Growing up, I would come across photos and brochures lying around our house of the southwest – remnants of my parents’ brief time living in Albuquerque, New Mexico. Hearing my parents describe the dry desert environment conjured images of life on a different planet; it sounded so different than the humid, tree-filled rolling hills of North Carolina. These brochures might have been one of my first glimpses at the southwest, and Arches National Park was forever imprinted on my mind.
Later, there were other images of arches that sparked my imagination. Roger Dean’s colorful, otherworldly artwork fascinated me from the first time I laid eyes on his work. I had never seen anything like it.
As Ethan planned our October trip to the southwest, we knew we had to include a day in Arches. And so when I finally set foot in Arches National Park, it was both familiar and yet beyond belief. It was like stepping into a Roger Dean painting. And the desert I had imagined was not desolate after all, but filled with landscapes of every sort: rolling hills of sand and stone, slickrock spotted with sagebrush and juniper trees, glowing formations, far-off mountains, mist-covered silhouettes of sandstone spires. A vista to inspire art, a vista of art made real. Arches. I was finally here.
A Day at Arches
We were the first to rise in our campsite at Moab and it was just beginning to grow light as we ate breakfast and made the short drive to the park. We arrived just after 7am, sunrise. The road into Arches is nestled against a cliff face which it follows steeply up and then to the left. What would we see around the bend?
Once past the cliff, the view opens up to an immense distance. Two days of rain proceeded our arrival in Moab, and now it was clearing, causing clouds of mist to roll over the landscape. For some reason, I had imagined Arches consisting mostly of barren rock and cliffs. Instead we were greeted with a vast expanse of land stretching into rock formations and then mountains in the far distance.
Very few people were on the central road and at the overlooks. We had balanced rock all to ourselves.
We continued our drive and stopped at the Fiery Furnace, named not for the heat (which is intense here especially in summer) but for the fiery colors on the rocks. A hike through Fiery Furnace is on my wish-list for next time. The guided hike had ended for the season and without proper planning one can easily become lost in the maze of rocks.
At last we arrived at our main stop and the end of the road through Arches. We planned to hike half of the Devil’s Garden loop in order to see several of the arches up close. The parking lot was already starting to fill; this was where all the people were, apparently. We chuckled at the people loading up large packs with water and hiking sticks; it was only a 1.5 mile for the half-loop. But as we approached the trailhead we realized if we did the full loop we might end up lingering here for quite a while, and thank goodness we turned back, grabbed our camelbaks and loaded up some snacks. Still surrounded by the shadows caused by the early morning light, I didn’t wear my hat but brought a scarf (this played a significant role in me not being burnt to a crisp later on).
The first part of the trail was filled with tourists, ourselves included, taking pictures of several arches – Landscape, Partition, Navajo, Double-O. “This is the funnest trail I’ve ever been on!” I exclaimed to Ethan as we walked through sand, over slickrock, through dry washes. Around every corner were new views of this beautiful, alien desert.
Devil’s Garden and The Primitive Trail
As we explored further, the crowd thinned and only the more prepared hikers and a couple of guided tours remained on the trail. We reached the end of the first half of the loop. We had already been out for a couple hours at this point, but neither of us wanted to retrace our steps. After a brief discussion we decided to continue onto the Primitive Trail and complete the entire loop. How hard could it be?
Part of the Devil’s Garden loop involves hiking back and forth over the fins. The fins are great slabs of sandstone that resemble their name; they rise out of the ground like the fins of giant stone sea creatures. Some are tall and thin, while others are more rounded and can be scrambled over, as we soon found out in a series of obstacles that the Primitive Trail had in store.
Obstacle 1: The Slide
We followed the small rock cairns that mark the trail. Eventually they led us along the ridge of a fin that had a steep drop-off on the other side. Jutting up from the bottom of the fin was a log that had been braced against some other deadfall and stones. So, if you could slide down toward the log, you’d eventually land standing on it and could lower yourself to the next rock. So, we slid! Ethan quickly reached the bottom and I followed, scooting slowly on my rear and not letting myself pick up to much speed.
Obstacle 2: The Scramble
I thought the slide might the hairiest thing we could encounter, but I was dead wrong. Next we reached another fin with another steep dropoff on one side. The dropoff this time was much deeper and ended in a tiny sliver of sand in between two tall fins. No way to reach the bottom and climb back up – we would have to shimmy horizontally along the face of the fin until we reached a landing about fifteen feet to the side. From there, we could walk along the lower ridge of the rock, reach the next fin and then solid ground.
As we approached the dropoff, a small group of older adults probably in their early seventies were discussing and trying out the scramble, one of them in bare feet to better grip the tiny ledge of rock. The others were giving her encouragement and advice about where to place her hands and feet. She gave it a good effort but then decided to turn back and rest before trying again, leaving the way open for us. Oh boy.
After chatting a moment with the group (who I will affectionately refer to as the three companions) Ethan got ready. He carried my camera and deftly traversed the rock ledge in a few quick sideways steps. Because of the dropoff, it was difficult to see what he did. But now it was my turn. I got in position. Facing the rock, with my hands and feet clinging to the small handholds. I felt clunky in my big hiking boots.
The three companions gave me words of encouragement as I made my first couple of moves. As the impact of what I faced sunk in, uncertainty turned to fear.
“I don’t know if I can do this,” I said to no one in particular, hearing a note of panic in my own voice. I had never done anything like this. One slip, and I would fall into the narrow chasm. Not enough to kill a person – but enough to leave them severely injured and extremely difficult to reach. A helicopter ride to the hospital. The end of our trip. My arches dream, ended.
No, don’t think about that. Concentrate on where to put your hands and feet next. Do rock climbers actually find this thrilling?
A man from the senior group was close by on my left. I could sense him ready to come to my aid if I decided to turn back, even ready to try and catch me if I slipped. “It’s ok to turn back,” one of the women offered calmly.
“We’re right here.” I don’t know if this was spoken aloud or if I only felt this sentiment of all those kind strangers next to me.
To my right, Ethan stood giving me sound advice and encouragement. “Position yourself more upright, so the weight is on the ball of your foot. There’s a handhold below you.”
I breathed. Stood upright. Grasped the rock as firmly as I could, sand on my fingers. I shimmied sideways. There was no more clear foothold. No more obvious handhold. But I needed to take two more steps along the rock before I could reach the landing. Ethan reached his hand out and acted as my handhold. I stepped twice, holding on tight, and then I was on the landing, my heart pounding.
A cheer went up behind me – the three companions were clapping and exclaiming, “Great job!” and “You did it!” I laughed and smiled with relief and gratitude, waving to them. “I never could have made it without this guy,” pointing at my husband.
“That’s what partners are for!” said the bearded man. Yes, indeed!
We started our descent and I paused for a moment to catch my racing breath. Ethan and I expressed our disbelief at the hairiness of the ledge we had just traversed. But as we talked, the bearded man made his way out onto the ledge to give it a try. A young man who had just done the scramble and had been waiting at the top offered to help. But the bearded man was big and tall – if he slipped and caught the younger one’s hand, he’d pull both of them down into the chasm. Thankfully, after a few uncertain steps, the older man decided to go back. The companions announced they were all turning back; they would not attempt the scramble again. We sighed relief, exchanged happy waves, and continued on our way.
As we hiked, my racing heart had turned into thumps of joy and gratefulness. I had just done a pretty scary thing, and on all sides I had been surrounded by love and support. I could have given into my fear; I could have turned back, but I didn’t. I had done it.
Obstacle 3: The Hole
Suddenly, a man called out to us from below: “Is that the trail up there?”
“Yes it is!” we called. As he reached us, a bit out of breath, he explained that he had lost his way in the rocks. He had been following footprints in the hopes of regaining the trail, but these just led into the narrow canyons between the fins and then ended. We set him on the path, reminding him of the rock cairns that marked the trail, and warned him of the scramble to come. He thanked us and we each went our own way. After he was out of earshot, Ethan and I puzzled over how he had become so lost. We passed cairn after cairn – they really were abundantly strewn about the trail.
Now on the sandy floor at the base of the fin formations, we came to great hole full of water from the recent rains. On either side of the hole rose steep sandstone. The murky hole of questionable depth sat right where one would otherwise easily walk. There were two choices: scramble up the steep side of the rock, or wade across. Wanting to keep my feet firmly on the ground this time, I took off my boots and waded the cold knee-deep water. Sand squished delightfully through my toes as I gingerly made my way across. Ethan climbed the rock and went up and over. Just as steep as the slide we had come down, it was not an easy climb.
As I let my feet dry, we reassessed our Primitive Trail decision. The last three obstacles had taken us over an hour to complete, and we were only about half way through the hike. Who knew what lay ahead?
The Real Desert
The last leg of the journey was free of any mad scrambles or climbs, but as we hiked away from the fins the sky opened around us and there was little shade. Now afternoon, the sun beat down relentlessly. The shade of juniper trees was few and far between and I began to feel like an ant in a magnifying glass of focused light. I could see myself from a buzzard’s point of view; I was a slowly moving pinpoint in a sea of sand. This was the real desert now. We sipped slowly and carefully at our camelbaks. I wrapped and re-wrapped my scarf around my head and shoulders, adjusting it often to not let any one area get too much sun.
Slowly, eventually, we reached the end. Surrounded again by the tourists who had just begun the first part of the loop, I huffed and puffed, completely worn out. It had taken 4 hours to hike 7 miles.
Even as we finished the hike, I found myself thinking – What about the man who had become lost so easily? Maybe he caught up with the three companions. Those companions, who wisely decided to turn back – how would they manage to climb up the rock we had slid down? When one obstacle is just as hard as another, which way do you choose?
Oddly enough after our long hike, we weren’t done with Arches yet. We had yet to see Delicate Arch, easily the most well-known of the formations at the park. Once again, on paper the 3-mile round trip hike seemed easy enough, but it was extremely steep and held almost no shade. At the top we were rewarded with this magnificent view:
Though there were even more arches we could have seen, we were spent. Now re-hydrated, we made our way out of Arches and on to an early evening drive through Canyonlands. My mind’s eye was filled with the images of the day. The mists from that morning sweeping across the distant rocks, blooms of yellow and bright stunted aspens, pine nuts scattered on sand, windows and arches, twisted trees like gray bone, the fins reaching skyward. Sandstone ledges, sand in my fingernails and sand between my toes.
Arches taught me of the dangerous beauty of the desert, and to be prepared for anything when hiking into the unknown. But it was already so easy to see our hike as a parable, a metaphor for those obstacles large and small that we face in our own lives. Sometimes the wisest course is to reconsider. The best way forward might be to retrace your steps. Other times the path ahead is clearer than you think – you’re just ignoring the signs. I know I have done this many time in my life. I’ve waited and waited for that perfect handhold to appear, something to tell me “here is the way,” and there isn’t one. You just have to trust in yourself and go for it. Having friends and loved ones around you to offer support is key. But in the end, you may find yourself on the ledge, and either you climb or you fall.