The trail to the Delicate Arch is only a mile and a half, which is no distance at all to travel - but much of it runs up a steep slickrock slope with only the occasional stunted juniper tree for cover from the face of the sun.
The trailhead begins at Wolfe Ranch. Old man Wolfe came out here to raise a few cattle and to recover from a leg wound he earned during the Civil War. He wintered with his cattle and his demons beside a small creek for years until his children came to visit him, and found conditions "so hellish and primitive" that they forcibly removed John Wesley Wolfe to Pennsylvannia to live out his remaining days in relative rural comfort. Wolfe had other reasons for staying: a short detour away from the main trail and the tiny ranch lies a rock face with a well-preserved set of petroglyphs estimated to be at least four-hundred years old.
This is a relative estimation based on the appearance of horses (absent in North America until the Spaniards released an invasive population) in the image; glyphs are near-impossible to date accurately by non-correlative means. This is because they are carved into the surface of the rock, etching away the thin layer of desert varnish to reveal the more colorful sandstone below. They use no pigment with organic components whose isotopic content or predictable decay might be used as a sort of clock. Even the varnish itself proves an unpredictable clock, the rate of its glacial and irregular growth dependent upon microenvironmental variation.
The first stretch of the hike up to the arch is a half mile across lowlands, and in spite of the growing heat of the day proves merely invigorating. The occasional boulder or sprawling juniper provides a spot of shade every hundred yards . As the second third of our journey begins, our path starts to get vertical. The grade rises precipitously on bare slickrock, and there is no pity from the merciless sun. Depending on how healthy you are, this stretch can prove from fifteen to thirty minutes in hell, but you do get an excellent view of the surrounding plateau. Looking out over the crumbling fossil sand dunes to the East will provide a direct line of sight to the La Sal range of mountains. Should you ever become lost in the high desert of the arches, this is an important landmark - a line of sight to La Sal means that you may be able to get a signal out with your cell phone to call for help before your water runs out.
We follow a trail up the side of the dune where rain has gradually eroded a channel into the side of the stone. Throughout our ascent, we see patches where these cracks have been filled by lichen who continue to break down the rock, releasing minerals and providing small traps for sand and nutrients - and even a little water. These pockets allow for a sandy soil for a few hardy plants to thrust their roots into, and give the incredibly durable and tough desert juniper a chance to grow - casting a little shade, and trapping just a little more moisture. Soon, small bushes and a few grasses grow, providing more nutrients to small herbivores like rabbits and ground squirrels - who provide further nutrients to those plants in decay, and to higher predators such as coyotes and hawks... creating a complete successional ecology on the side of an otherwise barren stone slope.
I am glad that we are not climbing this hill in the rain - as stated yesterday, wet slickrock deserves its name, and this channel is long and deep and water presumably comes pouring down off this hill in a great rushing torrent. Once you approach the top, a path has been carved into the side of the last sand fin before the monument. This trail should remain shaded for most of the day, and the broad path prevents one from falling more than a hundred feet down the sheer edge of the fin to water the desert below.
As you walk around the edge of this final rock wall, you may turn to your right and see what makes this entire climb worthwhile:
An amazing piece of geology.
Take the time to carefully walk around the bowl of the auditorium, and stand at its base.
Revere the awesome elegance of transient nature, slow sculptor of man and stone.
Then leave the irreverent part of me that plays Halo on some weeknights to wonder: "if I ran to the top, would I still find the rocket launcher?"