An Adventure in Arches National Park (Part 1)

It has been a long time coming before Russell and I finally made our Utah trip happen; for months we planned and waited in anticipation for the season to turn and the tourist influx to die down a bit. Our itinerary was tight, but we wanted to see it all. We’d dreamed of returning to the dusty red, orange, and yellow desert lands and it was finally happening.


It has been years since Russell had visited the National Parks in Utah - decades for me - and one of the first major trips we would take together. With heavy hearts, we left Pippin behind (dogs aren’t allowed in the parks - fair enough - and the car would have been too hot in mid-September) and set off across the desolate stretch between home and the adventure of unknown.


Our trip was seven days long, and in that time, we planned to see Arches, Canyonlands, Monument Valley, the North Rim of the Grand Canyon, Zion, and Bryce Canyon; a busy seven days but we were eager and up for the challenge. The first stop on the tight agenda was Arches National Park. It was an eight hour drive from Boise and we knew we had to hustle if we wanted to find a vacant campsite and explore the park same day, so we set out early in the morning and slowly chipped away at the lengthy drive.


A little history and geography of Arches National Park


Roughly four miles north of Moab in eastern Utah, Arches National Park is home to over 2,000 naturally occurring sandstone arches. There are well known arches and sandstone formations such as Delicate Arch and The Organ, and many sights to see off the beaten path. The park contains the highest density of natural arches in the world; a fact that comes as no surprise to anyone that’s wandered around for a bit.


Long before its acceptance into National Park status in the mid-1900s humans occupied the area. Petroglyphs and other archaeological findings date the earliest human presence to be roughly 10,000 years ago. Since then the park has seen a rich history of inhabitation, abandonment, and eventually government protection as one of the cherished location in the United States deemed important of preservation.

Russell and I at Devils Garden in Arches National Park

Russell and I at Devils Garden in Arches National Park


It’s one of those places you go to that just feels significant; like there’s an ancient earthly energy promising a unique sense of peace and serenity in exchange for appreciation and respect.


Limited lodging availability in Moab


We finally reached Moab in late afternoon; not ideal for our intended day full of exploration, but it was still summer and the sun remained high into the early night, so we didn’t worry. There are a number of campgrounds and accommodations near Arches, but due to the high volume of the season we were wary. Campsites are booked out months in advance, with walk-in opportunities being few and far between. We drove from ground to ground, each glimmer of hope quickly darkened by the endless stream of “Campground Full” signs.


After an hour and a half of fruitless searching, we decided that enough time had been wasted for now. We could find somewhere to sleep later. Not an ideal way to start our journey, but at this point spirits were still high. We concluded the remaining bit of the drive and for the first time I marveled at the beauty of Arches National Park.


One of the first real “sights” that you see when driving into Arches (a precarious and hair-raising experience in itself, given the narrow winding road) is The Organ - a gargantuan sandstone structure that weather and time have shaped into tall striated columns that resemble the high pipes of an organ piano. It really is an astonishing opening feature for an otherwise breathtaking area; a sort of inviting hand that waved us in a promised more magnificence this way.


There are hikes and trails abound in the diverse 77,000 acre park, but one in particular boasts access to nearly all of the name and noted arches in the area, Devils Garden, so we knew it was the perfect place to dive right in. After wasted time searching for a place to camp we started our hike around 5:00 PM. We packed light given that the hike was only a few miles roundtrip and set off on our pioneer excursion.


Sandstone walls towered around us as we tackled the trail; bright blue skies above us shone and encouraged the golden glow of evening sun to light our way. Bright eyed and bushy tailed we ran to each rock, plant, and mundane feature as if it were its own work of art. We marveled at it all and snapped pictures of everything. The earthliness of it all - being so embedded in the true nature that we were becoming a part of it - make us realize we were exactly where we needed to be.

A shot of the beautiful chaos that is Devils Garden at Arches National Park

A shot of the beautiful chaos that is Devils Garden at Arches National Park


We continued along the tame, well-manicured trail, enjoying ourselves fully but finding it ever harder to ignore the nagging distractions around us. To our front, back, and on each side was a constant stream of people. Elderly couples bumbled about lazily, muttering to themselves and each other about the harsh environment. Parents gave half-hearted efforts to control children that ran about ignoring personal boundaries and signs that simply asked that they kept off.


It may have been unrealistic of me to imagine a trip spent entirely in desolation - just Russell, me, and the Great Unknown - but I will say it was taking me out of the experience. Gone are the days of going to the National Parks to get away.


Devils Garden Primitive Trail


In a sense of “Ask and you shall receive” optimism we discovered a trail less traveled. Too bad we didn’t notice the “Careful what you wish for” reality before gladly veering onto the aptly marked ‘Primitive Trail’ in hopes of shaking the crowd.


Below our feet the packed gravel from before turned to deep orange sand that we sank into as we trucked along. The well marked and obvious trail transitioned into one in which correct pathways were often inferred rather than instructed, but we didn’t care. Out here we could hear the calls of native birds dancing among the soft whisper of the wind twisting its way through the towering stones. We could truly just be in the alien environment.

Devils Garden near the jump off point to the Primitive Trail

Devils Garden near the jump off point to the Primitive Trail


Excitedly we ate the remaining distance of the trail with hungry step; not knowing how far we’d come or how much longer to our destination but not caring anyway. This was the Arches we had come to see. We traversed the sides of sandstone behemoths in search of the perfect view; carefully climbed along the spines of the ancient giants as the shadows grew longer around us.


For some time we thanked our lucky stars for the epic find, too wrapped up in the moment to recognize the danger that lay ahead...


Stay tuned for the next part of An Adventure in Arches National Park!