Skip to content

(from the archives) ‘ARCHES STORIES— from Denis Julien to the Arch Hunters’

The National Park Service is in the process of expanding the Arches National Park visitor center, five miles north of Moab. When it was built in the early 1960s, fewer than 75,000 tourists came to the park annually. Four decades later, that number seems almost quaint as visitation pushes toward one million. The park roads are often crowded to the point of gridlock and the trailheads are full. Even on the trails themselves, it’s rare to be out of sight of other hikers.

It wasn’t always like this.

For centuries, for millennia in fact, the stone monuments were unknown, unnamed, and unseen by anyone but the critters that lived there, undisturbed in the shadows of the big rocks. That began to change ever so slightly, about 2000 years ago, when Anasazi indians first wandered into the canyons and mesas and ridges— to places that would only be assigned “official” names thousands of years later. Their impact on the park came in the form of etched images on the sandstone and the “lithic scatter” of chert left behind by toolmakers of that time. Over the centuries the Anasazi came and left. Utes wandered into the Arches Country in the 17th Century. White men didn’t leave their mark at Arches until the mid-19th Century. And even into the middle of the 20th Century, a relative handful of people found their way to the spectacular arches and windows.

If you could tally the total human visitation since the beginning, going back at least 2000 years, 99.9% of them would have arrived since 1958, when the Arches entrance road was paved. Of all the visitors who have come to Arches, some have been memorable enough to still be remembered. A few of the names are well-known—we all know Ed Abbey wrote Desert Solitaire while working as a seasonal ranger at what was then Arches National Monument in the mid-1950s. Bates Wilson was the first superintendent of Arches National Monument and later became known as the “Father of the Canyonlands” for his efforts to preserve the vast canyon country west of Arches. Trivia buffs know that parts of “Thelma and Louise” were shot in the park.

But there are other people, more obscure, but just as interesting, whose stories deserve to be heard. Here are a few of them….


Not much is known of the Native Americans who passed through the Arches Country a thousand years ago. Because the park has a limited number of permanent water sources, many archaeologists believe that the area was used more as a hunting ground than as a place to live. There are few structures in the park (I know of three and I’m not talking). But along many ledges and under shady overhangs, evidence of their presence, in the form of lithic scatter–broken pieces of chert that were discarded as they fashioned projectile points, is common.

In a few remote locations, the Anasazi left their artistic talents on the sandstone. One in particular, always caught my eye. High on a canyon wall, overlooking the modern highway is this image. I would almost swear that one of them is smiling. We used to called them “The Newlyweds.”



For a century, river runners on the Green and Colorado Rivers had seen the bold inscriptions of “D. Julien.” Little was known of Julien but it was assumed he was a fur trapper of French origin and that he had spent time during the 1830s in the Colorado River basin. But no one could ever find a Julien graffiti any later than 1837. There was speculation among historians that Julien’s disappearance suggested he had in fact drowned in the Green River. It was as if he vanished around 1837.

Then I came along and screwed up the historical record. One day in the late 1970s, while a seasonal ranger on backcountry patrol at Arches, I spotted some sheepherder inscriptions on a desert varnished wall. Sheepherder graffiti from the 1920s and 1930s is common and I was hoping to find yet another “Dominguez” inscription, a frequent visitor to the Arches Country. There, among the 20th Century carvings, another inscription jumped out at me. In a very unique cursive script, the name “Denis Julien” practically jumped off the wall. Beneath it was a date. I could not read the day or month, but I could definitely make out the year—1844. I was aware of the other Julien inscriptions and thought this might be significant. I told the chief ranger the next days and within a week, I was escorting crazed historian John Hoffman, who had flown in from San Diego, to the site. Hoffman recognized its authenticity immediately. “Way to go, Stiles…you just brought Denis Julien back from the dead.”

I’ve gone back to the site a few times and am always reminded of one seldom remembered fact–when Julien carved his name, he did it right over the top of an Anasazi petroglyph. He may be the first white man in history to vandalize a prehistoric rock art site.



More than fifteen years before Abbey’s arrival, Hank Schmidt assumed his duties as Custodian at Arches National Monument and began recording his impressions on a typewriter. From 1939 to 1941, Hank Schmidt wrote monthly reports to his superintendent, Frank “Boss” Pinkley in Arizona. Schmidt’s folksy conversational reports are still entertaining after all these years.

Here are some excerpts…


Freddie Semisch seemed to be cursed with bad luck, from a very early age. He was born in Chicago in 1930 to German-born parents. His mother and father, Anna and Carl, had not yet become naturalized U.S. citizens, however, and in 1939 the Semisch family decided to visit Anna’s mother in their German homeland. They had intended to stay only three months, but when war broke out, the Semisches were prohibited from leaving. They spent the entire war there. In 1946, Freddie, now 16, was allowed to return to the U.S., though his parents were detained for another six years.

Semisch lived in New York where he worked as a watch repair man. In 1950, he planned a cross-country trip with his friend Gilman Ordway. Their destination was California but the long road brought them through Colorado to Utah, to the seldom visited Arches National Monument.

On the morning of May 29, 1950, Semisch and Ordway made their way down a rough sandy road to the Devils Garden. They bogged down in the sand at least once; a photographer from California, Stanley Midgeley pulled them out; they arrived at the trailhead at about the same time and all of them hiked north about a mile to Landscape Arch.

Semisch, the more reckless of the two, proposed to Ordway that they climb the arch. To reach Landscape Arch, a hiker needs to go north more than half a mile and ascend the sandstone fin that abuts the arch. This is fairly easy and while the walk along the ridge of the fin is precarious in places, it must have seemed a cake walk for the athletic 20 year old. But the fin runs out, just north of Landscape Arch and from there, you need a good rope or wings—Semisch had neither. But the friction support that the coarse sandstone provides must have convinced Semisch that enough traction was there to inch his way down the abutment to the end of the span.

He was wrong.

LANDSCAPE ARCH in the mid-1950s. Notice the figure at the far left side of the photo.

By now, photographer Midgely had positioned himself and his camera below the arch and could see and hear Semisch, calling from above. Midgely turned to adjust his camera and in the next moment, heard Semisch scream. He looked back to see Freddie sliding down the abutment to the arch, fighting furiously to slow his descent. But the fall was too far and too steep–he hit the narrow shelf at the base of the abutment, his last hope to survive, but could not hold on. He bounced once and went over the side. He fell more than 200 feet.

Midgely was the first to reach Semisch’s body. It had rolled another 150 feet after his free fall, into a narrow chute north of the arch. Freddie Semisch was dead upon impact. Ironically, his friend Ordway had walked north from the arch, had not heard Freddie’s screams and did not know of his friend’s death for more than 15 minutes.

Other witnesses drove toward park headquarters and encountered park maintenance man Merle Winbourn who informed Superintendent Bates Wilson of the death. Bates arrived a few hours later, with Sheriff J.B. Skewes and two deputies. They recovered the body and hauled Semisch out on horseback to a waiting truck at the trailhead.

His parents, still in Germany and unable to leave, could only grieve for their son from the other side of the world. His body was held at a funeral home in Price, Utah until relatives could claim the body. But an uncle and aunt living in the U.S. chose not to. And so on June 5, 1950, a graveside service was held for Freddie Semisch who was buried in an unmarked grave. Ten years later, his parents were able to provide a headstone for his final resting place.


They came from the four corners of the continent—from Northern Utah and the Rocky New England coast. From the Jersey Shore and the Texas plains. Four pilgrims pursuing a dream. They found it right here.

Doug Travers. Dale Stevens. Ed McCarrick. Reuben Scolnik—we called them “The Arch Hunters.”

THE ORIGINAL ARCH HUNTERS: Ed McCarrick, Reuben Scolnik, Doug Travers, Dale Stevens.

For reasons that I have never been able to fully grasp. Some men are destined to search for holes in the rock. I don’t know if this is some kind of affliction—with all the New Disorders facing American Society, I’m sure it’s only a matter of time until arch hunting is diagnosed, given a name and a treatment is developed—but certainly, something happens to some men when they come to Arches National Park (note: I do not mean to exclude women–I simply don’t see this illness affecting the female gender).

The first of the Arch Hunters to find his way to Moab was electrical engineer Doug Travers of San Antonio, Texas. With his sons, Jay and David, the Travers men became transfixed by the strange desert landscape. Their first visit in 1965 was all too short and they vowed to return. The Travers men kept their promise, along with the younger Travers boys, Rod and Roy, and returned dozens of times over the next 35 years.

Ed McCarrick retired from Western Electric in Hoboken, New Jersey in the mid-70s and moved to Moab. In 1976, at age 55, Ed became a seasonal ranger at Arches National Park. McCarrick worked the entrance station for years and in the late 70s often called me on the park radio for campground conditions. In his distinctive New Jersey squawk, Ed would key his mike and say, “Hey 236, this is 231…what the hell is going on up there? I need a campground count. These damn tourists are pouring in like flies.”

And Ed is the only government employee I’m aware of who ever referred to a young woman as a “tomato” on the FCC-approved government band. “Yeah, Jim…a real tomato just came through the gate…she’s driving a Ford Pinto.”

“Uh…10-4, Ed”

In 1973, professor Dale Stevens of Brigham Young University gave a certain credibility to arch hunting as a career move. With a group of students from BYU, Dale conducted a field survey of arches within the park “as part of a larger study of the geomorphic importance of arches and bridges in southern Utah.” He located 124 natural rock openings, 90 of which he identified as arches. Stevens also provided substantial data on criteria for determining types and measurements. Later, the study came to be known as “The Stevens List.” It was pinned to a closet door in the chief ranger’s office where it rarely received more than a cursory glance, until one day the fourth of the soon-to-be Arch Hunters entered our visitor center and shamed us all into giving it a closer look.

His name was Reuben Scolnik. He was a retired aeronautical engineer from NASA, looking for a project to occupy his summer. In 1977, he thought he might spend a few weeks looking for arches and inquired about a list. We gave him the Stevens List and hoped he wouldn’t ask any questions…he did.

It would go like this.

“Ranger Stiles, I was in the Devils Garden today and I have a problem with arch #91. Have you noticed that Stevens has placed that arch in the wrong canyon?”

“Uh…yes Reuben. I’d heard that.”

“And I have a problem with its categorization. Do you really consider that a ‘cliff wall’ arch?”


“You do know where #91 is?”

“Sort of…”

“Have you been to 91?”

“Not exactly.”

“What exactly DO you do here in the park?”

Humiliated beyond words Chief Ranger Jerry Epperson called the rangers together to discuss our inadequacies. Eventually, he established the need and implemented an arch inventory—a systematic exploration of the park and a running record of all rock openings greater than three feet (an arch criteria established by Stevens).

I thought it was a great idea. It meant I’d get to spend two or three days a week, getting paid (albeit a pittance) to wander the park’s most isolated backcountry, in search of holes. Often accompanied by the Arch Hunters, we explored every side canyon, every fin, every remote cluster of sandstone pinnacles for the elusive windows in stone. But the windows weren’t as elusive as we thought they’d be. The three foot arches were everywhere.

Reuben and I became bored with the little holes. Ed became obsessed with them. In fact, Reuben and I were convinced that Ed McCarrick had gone mad. Here’s Ed with a tape measure, taking stock of tiny little hole..

“What does the tape measure say, Ed?”

“Well…hold on Stiles. It says 34 inches. But wait a minute..this..dirt is in the way.”

So there’s McCarrick trying to dig ‘dirt’ out of the buttress of the arch with his fingers.

“Is that legal, Ed?”

“Sure it is…there. See? It’s 37 inches after all…write it up.”

Travers, who had always taken a low-key approach to arch hunting, finally met Reuben and Ed in the early 80s. The three compared lists, and whenever Doug was in town the Three Archqueteers sallied forth into the desert sun in search of the golden arches. More often than not, the quest ended in a brouhaha. Reuben and Ed, in particular, failed to agree most of the time.

“Ed,” says Reuben. “This is not an arch. This is a piece of exfoliated sandstone.”

“What are you talking about?” exclaims Ed. “It meets the criteria!”

“I don’t care. It is NOT an arch!”

“It IS!!!”

Reuben walks to the disputed “arch” and stands on it.

“There!” Reuben growls. “Now it’s NOTHING!”

“Now, now, gentlemen,” interjects Travers the Reasonable One. “Remember…I’m videotaping everything.”

The debate never ended. Stevens later reaffirmed his assertion that an arch was any rock opening larger than 36 inches, McCarrick went nuts. The numbers grew to 2000…3000 and beyond. Scolnik abandoned arches altogether and started looking for rock art sites in Death Valley but could never get ‘arches’ out of his system. Years later, out of the clear blue, he’d call me and ask questions like, “Remember that arch near Herdina Park where I found the Dutch oven?” I didn’t, but he did.

Travers continued his semi-annual trips and still finds a new arch or two, every time he visits.. Stevens and McCarrick eventually pooled their arch knowledge, experience, energy and love of arches, and produced the definitive book about rock openings–”The Arches of Arches National Park: A Comprehensive Study.” Sadly, Ed died of cancer in 1993 and a year later, Dale was killed in a motorcycle accident in Provo. After all these years, we still miss them.

In one realm or another, the Arch Hunters carry on.


We don’t know his name. We don’t have any photographs. It’s only hearsay.

But we hope it’s true.

A tourist sees a small herd of desert bighorn sheep near US Highway 191, a couple miles south of the entrance to Arches National Park. The sheep are clustered about 100 feet from the highway, minding their own business, but the tourist, a man in his 40s, perhaps of European descent, wants a photograph. So he climbs out of his car and moves toward the sheep. The sheep eye him warily. Soon most of them are clattering over the rock, moving away from the man and his zoom lens. The man is still walking toward the sheep, his eye glued to the viewfinder. Suddenly he realizes he has a great shot…if only the sheep would hold still. Looks like a ram. The sheep is almost too close. The ram IS too close.

In the next moment, the hapless tourist and his zoom lens experience weightlessness. The ram butts the shutterbug head-on and lifts him into the air. Dazed and confused, he starts to get up. The ram hits him again. Now the man is crawling along the ground, his camera dragging though the sage and the sand. The ram cracks him in the ass.

His friends sit paralyzed in the car, unable to help. He finally screams, “Open the goddamn door!” He reaches the car, bleeding and in shock, his companions lift him into the back seat and the ram pauses to admire his work. They slam the door, the driver turns the ignition and, in a spray of gravel and dust races away in the direction of Interstate 70, Denver and a long flight back to Europe. He was never seen or heard from again.

From all this, naturalists have determined that Desert Bighorn rams are camera shy.


Most of us think of the high country when considering bear habitat. But have bears ever visited the red rocks at Arches? It happened once that I know of.

In the late 1970s a European tourist notified rangers at the Visitor Center that he had seen a black bear in the vicinity of South Window, east of Balanced Rock. Chief Ranger Epperson tried to shake his story, convinced the man had seen a very big dog. But the European was adamant, so Epperson called me by radio to look for a bear.

I was always happy to escape campground duty and set out to find the phantom bear. I never saw the bear but, surprisingly, I found the unmistakable print of fresh tracks. The bear was headed into the drainage of Courthouse Wash. Where he came from, or where he was going, we’ll never know.

But I took this photo, the only evidence of a bear at Arches.

Posted in Uncategorized.

4 Responses

Stay in touch with the conversation, subscribe to the RSS feed for comments on this post.

  1. Philippe Veisseire said

    Hello. I am french and I live in a french village called Lourmarin. I got interested in a french man called Denis Julien born in 1806 who emigrated to USA. He ran the Saint Denis Hotel in NY and died in 1868. You can learn about him for instance by reading I am just wondering if these two Denis Julien could be the same person. That means Denis who had left the Arches in 1837, who had gone to NY where he would have succeeded in an hotel business. He would have later paid a visit to the Arches. Denis Julien is also known for having written a small booklet on his native town Lourmarin in his native language which is provençal : It should be possible to find somewhere a signature of the owner of the Saint Denis Hotel and compare it to the one crafted on the stone. Anyhow the month crafted before 1844 is november. it is an old abbreviated manner for writing november in french. But what means B.S. or B.5 crafted on the right of the crafting. Kindly yours

  2. Philippe Veisseire said

    Hello again. I did further reading on the Denis Julien trapper. He is definitely not the same one as the other. Kindly yours

Continuing the Discussion

  1. THE ORIGINAL ‘ARCH HUNTERS.’ – The Zephyr linked to this post on January 29, 2015

    […] Ed McCarrick & Reuben Scolnik at ARCHES NP. 1978 Click HERE for more: ‘ARCHES STORIES’ […]

  2. Stromer electric bikes vs bomber linked to this post on August 31, 2017

    Stromer electric bikes vs bomber

    (from the archives) ‘ARCHES STORIES— from Denis Julien to the Arch Hunters’ – The Zephyr

Some HTML is OK


(required, but never shared)

or, reply to this post via trackback.