Saturday, Sept. 26, will mark the 22nd annual National Public Lands Day. This one-day celebration mobilizes thousands of volunteers, at more than 2,000 public-land sites around the country, in a day of service: pulling invasive weeds, removing trash and maintaining trails. The best perq about this special day is that entrance fees to many national parks and monuments are waived for everyone, whether or not they volunteer. In Utah, 10 sites—including all five national parks in the state—are offering free entrance to visitors for National Public Lands Day.
If you were looking for an excuse to visit some place in Utah you've never been before, make this free-entrance day your reason to explore. It could be as simple as a day trip north to the Golden Spike National Historic Site. Or, take a nice long road trip south to Zion National Park. If you've never been before, I would suggest a jaunt over to Arches National Park.
Only a four-hour drive from Salt Lake City, Arches is likely the most iconic of Utah's parks, thanks to the popularity of its famous Delicate Arch, whose image graces calendar pages, billboards and many Utah license plates. But there's more to see. There are the narrows hikes in the Fiery Furnace, the petroglyphs at Wolfe Ranch and the petrified dunes where humps of red stone make desert moguls across the valley floor. As for the arches, there's almost no way to see them all. There are more than 2,000 known arches within the park's boundaries, including my favorite: Landscape Arch in the Devils Garden.
I last saw Landscape Arch when I was 16 years old, during a summer road trip with my dad, younger sister and a second cousin from Illinois. My dad was eager to impress our Midwestern relative, and he had put together an itinerary that covered all the best of Utah. Our last stop was at Arches. Our cousin wasn't much of a hiker; a childhood in the flatlands hadn't prepared him for the wild high-elevation scrambling that we liked to do. So we chose a moderate hike, a short 2-mile round trip to Landscape Arch.
At first, I was disappointed we couldn't do something longer, but the trail soon won me over. The first thing I noticed was the quiet. Located on the far northern end of the park—far from the Delicate Arch, which draws all the crowds—we never met a single other hiker on the entire climb up and down the juniper-covered hills of sand. Even better was the prize at the end: The arch was stunning. An impressive ribbon of red rock, Landscape Arch measures 306 feet across, the longest span of any natural arch in North America.
Arches National Park owes its preservation, strangely enough, to the conservation vision of a prospector, Alexander Ringhoffer, who was so impressed with the unique rock formations around Moab that he decided, in 1923, to enlist the help of some of America's most powerful people—the railroad executives—to keep the land from development. The Moab area, Ringhoffer told the railroad barons, could be a major tourist destination: Once they knew about it, people from all over the country would board trains bound for the Utah desert to witness the arches and balanced rocks. Tourism to the arches, he said, would bring increased patronage and money to the railroads.
The executives were sold. Six years later, President Herbert Hoover agreed Arches was worth preserving, and he created Arches National Monument, which Congress later changed to a national park in 1971.
Today, the numbers show unequivocally that Ringhoffer was right about Arches. Preserve it, and the people will come. In 2010, annual visitation to the park tipped into the millions. In 2014, the park saw 1.3 million people—a more than 200,000 increase from 2013.
Unfortunately, federal funding hasn't kept up with the boom in national park visitors, leaving parks unable to deal with general maintenance—and, sometimes, even traffic flow. In May 2015, too many visitors and vehicles caused state troopers to shut down the entrance to Arches. Those who want to keep Utah's public land treasures in their best condition should use this entrance-fee-free National Public Lands Day to spend a few hours volunteering at one of 18 service projects planned at sites across the state.