The life of a photographer who likes to shoot just about anything.

Lost in Arches National Park


In 1985, on my second trip to London with my wife, at her suggestion, I kept a travel journal. Since then, that has become a regular part of our family vacations. My wife and kids expect me to pull out my notebook (they make sure that I have a book before we leave), sit up on the bed in our hotel room, and even if they’re asleep, to write down our adventures of the day.

This year, with our trip out west, my son and I (he’s 20 years old) had an unexpected adventure in Arches National Park. Here’s from my journal (slightly edited) –

August  2009
“The Day We Got Lost!”

We arrived  at Arches around 7:30 PM– later than I wished but it couldn’t be helped. Since sunset was at 8:06 and we’d have to hike 1.5 miles to the Arch, I wanted to get there ASAP.
Jason and I trekked to the Delicate Arch at record speed. Usually such hikes should be enjoyed, looking around at the view and the general area. Not this time. I’m not sure at what point, but I left Jason in the distance as I raced there. I was breathing heavily, afraid of having a heart attack, but kept on pushing myself. And I watched the sun slowly setting behind me. I knew that I wasn’t going to make it in time, but I kept up my pace. Finally, on the verge of collapsing, I stopped to rest and let Jason catch up to me. We were about 2/3rds of the way there. We finished the journey together. Along the path I asked people, “Much further?” Finally I got the answer I wanted to hear, “Just around the bend.”
As expected, I found the Delicate Arch without any “sunset light” falling on it. I wasn’t going to let this disappointment get in the way of plane B – night sky photos with the arch in the foreground. I had my tripod and flash ready for the evening.
I picked a spot – at this point, being very tired, I didn’t walk far. I setup base camp – camera, tripod – Jason walked around, taking in the view. I shot photos of him standing by the arch. I didn’t move from my spot.
And we waited.
I took photos in the interim, always hoping for something interesting.
Slowly the darkness crept up on us. I watched the stars come out and I took some shots – with the flash, without the flash, different angles handholding the flash. (For the record, the flash was useless. I assumed it would be, but I was hoping to be proven wrong.)
In the meantime, I had this nervous thought going through my mind, “It’s getting dark. There are no lights here. There is no moon out. We have to walk about 1.5 miles and we only have one flashlight. I hope that I didn’t screw up.” I was getting very anxious but still wanted to get some photos.
Finally around 9:15 PM I told Jason, “We have to leave now.” I quickly gathered up my equipment and we started our walk. It was nighttime.
I held the flashlight, he held unto my arm and we started walking. I was very nervous, afraid that I had put my son in harm’s way, but I wouldn’t let it show. Well, for the first third to half of the distance everything went fine. We followed the cairns (these are small rock collections, piled in a mound, used as trail guides) without a problem. I was feeling somewhat positive. Then the cairns came to an end. Uh oh.
We continued walking and got lost. We couldn’t find the dirt trail. I kept my cool but I knew that Jason was getting nervous. I pulled out my compass to locate which direction we should walk in – I believed that we should be heading southwest – so we walked in that direction. I had a video camera. I turned it on and tried using the night vision feature for a better view in front of us. No good. We kept on walking, tripping over all sorts of ground features. At one point we came upon a sandy area and I felt positive. “We found the trail!” I told Jason. We followed the path for 15 minutes before it occurred to me that we WEREN’T on it. “Jason, there are no footprints.” We listened for cars. If we could walk to the road, we could then walk back to the parking lot. No luck. I believed that we were never in any real physical danger. I wasn’t aware of any dangerous animals in Arches, but I knew that if we had to stay the night and wait for dawn to find our way back, my wife, Jason’s mother, would be beside herself with worry. Finally I did what I only hear about in the movies. I screamed out, “Help!” My call was instinct, not reality based. My son took my cue and he kept on calling. And we kept on walking. In the far distance my son spotted another flashlight. Someone else was out there! He continued calling for help hoping that maybe it was someone who could assist us. There was no response after repeated attempts of communication. We kept on walking. At one point we came upon a barbwire fence. That was a surprise. We climbed an area of the terrain that rose up about 20 feet thinking there was a road on the other side. No luck. We were getting exhausted.
Jason kept calling out help. Unexpectedly, in the distance 3 more flashlights appeared. These were people traveling together. Could this be our lucky break? Jason called to them and they responded. (It was impossible to tell how far away they were.) They asked if we were injured. We said no. Then they said that we had to go to them. They were on the trail and didn’t want to veer off and get lost. I admit, I was nervous. Who were these people? Where they a threat? I’ve seen Halloween – The Movie. In the environment that I was in, that didn’t seem logical. I let Jason know that I was nervous about these strangers, but I didn’t see a choice so he and I slowly, and with great difficulty made our way to them. They called to us. We shouted back to them and kept our eyes on their flashlights so we wouldn’t lose them. We had to climb back down from the higher elevation that we were on and we had to fight our way through incredibly thick, tall and dense bush. When it’s pitch black and you only have 1 flashlight, you CANNOT see how to get around the bush. We pushed our way through, collecting dozens of deep scratches. (I rarely wear shorts, but not today of course.)
We slowly made our way to our saviors. They were 3 young people – probably in their 20’s – wearing helmets with lights (miner type) that threw out a ton of light. We explained our situation. They offered us some condensed energy food and water. I had water already but I took some of the energy food. They gave us 2 packets, one for Jason and one for me. I ate some of mine. Jason did not eat his but I’ve kept it as a souvenir. One of the men was very familiar with the trails and slowly guided us back to the parking lot. They were from back east – Buffalo, NY. Jason walked with the main guide and his girlfriend, talking with them. I was amazed to hear Jason talk. His concern and fear immediately evaporated and he spoke with incredible energy about our evening and our mishap. He also talked all about our trip out west. I was trailing behind with the 3rd person – a cousin to our guide – and I was talking with an incredibly dry mouth and barely able to put one foot in front of the other. Inside, I was mentally and physically exhausted but so very thankful at my incredible luck at running into these people.
It was, maybe, another 10 minutes back to the car. Finally arriving at the parking lot, I thanked them again, we shook hands and we parted. Back in the car, Jason and I gave each other a big hug with an even bigger sigh of relief.
I’m not really sure how long we were lost – 60 to 90 minutes – but as I drove back to the hotel, I was preparing myself for Deb. Before leaving the parking lot, the first thing I did was to have Jason call to let her know that we were safe and had no problems. I was hoping that would be the end of it.
No such luck when you’re married.
We arrived back in our room around 11:30 to a very worried and angry woman.
Next up, time to shower. Boy, did all those scratches hurt.

11 responses

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  3. I have explored the Delicate Arch area extensively (Abby and I got married there in 2004), and never found a fence. I would be very interested to know where you were when you found it.

    March 17, 2012 at 7:16 pm

    • Richard, the events at the Delicate Arch were, as described in my post, at night when we were lost. Even with a flash light, we barely saw in front of us and were very lucky that someone came across us and led us out. With that said, my son and I scrambled through thick brush and, as for the barbed wire fence that I mentioned, I can’t say exactly where it was located. When I, and my family, go on vacation I keep a journal so I wrote my entry the next day so I’m confident my information at that point wasn’t wrong. I can only assume that the fence was probably rudimentary and low to the ground.

      March 17, 2012 at 9:46 pm

      • I have no doubt your account was accurate. It just blows my mind trying to figure out where you might have been. The arch is on the eastern boundary of the park, so maybe you went that way at some point. Maybe next time I’m exploring it, I’ll see if I can figure it out. Glad you made it out unscathed!

        March 17, 2012 at 10:22 pm

      • What I have learned from being lost is that the next time I go to Arches National Park and want to take nighttime shots I’m only going to the arches that are 10 feet from the parking lot. Seriously, the distance from the parking lot to the Delicate Arch is 1.5 miles so it was, unfortunately, easy for me to lose my way back.

        March 18, 2012 at 12:06 am

      • I want to correct one thing Richard, I think it was closer to 1 mile not 1.5 miles. Also, I think that you never saw/found a barbed wire fence because it wasn’t in an area open to the public. I can only assume that my son and I being lost, we maybe wandered into areas that the public wasn’t supposed to be walking.

        March 18, 2012 at 12:32 am

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  6. Wow, simply Wow! Not only for the amazing photograph of Arches National Park but of your incredible way of making the reader feel every emotion of your journey. I don’t know if you have written a book but the world is missing out if you don’t write one. (And knowing the pitfalls of the desert I totally have sympathy for your wife’s worst fears. I definitely would have felt relief and anger at the same time!) Thank you for sharing this. It’s nice knowing you are human.

    April 16, 2014 at 4:33 pm

  7. Appreciate the kind words about my writing. As for knowing that I’m human, unfortunately that can cause a problem. As for my wife, I love to annoy her but I don’t want to torture her. I felt very worried about her and my son. And, as I already said, I told my son that when I go back to Arches, I’m standing 10 feet from the parking lot to take any night time photos.

    April 16, 2014 at 4:48 pm

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