Journalist • Photographer

Bobby Magill is a journalist and photographer based in Port Jervis, NY and Alexandria, Va.

You can camp at Arches, the ranger says, but only on top of two feet of snow

UNPAID VACATION, DAY 2 — At Arches National Park, water is running everywhere.

Where there are normally dry pouroffs, today there are waterfalls. Where there are normally cryptobiotic soil-encrusted potholes, there are placid reflecting pools. Where there are normally campsites, there are two feet of snow.

I used to live in nearby Grand Junction, and I've been to Arches National Park more than 50 times. I've never seen so much snow at Arches as there is today. It was 54 degrees in the park today, so the snow will be melting fast, and the desert, at the cusp of spring, will soon come alive in all the moisture.

My trip from Vernal, Utah, to Moab and Arches took me through Dinosaur, Colo., the industrial wasteland of Rangely, Colo., and Douglas Pass on Colo. Highway 139, one of the state's lesser-known mountain passes. As Hwy. 139 heads south from Rangely, it passes through the Canyon Pintado BLM Historic District, which is full of Ancestral Puebloan pictographs right along the highway. The road climbs the Roan Plateau and descends the Bookcliffs before dropping into Loma west of Fruita and Grand Junction.

As I drove through Loma and watched the Colorado National Monument-flanked Uncompahgre Plateau rise to the south, Grand Mesa impose itself to the east and the La Sal Mountains poke above the snow-covered canyon country to the south-southwest, I realized how much I miss living out here. I don't care how wonderful Denver or any other city close to the mountains happens to be, I had more fun living and working in Grand Junction than anywhere else. Very conservative, a little rough around the edges and a bit isolated, yes, but, damn, it's a great place.

I wanted to camp at Arches National Park tonight, something I haven't done in a decade, but the ranger at the entrance gate told me the park had to delay the opening of the campground for the spring because of the winter weather. I could still pitch at tent in the campground — for $20 — but I'd have to sleep on top of two feet of snow, or deal with cascades of snowmelt running through my tent.

A little secret about visiting Arches: If you've never been, Delicate Arch is a must-see and a tourist trap full of posing foreigners and screaming kids. Despite the distraction, the famous-arch-as-cliché problem and the massive impact the throngs of people have on this place, Delicate is truly one of the most extraordinarily spectacular scenes in the country. I've hiked to the arch more than a dozen times because it seems like such a bizarre oddity of nature that it always begs to be seen again and again. It's not the arch itself that's so wonderful, it's the placement of it — a cowboy chaps-shaped ring of sandstone perfectly framing the La Sal Mountains and eroded from a sandstone fin perched precariously between a giant sandstone bowl and a precipitous cliff... and framed perfectly by another arch in another sandstone fin. A tourism agency couldn't have designed a more inviting natural scene. This is what I mean: