Dancing the Deep-Time Tango: Arches National Park

Earth scientists throw around million-year ages like so many two-dollar poker chips. Humans first walked upright 6 million years ago; the dinosaurs became extinct 65 million years ago; and 4,500 million years ago the earth formed from a swirling cloud of dust and gas.  

For most of us, these “deep time” numbers so far exceed our human-lives yardsticks, that they’re nearly inconceivable. But nowhere is deep time more tangible, or more scenic, than Arches National Park in Eastern Utah.

With over 2,000 arches, massive monoliths, towering spires, and sheer-sided walls, this red-rock wonderland is an unequaled landscape. In much of the US, particularly east of the Mississippi River, vegetation has done a good job of covering the evidence of our geologic past, but not so in Arches. The display of brilliant colors and natural sculptures is a photographer’s dream come true. 

Most of the distinctive salmon-colored sandstone features associated with Arches are formed from the Entrada Formation. Its geologic history is complex, but it begins 250 million years ago with a mountain range to the east, which was slowly whittled down by water and wind, producing one of the largest and thickest sand dune fields in earth’s history. 

Then comes the deep-time dance. The dance begins with the burial of the dunes for millions of years while the sandy sediments are compressed and solidified into sandstone. The next step is a slight uplift so the relentless sculptors, water and wind, go back to work slowly crafting the attractive shapes that we see today; it’s artful erosion at its natural best. 

As you wander the park it’s nearly impossible to walk among the arches, natural bridges, and ancient sand dunes frozen in time without wondering how very, very long it must have taken to carve these massive expanses of stone? 

Recently, near my home in Lexington, Kentucky, I walked the sea floor of a 450 million year-old ocean. When the delicate fossil clams at my feet were alive this area was hundreds of miles south of the equator!

Now don’t get me wrong; coming to grips with the idea of deep time is difficult, even for geologists. But with a bit of understanding about the concept we can all have more appreciation for the natural magic and beauty that surrounds us – especially in places like Arches National Park. Don’t miss it. 

Happy Trails,

James & Terri

P.S. Up until the late 1700s most people believed what they read in the Book of Genesis: the earth was 6,000 years-old. But Scottish geologist James Hutton upset that Biblical apple cart in 1788, and for those that want to know more about deep time and its history this is a good start. What is deep time?

Photo Credits: 1. Natalie Chaney  9. Canyonlands Natural History Association  11. Ronan Furuta  12. Jakob Owens

Author: gallivance.net

We're Terri and James Vance - high school sweethearts who went on to international careers and became world nomads. Today, 65 countries later, we're still traveling ... and still in love. Check out Our Story for more of the backstory at gallivance.net.

35 thoughts

  1. We love that part of the world and have visited it many times. But we always just appreciated it for what it was except to say occasionally, “we ought to learn more about geology.” Thanks for the informative post and link.

    1. Ray, as I said in the post, the geology of this area is complex, and even involves a thick salt deposit that created some of the features seen there. It’s also hard to fathom that there was a large, inland sea that cut the area in half when the dinosaurs roamed the area. Lots can happen in deep time. ~James

  2. Love the photos. Loved Arches as well, but I think my favorite park in that area is Capitol Reef. Partly because after the river being all the way down there at the Grand Canyon, it was nice to get up close to the rocks, also because there was hardly anyone else there. Don’t know whether it would still be so empty, that was in the early 90s.

    1. Kathy, I haven’t been to Capital Reef, but you can hardly go wrong in this area. As for crowds, we got up at the crack of dawn in the cold which worked perfectly. We had read about the queues at the entrance and wanted no part of that, and it worked. The trails were empty and by the time we were on our way back toward the entrance, the crowds were just arriving – a proven strategy all over the world. ~James

    1. Darlene, it’s as beautiful and unique as the photos, and if you’re going to see only one thing in Utah, see Arches.

      We are both fine and have gone back to masking in our area. As you may have read, the Delta variant is creating quite a spike in the unvaccinated dummies (we’ve had our jabs for sure), and I’m afraid it’s going to get worse before it gets better. However, we have been doing some traveling and camping relatively close to home and that has been fun. I hope that all is well on your end as well. Take care. ~James

  3. For me, trying to imagine the Earth in geologic time scale is as mind-boggling as thinking of the distances among stars in lightyear. It’s incredible that humans have come to this point where we’re able to measure these things. For some reason, those arches in Utah remind me of the landscape of Petra in Jordan. Truly magnificent what time and nature can do.

    1. Bama, your statement “Truly magnificent what time and nature can do” is well said. I can’t understand how anyone can look at nature and not be humbled.

      The whole concept of deep time is nearly inconceivable in human terms, but for me, at least the rocks that surround us are tangible, making the geologic side a bit more relatable. How far light can travel in a year is something altogether different. ~James

  4. Arches is one of my favorite national parks in the US. We only hiked and gazed for one day, which doesn’t do it justice. And, we didn’t even set foot in Moab. I think we ought to return. Beautiful photos and intriguing background information!

    I recently rekindled with my Belgian high school geography teacher, who knows a lot of and is fascinated by geology. I will send him this link! 🙂

    Happy trials!!

    1. Hey Liesbet. It’s good to hear from you. I see that you’re still involved in marketing Plunge. I hope that it’s going well.

      We’d been to Arches years ago, but had more time when we last visited and timed it so crowds weren’t a problem, so we could appreciate it more. It would be a dandy place to camp, but it was totally booked up when we were there. I had to restrain myself to avoid totally geeking out when I wrote this post. The geologic story is very complex, but it’s a dream world for rock geeks. I can imagine your teacher friend would also find in interesting because the outcrops are so open and easy to see (as opposed to Belgium). You guys take care and best of luck with the book sales. ~James

  5. Dear James,

    Fascinating! I am unlikely to ever get there – but Graham may well try one day in the future. I sent a comment, mentioning my old friend Sheila Harper, who has recently retired from giving geology and local history courses in Cornwall. She knows an awful lot. Look her up – she has written books on the subject. I forwarded your blog – hope she got it. How lucky you are to be out and about again!

    Jackie (Wirral, near Liverpool).

    1. Steven, Arches and the entire area around Moab is a haven for hikers for sure. It was fun to see all the outdoorsy folks and their focus on taking advantage of the countryside.

  6. Fabulous . . . as always: photos, history, science, you name it. I love your posts and all they bring to the joy of blogging. And you’re also making me want to travel to the national parks again. Each trip probably allows a different view each time.

    1. Thanks so much Rusha. As a geologist, I’m biased of course, but this area and landscape just speaks to me, and it’s heartening to hear from someone else that agrees. I’ve seen many of the national parks in the west, and for sheer, awe-inspiring scenery Arches is my favorite. It’s not necessary to know the science behind how it came to be, but it certainly adds some spice to the stew. And I didn’t even get into the petroglyphs. ~James

      1. I didn’t know you were a geologist. I’ve missed that somehow, but now it all makes sense. You rock hounds see things we normal people miss. I always love your posts. Thanks for continuing to blog.

      2. Rusha, I usually try to go easy on the geology for fear that our readers will stampede to the doors. But it’s nice to have a little science in the back pocket to add some interest.

    1. Thanks for the comment Kirsty and for dropping by the blog. Arches is one of the most scenic National Parks in the American west and if you’re ever out that way, don’t miss it. ~James

      1. Not a problem at all. For sure it looks incredible! I’ve been watching America’s National Parks on National Geographic and the amount of beautiful parks there are. To see biodiversity thrive without having us humans ruin it really is magnificent.

  7. We were just in Arches and Canyonlands NP in late May. We made the 4am trek into the park to catch sunrise at North Arch. Then spent the day Jeeping in the back country. Could have spent way longer there, but had to come back to FL to sell fireworks. Utah is one of my most favorite states.

    1. I agree Laura, this part of Utah is wonderful. It’s an off-roader’s dream. When we visited we were towing a trailer most of the time so we couldn’t wander much. But still, there’s so much to see. Also, I love the whole Moab vibe and the outdoor activity frenzy. ~James

  8. I really enjoyed your beautiful photos of Arches and your commentary on the vastness of geological time. I agree that there is no better place on earth to experience deep-time than southern Utah and northern Arizona. With the Mesozoic formations in Utah like the incredible Entrada sandstone and the massive, nearly-continuous section of Paleozoic layers so wonderfully displayed at the Grand Canyon, we geologist-travelers can always find ourselves stratigraphically as well as geographically. Happy and safe travels. ~Joe

    1. Joe, most of my travel recently has been in the east, so it takes a bit of searching to find outcrops that aren’t covered with vegetation. One of the things I love about the American west is that the geology is on open display.

      Also, as an aside that you will appreciate, on our last trip out west we made the trek up to Dinosaur National Monument. What a wonderful place. Interestingly, that famous fossil cache was discovered and excavated in the early 1900s by paleontologist Earl Douglas, who was working for the Carnegie Museum in Pittsburgh. I’m in Pittsburgh now and visited the dino exhibit at the Carnegie yesterday, so have definitely closed the fossil circle. If you have even a remote interest in dinosaurs, this exhibit (and the entire paleo section) is the best I’ve seen anywhere, and is worth a stopover. Take care and happy trails. ~James

      1. Interesting, James. I appreciate your recommendation. I will make sure to set aside a day to visit the Carnegie Museum next time I am in Pittsburgh. ~Joe

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