Before traveling to Utah, I told everyone we’d be going to Mars. No one really believed me. But soon after arriving, it did feel as if we had landed on the Red Planet. Luckily, we didn’t have to leave this planet to get there. The colors in the high desert region are the complete opposite from the usual tree, field or mountain colors. Mesas and cliffs with streaks of rust and orange crouch through the landscape. Any vegetation shows up as tufts of frosty green. At times the desert looks like someone smeared rainbow sherbet all over the ground. And these colors change depending on the slant of sunlight.
The outside deck at the Red Cliffs Lodge restaurant in Moab offers the above view of the Colorado River and desert hills. While sitting there, it’s possible to watch the cliff colors change from rust to pink to rose as the sun descends and the moon rises into the glowing blue dusk.Movies like Rio Grande, Geronimo, City Slickers, and Thelma and Louise have all been filmed in the surrounding desert. John Wayne, Maureen O’Hara, Rock Hudson, Henry Fonda, and other Hollywood stars worked there on location. A movie museum at the lodge displays film memorabilia and is open to the public at no charge. The lodge is also a working ranch that offers horseback rides through the Old West movie terrain.
Moab is close to both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. More than 2,000 natural sandstone arches pop up all over Arches National Park. Other rock formations appear as skyscrapers or statues. The Three Gossips could be a statue chiseled by hand but it was designed by wind, water, and time. Balanced Rock looks like a boulder somehow balancing and staying on top of a thinner tower. The rock is the size of three school buses. It looks like it could topple over at any minute but it hasn’t yet.
The park’s landscape is haunting, with wide open desert and sky, hazy purple mountains far in the background, and strange orange hills everywhere. These hills swirl up like ice cream cones with what looks like lava surrounding them, almost as if the ice cream froze in time while melting. Some show darker streaks through the orange, making it look like chocolate sauce has been added by nature.
The park stretches out over an underground salt bed, which is responsible for the arches, spires, balanced rocks, fins and eroded monoliths that fill the park. The underground salt bed was created more than 300 million years ago when seas flowed into the region and eventually evaporated. The oceans returned and evaporated again and again, petrifying sand dunes and cementing the area into rock.
Salt under pressure is unstable and the Arches National Park web site states that the salt bed below the park began to flow under the weight of the overlying sandstone. This movement caused the surface rock to buckle and shift, thrusting some sections upward while dropping others down and causing vertical cracks, which would later contribute to the development of arches.
Erosion stripped away rock layers. Water seeped in, washing away loose debris and eroding the rock that held the sandstone together. Ice formed during colder periods and put pressure on the rock, breaking off bits and pieces, at times creating openings that eventually turned into arches.
The result is thousands of breathtaking and fragile-looking arches that aren’t as fragile as they appear. The largest one, Landscape Arch, is 306 feet from base to base and becomes incredibly thin as it stretches into a ribbon of rock. Dramatic pictures can also be taken of Delicate Arch since it sits alone on a barren rise.
The arches in the park are still changing. On a night in 1940, a large chunk fell out of Skyline Arch and doubled the size of its opening. More recently in 2008, Wall Arch collapsed leaving a space between two rock bases that resembles a missing tooth. Wall Arch was more than three stories high and spanned about 70 feet. Broken Arch, while still standing for now, gets its name from a large crack in the middle of its formation.
The Park Avenue trail is a good way to get a look at the fins many of these arches once were before chunks started falling out to form the arches. The trail dips down into a canyon and the fins and other rock formations look like skyscrapers made by nature.
It’s easy to imagine the red hills and cliffs of Arches National Park and the surrounding area as Martian territory. The terrain is just as desolate and windswept, glowing red, orange and pink. But the best part is that wonders like these can be found on this planet. No spaceship required.