At 7:02 am, Marshall, Kelly, and I are through the fee booth and into Arches NP for our hiking excursion. Because of repaving, the park is closed overnight on weekdays right now. The gates open at 7 am, so we’re among the first ten or fifteen cars into the park.
Our destination is the last stop on the road, and one by one, the other cars peel away to visit other sites. We’re the first to park at Devil’s Garden, a far cry from our last visit at 11 am when this lot was completely full.
Devil’s Garden is a popular trail, and the hardest of the maintained trails in the park if you opt to do the whole thing. There are eight points of interest along it (seven arches, one other rock formation), and the total distance to hit them all is between 7.2 and 8.5 miles depending on which resource you look at. Part of the trail is primitive, with some scrambling with hands required on steep slickrock and a low spot that can be filled with water after a rain.
The first stops on the tour are Tunnel Arch and Pine Tree Arch, which are quite close to each other. Tunnel Arch really is a tunnel, it bores through a thick fin of sandstone. The morning isn’t sure if it wants to be sunny or cloudy, and the sun comes and goes. In this pic it’s feeling rather noncommittal and is somewhere between.
Shortly after those two come the arch I most wanted to see – Landscape Arch.
At 306 feet, Landscape Arch is the longest arch in the park, and one of the longest in the world. Yet at its thinnest point it’s only 11 feet wide, and no one can predict how much longer it will stand.
In 1991, the narrowest section was almost five feet thicker and visitors were allowed to hike under it On September 1st, cracking and popping noises accompanied by a few small pieces of falling rock were the only warning lounging visitors underneath had to get out of the way before a massive 60-foot rock slab peeled away from the bottom. The trail under the arch was immediately closed and remains so to this day.
Next up on the tour is Navajo Arch, which is at ground level and can be walked through. The fin this one is in is also very thick, so it likely has a long life ahead of it as we see things. Geologically speaking though, all arches have a pretty limited lifespan of just a few thousand years and as a species we’re fortunate to be here at the same time as these arches are.
So, how do these arches form, anyway? It’s time for another science lesson!
About 300 million years ago, seas periodically covered this part of Utah. The salt water became trapped in low-lying areas and then evaporated, leaving salt beds up to 5,000 feet thick in places. Over subsequent millions of years, sand, silt, and clay accumulated on top of the salt deposits. The uneven weight and pressure of these overlying sediments squeezed the salt into what geologists call an anticline (a domed ridge to us laymen). Overlying horizontal rock layers bulged upward and cracked vertically, allowing rainwater to trickle down and dissolve the salt away.
Still following so far? As the salt underneath receded, the overlying rock sank with it, pulling the rock farther apart. Rain and snow soaked into these cracks, dissolving and loosening minerals and sand to be carried away by fierce summer downpours. As the cracks widen, tall fins of rock are left standing.
Some fins have weak spots, where the composition of the stone isn’t as hardy as the surrounding rock. Forces of erosion hollow out the weak spots, and an opening develops. Over time these openings grow into arches, becoming larger until structural integrity is lost and the arch collapses.
After Partition Arch comes Double O Arch. The fin that this arch is in apparently also had two weak spots, but instead of side by side, these two are stacked on top of each other. The bottom hole is harder to see as it’s dark behind it. There are a few other people on the trail now, but we still pretty much have each arch to ourselves when we arrive – it pays to go hiking early. I climb on a rock to get this view.
We’re pretty high up elevation-wise at this point, and along the trail we get a glimpse of a valley below. The scrubby gray vegetation looks like a blanket of moss from this distance.
Dark Angel is the next stop. It isn’t an arch but a solitary pillar standing alone among the rubble of fallen fins. Sometimes I wish I had a time machine, so that I could go back to various periods and watch how various rock formations came to be. I bet Dark Angel has a good story.
At this point, the primitive trail begins. There’s a lot of scrambling up and over fins, like a slow-motion roller coaster. My phone tracks me at over 20,000 steps on this hike, and something like 90 flights of stairs. It’s the most strenuous hike I’ve done since Mt. Elbert in Colorado last fall.
Private Arch is the last point of interest on the loop, hidden below the level of the trail. To get the best picture of it, you’ll want to walk downhill through it to the other side then turn around and get a photo looking back up. The shape reminds me of the eye of a cat.
Before long we’ve exited the natural playground of sandstone fins and the terrain flattens out. It’s still not exactly an easy hike though, as there is a lot of loose deep sand here to trudge through. More and more people are passing us on the trail, we must be getting towards the end.
Around 11:30 am we’re spit out back out at the parking lot, which has done a complete 180. Day trippers are out in force, walking as far as Landscape Arch which is only 1.6 miles out and back along a paved and flat route. Nearly every parking spot is full, and the air is full of the sounds of humanity. It’s time for us to be going.
No, we don’t stop to view Delicate Arch, the iconic arch that decorates the Utah license plate and several business signs in town. Why? Well, we just don’t feel like it. Unlike vacationers, I’ll have plenty of opportunities to come back to this area, and when I do, it’ll be nice to have something new to look at. That’s also how I feel about Canyonlands NP, Dead Horse Point State Park, and several other attractions that I’ve ‘missed’ in Utah.
It’s okay to not see everything in a single trip, in fact if you try you’ll probably burn yourself out. The whole point of visiting sites like this is for pleasure. See as much as brings you pleasure, and rest comfortable in the knowledge that you can always come back and see more next time.
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