A sign at Arches National Park features a quote that reads, “Let the people walk.”
It’s a line taken from Ed Abbey’s 1968 nature writing classic “Desert Solitaire.” It might seem like an odd choice: Arches, and its nearest city, Moab, have become virtually everything “Cactus Ed” hated. The asphalt road ribboning through the park has turned Arches into an epitome of “windshield tourism,” allowing visitors to see nearly every attraction without walking. Once-sleepy Moab has become a hub for “adventure travel,” where outfitters offer mountain biking, zip lining, off-road driving — just about everything except plain old hiking.
But the quote is fitting if taken as an admonition, an interpretation that likely would have suited the curmudgeonly writer, who spent two seasons as a ranger at Arches. In “Desert Solitaire” and other best-selling books, Abbey championed the untamed spaces, making him a favorite of desert dwellers.
“(Improving roads), the engineers and politicians and bankers will tell you, makes the region accessible to everybody, no matter how fat, feeble or flaccid. That is a lie,” he once wrote. “They will never know what we knew or understand what we cannot forget.”
Yet visitors can still find ways to enjoy the starkly beautiful red-rock country that sent him into rapture — be it by foot, bike, boat or car. This corner of the state is known for its fantastic rock formations. Moab is also unique in that it has two national parks just outside city limits: Arches and Canyonlands, about 10 miles apart, and each represent different visions of what a national park can be.
The desert for tourists
On a visit to Moab, David Gessner notes in “All the Wild That Remains” that Abbey would have been horrified by what the place has become. Tourism is big business, as anyone can tell by looking at the city’s advertising campaign — “Moab: Where Adventure Begins.” Utah businessmen and politicians long have sought to cash in on having two national parks so close to each other.
I have nothing against mountain biking, river rafting or other activities that bring would-be adventurers to Moab. However, there were times during my visit to Moab when all the four-wheel-drive and other off-road vehicles gave it the feel of a Mideast war zone. And I worried that the ATVs and mountain bikes were damaging the fragile desert.
Abbey shared those concerns when he was a ranger, long before Arches or Canyonlands became a national park.
Natural arches abound at the park, but the real reason it attracts larger crowds is because of a paved road that brings you a short distance from all the major attractions. Delicate Arch, the red-rock wonder that adorns Utah license plates, requires the most work to see: a half-mile hike. Indian Gardens and other beautiful geologic formations are next to parking lots. I saw every major attraction at Arches in four hours and left the park before lunch. The geology was incredible, but I felt cheated. Experiencing nature should be about more than air-conditioned sightseeing.
To the credit of the managers of Arches, they give Abbey’s arguments their due in a display inside the visitors center.
The desert for adventure-seekers
In contrast, most of the 520 square miles of Canyonlands cannot be accessed by road. The park is divided into four sections: Island in the Sky, the most accessible and a popular area for mountain biking; the Needles, a more remote area with spectacular rock formations; the Rivers, where people raft the Colorado and Green rivers; and the Maze, the least accessible area in the park.
Park managers have largely resisted pressure to build more roads into Canyonlands. They chose a middle ground, recognizing Canyonlands as a “major scenic attraction” and “a model for preservation of a unique natural environment.”
Canyonlands’ ruggedness can make travel difficult, as my buddy and I would learn as we hiked past the spires, buttes and mesas that define the park. Outside Magazine, Backpacker and other publications have called the Maze one of the most dangerous hikes in the country. My friend and I did not find the Maze dangerous, but that’s because we both had GPS units and paper maps to navigate through an area with few defined trails or signs. The Maze is considered risky because it’s easy to get lost there, and it’s remote.
We started our hike in the Needles district, a beautiful showcase of tapering rocks that inspired its name. Rain fell not long after we left, making the ground slippery. I fell and sprained my hand and bruised an arm and a leg. No matter: I got up and continued walking, motivated by the beauty of the desert at sunset and the mystery ahead on the 10-mile hike to the Maze.
The following morning, we reached our next obstacle: the Colorado River. The source of water for most of the West can be crossed only by boat at this section. My 6-pound packraft rolls up to the size of a tent, comes with a four-piece paddle and fits in my backpack.
We crossed the river without incident and made our way to the Doll House, a collection of 100-foot-high sandstone spires resembling figurines. The spires form something of a gate for the Maze and provide a suitably surreal entrance.
We awoke the following day eager to hike the labyrinth-like canyons of the Maze. We would encounter only one small group of people during our time in there, and they were driven in by an outfitter. We were awed by the Land of Standing Rocks, which features the Chimney Rock and the Chocolate Drops, both of which look like their names. And we were slightly unsettled by Harvest Scene, an ancient Indian pictograph of what appear to be people — some with horns and hands like forks — at the bottom of the Maze.
We had to return to Moab the next day, meaning we only had one full day in the Maze. If that seems like a short time for such a difficult journey, I can only reply as Ed Abbey would have: The Maze is not for you. Go to Arches.
Information: discovermoab.com/; nps.gov/cany; nps.gov/arch
Permits: Hikers wanting to camp in the backcountry of Canyonlands must get a permit in advance. They are available at canypermits.nps.gov