The trail starts out wide, flat, and graveled. Soon, though, the easy going ends, and the route takes hikers up and over a broad, smooth rock face, marked occasionally by small cairns. From the top of the bald slickrock dome, the trail twists and turns through a maze of rock and sand. Finally, it runs up along a narrow rock ledge and into a vast natural amphitheater. Visitors climb through a window in the rock and arrive in the amphitheater's nosebleed section. Golden rock curves away on both sides, tapering to create a stage at the lower end. The tall, steeply curved rock of Delicate Arch is the star at its center.
When I arrive at 7:16 p.m. on an April evening, I count 49 people ahead of me—and as I take in the scene, more hikers climb into the amphitheater behind me. It's taken me 30 minutes to cover the 1.5 miles from the parking lot: a moderate hike, but just challenging enough to exclude the many national-park visitors who never stray more than a few hundred feet from their cars. Still, more people keep arriving. I count seven high-end DSLR cameras mounted on tripods and two smartphones riding on selfie sticks. Some people have brought picnic blankets, cans of beer, and bottles of wine. One cluster, announcing themselves as Wisconsinites, has brought cheese curds. "That's how we roll," one of them says to a neighboring group.
"Guys, this is the golden hour," someone else says. And it is. A rich, warm glow fills the amphitheater and lights up the arch below us. The effect is something like looking through a glass jar of honey held up to the sun.
Delicate Arch is the most famous rock formation in Arches National Park—and, almost certainly, in the entire state of Utah. It's been frequented by travelers for over a century—decades before some of the park's other arches were officially identified. And it's been called by a few names over the years: Cowboy's Chaps, Old Maid's Bloomers. But the more dignified moniker stuck. In 1996, an image of the arch landed on Utah's license plate, to commemorate the centennial of statehood.
As Delicate Arch has become more prominent, so too has Arches itself. The park saw just over 16,000 visitors in 1950, when it was still just a national monument. In 2015, that number had climbed to nearly 1.4 million. For thousands of people each year, watching the sun rise or set over Delicate Arch is an Arches must-do. The crowd I've joined is, if anything, smaller than usual.
As the honey-colored light intensifies to its peak, and the long shadow of the amphitheater's upper wall creeps toward the arch, the more serious photographers scramble eagerly from one spot to another, clicking away. Others are happy to sit back and take in the show. A younger, bearded guy ambles by, shirt unbuttoned and beer in hand, and notices my notebook. "That's a good idea," he says. "I should have brought my journal." A few minutes later, as a girl poses for a selfie down in front of the arch, he hollers, "That's so sexy!"
Delicate Arch at sunset should be my nightmare: I like my national parks empty and serene. But instead, I find myself smiling at the beer-drinking bros, at the selfie-takers, at the self-serious amateur photographers with their bazooka lenses and tripods. I think back to a moment from Michael Ondaatje's novel In the Skin of a Lion. One of the characters is listening to an audience in a movie theater laugh together on cue, when he realizes that this shared laughter is, in its way, a conversation.
We often seek out solitude in the wilderness, but humans are social animals at heart. And what's happening here is a communal experience—a collective sharing of something beautiful.
In Desert Solitaire, Edward Abbey wrote: "There are several ways of looking at Delicate Arch. Depending on your preconceptions you may see the eroded remnant of a sandstone fin, a giant engagement ring cemented in rock, a bow-legged pair of petrified cowboy chaps, a triumphal arch for a procession of angels, an illogical geologic freak, a happening—a something that happened and will never happen quite that way again, a frame more significant than its picture, a simple monolith eaten away by weather and time and soon to disintegrate into a chaos of falling rock.... Suit yourself. You may see a symbol, a sign, a fact, a thing without meaning or a meaning which includes all things." On this night, where I suppose some others might see a tourist trap, I see a gathering place.
The light fades fast, and the cold desert night moves in. The audience leaves in a slow stream—when I pack up to go, there are still more than a dozen people scattered across the amphitheater, watching the last of the day's color and warmth drain out of the rock. Halfway back to the car, I have to pull out my headlamp to see the gravel trail at my feet. I look back at the slickrock dome and see a cluster of headlamps bobbing down the rock together—fireflies in the Utah night.