I feel a bit strange writing about Arches National Park. This is another time where I certainly do not feel like an authority on a subject, because I have hardly dipped my toe into the vast opportunities of this park. I have no idea when their busy season is, I don’t know the best way to get a campsite, and I didn’t even complete my Junior Ranger book!
That all being said, I spent about 21 hours in Arches, and the park made my heart feel so light that I just had to write about it, even if the only reason is so I can look back and remember all the reasons that I fell in love with this park.
The day I arrived in Arches, I hardly meant to. I was fed up after a day in a snowed out Bryce Canyon, and I wanted to go South. Arizona seemed like it was sort of out of the way. (It wasn’t. There was a couple following the same travel plan as me until Bryce Canyon, but they went to Arizona after.) So I committed to an awfully long driving day, stopping in Albuquerque for the night, ultimately going to Carlsbad, New Mexico.
Little did I know that my route would take me right past the entrance to Arches National Park.
It was about 3:30 PM, and a beautiful day, and I was waiting at the traffic light outside the park, intending to continue on to New Mexico, when I just went, “awww fuck it,” and pulled into the park.
It felt weird, because I hadn’t obsessively researched what to do there, which is something I do religiously for all other destinations. That’s part of the reason I write my blog, I write the information that I wish someone else had told me. That being said, my bible for the National Parks is American Field Trip. They’re not currently traveling, but they’re the most reliable resource I’ve found.
Anyway, I pulled in, amongst a TON of other cars, and the sign outside said, “camping full.” That meant that I really wouldn’t have a lot of time to spend there, as I’d have to find a place to sleep that night, and if Moab couldn’t provide, I’d have to drive significantly further. I was already sick of driving, and so I really didn’t want to do that, so I just sort of hoped the universe would make everything work out.
As I flashed my America the Beautiful Pass, the ranger working the auto plaza handed me a map, and asked if I had any questions about the park. I panicked, considering the line of people behind me, and whispered, “nope.” As I drove off way too fast.
I realized my mistake quickly, and turned into the Visitor’s Center, where I intended to ask for a nice easy hike to do that evening, and hopefully find a longer one for the morning. Instead I asked, “I know the sign says that camping is full… but…. is it really?”
Thankfully the ranger laughed and said, “actually, we just got a call that a large number of people haven’t shown up, so there might be a spot or two. Take the road all the way to the end, and see if they still have a spot for you.”
I waved in appreciation as I ran my way back to Marlowe, determined not to let anyone else grab my potential spot.
My competitive nature won out, and I pulled into an absolutely gorgeous campsite. It overlooked the desert, with some rock structures, and in the morning I could watch the the sun rise while I laid in bed.
As I was paying for my campsite, I inquired as to why they had some openings. The volunteers there said that they suspected it was because of the weather. I glanced around at the absolutely perfect sky and said, “…weather?”
They too laughed at me, and explained that a rather large storm was rolling through, and by sunrise the next day it would be pouring rain, if not snowing. That led to two thoughts rotating through my brain. The first was still riding off the high of competition, and that made me want to race the storm. I thought, ‘well Ash, you better get as much done as you can before you get rained out.’ The second thought was, ‘YOU WERE TRYING TO ESCAPE THIS WEATHER YOU FOOL.’
So, for the second time that day, I raced back to my van, throwing a wave and a “thank you” over my shoulder, as I tried to see as much as I could before sunset.
That turned out to be not a whole lot, but I did get to see Skyline Arch, and then Sand Dune Arch. Both required super short and easy hikes, and both made me think I had transported to another planet. I kept thinking that maybe I had accidentally gone to Mars, as this was exactly how I pictured our neighboring planet, if I ignored the snow anyway.
As the daylight slipped through my fingers, I turned around and went back to my temporary home for the night.
The next morning I decided on attempting two hikes. The first one would bring me to Broken Arch, which I could have reached from the same trail as Sand Dune Arch, but I didn’t have enough time the night before. Also, along the same trail is Tapestry Arch. This was another short hike, and I knew I’d wake up early enough to at least be on the trail before the rain started. It helped that the trailhead was three campsites down from mine, so there wouldn’t be any wasted time.
After that hike, my second goal was to try to see what I could in Devil’s Garden. The trail through there is 7.2 miles, and I just knew I’d get rained on. The good news was that there were many beautiful things to see along the way, so if I felt the need to turn around, I wouldn’t feel like I was deprived of anything.
I started out easy, seeing Pine Tree Arch and Tunnel Arch. Then I took things up a small notch, and headed to Landscape Arch. After living in Florida for so long, I’ve gotten pretty good at feeling when a storm is approaching, and I still didn’t have THAT feeling yet, so I went onward. Things did get harder from there, but I think the difficult rating of the hike is mostly due to its distance.
At the point that I’m writing this, this was the most amazing hike I’ve ever done. At one point, you’re walking on a stretch of flat rock, towering above everything, surrounded by the most intricate canyon on one side, and an equally scary, but much less picturesque, fall on the other side.
The trail was marked, but, in my opinion, inadequately, so I was relying on noticing what stones were more worn down than others to identify the trail. Arches is very passionate about keeping people on the trail, which is unlike some of the other parks I’ve been to. In Denali National Park for instance, I was encouraged to, “go bounce on some tundra and pick some blueberries while you’re out there, because everyone loves a snack.”
Contrarily, in Arches, because they’re a sandy desert, they actually have a Cyanobacteria living on the surface of the sand. The bacteria makes a hard crust on the outermost layer of earth when they get wet, and it helps protect the desert from erosion. Ancient Cyanobacteria not only protected the desert, but also it is believed that they’re responsible for the oxygen in our atmosphere. The volunteers in the campsite told me that although the crusts take only fifty years to strengthen, some may actually be prehistoric. Unfortunately a single human step can break it.
All of this makes me, someone who loves and respects nature, and therefore follows every single rule, tip, and encouragement a Park Ranger has given me to the letter, very very anxious about even putting a toe out of line. So while I was slightly afraid of plummeting to my death, I was mostly afraid of disturbing an ancient lifeform.
Ultimately I’d stumble upon a trail marker again, and I could continue on in peace, knowing that for the time being I was exactly where I was meant to be.
I was able to make it to the Double O Arch, and to Dark Angel, deciding after to turn around and take the trail I had come from, as I overheard someone mentioning that the Primitive Trail, which creates a loop back to the parking lot, required wading in waist deep water. As always, that is a hard pass from me unless it’s about 90 degrees.
That was fine though, because I could just barely feel the storm on the fringes of the atmosphere, and I pushed my luck, catching both Navajo Arch and Partition Arch on the way out of Devil’s Garden, two sights I had skipped over on my initial trip inward.
Once I was about half a mile from my van the rain started, and by the time I was pulling out of my parking spot it had really started to pour. I felt sad to be leaving with so many things I still wanted to do, but I felt as though the storm had waited for me to be satisfied, and as such, I left Arches feeling like it had welcomed me with open arms.
I know someday I’ll be back, and that day might include some great listicle of best arches or something, but for now, all I have to say is that I loved this park, and I hope that the next time I enter I’ll be awed by such magic as the first time.