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Utah’s Arches is golden attraction

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There is a place in Utah where people - lots of people - go to look at holes in rocks. Some holes are very small and some really big, but nonetheless holes. Empty space.

And, believe it or not, when the people leave they go feeling good about what they saw. If they could have, they would have looked longer. And if they can, they'll come back another time and look some more.It is so compelling, in fact, that the area where all these holes are concentrated was turned into a national park - Arches National Park.

And it's really not so hard to see why once there. Simply look. And look some more. Here, there and everywhere there are reaching arches with clear, invisible air under them. And framed within these rock structures are what people are really looking at - an exhilarating look at land carved over millions of years into absolutely incredible real-world illustrations. Some are as small as a TV screen, others as large as a full-size theater screen.

Arches is, indeed, a wonder. And it's obvious why it, and other national parks, are struggling with their popularity.

In 1959, the year roads and the visitor's center opened in this park a few miles north of Moab, an incredible 60,000 people came to see the arches. Last year, which for the first time did not show a sizable increase in people, 860,000 passed by the ranger's hut on the entrance road.

Which is bringing up the question now of: How much is too much.

Diane Allen, information officer at the park, points to an on-going study affectionately called "VERP," or Visitor Experience and Resources Protection study, is being conducted in Arches.

Why VERP?

The park was created in the beginning to "conserve the scenery and the natural and historic object and the wildlife therein and to provide for the enjoyment of the same in such manner and by such means as will leave them unimpaired for the enjoyment of future generations."

"We need a way we can determine what is an acceptable number of people. Is it 10? Is it 100? We ask visitors how many people they encountered and to describe their experience. What we want to do is set standards, and they might be different for each areas. If we exceed those standards then we may need to look at setting a limit on the number of people that can be in the park at one time. Maybe a one-car-in, one-car-out type of thing. Right now, though, I really don't see that," she said.

The aAverage stay within the park right now is 2.4 hours.

Recently, though, they have tried to put some measure of control within the park.

"We ask people to park only in designated parking spots. If there are no parking spaces open, they we ask them to leave and come back later. We feel that when the parking spaces are full, then that's enough people," she added.

It's a simple fact of nature, though, that parks can be over-run. And, that in order to preserve the park and the experience, some method of control will need to be in place.

Currently, the busy season for Arches starts in April and runs through Thanksgiving.

On some weekends, says Allen, "It's absolutely crazy around here. Which is why on some days we encourage people to come early and be patient." And why this park, like others in Utah, are asking people to consider visits in the off-season.

The park is the results of millions of years of land land movement, which eventually resulted in vertical cracks in the rock.

The arches themselves were formed primarily by rain and cold. Rain and snow, freezing in fissures, broke off chips and boulders. Rains, too, helped in the carving process.

Today, there are more than 2,000 natural arches within the park. Requirements are that the arch have at least a three-foot opening. The largest of the arches, Landscape, measures 306 feet from base to base. Some can be easily seen from the highways and turnouts, which for many accounts for the short stays. Others must be hiked to.

One of the more popular hikes is the one into Devils Garden, which passes on a 7.2-mile loop some of the more popular arches, such as Landscape and Double O.

During quieter times it's a beautiful, awe inspiring experience. During busier times it's not to quiet, although just as beautiful. What park officials are trying to measure is the people and the experience in order to make the best for both.