Stevens Arch — Escalante National Monument, Utah: 

But soon I found a new favorite. Though nothing can surpass the Landscape Arch in my affections, the Stevens Arch comes closest. It has the grandest location of any arch I know, big or small, standing hundreds of feet above the confluence of Stevens Canyon and the magnificent Canyon of the Escalante in southern Utah. Standing beneath it, it seems to be the focal point of the whole vast valley, as if all the beauty of the region is emanating from this one great, imposing arch. You feel as if you are on the world’s greatest stage, and probably you are. You can see forever, but you feel you are at the center of the universe, the source of it all.

On my first trip here, one look convinced me it was impossible for a non-technical climber to ever access the inside of the arch, much less the top. But when I heard later from a fellow arch-hound that it was really no big deal to get inside it, that it just looked hard, I had to go back the next year to try. It was strenuous enough, but actually there is no great danger (as long as you take the right route, which of course I didn’t at first), and the view in both directions is wonderful. Besides, as with any arch, the full impact of its sheer size (it’s #7 of the Big Nine) never hits home till you are directly underneath it -- and at 225 feet wide, this one stretches fully three-fourths the length of a football field. Once again I found myself thinking, "Six billion people on this planet -- why am I the only one standing beneath the world’s most glorious arch?" But I still wasn’t about to attempt the top.

Stevens Arch is very remote, and by no means easy to get to, or at least to get back from. Coming out can be a long, strenuous, sandy, uphill struggle, or else a short cliffside scramble of total terror, depending on which route you choose. But if you choose the terror route, you’ll be rewarded with four arches for the price of one, plus a ramble up the most exquisite little canyon of them all, Coyote Gulch. The route heads upstream first past the jug-handle-shaped Cliff Arch, then under the gorgeous little Coyote Natural Bridge, which is not at all bridge-shaped, but proves that great size doesn’t matter for beauty. Eventually, after a few miles and several waterfalls (you’ve been walking the whole time in the river, with wet shoes) you reach the Jacob Hamblin Arch. It is a marvelous arch, but this is one hole-in-a-rock that really has no logical excuse for existence. That wall it’s in is just far too thick for an arch to ever form in! Whatever forces, accident, or grand plan of nature were necessary for the creation of this huge void are hard to imagine. Best of all, the south end dives right down under the roof of the most incredible natural amphitheater I’ve ever seen, a vast and echoing space caused by a river bend continuously undercutting a high rock cliff for a million years -- a spot so grand I call it the "Symphony Hall".

And then you have to climb out, on that same cliff. But it’s worth it -- I’ve now climbed this cliff of terror five times.

For several years, I had sort of been putting off a trip to Arizona’s Wrather Arch (#5, at 246 feet). I knew it was the most remote by far of all the great spans (you actually start the hike in Utah, and eventually you wind up in Arizona, if you make it); so this four-day, forty-mile trek with a backpack and wet feet down a river famous for its flash floods was not exactly going to be a casual undertaking. I was certainly getting more outdoorsy by now, and loving it, but still, this Paria River Canyon trip was not one I just wanted to jump right in to.

Eventually I was ready, though. Luckily, the weather report for that week was good. For several miles the canyon is so narrow and the walls so high that there is no possible escape if a flash flood comes through; and large logs wedged crossways between the canyon walls 15 feet overhead convince you they certainly do.

Wrather Arch, Paria River Canyon, Arizona

The arch is not in the main canyon, but up in a completely hidden side branch you would never just chance upon, and I certainly didn’t. After spending a long time on a nearby hilltop (the canyon had spread out quite broadly by now) with a topographical map, I finally got things oriented and made it up to the arch, beautifully situated in a colorful box canyon. One glance assured me there would be no climbing on this one -- this, the most uniquely shaped of all the big ones, was really just a giant arm stretching steeply down from high on the cliff wall to the ground. It reached out over a vast, deep alcove cut far back into the rock. It’s the only arch I habitually speak about going "inside" rather than going "under" or "through".

Of course I just had to spend the night there, inside this wonderful span. I set my little tent up high on a ledge in back, feeling more remote from the world than ever in my life, and I was. It was an uneasy night, though, and not just because of the bats. I was frequently reminded that exfoliation is an ongoing process, and the quiet was often broken by soft pops and snaps a hundred feet or more above, then the sound of tiny falling flakes of stone landing somewhere on the thousands of huge sharp boulders which had fallen from the same source long ago. Or was it so long ago? Recent major rockfalls were impossible to tell from ancient ones -- in this strange, sheltered cave, no rain had ever fallen to wear and age these stones.

The wind could certainly howl on through, though, when it wanted to. The next day I climbed the slope across the canyon from the arch for some pictures, only to see my little tent come flying out and sail down the canyon like a boxkite.

I stayed an extra day. But the river was getting muddy -- rain upstream! I had to get back out, through the narrows, and quick. I made it, though my feet were sore for weeks. 

Is the Wrather Arch worth the hike? A resounding yes! I hope to go back. Many hike the Paria River Canyon for its beauty alone, passing right by the great arch’s secluded gorge, not even knowing what is in there. But don’t go without a topo map, if you ever expect to find this hidden giant.