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Utah geologist spends days hunting for arches: 1,941 and still counting

ESCALANTE CANYONS, Kane County — When he's on the hunt for unknown arches in southern Utah, Jens Munthe typically parks his car in a remote place — where there's no trail in sight — and grabs his portable GPS navigation device.

"When we get out there, everything looks the same and it's pretty easy to go wrong," Munthe said as he headed off into the desert. He expected to discover an arch or two because he almost always does.

"Essentially, yes," he said, marching through a vivid patch of desert wildflowers. "I think I've been skunked once in 20 years."

He's made arch-hunting a major focus of his retirement after a long career as a geologist. His growing database is closing in on a total of 2,000 sandstone arches just in his region of south-central Utah.

The world-famous gallery of sandstone arches is far to the east in Arches National Park, of course. But nature has created many arches in other parts of Utah, some well-known, some unknown and others people may have seen but didn't bother to document.

Jens Munthe has made arch-hunting a major focus of his retirement after a long career as a geologist. His growing database is closing in on a total of 2,000 sandstone arches just in his region of south-central Utah.
Jens Munthe has made arch-hunting a major focus of his retirement after a long career as a geologist. His growing database is closing in on a total of 2,000 sandstone arches just in his region of south-central Utah.
Courtesy Jens Munthe

Munthe literally wrote the book on the topic.

In 2002 he published "Arches of the Escalante Canyons and Kaiparowits Plateau, Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument." Back then, 640 arches had been documented in the region. Now, Munthe's database includes 1,941 arches with several dozen more waiting to be plotted on maps. He claims to have discovered more than 700 of the natural treasures himself. Other hikers and arch hunters have contributed their discoveries to his website, archesoftheescalante.com.

"Maybe a half-dozen people a year will go down this way," he said as he hiked through a dry wash in a region famous for rugged backcountry hikes. His initial target — about a mile from the nearest road — was a well-documented beauty called Sunset Arch.

"This is one that you might call 'famous' in the sense that it's been photographed, it's been painted a lot, it's even been on the covers of a couple of books," Munthe said, admiring the colorful span of sandstone. "It's sort of a pretty thing. It's about 40 feet wide and it's fairly photogenic."

Just past Sunset is Moonlight Arch, but Munthe hiked right on by, pushing into the desert, looking for fresh discoveries. He didn't have to walk much farther.

In a nearby outcrop of sandstone, he spotted a window of light, the desert sky shining through a hole in the rock. Munthe had no previous record of an arch in that area so he scrambled over the rocks for a closer look.

Jens Munthe has made arch-hunting a major focus of his retirement after a long career as a geologist. His growing database is closing in on a total of 2,000 sandstone arches just in his region of south-central Utah.
Jens Munthe has made arch-hunting a major focus of his retirement after a long career as a geologist. His growing database is closing in on a total of 2,000 sandstone arches just in his region of south-central Utah.
Courtesy Jens Munthe

He discovered one hole that clearly didn't measure up; it allowed light to shine through the rock, but it was only a few inches across. Nearby, though, was a larger set of openings, a sort of natural tunnel, that fits a widely accepted scientific definition of an arch.

"It's an arch because it's a hole through the rock," Munthe said as he crawled inside. "Moreover, the smallest opening leading to the light is greater than 3 feet."

It's not an especially impressive discovery; at most, the openings are only 5 or 6 feet. But Munthe dutifully documented it for his database, taking photos and recording latitude, longitude and elevation.

To the discoverer goes the glory of naming the arch. But Munthe has found so many he's running out of names.

"I like to name by whimsy," he said. In this case, though, he found an appropriate non-whimsical name. It's now called "Echo Arch."

As he circled back toward his vehicle, another small arch caught his eye, a very unusual one.

"This is weird," he said as he began taking pictures. "This is unique."

The arch is formed by a boulder that's delicately perched on three sharp points of sandstone. Although the sandstone probably eroded into the cone-shaped points long after the boulder came to rest, it looks as though the boulder arrived from somewhere else and made a three-point-landing. Munthe decided to give it a truly whimsical name, "Aliens Arrive Arch."

"I love it, I love it," he said. "This is why I do this kind of stuff is to find so much stuff like this. Which is a sport of nature."