Look for Rock Arches in Utah’s National Parks

Kolob Arch in Zion's backcountry may be the second longest in the world. NPS Photo/Rendall Seely

Kolob Arch in Zion’s backcountry may be the second longest in the world. NPS Photo/Rendall Seely

Standing on the desert floor, looking up at the sheer magnitude of these natural stone bridges, one can’t help but think, I see sky where there should be rock. It seems impossible, absurd even, that something so large, so heavy, and so brittle should be practically floating hundreds of feet in the air. Horizontal pillars in the sky, they evoke an almost primal instinct that the world is very large, and we are very small.

These geological phenomena are formed through a deceivingly simple process of erosion. Water percolates through the cracks in the rock, and in the winter it freezes and expands, cracking and carving bits and pieces of the rock into natural arches. Over millions of years it becomes possible for even such dramatic structures as Kolob Arch, one of the largest arches in the world, to form.

Around 300 million of years ago the entire Colorado plateau was covered by an ancient sea. When it eventually dried up, it left behind unstable salt deposits within the Navajo sandstone that dominates this region. Eventually the salt deposits collapsed under the weight of the sandstone and pushed huge sections of rock upward, while entire sections sunk into the ground. That’s half the story of this rugged terrain; the other being the deftness of nature’s hand on this type of rock. Within a few miles, we find that Navajo sandstone is subtle enough to carve the winding grace of the narrows while strong enough to hold aloft the humbling Court of the Patriarchs.

Utah honored the arch on its centennial license plate in 1996 with the image of Delicate Arch from Arches National Park. Three of its earliest national parks were set aside to protect the state’s arches:  Natural Bridges National Monument (1908), Rainbow Bridge National Monument (1910), and Arches National (Monument in 1929) Park (1971).

Arches in Zion National Park

Zion has two major Arches and several lesser ones. The most easily accessible is Crawford Arch. At the base of Bridge Mountain (named after the Arch) Crawford Arch is a stone bridge suspended almost a thousand feet in the air. Once thought to be a natural bridge, and pointed to by rangers as such for decades, geologists have determined that it is actually an arch.

Kolob Arch is in Zion’s backcountry inside a small canyon where it clings like an eagle with its wings spread high on a canyon wall.

Hidden Arch and Jughandle Arch are unusual because they lie, like the handle of a jug, vertically.  Hidden Arch is particularly delicate looking as it clings to the side of the mountain. The Skull is a sheer promontory that juts into the sky and is riddled with internal holes. Across the road to the west side of the tunnel on the Zion Mt. Carmel Byway, look for a giant blind arch.  Although usually not so large, these kind of blind arches are common.  An arch in the Subway can be swum through and in Fat Man’s Misery, along Parunuweap Canyon, is an arch that has it all: glowing light from above through the slot canyon above a delicate pool.

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