It was 5:30 am and my mom was egregiously speeding through Arches National Park in Utah. The speed limit was 25 around long, looping curves and roads that wound between towering spires of red sandstone, but Mom raced by at 50 miles an hour. Why? We were racing the sunrise. Delicate Arch, Arches’ most iconic landmark, is best seen at dawn, when the first rays of morning sunshine illuminate it and tint the rock a brilliant orange.
When we reached the trailhead, it was still bathed in darkness. There were several silent cars parked in the lot and a sleepy family sporting headlamps. They hit the trail ahead of us, and we followed with our flashlights. We were alone. The trail started out easy; pea gravel marked with biggish rocks on either side. But easy trails rarely stay easy. Before long, the trail dumped us out onto a vast expanse of slickrock, which is sandstone polished smooth by thousands of years of wind.
Tiny cairns (towers of stones) marked the path along the slickrock and my parents and I followed these for a while. Eventually, the cairns disappeared. We wandered around aimlessly in the faint, murky half-light that comes just before sunrise.
“They really should have marked this trail better,” my dad remarked.
We were totally lost, and making it to Delicate Arch by dawn was no longer at the top of our worry list. Falling off a cliff in the dark seemed like a more pressing concern. Then we spotted a headlamp bobbing across the rock field.
“Hello!” Dad shouted. “Do you know where the path to Delicate Arch is?”
“No! We’re lost too.”
We continued to wander, looking for any sign of the trail: a cairn, a sign, a granola bar wrapper—but we couldn’t find anything. The other hikers meandered in a different direction and we were alone again. Towering rock formations and waves of stone and dust stretched as far as the eye could see.
We clambered over boulders and eventually found ourselves at the top of a bluff. Then, in the dim gray light, we saw it. Delicate Arch. It was beautiful.
There was only one problem: a severely slanted, deep, curving bowl of slickrock stretched between us and Delicate Arch. My family cautiously ventured out onto the rim of the “bowl,” single file. The rock was smooth and slippery, and we stood on a sharp incline.
“There’s no way this is the trail,” my mom said.
“It might be,” I replied. “Plus, the guidebook said not to bring small children, so this must be the way to Delicate Arch.”
We carefully shuffled along the rim, knowing that one misstep might send us tumbling down to the bottom. My mom’s water bottle slipped from her hands and slid down the bowl, bouncing off ledges and curves before coming to a stop a few hundred feet below. We gulped nervously.
“I think we might die.” I muttered, clinging to the rocks as we crept toward the Arch.
Finally we emerged from the bowl to see a crowd of people perched on the rocks, cameras poised to capture the sunlight hitting Delicate Arch.
“Where did you guys come from?” A friendly hiker asked, offering us a hand up onto a plateau facing the Arch. “The trail is right over there,” she said, pointing to a wide, level, paved path behind her, on the opposite side of Delicate Arch.
“We took the scenic route.”
We arrived just in time for a delicate dawn, a fitting reward for our treacherous hike.
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