salt bed called the “Paradox Formation” which is responsible for the arches, spires, balanced rocks, fins and eroded monoliths common throughout the park. Thousands of feet thick in places, the Paradox Formation was deposited over 300 million years ago when seas flowed into the region and eventually evaporated. Over millions of years, the salt bed was covered with the residue of floods and winds as the oceans returned and evaporated again and again. Much of this debris was cemented into rock. At one time this overlying layer of rock may have been more than a mile thick.

Salt under pressure is unstable, and the salt bed below Arches began to flow under the weight of the overlying sandstones. This movement caused the surface rock to buckle and shift, thrusting some sections upward into domes, dropping others into surrounding cavities, and causing vertical cracks which would later contribute to the development of arches.

As the subsurface movement of salt shaped the surface, erosion stripped away the younger rock layers. Water seeped into cracks and joints, washing away loose debris and eroding the "cement" that held the sandstone together, leaving a series of free-standing fins. During colder periods, ice formed, its expansion putting pressure on the rock, breaking off bits and pieces, and sometimes creating openings. Many damaged fins collapsed. Others, with the right degree of hardness and balance, have survived as the world famous formations of Arches National Park.

We're just the latest batch of humans to be amazed by Arches. Human history in the park goes back at least 10,000 years, to when hunter-gatherers came to today's Courthouse Wash to find rocks and stones suitable for working into tools and weapons. More recently, in the late 1800s, Civil War veteran John Wesley Wolfe settled in today's park along Salt Wash near the trailhead to Delicate Arch. His weathered cabin still stands there, albeit it a little worse for the wear.

Things didn't really start happening for Arches as a national icon until the 1920s, when Alexander Ringhoffer, a prospector, wrote the Rio Grande Western Railroad in 1923 in an effort to publicize the area and gain support for creating a national park.

Ringhoffer led railroad executives interested in attracting more rail passengers into the formations; they were impressed, and the campaign began. The government sent research teams to investigate and gather evidence. On April 12, 1929 President Herbert Hoover signed the legislation creating Arches National Monument, to protect the arches, spires, balanced rocks, and other sandstone formations. On November 12, 1971 congress changed the status of Arches to a National Park, recognizing over 10,000 years of cultural history that flourished in this now famous landscape of sandstone arches and canyons.

And, of course, the late Edward Abbey got his taste of Park Service life as a seasonal ranger at Arches in the 1950s. During that stint, Abbey discovered the soul of the red-rock landscape and proceeded to warn of its downfall if development wasn't halted and more land wasn't preserved unscathed.