Arches National Park, Moab, UT. Last weekend I rented a cheap rental car, drove the main sightseeing drag, hiked one easy popular trail and spent just over three hours total in a major national park. I was a tourist.
I had the good fortune to be in lovely Moab, Utah for work. The work wasn’t anything to do with the outdoors. I spent the better part of my time sitting in an air-conditioned conference room far away from sunlight and the red rock formations, blue skies and fluffy white clouds that ring the small town. I got to have dinner out and sit by the hotel pool, but you don’t come to Moab to lounge around the hotel or to work. The town seems to run on businesses that are really just a front to finance the staff and owners’ hiking, four-wheeling, rock-climbing, river rafting habits. It’s a resort town of the craft beer and mountain biking variety.
On the last day I was there I set my alarm for 5am to try to fit in a few sunrise hours at Arches National Park before my 11am flight. This was the only time I had, plus according to the park website and judging by the hundreds of people eating pizza, shaved ice, and shopping the art galleries up and down the tiny main street in town, the place was going to be mobbed all day long. Moab sits right on the edge of both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, and it was pretty clear that at least half of the people in town had the same idea as me. Starting early was the only chance for a bit of solitude or pictures free of people I don’t know.
You could say I spend a lot of time being a tourist. Over the past few months I’ve been working on a guidebook to Death Valley National Park, and so recently I’ve been a tourist in an official capacity—which technically could make me an expert on being a tourist. In the name of research I have to do touristy things. I stop in at cute diners for lunch. I visit the popular sand dunes. I also do non-touristy things—drive rugged roads, use a topo map, and get out of my car to walk far distances to places I don’t believe most people will actually visit. I do all this in the name of thoroughness, reconnaissance, and insatiable curiosity.
I left my hotel in Moab at sunrise and took my crappy royal blue rental car with no four-wheel drive to see the park pre-rush hour. I felt a little lost without my desert dust-covered SUV jam-packed with camping gear, but I decided that having a bad rental car was all part of the experience, and I had no choice but to go with it.
The light at sunrise in Arches was impeccable, a clear early light that made the red hills shine and created cool pockets of shadows next to the pinnacles and arches. The place was alive with a whirring of birds, jackrabbits, and lizards in the desert grasses, junipers, and piñyon trees. I came across an occasional other car, or rather; they came across me, as the handful of other people in the park at this hour all seemed to come from a club of tailgaters. Maybe they were trying to fit in both parks today and had to check this one off the list early. Aside from these few cars I had the place to myself.
I chose a popular hike straight out of the guide that everyone gets as they pass through the park entrance. The hike to Broken Arch with a slight detour to Sand Arch was an easy 3-mile loop. The sandy trail looked like a busy beach, marked by hundreds of footprints, but I didn’t run into anyone else. Sand Arch was shady and secluded, stuck in deep sand behind rock formations. Broken Arch was cracked and impressive, just soaking up the right angle of light for a good picture.
This spring the Adventure Journal ran a silly little piece with the best worst Yelp reviews of national parks. These were written by visitors who were underwhelmed or inconvenienced, not by the services the park had to offer, but by the very hand of nature. They decided to take to Yelp to voice their opinions. According to one visitor, Death Valley National Park was full of “nothing but nasty rock and salt” and Arches was disappointing because all the good stuff required getting out of the car and hiking. I’m not claiming to have a profile of the “average visitor” to a national park. Visitation has steadily increased since the 1990s. But I do know that when I’m in Death Valley everyone seems to be bunched up in small parking lots, while thousands of acres sit wide open.
In some ways the national parks represent a contradiction. We go to get away from it all then end up packed in at the scenic viewing areas, directed by a brown sign with a camera on it, the international symbol for “Stop your car and take a picture. It’s beautiful here.” It’s understandable. These places are lovely, and they’re popular for a reason. But somehow for me the beauty alone isn’t enough. Maybe I have a very specific competitive nature that propels me to find increasingly more obscure cultural and natural spots like the music fans who search for the next new band and stop listening once they’re popular. I’m motivated by a combination of beauty plus solitude plus the excitement of discovery.When I drove out of Arches a few hours later the day was ramping up. Hundreds of people prepared for hikes in the Devil’s Garden Trailhead region, and tour buses swung past me on the main road. As I passed the park entrance station the line of entering cars was inching up the half-mile from the highway.
As I’m writing this I’m realizing that although I’m talking about my time at the park like I had a classic tourist experience, it’s not true. I found a loophole and got the hell out of there while the quiet of the morning was still fresh in my mind. From a writing perspective, this is probably where I should tell you to find your own loophole, to carve out your own space, to go early, go late, or go in the off-season, but honestly it depends on what you’re looking for. My only advice is to find out what that is.