You’ve seen Delicate Arch. It’s plastered on every billboard between Grand Junction and Moab. It’s on the Utah state license plate. It’s safe to say this 65-foot formation of Entrada sandstone, the product of millions of seasons’ worth of wind and water, is among the most iconic views in all of Utah, maybe the American West.
So it’s no surprise that the three-mile hike to see Delicate Arch is a popular one. It’s a pretty typical desert hike: some sandy washes, a little slickrock, a section of sidewalk-width ramp with some mildly thrilling exposure. The hike itself is mostly unremarkable, but you come around this corner and there it is.
It’s a hell of a thing, seeing the arch in the flesh. The first time I hiked out there, I couldn’t wait to get a photo of it: just the arch, I pictured, with a cloudless blue sky in the background.
But you can’t get a picture of just the arch, not most of the time, anyway. Unless you’re there long before sunrise or in the dead of winter (and sometimes even then), you’ll stand at the viewpoint for twenty, maybe forty minutes, watching couples and groups of college kids rotate into position directly below the arch for The Perfect Shot, thereby ruining everyone else’s.
That first time, this bothered me. Why should your new Facebook cover photo—soon to be replaced by a charming image of you and your friends doing Irish car bombs on St. Patrick’s Day, I imagined—why is that more important than the mediocre-at-best shot I’d get with my crappy point-and-shoot?
Since my first visit to Arches as a self-righteous twenty-one-year-old, I’ve visited a lot of national parks. Eventually, I became an outdoor professional, literally getting paid to tromp around outside. I’ve taken groups of Griswolds just like the folks who made their way to Delicate Arch that day and guided them up mountains and down rivers.
And you know what? Most of them were pretty nice.
Most of the newbies I’ve interacted with were, without pretense or irony or a trace of the condescension I so often see in other outdoor professionals, glad to be spending a day in the Great Outdoors and interested to learn more about their surroundings.
My community—the Outdoor Community—spends a lot of energy talking about protecting public lands and making spaces available to everyone. But we also do a lot of complaining about crowds at our favorite crags and gumbies on our projects and hikes overrun with tourists.
The last time I hiked to Delicate Arch, I overheard a woman in line for the pit toilet complaining about the crowds.
“Why is it so crowded?” she moaned, apparently unaware that half the schools in America were on spring break, and that she, too, was but a tourist in one of the country’s most beloved national parks.
Here’s what I wanted to tell her. It’s crowded because the view is breathtaking. It’s crowded because it’s good to walk around outside with your friends. It’s crowded because the desert is bewitching, because this place gets ahold of you and won’t let go, because we need to feel a connection with our planet. It’s crowded because, of all the things we as a country have done wrong since the Industrial Revolution, one thing we’re still doing right is getting our asses to national parks and parking our cars and getting out of them and walking to Delicate Arch.
Sure, we all wish we had the trail to ourselves. Of course. But the next time you see a crowd on your favorite trail, take a long, hard look at your companions. You’re looking at the faces of a dozen other people who will remember this experience, this hike, this day, and, I hope, put up a fight—sign a petition, show up to a rally, chain themselves to a tree, and otherwise Monkey Wrench—when the time comes to speak up for the places we value.
Our attitude matters. It matters because, in the coming years, we’re going to have to put up a fight to keep public lands public. And when that happens, we need more than just a handful of dirtbags in puffy jackets.
We need everyone who’s ever hiked to Delicate Arch to say they won’t stand for resource extraction in national parks, that they won’t tolerate a gondola built across the Grand Canyon, that experiences matter more than money.
The woman came out of the bathroom and asked if I’d done the hike. Was it worth it, she wanted to know?
“It’s worth it,” I promised her, “Even with the crowds.”