By the time we reached Arches National Park, we had been pretty starved of nature when compared to the first few days of the trip. We had travelled to Portland to fuel up on some Voodoo Donuts and then made the huge drive to Salt Lake City to get in touch with our Latter Day Saints side. In between we had acquainted ourselves with a life of vagrancy, choosing to save some coin by resting our weary eyes at a series of roadside rest stops rather than forking out for hotels.
With all this behind us, we entered Arches, the red rock formations and dramatic desert landscapes instantly sending our eyes searching for Road Runner on the loose from Arizona.
First stop was of course the trusty visitors centre, to get the low down on which walk to tackle for the day, where to find the campgrounds and to learn how the massive rock arches actually came to be.
The final point is worth (attempting) to explain for those with a hankering for some geology. The short answer is that arches are created when rainwater dissolves the calcite that bonds sandstone, creating cracks in the rock to form wide fins. An indentation may then also be eroded on the base of a fin, eventually forming an arch that itself will finally collapse at some point.
The National Park has the highest concentration of these natural arches in the world, hence why it is afforded its title. There are apparently over 2,000 documented arches to find if you have the will and some time on your hands. The reason arches are so prolific here has to do with the especially porous sandstone, ideal rainfall levels, the bulging of salt beds below the surface and the geological stability of the area (it has been subject to very few earthquakes). The National Park’s website provides a much more in depth explanation of all this for those interested.
Before heading off on our walk, we stopped off at a few of the roadside landmarks dotting the drive into the depths of the park. Balanced rock, the Petrified Dunes and Delicate Arch are all interesting stops. The La Sal Mountains provide a dramatic background for the length of the drive and their snow capped peaks contrast vividly against the surrounding desert.
Next up was to secure a campsite at the Devils Garden Campground. Reservation period had just begun but we had no trouble finding a first-come first-served site given we had arrived around 10am. There are 50 sites at the campground (24 over winter) and it has flush toilets, firewood and running water available for visitors. Its setting is perfect for relaxing at the end of the day with a beer and to soak up the stunning sunsets. The nightly fee is $25.
Our walk for the day was the nearby Devils Garden Trail, which in spite of its name was anything but satanic. The entire loop trail comes in at 11.6 km and provides a great snapshot of the ecology of the area and a diverse range of spectacular aches, fins and other formations.
Parking at the trailhead was already fairly full even at the beginning of March, so in peak months I would suggest starting early to avoid disappointment. There are toilets and a water fountain available to fill up your bottles at the trailhead.
The first 1.3 miles of the trail are the most popular, as it is gravelled and well-graded, culminating at the Landscape Arch. This is probably the most impressive arch we saw. The arch lost a huge slab of rock from its underside in 1991, leaving behind a super thin ribbon.
Beyond Landscape, most of the tourists turn around, leaving the trail much more quiet. The walk also becomes more challenging, with some steep climbs up fins. The sandstone surface of the formations is often called slick rock due to its slippery surface, so take care and ensure you have sturdy shoes before attempting the rest of the walk (or do what I do and traverse any of these sections like a terrified crab).
Next up is an off-shoot of the trail (adding 1.3 km) to check out the Navajo and Partition arches. The extra walk is worth it to add a couple more arches to your belt.
From here the highlight of the walk for me was crossing a huge elevated length of rock that overlooks a canyon below. No amount of pictures or iPhone panoramas here seemed to capture the glory of the view.
Double O arch is next in line. The reason for its name is obvious when you see it, as it consists of two arches stacked on top of one another. Another portion of hikers chose to turn around here (for a 6.7km return walk). We however pressed on towards the Dark Angel, a 150-foot sandstone tower watching as a sentinel over the Devils Garden.
Returning to Double O, An alternative route back to the carpark is via the primitive trail. This is a good alternative for those who prefer walking in a loop rather than returning on the same track. This section of thew track does however cross a few more obstacles (some steep sections and a couple of pool crossings). You will be rewarded for your extra effort and kilometres with an extra arch (Private Arch) and some different views of the fins and canyons not visible from the standard route.
We finished the walk in under 4 hours including plenty of stops for snacks and photos. The diversity of the trail and the awe inspiring formations that surround it make it a must do if you have the time and are well prepared for a solid walk. Afterwards just sit back at your campsite and revel in the stunning sunset (perhaps with the aid of a fine brew from the nearby Moab Brewery).