Don’t do it all in a day, you’ve got a week to stay at Arches National Park.
When I got to Arches National Park, Utah, I drove first to the visitor’s center, paused just long enough to glance through the park map, then drove directly toward Devil’s Garden, home to the most challenging hike in the park. What could be more challenging than hiking the Andes, I thought.
It was just past noon when I pulled into the crowded parking lot and got a perfectly timed spot as someone pulled away for the day. I applied an extra coat of SPF 70 sunblock and double checked my water supply. The temperature had already reached 100 degrees.
I couldn’t understand why most of the people I was passing along the trails were wearing sandals and carrying 12 oz bottles of water. Where were the Camelbak backpacks, the hiking boots, the seasoned hikers? As I started down the different paths I realized that there are several more popular trails with loose sand in some places and a more solid walkway in others that lead to the Pine Tree Arch, Tunnel Arch, and Landscape Arch. The more challenging hike can be found by following the primitive trail signs. I practically smirked at the sign as I marched past.
The sandy trail soon gave way to rocks that slanted uphill at what seemed like an impossible incline. I made it up about halfway, then realized that the drop on either side was growing with each uphill step. I was practically crawling and terrified of falling. I backed off and stood to the side to see how other people were handling the ascent. There were dozens of people coming down, but few headed up. Eventually two guys my age wearing Vans skate shoes practically skipped up to the top in a single bound. I could see people high up and to the left, but when the two men made it to the top they disappeared. I surmised that the trail, if that’s what you want to call it, didn’t just wrap around easily and continued much further out of view.
I stood at this point, staring up at others, trying to convince myself that I could do it. It takes a lot for me to admit defeat. I thought to myself how cool it would be to tell people I had made it to the top of Devil’s Garden, then I thought how I wanted to be able to tell people I had made it home from an awesome trip across the country. Begrudgingly, I turned back.
I had planned the entire afternoon around this one hike and when I realized I wouldn’t be completing it, I didn’t know what to do next. I stood to the side studying the map and realized that there was a second way to the same arches. I started off from another point, past another primitive trail sign.
The sandy and relatively flat trail gave way to beautiful views of the park. I passed by tall bunches of grass, burnt trees like driftwood in the sand, red stones, and mountains in the distance. There were few people on the trail and it felt like a world away from the other more populated areas. I smiled to myself thinking I’d found a way past the mountain I’d turned back from before.
Then, an hour into the trail, I got to this point:
I was looking down at the path in front of me so intently that I didn’t notice the small cluster of rocks, the natural trail markers, to my left. I walked straight on near the tall rocks in the center and had a Wile E. Coyote moment at the end when I realized how close I was to the edge on the narrow walkway above a twenty foot drop. What?! I thought to myself looking up. Was I supposed to become a rock climber and scale up the side of the mountain?
It turned out that I wasn’t too far off. The “trail” involved climbing the rocks on the left side of the picture. Since I’d been hiking an hour, I wasn’t going to give up without a fight. Even as flexible as I am, I couldn’t just climb up to the first landing on the left. I reached my arms up and tried to pull myself up, but didn’t have the strength. I took of my backpack, threw it up ahead of me, then turned around and used the strength of my triceps and legs for leverage to hoist myself up backwards. I’d made it to the first landing, but the rocks were covered in sand and my feet kept slipping off as I tried to step onto the second ledge. I sighed. I sighed again. For the second time that day I was going to have to admit defeat and turn back.
I studied the map on my return trek considering taking the Broken Arch and Sand Dune trails that were recommended for children and families. By the time I’d made it back out to the parking lot, my pride had recovered a bit and I decided to ditch the kiddie trails and Devil’s Garden for what the park guide called “not a popular trail”: a three mile hike to Delicate Arch from Wolfe Ranch. I refilled my water before leaving Devil’s Garden… I’d already drunk two liters. The outside temperature gauge on my car measured 106.
The trail began as a paved walkway, then turned into a hardened sand path. I was grateful to leave behind the thick and loose sands of the primitive trails. The slowly sloping trail gave way to what looked like a mini-mountain to climb over, but it was much more manageable than Devil’s Garden… more of a steep incline with way more than enough space between the hiker and the edge. The trail is a challenging one because of the uphill climb; it’ll get your heart rate up from the cardiovascular effort, but not from fear. The most challenging part is toward the end where the pathway narrows above a substantial fall:
If you can make it beyond this point, you’ll be rewarded by the beautiful view of Delicate Arch, the iconic license plate image for Utah:
You’ll notice there are people standing by the arch in the picture above. You may also notice the steep incline of the land. You will not see a smiling picture of me in front of the arch and here’s why:
At the end of the long incline, just by the arch is this deep circular canyon. To me, if felt like a whirlpool and if I lost my balance I’d surely slip away forever. I was practically crab walking along the perimeter, as far from the hole as possible, to get to the point where I photographed the Delicate Arch. A kind old couple tried to coax me over with reassurances that said nothing to my shaking legs and pounding heart. An eight year old girl in sandals was skipping along by the edge of the funnel. I couldn’t figure out how people were freely walking past as if they were walking through a park. Maybe it was hiking under the hot sun all day that did it, but I was convinced that if I stepped anywhere near the opening I’d be pulled in by some magic force.
In the morning, as I drove from the Visitor Center to Devil’s Garden I passed dozens of turn-offs for perfect photo opportunities. I’d planned on returning at the end of the day and re-driving the route so that I could see what I’d missed. By the time I returned from Delicate Arch, I just wanted to drink another four liters of water and sleep. I was able to muster up the strength to visit the Windows Section with the Parade of Elephants, Cove of Caves, and North and South Windows. All are easily accessible and offer beautiful views of some of the best arches in the park. If you can find a spot to park in the lot, this would be a good place to begin your day.
Arches National Park Short and Simple
You will need to purchase a visitor pass to enter Arches National Park. It’s $10, but will last you a week. My recommendation to you is to use that week, or most of it, to explore the park. You can gain access twenty-four hours a day with your pass, which means you can bypass the large summer-time crowds and the heat by choosing off-peak hours like early morning or late afternoon/evening. Don’t try to see it all in a day (lesson learned) and if you can only spend a day, don’t commit yourself to the longer hikes. Also, be advised that the primitive trails are in fact strenuous as the visitor guide warns. Bring a friend, strong sunscreen, a large container for water (there are fountains at both the Visitor’s Center and Devil’s Garden), a hat to shield the sun, and your valor if you plan to hike the more challenging trails of Devil’s Garden and your sense of humor just in case things don’t go as planned.