Arches and Canyonlands: The Permanence of Impermanence

  • Judy on top of the world on the trail to Double O Arch at Arches National Park.

At Arches National Park, we scrambled over clusters of rock to walk along a sandstone fin with sheer sides, heart-stopping dropoffs and amazing views. I felt like I was queen of the world.

At its sister-park, Canyonlands, we looked out over miles of canyons, spires, and cliffs, cut by the Green and Colorado rivers. I felt small and insignificant.

And both parks, created from eroding and ever-changing rock forms, made me think about the impermanence of things that seem permanent.

In fact, it was the impermanence of life, that led Tom and I to choose our life on the road. More than a decade ago, Tom survived neck cancer, a harrowing year of surgeries and treatment that I was convinced would be in vain. Thankfully, I was wrong. But it made very evident to us the fragility of our existence, and led us to see the world while we could.

I think, and I hope, this life of less stress, more movement, and greater joy, will extend our lives. Maybe I love the canyons of the West because we, too, are slowly crumbling edifices.

And it isn’t just us. Every day, as we visit national parks and fragile, wild places across the country, we see evidence of climate change and human impact, including ours, I must admit. It creates a feeling of haste to see things before they’re gone, before the puffins disappear, before the Redwoods lose the fog and gasp for moisture, before the invasive Burmese pythons eat everything in the Everglades.

Arches, a landscape sculpted by change, gets its name from more than 2,000 arches scattered throughout the park, some only three feet across. Landscape Arch, the longest, measures 306 feet at its base. Even it illustrates impermanence, losing a 60-foot-long slab from its underside in 1991, and becoming an even slimmer strand of rock.

When we arrived, we drove the length of the park, stopping at the La Sal Mountains Viewpoint, taking in formations like Balanced Rock and Courthouse Towers, and walking the half-mile to Double Arch. The colors, orange, tan, white, brown, a palette created by tiny particles of iron oxide, form thick and thin layers, capstones, and soaring, graceful sculptures.

Geologists believe these arches, along with spires, pinnacles and boulders balanced on slender bases, are the result of an ocean that filled the area 300 million years ago and evaporated. It left a bed of salt thousands of feet thick across the Colorado Plateau. Then, over millions of years, the salt bed was covered with debris that became rock, maybe a mile thick. The salt bed, not able to withstand the weight, shifted, moved, created domes pushing the rock upward and cracking it, then liquefied, leaving the rock to collapse into the void. Faults, like the Moab Fault, which can be seen from the entrance road at Arches, also caused vertical cracks.

Erosion from water and wind stripped off the top mile of the uplifted Colorado Plateau, down to the coral-colored Entrada Sandstone, in which most arches form, to the crumbling, dark red Dewey Bridge layers underneath. You can also see petrified dunes of buff-colored Navajo Sandstone, with thin, slanting layers of wind-blown sand, called cross-bedding.

Erosion left freestanding fins, which continued to be carved by water, ice and wind.

The Entrada Sandstone was once a massive, windblown desert, full of shifting dunes. Rounded by the wind, the grains of sand form a porous rock full of tiny openings that allow water to penetrate. The water eventually dissolves the cement binding the sandstone together. Chunks fall away, creating arches.

Pothole arches are formed by chemical weathering as water collects in natural depressions and eventually cuts through to the layer below.

The Entrada layer sits atop the, dark reddish-brown mudstones and siltstone of the Dewey Bridge layers, which were formed in a tidal flat. It’s a softer formation that erodes more rapidly, leaving slender pedestals under large rocks like Balanced Rock.

We hiked through Devils Garden, along the sandstone fin to Double O Arch, a 4.2-mile round trip. We saw Navajo Arch, Partition Arch, Landscape Arch, Pine Tree Arch and Tunnel Arch, all with unique personalities. We hiked Park Avenue, a two-mile round trip through a spectacular canyon near Courthouse Towers.

We camped at Goose Island Campground, a Bureau of Land Management camp just outside the park. We set our camp chairs next to the Colorado River facing the sheer rock face on the opposite bank, a wall that had cleaved vehicle-sized sandstone chunks into the water.

Twice, we took side trips to Canyonlands National Park, about 35 miles away. Canyonlands, with similar sedimentary layers, preserves 337,598 acres of colorful canyons, mesas, buttes, fins, arches and spires. Cut by the Green and Colorado rivers, it is split into four districts: Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze and the rivers.

We visited Island in the Sky, a mesa with views of stair-stepping sandstone cliffs thousands of feet below and the distant La Sal and Abajo mountains. We took the 34-mile roundtrip scenic drive and hiked about a mile up a steep trail to Upheaval Dome, a formation that may either be a collapsed volcanic dome or a meteor strike, geologists aren’t sure which. And we hiked the Grand View Point trail, a two-mile out and back trail along the canyon edge.

Ranger Erik Jensen told us about the layers, the sculpting of the rivers, rain, wind and ice.

“No one knows,” he said, “if the rivers will continue to cut the canyons deeper, or the canyon walls will erode faster and create a flat plateau. We can only be grateful we are here to see it the way it is today.”

And embrace its impermanence, I thought.

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