100 Days of National Parks: Day 57 – Delicate Arch, Arches National Park

Delicate Arch

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There are many reasons in my time as a photographer that I’ve had to sit and wait for a shot to materialize.  It could be waiting for the right lighting, or for an animal to turn its head, or snapping away at a particularly large panorama, aligning each shot over the course of an hour to make sure it all lines up in the edit.  Then there are those times when you simply know that you’re in a special place, one that is so popular that the people flock to it en masse, and all you can do is sit and wait patiently for the shot to clear so you can get that one clean exposure.

This was my experience at Delicate Arch in April of 2014.  I was in the last days of a two week circle through the southwest, and had stopped by Arches almost perfunctorily on my way to the Island in the Sky, where I’d spend the night.  I’d spent two days in Arches in 2012, and had covered the majority of places I really wanted to see, and with the physical hangover from a 25 mile hike I’d done the day before, I wasn’t feeling overly pressured to get out and do any major exploring in the Park.

I knew I wanted to get a Delicate Arch shot, however.  The dynamic and extremely photogenic arch was ubiquitous in most photographer’s portfolios, and I had sadly skipped it on my previous trip to the park.  Long used as a symbol not only for the Utah National Parks, but for the National Park Service in general, it’s an iconic monument to the preservation of these important areas, and I was eager to get up and capture it myself.

That eagerness didn’t last long, however, as I made my way up the slick rock trail from the over-filled parking lot and realized pretty quickly that I was walking into a zoo.  Hundreds of people walked the same trail, some ascending, like me, others on the return hike to their cars.  I persevered, however, despite my distaste for crowded hikes, and reached the arch in little time, only to find it literally crawling with tourists.  I carved out my spot along the deep bowl that makes up the arch’s base, and settled in for the long wait, my camera at the ready.

People rotated in and out of the natural frame, getting their pictures taken in a variety of silly poses, climbing up a short way onto the rock face or pretending to hold it up or knock it over.  I amused myself by tossing pieces of trail mix to a particularly cheeky raven, who was doing loops in and out of the arch, and appearing to have a great time doing so.  It had a distinct pattern, circling wide then folding its wings to dart through the center of the arch, then looping back around the opposite side for another run, its figure-8 course clearly designed to maximize its chances of getting more treats from others amongst the growing crowd of tourists.

I sat on the edge of the bowl for nearly four hours, enjoying the cool breeze coming off the snow-clad La Sal Mountains to the south, balancing the warmth of the afternoon sun in the west.  Eventually, the steady stream of tourists broke, just for a moment, and I moved in for the shot, taking hundreds of exposures, trying to make sure I got the right one.

In the end, I got several that I was proud of, but this one in particular came out very nice.  I love the light and shadow interplaying on the arch itself, the starkness of the mountains in the distance, the red of the far canyon walls.  I even got the cheeky raven in the middle of one of his loops, a lucky break that never fails to remind me of the long wait.

It’s not always the case that I’m willing to sit and be patient enough for a shot to present itself.  Usually, my ADD kicks in and I take what I can get before moving on to the next shot.  There are times however, when it’s absolutely worth the wait, and you come away with an experience that sticks with you for years after the fact.  That was my experience at Delicate Arch, and I couldn’t have asked for a better one.

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