Life & Death (of rocks) at Arches & Canyonlands

One day it was there. The next, it wasn’t.

For millions of years Wall Arch stood brilliantly above the desert landscape in what is now Arches National Park. Then, following an audible crash on Aug 4, 2008, the sandstone arch was gone forever.

Every arch, spire, and other rock shape found at Arches National Park is merely a remnant of massive, solid layers of rock that once covered the area. Through time, the layers bulge, crack, and then began to erode away.

Until they end up just as Wall Arch.

And such is the life and death of rock features all across the canyons region of Utah’s dry, rocky high desert country. For what nature has built over time through years and years of sedimentation and erosion, she takes away by means of the very thing that shaped what is now gone. Life and death of rocks in this regions contrast. Each arch, spire, balanced rock, and canyon take millions of years to form and then even longer to erode into the formations we see today. Their death (or collapse) is natural. Erosion is what forms them, but erosion is by nature destruction, as well.

This is the time between sedimentation and complete erosion where erosion has carved into the rock an array of different features. Erosional efforts are perhaps now at their peak optimal time for us. The eroded landscape has left arches, fins, spires and balanced rocks at their most aesthetically pleasing stage. 

Odds are good that when you think of the southwestern United States, many famous images that immediately come to mind are located in the Moab, Utah area. These are the centerpiece for Backcountry Journeys’ Canyon’s of Utah: Arches & Canyonlands photography tour. We’ll set out by vehicle (with some hiking) to photograph the icons: Delicate Arch, Balanced Rock, Mesa and Landscape Arches, as well as the Islands in the Sky district all during the optimal time of day, maximizing the red hues presented at golden hour and sunrise and sunset.

We’ll take advantage of having two of the country’s finest National Parks in such close proximity to each other while pursuing other intimate photos at unique locations in the area, as well, such as Castle Valley and more.

“Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear-the earth remains, slightly modified. The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break… I sometimes choose to think, no doubt perversely, that man is a dream, thought an illusion, and only rock is real. Rock and sun.” 

     ― Edward Abbey 

Arches National Park
Arches National Park is home to over 2,000 natural stone arches, in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins and giant balanced rocks. All of which are photographic fodder to delight the lens of any landscape artist.

Some of these rock features are simply more notable than others. Since these are the rockstars of the trip (pun certainly intended. Sorry, not sorry), let’s take a closer look at a few of the longest, tallest, and most famous of Arches collection:

Landscape Arch
With a light opening measured at 306 feet Landscape Arch has the longest span of any arch in North America (Apparently there happen to be four arches located in China that are larger).

Double Arch
The southern span of Double Arch soars 112 feet above the ground. At 144 feet across, it is the second-longest arch in the park.

Balanced Rock
This massive sandstone boulder, perched atop a pedestal, is estimated to weight 3,577 tons.

Delicate Arch
Delicate Arch is the most famous natural stone arch in the world. This is the one everyone comes to see, and is also the one on the Utah license plate. The entire rock span stands at 60 feet tall, with the light opening beneath at 46 feet high.

While at Arches we’ll focus our compositions on Delicate and Landscape Arches, giving these two spots the time they deserve as they each stand high on bucket lists of landscape photographers across the globe. We’ll utilize the light of the rising sun for Landscape Arch, and the soft glow of the early evening to backdrop our compositions of Delicate Arch.

Canyonlands is the largest national park in Utah, preserving 337,000 acres of colorful canyons, mesas, buttes, fins, arches and spires. It puts on display, like no other place on the continent, the amazing erosive powers of water that have carved and sculpted with immense force the layers of sedimentary rock of this canyon country.

While most of Canyonlands is a wilderness of these canyons, mesas and buttes, the Park certainly does not disappoint from its rim, either. The Island in the Sky District sits atop a massive 1,500 foot mesa and features several points that offer views over 100 miles in any given direction. A landscape photographers’ paradise and a chance to capture perhaps one of the most iconic desert landscape photographs in Utah.

Mesa Arch
Sunrise at Mesa Arch will offer an explosive foreground (the Arch) framing the glorious landscape behind and below. From these beautiful, and classic perches, the Park’s water shaped environment is on display as rain eroded canyons and washes filter down to the Colorado and Green Rivers below.

Canyonlands and Arches sits atop layers of (relatively) easily eroded sedimentary rock in an arid, desert climate. The region receives roughly 9 inches of rain annually, typically during summer, which is more precipitation than most other arid deserts. August is generally the wettest month as weather systems from the southwest bring brief, intense tropical monsoon storms. A single storm, while usually temporary and spatial, can bring an awful lot of destruction as rainfall acts as a sculptors’ knife to the soft sedimentary rock, creating debris flows that can devastate the strata as water and debris makes its way into lower areas like the Colorado and Green Rivers. Thus carving canyons deeper, longer and wider.


Castle Valley
The focal point of our visit to Castle Valley will be Castleton Tower, and the Rectory. Castleton Tower is a 400-foot sandstone tower standing on a 1,000 foot rock cone located a bit north of Moab. Nearby is the Rectory, a thin 200 feet wide, and 1,000 feet long north-to-south butte with 200 ft vertical sandstone walls tower standing on a base that is geologically identical to the Tower.

The Rectory has become popular amongst technical rock climbers from all over the world, but we’ll trade ropes, chalk, and cams for lenses, tripods, and filters as we photograph from a distance, hopefully with an idyllic sky behind.

The sculpting of the arches, fins, and balancing rocks, the canyons, the mesas, and buttes that make these Parks, and the region, so special will simply continue with time. And so it goes. Today they are here. And someday they’ll be gone.

Kenton Krueger








Kenton Krueger has spent the past several years guiding backpackers, hikers, and photographers into the wild places of the American West such as Grand Canyon, Yellowstone, Yosemite, Glacier, Katmai, Zion, Bryce Canyon, Olympic, Redwood, Arches, and Canyonlands National Parks, as well as internationally in Costa Rica & Brazil. In addition to backpacking and camping, his adventures include rock climbing, exploring the slot canyons of southern Utah, mountain biking, and bagging 14ers in Colorado’s San Juan Mountain Mountain Range. Kenton is a trail runner, former pilot, and spent roughly five years writing and photographing for the award-winning Omaha World-Herald newspaper, out of his hometown, Omaha, Nebraska. Kenton looks forward to utilizing his years of trip leading and guiding experience, combined with his passion and experience behind the lens, to provide memorable and unforgettable experiences at the wild places we will visit together.

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