It is more than just a pretty background image on a license plate, Delicate Arch in Arches National Park near Moab is a remarkable monolith waiting at the end of a 1.5-mile hike (one way) over sand, slick-rock, and about a 500-foot net elevation gain. Our little family of six trekked out to this famous geologic sculpture on a fine Saturday afternoon in February.

I feel sad for my brother-in-law, poor colorblind man, who can't appreciate the chromatic wonder of this landscape - brown rock doesn't sound or look as intriguing as red rock. I love the desert in winter. It is like an optical illusion. Through the car window the red rock evokes a sense of some primeval summer country, legendary and ever warm, but the snow arrests that image and seems to insist that winter still holds sway, even in this land of fiery-colored rock. Despite the snow on the ground, a good 6-8 inches or more in some shady spots, the temperature is a relief from Provo, 40-50 degrees Fahrenheit during the day.

The hike to Delicate Arch doesn't sound too tough, but slogging through thick mud (thanks to the snow melting into what is usually deep sand) and climbing the at times ice- and snow-covered slick-rock quickly showed us that the park rangers' description of the hike as "strenuous" is fairly well merited. I would probably call it "moderate," but I'm not going to write them a letter of complaint, either.

We set out, my husband with our 2-year-old in the kid-backpack, me with our 11-month-old in the baby front carrier and a backpack with lots of water, snacks, and warm gear for all of us. Our 5- and 8-year-olds hiked alongside. We began the hike at 3 in the afternoon. Although we started out wearing our coats, within a half-hour everyone had striped them off (shoving them into my backpack, which was fine, the weight balanced the weight of baby girl on my chest). Of course, any time we paused for a break we would start to get a bit cold, but as soon as we started moving again the exercise, even in 45-degree weather, was enough to keep us out of coats. In the middle of winter it was such a pleasure to see my kids moving through this landscape in short sleeves, snow and red mud caking their boots and the cuffs of their pants.

Our oldest took the lead for the hike there, happily trooping along, wandering on and off the trail as it crossed expanses of slick-rock, not yet understanding the concept of cairns, or stack of rocks, as trail markers. With the sun still shining brightly, the rhythm of the hike lulled our baby to sleep - which was great, because when she was awake she insisted on practicing her new-found talent of roaring like a lion, thanks to private lessons from her older brother, Mr. 2-year-old.

At the end of the hike the trail becomes a ledge of rock, 3 to 4 feet wide, skirting around the side of a cliff, which towers above, hanging over you. Hiking this part in the snow was beautiful and yet a little nerve-wracking with kids. We kept them close and instructed them to walk right next to the cliff wall, worried that a slippery step in the deep snow pack would send their less-coordinated bodies over the edge. But it was all worth it, because you come around the corner of the last long cliff wall and suddenly, to your right, the rock face opens into a huge bowl with Delicate Arch standing on the opposite side of the bowl from you.

We wouldn't let our kids walk around to the Arch, not in the snowy, icy conditions, even though the top of the sides of the bowl were pretty clear because they get so much sun. Generally, though, most people can feel pretty comfortable walking around the sloping edge of the bowl to stand beneath the Arch. I've done this in the past and the immensity of it really only becomes real when you stand beneath it - even across the bowl, big as it appears, you just don't get the same sense of mass and grace as you do in its shadow. Delicate Arch is not the longest arch in the park, but it is the largest, complete, free-standing arch. The fact that it exists, all on its own, rising out of the sloping slick-rock around it, weathered over millennia, is a wonder. This sense of wonder at the majesty of this rock seemed to touch the other hikers that were there while we were. It is a place where you pause not only to catch your breath and look at something neat before turning around and hiking back, but you speak softly, instinctively reverencing the space and the time you have in it. It is a place for pictures and quiet.

That quiet was broken by the joy of our kids at seeing the goal of our hike, but that seemed a pardonable offense. And two ravens who were swooping and walking around broke it, too. Upon seeing them, my oldest daughter,8, exclaimed, "Mommy, I know what a raven says!" I asked, as good moms do, "What does a raven sayfi" Her answer was a confident and singsong, "Nevermore." Thank you, Edgar Allen Poe, my little girl is literate. It provided a laugh and gush of pride for me and giggles from the two women and two men next to us.

A warning, before we leave the bowl, it is in fact a bowl, with quickly sloping sides, and things once dropped often aren't retrievable. My son lost his hiking stick-we'll have to carve a new one up at his grandpa's house this summer, and my daughter lost one of her gloves.

The hike back was fun, though colder in the failing light. It took us about 1.5 hours to get to the arch, keeping in mind that we hike at little-kid-pace, which most adults can generally outdo. Then we spent a little more than 30 minutes enjoying our view of Delicate Arch, having a snack, losing a glove and a hiking stick, and mending hearts broken over the loss of such things. By the time we turned around it was almost 5 p.m., and the sun was beginning its descent.

For the return trip my 5-year-old took it upon himself, in deep seriousness, to lead us back. We took the opportunity to teach everyone about cairns and how they mark the trail, as you move from one to the next, looking ahead to see where the trail goes. We even did a bit of minor trail maintenance, restacking a couple cairns that had been knocked over. The nice thing about hiking out when we did was that as the sun went down the temperature immediately dropped and the thick mud we had been hiking through on the way in was mostly frozen as we hiked back out. All told it took us about 3.5 hours to do the round-trip hike. Others without kids could probably go faster. But it was a beautiful hike, despite the fact that on the return leg we managed to lose one of our 2-year-olds gloves. We're sorry, he didn't tell us that it had fallen off, and he, on my husband's back, brought up the rear of our group. Next time we'll tie their gear to them, somehow.

MY FAVORITE PIECE OF GEAR:

Nalgene water bladder with drinking tube accessory. It is priceless to have ready access to water, for everyone, without having to constantly pull out water bottles or canteens. We're all family, and no one was sick, so we didn't mind sharing the same drinking tube with bite valve. Over the years we've tried every brand of bladder on the market, from Ultimate Direction, Camelbak and MSR to Nalgene, from the very expensive to the very not expensive (i.e. Nalgene), and we've found that the Nalgene line is easier to wash and maintain and has never yet leaked on us.

IF YOU GO:

Arches National Park, 5 miles north of Moab, Utah.

Visitor Center, winter hours: 8 a.m. - 4:30 p.m., phone (435) 719-2299

The Delicate Arch trailhead is about 12 miles from the park entrance. The hike to Delicate Arch is about 3 miles, round trip, with a 500 foot net elevation gain. Near the beginning of the trail there is a side trail that goes to some nice petroglyphs. For those who aren't up for the hike but want to see Delicate Arch, the road continues past the trailhead for another mile and ends at two viewpoints, one is about 0.5 mile from the parking lot and the other is only a few hundred feet away, making it accessible for most anyone.

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