“So I lived alone.
The first thing I did was take off my pants. Naturally.”
– Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
A trip to Arches National Park is an intimate lesson in deep time.
Home to the largest concentration of natural sandstone arches in the world, the park also boasts an array of pinnacles, massive fins and giant balanced rocks formed millions of years ago that jut out of the red desert and into the canyon country of southeastern Utah.
But it’s also become an educational experience on how to properly use a toilet.
Hanging in every bathroom, above every toilet, is an instructional sign, titled “Keep This Toilet Clean,” which offers five directives in a quest for sanitary restroom conditions. Each instruction is paired with a graphic, if humorous, illustration:
1. Sit on the toilet during use.
2. DO NOT stand on the toilet.
3. DO NOT use the floor. Use the toilet.
4. Put used toilet paper in the toilet.
5. DO NOT put trash in the toilet. Use the trash can.
Like all eyebrow-raising rules, there always seems to be some infamous backstory. The case of Arches’ puzzling bathroom signs is no exception.
“That sign is up there because some of our foreign visitors are accustomed to what we call a ‘squat toilet,’” said park superintendent Kate Cannon, carefully trying not to disrespect certain visitors while at the same time being a good sport for this story.
“And sometimes when they use our more standard toilets, they’re not comfortable with them. So, they do various things that make it more comfortable for them to use the standard toilets.”
A squat toilet is used, as its name suggests, by squatting over a pan or bowl on the ground rather than sitting on a toilet seat. While squat toilets are used around the world, they are most common in Asia.
In recent years, Cannon said the park is seeing more visitors from Asia, and as a result, the sanitary problem has become such an issue that the park is going beyond posting instructional toilet-use signs.
“Our hope is to have restrooms in both Arches and Canyonlands (National Park) outfitted with both standard and squat toilets within the next several years,” Cannon said.
Managing the massesLast year, following historical trends, Arches saw a record number of visitors: 1,585,718 people came to the 76,679-acre park. Cannon said the park, home to more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, does not track what countries visitors come from.
The massive influx of people to the delicate desert landscape has plagued park officials for years, in more ways than bathroom habits. Damage to trails, excessive crowding and overall denigration of the desert environment are issues the park wrangles with each tourist season.
As a result, Cannon said the park is exploring ways to manage visitation so as to not diminish visitors’ experience and protect natural resources.
Though in the preliminary stages, the park is planning a “timed entry system,” whereby visitors would book an entry time into the park, choosing from four three-hour blocks. Visitors could then stay as long as they want.
“We would fill up sooner, hold it at that ideal level throughout the day, and in that way, accommodate the most visitors while providing a relatively good experience that doesn’t simply have people driving from place to place trying to find a parking spot,” Cannon said.
Too beautiful?In Edward Abbey’s seminal book, Desert Solitaire, about his time as a park ranger at Arches, the staunch environmental advocate warned that the immense beauty of the park – first named a national monument in 1929 and then a national park in 1971 – could be its undoing.
Abbey was harsh in his criticism of park managers, as well as the presence of mostly all tourists, but in his most compassionate rants, he wished that guests would experience nature unencumbered by the distractions of everyday life.
“The chief victims of the system are the motorized tourists,” he wrote. “They are being robbed and robbing themselves. So long as they are unwilling to crawl out of their cars, they will not discover the treasures of the national parks and will never escape the stress and turmoil of the urban-suburban complexes which they had hoped, presumably, to leave behind for a while.”
Abbey’s book, along with the rise of outdoor recreation tourism, had the adverse effect of drawing record crowds to Arches’ gates. In 1960, the park logged about 71,600 visitors. In 1970, two years after Desert Solitaire was published, that number reached 178,500 and has been growing ever since.
Last year, Arches was the 15th most visited national park, accounting for almost 2 percent of the entire visitation in the national park system. The Great Smoky Mountains and Grand Canyon were the top two most-visited parks, with about 11 million and 6 million guests, respectively.
Yet, the reality is that Arches will continue to grow as a popular destination for travelers all over the world who want to see its stunning arches and windswept country, back-dropped by the towering La Sal Mountains.
“That’s sort of the balancing act for us,” Cannon said. “We want people to see it, but we want it to remain as beautiful as it is.”
Over the summer, construction crews will work on the entire 26-mile road system in Arches, with significant road and trail closures expected. Visitors are asked to check the park’s website for updates.
And in the end, Cannon said visitors will always be able to find beauty in the southeastern Utah landscape, even those out of their element, whether it relates to using standard toilets or being in the outdoors.
“The people who show up in high heels and wonder if they should take water – that’s a positive thing because obviously they are stretching a bit,” Cannon said. “And we want people to gain understanding and enjoyment of their national parks.”