In 1993, Arches National Park started paving the Delicate Arch Road. The section from the main park road to Wolfe Ranch and the trailhead was paved that spring; the viewpoint road faced the asphalt a year later.
While I worked at Arches, from 1976 to 1986, it was always something of a small miracle to me that the three mile road had been allowed to remain primitive in the first place. While the NPS looked high and low for new construction projects, somehow the gateway to the most photographed natural arch in the world could only be accessed by a dusty washboard road that had to be closed every time it rained. I thought it was great.
What price was a visitor willing to pay to see Delicate Arch? Was he willing to subject himself and his car to a grueling one and a half mile drive on a bad road? The answer was, not really, once they thought about it. Historically, the Park Service loves to accumulate data, and at several locations in the park, they place traffic counters to study use patterns and flows. Not only do they know how many visitors enter the park at its entrance, they know how many take the time to visit the Windows section of the park, how many venture to Salt Valley, even how many intrepid tourists journey over the ledges on the 4WD trail to Tower Arch.
At the turnoff to Delicate Arch, the park had for years maintained a counter near the intersection with the main road, right at the point where it turns to gravel. But Jerry Epperson, the chief ranger at the time, suspected the numbers being reported were much too high. So we moved the counter a mile down the road to a point near Salt Valley Wash. Suddenly, “visitation” to Delicate Arch dropped by half. What we discovered was that many cars were taking one look at all that treacherous washboard and were turning around, in search of a more comfortable ride.
And yet, it was my observation that some of the park visitors’ most memorable experiences were had on that old road. At three locations, the Delicate Arch road crosses over dry washes…Salt Valley Wash, Salt Wash, and Winter Camp Wash. When it rained, of course, the washes crossed over the road. Salt Valley Wash lies between the Delicate Arch trailhead and the main road. If the wash floods, hikers on the other side (as well as their cars) can get stranded.
It was my job to warn visitors of the possibility of flash floods when the threat was there, and to assist them when the warning came too late. Salt Valley Wash originates to the west and north of Delicate Arch and drains a large portion of the Devils Garden and the Fiery Furnace. In the desert, isolated thunder storms really live up to their name. While it’s sunny and calm at Wolfe Ranch, it can be raining torrents upstream.
As I raced down from the campground, I’d sometimes be able to see the flood building in every rivulet and side drainage, but would be hard-pressed to convince anyone at the trailhead that a wall of water was on the way. After doing my best to spread the word, I’d drive back across the wash to the safe side and wait.
I could usually hear the oncoming flood before I saw it. The head of a flash flood doesn’t roar, it hisses. Before the water comes the foam, a thick brown foam that inches down the waterway at a pace that always seems so much slower than the wall of water that’s directly behind it. I’ve walked out into the middle of a dry wash and waited for the foam. And when it arrived, managed to stay just inches ahead of it while walking at a leisurely pace. It always felt like I was being followed by the Blob.
When the non-believers finally decided to make their departure, and drove 200 yards to the Salt Valley Wash crossing, I always liked to be there to say “Neener, neener,” or something to that effect. But while the flood sometimes meant they missed their dinner reservations, or threw them off their itinerary, I never saw anything but smiles and sheer wonder on the faces of the stranded tourists. How many people can say they were stranded on a dirt road in the desert by a flash flood that arrived while the sun was shining? Some of the best “campfire talks” ever given at Arches were shouted across Salt Valley Wash to an amazed, albeit captive audience.
It usually took a couple of hours for the water to subside and another hour for the wash bottom to become firm enough to support the weight of a vehicle. Then, in 1983, the NPS Road crew spent a day doing bulldozer practice in the wash and actually altered its gradient. When they were done, water had to flow uphill at the wash crossing. When the next flash flood came along, the water pooled, instead of flowing downstream, and the crossing has been a quagmire ever since.
While I guess the “improvements” made were inevitable, visitors who came after 1993 never knew what they had missed. Ordinary, uneventful vacations became extraordinary, memorable adventures for people whose lives were already often confined to dreadful routines. And it was nice to know that Nature could still have her way once in a while, and force us to live by her schedule.
Paving of the Delicate Arch road guaranteed a safe, smooth, on-schedule visit. But it lost something in the process.
All “Before” shots courtesy of Jim Stiles. All “After” shots courtesy of Google Maps.
Jim Stiles is Founder and Co-Publisher of the Canyon Country Zephyr.
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