Brad Butler surveyed the scene: azure sky, the winter-white LaSal Mountains prominent to the southeast and peerless Delicate Arch defying gravity on a lip of rock beyond a deep sandstone bowl.
"Looks like spring today," he said, though it wasn't quite. "It's been pretty exceptional, just with the lack of haze between here and the LaSals."Butler, a professional photographer from Grand Junction, Colo., had been setting up tripod and camera at various spots to capture a sequence of late-afternoon images of the world-famous arch. The inverted stone horseshoe has been featured often on atlas and coffee-table book covers and has symbolically advertised the state's wonders on Utah license plates and - as a giant inflated balloon - at the Nagano Olympics.
With his young friend Dylan, Butler had been waiting patiently for late-winter twilight in a venue he'd found rewarding in the past at sunset.
"Last time there was snow around the base of the arch," he said. "We had a red sky and there were little puddles of water down there in the bowl," a natural amphitheater eroded into the bluff upon which Delicate Arch perches so miraculously. The mirrorlike pools resulted in unusual and beautiful images, Butler said.
Delicate Arch is a worthy goal at most any time of day and at most any time of year, but many hikers and photographers find the angled, tinted light of sunset and the background provided by the white-capped winter- and springtime LaSals to be the best of all.
The arch - a fantastic span 45 feet tall, supported by two remarkable legs - is visible in miniature from the park's main highway, as well as across a gorge from the not-quite-so-distant Cache Valley viewpoint. But the only way to get a close-up look is to march from the Salt Creek trailhead up a 1.5-mile trail (3 miles roundtrip).
The trek, a mildly strenuous one, is described this way in the Park Service's Arches pamphlet:
"Elevation gain of 480 feet/146 meters; no shade - take at least one quart of water per person! Open slickrock with some exposure to heights."
And, the brochure adds: "Best at sunset."
At peak season, the trail and the arch itself are beset with tourists, as is the park in general. In spring and summer, "it's virtually impossible to photograph the Delicate Arch . . . without someone standing in it," an English tourist observed in a diary posted on the Internet.
Indeed, the pleasant spring months of March, April and May are a popular peak time at Delicate Arch, said Diane Allen, the park's chief of interpretation. The span is a must-see for many visitors - one-third of all those who hike at all in Arches make Delicate one of their destinations, she said.
Perhaps the best time in any season is early in the morning, when it's much less crowded, she added. Allen remembered talking to a woman who told about hiking to the arch before dawn in August - a very busy time in the park, despite the heat - and had it all to herself. "If you want solitude," Allen said, "it is definitely better early in the morning."
"The main thing to remember," she said, "is that lots of people are there, parking is limited - and it is enforced." When the trailhead parking lots are full, additional visitors are turned away.
The Delicate Arch trail begins at the old Wolfe Ranch homestead - a reminder of the sandstone plateau's cowboy days - that includes a small log house and outbuildings. It crosses a wash via a swaying suspended footbridge and eventually heads up a great tilted wedge of slickrock.
Cairns and anchored stones mark the way, but in general the trail is obvious even on bare rock: Human feet stuffed into thousands of Keds and Nikes over many years have scuffed a dark stain on the rock. The path crosses a few sandy places and curves around a wall of Entrada sandstone.
Then, backed becomingly by the LaSals, the natural icon comes into view.
In "Desert Solitaire," Edward Abbey observed that there are many ways to look at Delicate Arch.
Depending upon your preconceptions, you may see the eroded remnant of a sandstone fin, a giant engagement ring cemented in rock, a bow-legged pair of petrified cowboy chaps, a triumphal arch for a procession of angels, an illogical geologic freak, a happening - a something that happened and will never happen quite that way again - a frame more significant than its picture, a simple monolith eaten away by water and time and soon to disintegrate into a chaos of falling rock. . . . Suit yourself.
On a typical day, visitors worldwide pay homage to Delicate Arch. A survey made a few years ago showed that two-thirds of those hiking there were Americans, Allen said; the other third were from foreign lands.
"I spent a lot of time talking to a guy from England and a girl from Hawaii," Butler said while waiting for the sunlight to dissipate. "I met one fellow on the trail and I said `Hi.' He said `I don't speak English.' " In English.
Before sunset, most of those who had accumulated during the late afternoon headed back. A brisk breeze kicked up, and temperatures dropped into the mid-30s. A group of friends arrived in ones and twos.
"We'd been hiking in Millcreek Canyon (near Moab), and left in time to get here for the sunset, because we knew it would be nice," said Lawrence Barker of Hoboken, N.J. He and three buddies from his New York college days were visiting a fifth friend in Telluride, Colo., and had taken a few days to venture into the canyonlands.
As the sun dipped to the west, somewhat to the right of tiny Balanced Rock, a strange dot barely visible to the southwest, the few people who stuck around to witness the day's final spectacle chatted about the scene before them from the amphitheater's balconies.
One commented upon the swiftly changing warmth of the rosy tints on the sandstone as the sun descended.
Another pointed out a sliver of moon hanging high above Delicate Arch.
Brad Butler decided this sunset wasn't as impressive as his last experience, which had engendered impressive reds and purples in the sky and on the distant LaSals. Still, the western horizon turned a burnt orange and the great arch towered in silhouette from certain angles.
It was time to head back while there was still enough light to pick out the trail. The Colorado photographer retrieved his equipment. The scattered college friends gathered together. One, reclining on a shelf of rock, started to rise from his comfortable perch.
"I guess I won't need my sunglasses anymore," he said, putting them in a pocket.