SW National Parks Trip: Arches History


In a story that is probably familiar if you have read my histories of Zion and Canyonlands National Parks, the first inhabitants at Arches arrived about 10,000 years ago.  They were nomadic, but they found deposits of quartz stone that are perfect for making stone tools; their piles of discarded quartz are still visible to the trained eye.

Next, the Puebloan and Fremont peoples moved in around 2,000 years ago to farm maize, beans and squash.  They left few dwellings though, so researches suspect they may have only used the park as a seasonal residence.  And like other dwelling sites in the Four Corners area, they seem to have left by about 700 years ago.  Both cultures left rock art and pottery to tell the story of their existence here.

Near the beginning of our hike out to Delicate Arch, with the La Sal Mountains in the background

Near the beginning of our hike out to Delicate Arch, with the La Sal Mountains in the background

Like at Canyonlands, the Ute and Pauite peoples used the area after the Puebloan and Fremont cultures left; they were here when the first Europeans arrived in 1776.  They left pictographs of men on horses, which are easy to date to after the 1500s when the Spanish first brought horses to the area from Mexico.  The Utes and Pauites are thought to have only lived here seasonally as well.

As you learned in my Canyonlands history post, trappers were the next to arrive, followed by Mormon missionaries in 1855, and then finally by settlers and ranchers in the 1880s.  Interest in the park grew, and the push began for federal protection in the 1920s.  4,520 acres were set aside as a National Monument by President Herbert Hoover on April 12, 1929.  The area was expanded several times over the years, and in 1971, President Nixon substantially reduced the overall acreage of the park, but re-designated it as a National Park.  Arches today consists of over 76,000 acres.

To be honest, I was surprised to learn that Arches became a National Park 7 years after Canyonlands, as Arches is certainly the more famous park.  Over a million visitors come to Arches each year, compared to slightly fewer than a half million per year for Canyonlands.  It must be the arches that are the draw.

A good view of the fins that form at Arches National Park

A good view of the fins that form at Arches National Park

The arches are created when a solid slab of sandstone begins to crack over time.  Water get into the cracks and erodes the rocks, and sometimes freezes and expands the cracks, eventually forming fins.  These fins sometimes erode in a way that leaves an arch above after the center below has eroded away.  Then you have an arch.  The last stage in the process is when the arch collapses.  Of course, the arches aren’t the only feature of the park; Arches has sandstone towers, hoodoos and sand dunes too.  They all have their own unique beauty.

To give you an idea of how remote some areas of the park still are, in 1970 the Arches official brochure indicated that Arches National Monument had “nearly 90” arches.  In 1973, a geological survey team established a method for documenting the locations of all the arches in the park, and went out exploring the park to see how many they could find – there are now over 2,000 arches recorded.  Since 1970 however, 43 arches have collapsed due to the ever present forces of erosion – which one will be next?

In my next post I’ll tell you about our hike out to Delicate Arch!  Have you ever been to Arches National Park?

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