Michael Liss

Do you know why there is traffic congestion at Arches National Park?

Easy, because the national park is designed that way. Arches National Park is designed with one advertised entrance, one major road and three principal parking destinations, so that’s where everyone goes. That’s congestion by design.

Do you know how many natural arches there are in Arches National Park? Nobody seems to know. Guess what, there are over 2,100 arches in the park. Awesome! The national park brochure map identifies only the 20 biggest arches, feeding into our culture of “the largest, the longest, the highest,” so naturally, that’s where everyone goes. Congestion by design.

Do you know how many hikes are shown in the Arches National Park brochure? Visitors can choose from among 15 hikes, so naturally, that’s where everyone goes. Congestion by design.

Now that we’ve identified the problem, let’s design a national park that can accommodate, disperse and inspire in a way that gives each person the opportunity to make a real connection with the land.

Here are some solutions that present the best ideas from many members of our community who have been working on this issue for many years. I formed Arches for the People Initiative as a way to bring people and solutions together so that we can advocate effectively for positive change.

First, Arches National Park already has a north entrance, accessed by the well-maintained Salt Valley class B county road, easily passable by two-wheel drive vehicles. Let’s start using it more. We need a turnout on Highway 191 and the right directional and interpretive signage along the way. A properly identified north entrance allows for convenient one-way travel through the park, and opens up hikes to the 97 arches in Eagle Park and to the 108 arches in the Klondike Bluffs. It would be ideal to concurrently annex the Eagle Park/Salt Valley acreage into Arches National Park as proposed in the 2016 Utah Public Lands Initiative, so that the majority of Salt Valley Road is within the park.

Second, let’s build the 2,000-car parking lot at the UMTRA site for the new Arches National Park Visitors Center and BASECAMP MOAB. Once everyone can easily park, they can pay the fee, receive brochures and leisurely speak with park rangers, ending the long wait times experienced at the entrance station.

Third, now that everyone can park we deploy a shuttle system. Grand County forms the Moab Transit Authority to work in partnership with the National Park Service. We’re not talking about boring buses; instead, we propose something iconic, that’s sexy and fun and has the utilitarian appeal of classic expedition vehicles. The last time that happened was at Glacier National Park, with the introduction of the Red Bus in 1914.

And fourth, now that we have a shuttle that can drop you off and pick you up, we establish new trailheads and a whole new network of one-way hikes along the Shuttle route. More people will hike the one-way Park Avenue Trail if it’s easy to get picked up at the bottom. And we’ll create new one-way hikes to arches you never knew about, like Bubble Bird Arch, Cookie Jar Arch and America’s sweetheart, Unicorn Arch. Hikes though mysterious land formations to Peaceful Garden Arch and Where Eagles Dare Arch. A hike through Upper Courthouse Wash to Inner Squeeze Arch and Phone Home Arch. There hasn’t been a new published hike in Arches in at least 20 years.

Arches National Park is considered a “driving national park” with an average stay of four hours. Our objective is to get people out of their cars and connecting with the land, because isn’t that the point of being in our national park in the first place? We want to make it easy to enjoy a hike, so let’s get Trail Mix to revitalize and expand the short hike selection, focusing on one-way hikes with shuttle drop-off/pick-up, just like it did for the mountain biking trails.

We look forward to welcoming visitors to Arches National Park with a wonderful experience of connecting with Mother Earth no matter how many people show up on our doorstep. We are honored to be the place where people choose to spend their precious vacation days to disconnect from their busy lives and learn, if just as a spark of inspiration at Starship Arch, how to live a life in harmony with the Earth.

You know you’re on the right track when your ideas agree with Moab’s legendary tour guide Lin Ottinger. I can still remember our first tour with Lin over 20 years ago. My guests were Pritzker Prize-winning architect Peter Zumthor and his wife. The experience of climbing down into a cliff-edge open cavern inspired two of Peter’s greatest works of architecture. It’s so important to keep Arches National Park open to all wanderers and explorers, because you never know where that moment of inspiration might lead. Thank you.

Michael Liss was Managing Director of Butterfield & Robinson, the luxury biking & walking trip outfitter; taught yoga and meditation in Los Angeles; discovered the Fibonacci Spiral at the heart of Chaco Canyon; and returned to Moab to build a sustainable community called The Spirit of Cloud Rock.