Rocks have attracted visitors to Arches National Park for thousands of years. However, sightseeing has not been the main activity for very long. Hunter-gatherers migrated into the area about 10,000 years ago at the end of the Ice Age. As they explored Courthouse Wash and other areas in what is now Arches, they found pockets of chert and chalcedony, microcrystalline quartz perfect for making stone tools. Chipping or knapping these rocks into dart points, knives, and scrapers, they created debris piles that are still visible to the trained eye. Then, roughly two thousand years ago, the nomadic hunters and gatherers began cultivating certain plants and settled into the Four Corners region. These early agriculturalists, known as the ancestral Puebloan and Fremont people, raised domesticated maize, beans, and squash, and lived in villages like those preserved at Mesa Verde National Park.
While no dwellings have been found in Arches, the northern edge of ancestral Puebloan territory, there are rock inscription panels. Like earlier people, the ancestral Puebloans left lithic scatters, often overlooking waterholes where someone may have shaped tools while watching for game. People living in modern-day pueblos like Acoma, Cochiti, Santa Clara, Taos, and the Hopi Mesas are descendants of the ancestral Puebloans. The Fremont were contemporaries of the ancestral Puebloans and lived in the same general area, so distinctions between the two cultures are blurry. However, Fremont rock inscriptions, pottery and other artifacts clearly demonstrate the existence of different technologies and traditions. Both the Fremont and the ancestral Puebloans left the region about 700 years ago.
As the ancestral Puebloan and Fremont peoples were leaving, nomadic Shoshonean peoples such as the Ute and Paiute entered the area and were here to meet the first Europeans in 1776. The petroglyph panel near Wolfe Ranch is believed to have some Ute images since it shows people on horseback, and horses were adopted by the Utes only after they were introduced by the Spanish.
The first Europeans to explore the Southwest were Spaniards. As Spain's New World empire expanded, they searched for travel routes across the deserts to their California missions. In fact, the Old Spanish Trail linking Santa Fe and Los Angeles ran along the same route, past the park visitor center, that the highway does today. The first reliable date within Arches is an interesting one. Denis Julien, a French-American trapper with a habit of chiseling his name and the date onto rocks throughout the Southwest, left an inscription in this area: Denis Julien, June 9, 1844. If we only knew what he thought of the wonders he saw!
The first European settlement of Southern Utah arose from the colonizing efforts of the Mormon Church. The Mormons attempted to establish the Elk Mountain Mission in what is now Moab in June of 1855, but conflicts with the Utes caused them to abandon the effort. In the 1880s and 1890s, Moab was settled permanently by ranchers, prospectors, and farmers. One settler even found a beautiful spot within what is now Arches National Park. John Wesley Wolfe, a veteran of the Civil War, built the homestead known as Wolfe Ranch around 1898, seeking good fortune in the newly established State of Utah. It is located on Salt Wash, at the beginning of the Delicate Arch Trail. Wolfe and his family lived there a decade or more, then moved back to Ohio. The cabin remains, an echo of what must have been a remarkable experience. One of the earliest settlers to describe the beauty of the red rock country around Arches was Loren "Bish" Taylor, who took over the Moab newspaper in 1911 when he was eighteen years old. Bish editorialized for years about the marvels of Moab, and loved exploring and describing the rock wonderland just north of the frontier town. Some of his journeys were with John "Doc" Williams, Moab's first doctor. As Doc rode his horse north to ranches and other settlements, he often climbed out of Salt Valley to the spot now called Doc Williams Point, stopped to let his horse rest and looked back over the fabulously colored rock fins.
Word spread. Alexander Ringhoffer, a prospector, wrote the Rio Grande Western Railroad in 1923 in an effort to publicize the area and gain support for creating a national park. Ringhoffer led railroad executives interested in attracting more rail passengers into the formations; they were impressed, and the campaign began. The government sent research teams to investigate and gather evidence. In 1929, President Herbert Hoover signed the legislation creating Arches National Monument, to protect the arches, spires, balanced rocks, and other sandstone formations. In 1971 Congress changed the status of Arches to a National Park, recognizing over 10,000 years of cultural history that flourished in this now famous landscape of sandstone arches and canyons.
The first people to come to this area were prehistoric Indians. Hunter-gatherers migrated into the area about 10,000 years ago at the end of the Ice Age. As they explored the area, they found pockets of chert and chalcedony, types of quartz perfect for making stone tools. They chipped or knapped these rocks into dart points, knives and scrapers. If you know what to look for, you can still find piles of leftover fragments where they worked. About 2,000 years ago, ancestral Puebloans and Fremont Indians lived in this area. They lived here only during times of year when they could find enough water. They left behind important clues about their lives, including yucca ropes and sandals, clay figures, pottery and rock art. The rock art includes petroglyphs that are "pecked" into the rock, and pictographs, which are "painted" onto the rock.When the first European explorers reached this area in the 1700s, they met Ute Indians. A Ute rock art panel can be found in the park near Salt Wash (shown in photo above). The first known white explorer was Denis Julien who carved his name and the date and June 8, 1844 and on a rock near Devils Garden. In 1898, John Wesley Wolfe and his son became the first white settlers. They lived in a cabin for 12 years, until 1910. Today, you can see the preserved cabin and root cellar of Wolfe Ranch.
In 1922 a man by the name of Alexander Ringhoffer visited the area of the park called Klondike Bluffs. Ringhoffer, who was a miner and prospector, promoted Arches, and it became a unit of the national park system in 1929. John W. "Doc" Williams (shown in photo at right) practiced medicine around Moab for nearly 23 years and promoted the conservation of the natural wonders of Arches. Bates Wilson served as superintendent of Arches for twenty-three years. During that time park visitation went up a whopping 1,600 percent (from 13,270 in 1949 to 225,500 in 1972). Wilson was also the first superintendent of nearby Canyonlands National Park. In 1968 author Edward Abbey published Desert Solitaire. The book describes Abbey's days as a seasonal ranger at Arches National Park in the 1950s and has inspired many visitors who call themselves "desert rats."
President Herbert Hoover proclaimed Arches National Monument on April 12, 1929. More people became interested in the red-rock formations, and in 1971, Congress approved Arches as a National Park.