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There are visions that grant us glimpses into creation, moments that suspend us between past and future and invite us into the mystery of time.

Arches National Park in southeastern Utah is one such wonder, a rugged red land where the wind whispers its own language as it carves forms out of eternity.The uppermost in a string of national parks that follows the Colorado River southwest into Arizona, it features the world's largest concentration of natural stone arches, with more than 500 discovered to date in the 73,000 acres of canyons, steep cliffs, buttes and mesas.

The park, federally protected only since 1971, is a gallery of natural arches, windows, spires and fins, and monoliths resembling old ladies and animals - as if an entire community looked back and was turned to stone.

The process of formation of this untamed grandeur began 2 billion years ago. For 63 million years the region has lain above sea level, with progressive weathering and erosion atop a salt bed setting the stage for development of the structures that give the area its eerie but spectacular otherworldly character.

The old Mormon town of Moab, setting for many Zane Grey novels and named for its desolate counterpart near Israel's Dead Sea, is the locus for a tour of the Arches and nearby Canyonlands Region of parks and wilderness.

Five miles north of Moab on U.S. 191, a circuitous road leads uphill into the park on a 21-mile adventure through country that has been a desolate home to cattle ranchers, outlaws (including Butch Cassidy) and ore miners. You can choose to stay in your car for the hour's drive, or get out for photograghs and hiking at any of several designated spots.

Many of the arches have been named for the features they suggest, such as the Three Gossips, Sheep Rock and Courthouse Towers. Deep in the park a marked trail leads to the beauty of Double O, Dark Angel and Landscape Arch, this last being the longest known natural stone arch (291 feet).

The Windows section, with famous formations such as Double Arch, Balanced Rock (which still hangs by a few pebbles) and the Parade of Elephants, allows visitors to gaze through immense holes in the orange sandstone walls to the valleys and canyons 100 miles beyond.

The signature formation at the park is looping Delicate Arch, which can be seen up close via a 1.5 mile hike out to a lonely perch where the free-standing sentinel, seven stories high, vaults precipitously over a dry, meandering riverbed.

Most of these formations are accessible by hikes from one-half to 2 miles long, and they are worth the modest effort. (Note: Be sure to take water along, especially in hot weather, as there is none available at most areas.)

Recreational activities at Arches include backpacking, four-wheel-drive trails, motorbiking and technical rock climbing. Some trails are suitable for families with children and for elderly visitors.

Rangers provide campfire programs at Devil's Garden and daily guided walks through the red-and-white Fiery Furnace during summer. Horseback riding is available through a concessionaire in Moab, as are river-running and jeeping.

Although it is easy to become absorbed in a day's activities, it is impossible to appreciate all the twisted geology in such a short time. If you spend a full day at the park, toward dusk the desert's wildlife blooms, and you realize the desolation of daylight is just an illusion.

As a crescent moon fills the windows in these ancient monuments, animals of the night emerge to join the Earth's stationary silhouettes. If you choose to spend the night in the campground, you will surely find the stuff that celestial slumber is made of.

Canyonlands is home to another national park, three national monuments, state parks and the Navajo Indians' sacred Monument Valley. Canyonlands National Park (36 miles north of Moab on U.S. 191, then west on U-313) is wild and forbidding and was labeled by pioneers as a "vast wasteland unfit for man or beast." Utah's largest national park, christened in 1964, it features dramatic rock formations and wave upon wave of canyons and valleys.

Carved by the Colorado and Green rivers for 300 million years, Canyonlands' 85,000 acres of redrock canyons and shimmering sandstone walls offer three overlooks, two campgrounds, several trails and four-wheel-drive roads.

The main road into the park is 26 miles, leading to Grand View Point, where a wide-angle vantage of the mesa called Island in the Sky bursts into view.

The two rivers 1,000 feet below are lost in the tangle of vast and rugged beauty, a haven for connoisseurs of ancient American cultures and Indian dwellings with petroglyphs (rocks scratchings) and pictographs (rock writings). The red-rich sandstone fades into lavender at the LaSal Mountains on the horizon, and the immense quiet gives a humbling perspective of geological forces.

At the northern entrance to the park is an offshoot paved road to Dead Horse Point State Park (12 miles north of Moab on U.S. 191, then 23 miles south on U-312). The park earned its name from horses trapped too long, by mistake, by cowboys who used the crescent canyon as a natural corral.

From the overlook you can see all three levels of Canyonlands and look down 2,000 feet into the seemingly endless Colorado River. Rangers offer nature activities, and there is a visitor center and restroom.

The Needles District of Canyonland (76 miles southwest of Moab on U-211) is famous for its densely concentrated arches and rock pinnacles banded in orange and white. The pre-Colombian Anasazi Indians, ancestors of the Hopi and Pueblo, lived here between A.D. 700 and 1300, and excavations reveal their ways of life.

Here also are 1,000 years of petroglyphs on one 50-foot wall, called Newspaper Rock State Historical Monument, 12 miles west of U.S. 191. Farther west, the Maze is the most remote section of Needles, containing fins of colorful sandstone and canyon mazes. The White Rim Trail is a 100-miles route for four-wheel-drive vehicles, and primitive camping is available.

To some, the rugged and seemingly harsh expanses of this region of southeastern Utah may appear freakish, surreal and unknowable.

Yet to the thousands who visit them yearly, these are exactly the gifts they offer - a reminder that the forces that destroy also create, and that the beauty of Earth's creations can be enjoyed over a lifetime, even if that is only a dot on the map of eternity.

Distributed by Scripps Howard News Service