An ode to red rock: Arches and Canyonlands national parks

I’ve been trying to write this post for a very long time, finding it difficult to articulate the hold that Arches National Park has over my imagination. It is the one national park that I could swear, knows me by name. It’s a ridiculous thing to say, particularly for someone who’s a city slicker to the core. If the park did have a voice and addressed me by name, I doubt I’d hear it. I am equipped to parse urban environments, but the outdoors fill me wonder for more than just their magnificence; my utter unfamiliarity with the code of natural environments is also rather awesome.

Flemming and the moon, dwarfed by the enormity of sandstone.

The park is, appropriately, full of natural sandstone arches – it has the highest density of these peculiar, majestic formations of anywhere in the world, along with spires, fins and other varied geological forms.

I first visited Arches with Flemming in April 2013, and enjoyed a couple of solid days hiking around unbelievable vistas, some of which made it into the movie we were filming at the time: Beyond. We returned in 2014 for more, and yet again this November, spending a whole week in Arches and nearby Canyonlands National Park.

I made a picture almost exactly like this one back in 2014. It was impossible to resist making it again, with so many obliging, if unsuspecting, models. Arches National Park, Utah.

I’ve never encountered a place quite like Arches.

Nowhere else can I clamber onto fins of flaming rock and survey the world, elevated in body and spirit. There’s something so immensely grounding about climbing around on that stone, balancing my body against rock and sky. When we visited Arches in 2013, I was still weak from a month of bronchitis in Mexico City (not the best place in the world to have a respiratory illness). The climb to Double O arch on Devils Garden trail almost did me in. By the time I got to the top, I thought I was going to keel over from lack of oxygen.

Sundown at Arches National Park, Utah.

I soldiered on, motivated by all the epic filming we were doing, and also because I didn’t want to wimp out in front of Flemming. We weren’t a couple at that point, so I felt it necessary to keep the pace, if not impress him with my tough, do-or-die attitude. I’m not sure that “impressed” was what he was at my frequent protestations of “no really, I’m fine” interspersed with uncontrollable wheezing, but he very tactfully called for 357 photo stops along the way, allowing for more doing and less dying on my part.

When we finally got to the top of the trail, it was magic.

Catching my breath at the top of the world in Arches National Park, April 2013. Photo: Flemming Bo Jensen

I was sick and injured a lot in 2013, my first year of this perpetual travelling gig, and it’s taken me some years to get my health back up to scratch.

This November, during a week of hiking in Arches and Canyonlands, I recalled how daunting the Devils Garden trail seemed back in April 2013, and realized just how unwell I’d been back then, though it didn’t dampen elemental thrill of the climb. Scampering around on the rock, testing the balance of my body against the earth and having it respond in surprising harmony, is a source of great joy. It was a breeze this time around, to the point where I caught myself thinking how great it would be run the trails like all the fitspo folk bounding around us that day.

That was an unusual line of thought, and I can only attribute it to the red sandstone spell.

People of all ages were clambering into rocky cradles like kids in a candy store. Double Arch, Arches National Park, Utah.

Singaporeans aren’t the most outdoorsy people on earth. Anyone who’s ever stepped into suburban HDB-flatted Singapore may understand what I mean when I say there aren’t a whole lot of trees, rocks or hills to climb. Plenty of us (not me) are sporty, though in a decidedly urban manner. I did give hiking a go when I lived in Western Australia, but it really wasn’t until the last three or four years that I learned to really enjoy this being in nature business, and Arches and Canyonlands NPs were a large part of that.

Sunset at Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Sunset at Canyonlands National Park, Utah

I will say, however, that the kind of hiking Flemming and I do is far from the hardcore heavy-booted, backpack-laden, days-on-the-trail variety. The national parks we’ve been to in the USA are very kind to noobs, who are happy to spend 6 or 7 hours a day wandering around on designated trails, without having to camp and forgo the pleasure of a hot shower afterwards. Facilities, water points, ample parking and scenic, well-maintained trails make Arches too easy to explore.

Moon over lunar surface. Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Moon over lunar surface. Canyonlands National Park, Utah

I can’t imagine how much more comfortable an introduction to the great outdoors can be, if you have the means to get there and enjoy it.

I missed Arches the moment we left, and I missed it even more, picking out pictures for this post and the next. I don’t know when I’ll be back again, so until then, I’ll keep close to my heart, the feeling of climbing to the sky among ancient monoliths.

Trail to Delicate Arch. Arches National Park, Utah.
Time to say goodbye. Arches National Park, Utah.
Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Finding a way with lightsabers. Balancing rock by night, Arches National Park, Utah.


6 thoughts on “An ode to red rock: Arches and Canyonlands national parks

  1. I love the way you play with edges and scale. Much like your urban images, I suppose. You still find a way to frame, to cup your fellow travellers in something that suggests immensity.

    Lovely as ever.

    1. I’m not a maker of epic scaled imagery for the most part, but i have to say that these landscapes pull it out of me. Gods do I miss this place.

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