By Galen Berry
A few years ago, I fell in love. With a rock. Or rather, with a hole in a rock. Or the lack of rock, you might say, where there should have been some. Anyway, I was standing beneath the spectacular Landscape Arch in Arches National Park, Utah, gawking up at this thin ribbon of stone, hardly ten feet wide at one spot, soaring 150 feet overhead like a frozen rainbow, its two ends coming down to earth 300 feet apart, the length of a football field. And I was saying, quite out loud, "No, this canít be. This really doesnít exist! Things like this just donít happen in nature!" Yet it was hanging right up there, over my head, in all its fragile and precarious glory.
Yes, that's me, in the white shirt.
I didnít know at the time how fragile it really was; but in 1991, a 73-foot slab containing 60 tons of rock broke loose from the narrowest section of the span and came crashing to the earth, and several smaller rockfalls have been recorded since. The Park Service is not currently allowing visitors to go beneath it. No drilling or blasting is allowed in the area, and airplanes are not even permitted to fly over the park.
The Landscape Arch is the greatest jewel of this park full of many scenic arches. It is an ancient, a beautiful, but a dying structure. It has survived the countless millennia till now, but even without manís destructive help, or even with his most anxious protection, it may not outlive many of the travelers who gladly hike the easy mile to see it. Nature will see to it, through rain and ice, heat, cold and gravity, that it will go the way of all her great creations, just as those same elements are slowly creating somewhere else another arch that may some day rival its grandeur.
So here I was, standing there with my mouth open, thinking poetic thoughts on the majesty of creation and so forth; but my next thought was more in the line of, "I want to walk over this thing!" Unfortunately, the windy, rounded top of the Landscape Arch has already caused the death of more than one young man with that same idea, and now the Park Service quite sensibly doesnít allow climbing on its major monuments.
Iím sure I would have chickened out anyhow, long before I even got to the skinny part -- but the thought stayed with me. I wanted to walk across an arch! It would have to be a nice wide one though, not too hard to get up onto, since I had no particular climbing skills at all other than being born a Capricorn, the goat; and it would have to be a "wild arch" -- one way out in the desert, outside the borders of the National Park.
I had no idea how to go about finding such a structure. I searched through a dozen libraries in four states for books on the subject and turned up nothing. One day, just by chance, I was looking through some magazines at a friendís house. This was in California, but for some reason, he had a new copy of New Mexico Magazine, which contained an article about the recent discovery of a 204-foot span, the Snake Bridge, which was now considered to be the ninth longest in the world. Better yet, the magazine contained a list of the other eight big ones, plus the name of an author who had written a series of small guidebooks giving directions on how to find these arches and others. After another lengthy search I eventually found some copies of his books in a Phoenix library.
I determined right away I would go see all of the "Big Nine", which are all the known rock spans measuring over 200 feet, hoping I would get to walk over the top of at least some of them. Seven of them are in Utah, one is just barely over the border in Arizona, and the "new" one is in New Mexico. It is no accident that all the worldís monster spans are in this same area -- this region, known as the Colorado Plateau, more than anywhere else in the world has the right combination of geology and climate to produce these great holes-in-rocks.
The Longest Natural Spans
the time this story was written, only nine natural arches or bridges in
the world had been officially measured at longer than 200
1. Kolob Arch, Zion National
Park, Utah -- 310 ft.
Some of the measurements shown here are now considered inaccurate, as more precise ways to measure arches have been developed, such as by laser. Since this story was written, another arch in Utah, plus two arches in other parts of the world have also been measured at over 200 feet.
How do they get formed, anyway? And whatís the difference in a natural arch and a natural bridge? Water is the agent in forming them both, but not necessarily a raging torrent that blasts its way through a stone wall. In the case of an arch, it often starts as a tiny crack in a thin wall of rock called a "fin". A bit of rain water may seep into the crack, and then freeze at night, expanding the crack slightly. As it melts, it carries a few small chips of rock out with it. Obviously, this process can take thousands of years to make much of a hole, since there is not much rain in the desert anyway; and even then it may not make a very large one, but thatís a start. Gravity helps more now, because the sheer weight of the rock above the hole starts a process of "exfoliation", in which stressed areas of rock start chipping off in flakes, which are washed away year by year, as the hole gets bigger. Arches are usually high above the average ground level, often way up on cliffsides, though there are a few you can just walk right through. Natural bridges, though, are in river bottoms, usually down in a canyon, and were formed by the river water constantly flowing against the side of a rock fin until it eventually cuts on through, changing the course of the river. As the whole bed of the river cuts deeper in the ground over the ages, it also cuts deeper in the rock, giving the appearance of making the bridge higher. The opening may actually be getting higher at the same time, through exfoliation. Even though a large arch takes a lot longer to form than an equivalent-sized bridge, arches greatly outnumber them simply because there arenít that many rivers in the area to form bridges.
I couldnít climb the arches in Arches National Park, but that didnít keep me from taking lots of pictures. Iíd never been much of a photographer before, but now I found myself going out in the park all day long, even getting up at 4:00 a.m. for moonlight shots, plus making a special trip to see the park in the winter. I wanted to share my discovery with everybody I could make sit down for a slide show!
I was surprised to find that there was an arch on the list that measured longer than the Landscape Arch -- the 310-foot Kolob Arch in Zion National Park, Utah. This thing looked like a monster! Pictures showed it to be very high on a mesa wall, incredibly massive, giving the impression of nearly eternal strength and stability -- quite the opposite of the dangerously delicate Landscape Arch. Best of all, the top looked flat and wide as a freeway, and there were no rules saying I couldnít cross it.