Considered one of the best hikes at Arches National Park, the Devil’s Garden trail draws a crowd. Be patient. The pack will thin when the scramble begins.
The 7.9-mile loop begins with a brief stroll through a short canyon before splitting into spurs that take hikers past three of the trail’s seven arches.
The trail here is wide, flat and hard-packed with minimal elevation change, perfect for bus tours, kids and people with mobility limits.
Expect hikers, many wearing name tags and lacking water and proper head gear, to turn back when the trail goes primitive just past Landscape Arch, the longest in the park. The thin bridge of stone became a bit slimmer in 1991 when a sliver of the underside collapsed one September afternoon, scattering the crowd beneath. No one got hurt.
But the show stopper for casual day hikers is the scramble up a steep and narrow 200-foot ramp of stone to Navajo and Partition arches and beyond. That and the sun. Don’t continue without a hat, sunblock and water.
Perhaps the most intense portion of the hike arrives a mile later as the trail traverses a flat but narrow 400-foot spine of stone with a drop-off on each side. A stiff breeze left MontaraManDan struggling to keep both his balance and his hat intact.
He also struggled to keep his patience when the single-file line on the precarious formation halted for a few minutes so one hiker could pose his female companion for a Christmas card picture. And one 20-something daredevil prompted gasps by leaping from the end of the rock formation rather than scrambling down the eight-foot lip. She landed hard on her backside when her feet slid from beneath her but pronounced herself unhurt.
We inexplicably lost the portrait photographer, the daredevil and quite a few other trail companions at Double O Arch, just past the trail’s half way point. Why turn back when you’re half way there?
No matter. There loss was our gain, beginning with a trail extension out to Dark Angel, a solitary column glowering ominously at the end of the lonely spur.
The appropriately named Private Arch is hidden down another spur, with a moderate scramble between fins and over humps.
The trail cairns laid out by the Rangers here and throughout Devil’s Garden were invaluable in keeping us on the trail.
Shade was regularly available on the fall afternoon that we traversed the loop. We enjoyed an uninterrupted lunch in the shade of a pair of large boulders in the bottom of a wash.
As we continued our scramble, we exchanged trail intel with a handful of folks we encountered who chose to hike the loop counter-clockwise. We learned our toughest scrambles were behind us.
The trail finally emerged from the rocky narrows and turned to sand, with grand vistas and tiny stands of cactus amid the cryptobiotic soil on either side.
The distinctive soil can’t hurt you but you can hurt the soil, which is laden with fungi, cyanobacteria, bryophytes and other life. Stay on the trail.
And wear shoes. Two of the counter-clockwise hikers were trekking through the sandy portion of the trail in bare feet. We don’t recommend it.
Short on time? By all means track the movements of the bus tours. They know all the best formations within easy walks of the parking lots. And many feature short primitive trails that branch off from the groomed paths so you can achieve a bit of separation from the crowd.
Here’s a formation sampler:
This post is the sixth in a series about our adventures on a 6,000-mile road trip across the American West in Fall 2019.