Ranger-led excursions at Arches National Park
ARCHES NATIONAL PARK - The information is there in the literature each visitor is handed at the gate:
* One hundred million years of erosion created the greatest density of natural arches in the world.
* The soil is alive. Watch your step.
* The park lies on top of an underground salt dome.
Blah, blah-blah, blah-blah.
But reading it and hearing it during a guided tour are worlds apart.
"There's something about hearing it from a person that makes it different, that makes it real," said Harold Threatt of Winston-Salem, N.C., after joining a ranger-guided walk in the Windows section of Arches National Park with 24 other people in late April. "The ranger was very informative. It is good to have somebody with a background on the area to ask your questions to."
More than 730,000 people visited Arches in 2004, but the park newspaper and requisite pamphlet are not enough for many of them. Arches officials estimate that more than 30,000 visitors participated in ranger-led walks and/or evening talks in the campgrounds in 2003, the last year numbers were available.
"People come to national parks for a lot of different reasons. Some just to see the scenery and some to learn things. We try to connect tangible things people see in the park with the intangible things that give the parks meaning," said Diane Allen, chief of interperation at Arches.
Walks led by rangers and evening talks are offered at most national parks across the country, and they are popular. Last year, interpretive programs drew nearly 13.5 million people, according to a spokesperson for the National Park Service. It's a good idea to sign up in advance for such programs, because participation is usually limited.
Walking with ranger Steve: On a cool Utah morning, Arches ranger Steve Budelier set up a sign about 10:40 a.m., indicating he would lead a walk through the Windows section beginning at 11 a.m. Once the sign went up, car doors began to open and visitors started drifting toward the man with the familiar hat and park service badge.
Budelier has been leading walks at various Arches locales for five years. All told, has worked for the National Park Service for 25 years.
The title of his walk on this spring morning was "What's Up With the Landscape." During the roughly 75-minute jaunt, Budelier spoke with a soft but authoritative voice that complemented the more formal style of park literature. He pointed out the dominance of black brush on one side of North Window Arch and the first appearance of trees like pinyon pine and Utah juniper on the other side of the impressive hole in the rock.
"Ranchers call them cedars just to upset us rangers," Budelier joked.
"There are some points I always try to get across, but people have interests and they usually dictate the general direction of the talk during the walk," Budelier said. "Combine that with the fact that the rangers have different personalities and each walk is unique."
Gilbert and Eirta Fridaul of Quebec City, Quebec, enjoyed getting to know a park ranger, even if it was only for less than two hours.
"They know so much and we want to hear things we cannot read in a book," Eirta Fridaul said. "We feel we have a better idea of what the park is about."
Visitors rarely question Budelier's information, but occasionally he encounters folks who don't buy into some of the mind-boggling numbers he uses.
"Sometimes when I talk about things happening 200 million years ago I get some [religious] people who have a problem with that," he said. "I try to avoid any debate about the topic, but others in the group sometimes take issue and a discussion ensues. Sometimes members within the same family end up arguing about it. It is pretty amazing, but most of the time people just end up agreeing to disagree."
People on the ranger-guided walks tend to be mature - most are 40 and older, according to Budelier - but he says the outings are designed to accommodate all ages.
Because of his background as a vegetation specialist, Budelier tries to focus his guests on the park's abundant plant life, but he knows it is tough duty with the dominating landscape of Arches.
"Geologists have the nerve to say that they love Arches National Park because there are not any plants to get in the way of the rocks," Budelier said, provoking laughter from the group.
Some join, some leave: The size of Budelier's audience changed throughout the walk. Some found the pace too slow and moved along, as the ranger explained how the local landscape was formed when the Colorado River seeped into a large underground salt deposit.
Other people discovered the information smorgasbord offered under North Window Arch and politely joined the ranks.
During the walk, Threatt learned that a postcard he earlier sent his mother needed to be followed with a correction.
"I told her the arches were formed by wind. I learned today that water and cold are the real factors," he said.
Budelier frequently clears up misconceptions about the geologic wonders of the park and shares details of the wildlife and vegetation of Arches, but what he is really striving for is a connection.
"Many of us lead lives which make it hard to make a connection to the land. I get a few minutes of their lives to help make that happen," he said. "You know something is going on when you see them just standing there and staring."
All about Arches
Arches by the numbers
Park Designations: National Monument (April 12, 1929); National Park (Nov. 12, 1971)
Park Size: 76,519 acres or 119 square miles
Highest Elevation: Elephant Butte, 5,653 feet
Lowest Elevation: Visitor Center, 4,085 feet
Average annual precipitation: 10 inches
Number of documented arches: 2,000 and counting
Largest arch: Landscape Arch (over 300 feet)
Annual visitation: 733,000 (2004)
Plants: 483 species
Birds: 186 species
Mammals: 52 species
Fish: 6 species
Amphibians: 6 species
Reptiles: 21 species
- Source: http://www.nps.gov/arch, Arches National Park literature