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Delicate Arch, Arches National Park
Delicate Arch, Arches National Park

Photographing Delicate Arch

Perched like a crown gracing the head of princess high on a slab of slick rock sandstone in Arches National Park is Delicate Arch. Delicate Arch is Utah's most famous icon and is the quintessential formation of Arches National Park, and one of the most photographed natural wonders of the world. This icon of the west was once known as “Cowboy Chaps,” because of its resemblance to the leather leg coverings worn by cowboys. It is 65-foot tall freestanding natural arch.

The Olympic torch relay for the 2002 Winter Olympics passed through the arch. You see images of Delicate Arch everywhere: on magazine covers, computer screen savers and the Utah license plate. A postage stamp commemorating Utah's Centennial anniversary of statehood in 1996 is a picture of Delicate Arch. It has even been reproduced in miniature for mini golf courses. But most importantly is where this famous monolith spices up my portfolio.

There are two viewpoints for the arch; the most popular hike to Delicate Arch a moderately strenuous, 1.5-mile hike from the Wolfe Ranch parking area. The Wolfe Ranch was the late 1800s homestead of disabled Civil War veteran John Wesley Wolfe.

The hike from Wolfe Ranch takes thirty to forty-five minutes each way, if you rush past the homestead and the petroglyph's which you shouldn’t. The round trip is slightly more than 3 miles long and the Arch is completely hidden from view until you arrive at the overlook.

The first third of the hike is through rugged, brushy terrain and gains slightly in elevation. The middle third of the hike is along the face of an exposed slick rock outcrop and is strenuous due to the gain in elevation, but offers better views of the geology in the salt valley.

Piles of rocks (cairns) have been placed by visitors and park staff to roughly suggest the otherwise unmarked trail to the top, yet visitors tend to wander all over the huge expanse of completely exposed sandstone. It is easy stray from the trail.

The latter third of the trail is rugged, nearing the top of the plateau. The Arch is not yet visible, and the trail runs around outcrops, through washes and between stands of twisted brush and trees.

The arch comes into view suddenly around a corner in the trail and frames the La Sal Mountains to the southeast, the stunning beauty that hits you as you come over the ridge for the first time makes you long for the breath you lost on the hike as this is a breath taking moment and you don’t have any left to be taken away. The immediate area around the arch offers views of the southern expanse of the park.

The towering arch seems to teeter at the precipice of the slick rock canyons falling away below. The peaks of the La Sal Mountains in the distance grace the horizon hinting of a little alpine ambiance beyond. It is a spectacular sight. The sun sets in line with the arch casting a near-perfect light at sunset on both Delicate Arch and the distant peaks Sunset is the most popular time to shot the arch but really dynamic light can be captured at sunrise for those willing to hike up in the dark.

Just short of where the arch comes into view is another small arch you can view Delicate Arch from and this spot can also make some interesting photos.

On any given night, there could easily be fifty or more photographers perched on the same sandstone bench photographing the exact scene. On a busy evening at sunset, the scene at Delicate Arch can be frustrating.  Hikers take turns photographing each other under the arch while a long line of photographers fidget as they wait for the landscape to clear. That said, the posers could make some nice stock imagery if you can get by without a model release. If a beautiful person in red poses try to get a release.

The other vantage point of Delicate Arch is an easier hike is at the Delicate Arch Viewpoint.  From the parking lot at the end of the asphalt road, east of Wolfe Ranch you can hike about half a mile to the end of a trail at a precipice, from which one sees the arch in the distance, standing gloriously above a huge amphitheater. This makes a nice morning shot as you are viewing the east side of the arch from this vantage point. This is a long distance shot and calls for about a 200mm telephoto.

I like photographing Delicate Arch in April because of the better chance of foul weather and good snow on the La Sal peaks but many like to wait until wildflower season in May.  Some photographers are producing some stunning work shooting the Milky Way here long after dark but that makes for a hazardous journey home. The sun sets through Delicate Arch one week before, or one week after the winter solstice.

This icon of the American Southwest remains as one of the most rewarding hikes and photo fodder destinations in the national park system, due partly to the reward of seeing the massive span glow a fiery red in the alpenglow of sunset.


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