Dean M. Chriss
Delicate Arch, Sunset, Winter, Landscape Photograph by Dean M. Chriss

Delicate Arch and La Sal Mountains, Winter Sunset

(Click image to enlarge)

I first photographed the sunset at Delicate Arch nearly 40 years ago. Back then there was often no one at the arch between September and April, and when there were others there weren't many. Witnessing the drama of sunset at the 58 foot (16m) tall Delicate Arch in quiet solitude is a sublime experience beyond anything my words or photographs can convey. That experience does not exist today. In 2022 there are 3 billion more people on the planet, 111 million more in America, and usually as many as can physically crowd themselves onto every surface flat enough to stand on around Delicate Arch. In part the crowding is a result of population growth; there are more people everywhere. To a larger extent the crowding is the result greed in the form of concerted efforts to bring more tourist dollars into Moab. That  ruined the character of Moab and made Arches the most crowded national park in America. Because Delicate Arch is nearly always used as a symbol of the entire area, it became the most popular place in America's most crowded national park. Sunset at Delicate Arch came to be known by Park Service employees as "the nightly melee", often attended by "hundreds".

In 1996 I stopped going to Delicate Arch completely and began avoiding Arches National Park except during the hours between about 4AM and 9AM, depending on the season. For some photographers, myself included, photography is about more than photographs. It is about trying to convey the experience of places like this, and the photographs are artifacts of those experiences. It is rather disingenuous to capture photographs in a mob of frantic paparazzi and then pretend they depict a magnificent experience in nature.

My old memories of evenings at Delicate Arch remain among the most special I have. The place symbolizes my early photographic journeys, the reasons my life has taken the path it has, and the unfortunate fate of all natural places in America. Because of that I often wished I had a high resolution digital photograph of Delicate Arch, but cameras to produce those did not exist when I stopped visiting. Moreover, even if I endured the mob to attempt such an image, there was no guarantee that the conditions would make an good photograph, or that I could even capture an one without people in it.

Then during February of 2022 I was in Moab when an unusual, enormous, and severe winter weather pattern gripped most of the United States, including the desert southwest. Weather in the low elevation oasis of Moab improved rapidly but areas beyond remained mired down with snow, ice, and freezing rain that kept many at home. When I discovered that there were only four guests at my motel I realized this could be a unique chance to see Delicate Arch in relative peace one last time, and maybe capture the digital image I wanted.

The trail's 630 foot elevation gain in just 1.6 miles seemed more difficult than it was decades earlier. The most exposed and dangerous section of the trail was completely ice covered, requiring traction devices to traverse it safely. In spite of those conditions quite a few people made the same hike that evening, but there were considerably fewer than on my previous visit in 1996. To capture photographs I sat on the same rocks that I sat on for that purpose 40 years earlier, and I saw the same image in my camera's viewfinder. All of this brought back the most vivid memories of previous visits and dear departed friends who lived in Moab at the time. The objective experience that evening was not one of quiet magnificence, but it was reasonable and fulfilling. It also allowed me to capture a very high quality digital image that matches my old memories.

It is no longer possible to experience a sunset at Delicate Arch without the antics and clamor of a crowd, but I could hardly ask for more than I have already received from this place. I remain sad that younger people can never experience these wonders as I did long ago.

You can read about the devolution of Moab here.