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Devils Garden – Checking Out The Arches
by Marcy Hafner

From around the globe more than a million visitors traveled to Arches National Park last year. When they arrived, a dramatic, out-of-this world landscape greeted them: colossal sandstone fins – massive balanced rocks – soaring pinnacles – giant-sized slickrock domes – towering monoliths – and the largest concentration of natural sandstone arches on this planet. Overlooked by the snow-capped La Sal Mountains, our western scenery doesn’t get any better than this.

Almost all the arches are made of Entrada Sandstone, and water erosion has usually been the main factor in their formation. Beginning at weak points within the sandstone, chemicals in the water dissolve the cement that was binding the rock particles. Then, expanding pressure from water and ice slowly breaks off pieces of stone until many of the fins collapse. Some, however, with the right balance and hardness survive as arches, a process that can take up to a million years.

Devils Garden - the longest maintained trail in the park - is the second biggest attraction after Delicate Arch. To get to it from the visitor center, drive 19 miles to the end of the road where 150 parking spaces are available. Be forewarned - during the busy tourist season (March through November) sleeping in is not a good idea; if you show up after mid-morning you’re going to be hustling to snag a parking spot. Even two days before Thanksgiving it is still a busy place, and I am accompanied by dozens of other arch-seekers of all ages, most of them from other countries.

With its impressive collection of arches, this trail offers a lot of options - from various shorter arch-viewing excursions to the grand tour – three spurs and the Primitive Loop. The total package going the whole distance is 7.2 miles. The straight-through distance, however, to Double O Arch is 4.2 miles round trip.

The trail begins on a well-defined graveled path that travels through a vestibule between two fins before emptying out into a wide sandy opening. The first spur comes up quickly, and I leave the main route to investigate two distinctly different arches. Tunnel Arch pops into view first, and I am impressed with its heavy-duty appearance suggesting a high-off-the ground tunnel. Then I move on to Pine Tree Arch, which presents a much friendlier landscape – an arch with a wide open door – an invitation to visit the veranda on the other side where junipers and pinyon pines thrive.

After that pleasant detour, I’m back on track to Landscape Arch, which is the longest sandstone span in the world. Six feet longer than a football field, this spectacular arch is so tall a nine-story building would fit underneath.

Bit by bit, however, this vulnerable arch is falling apart. On September 1, 1991 visitors beneath its structure were suddenly startled by loud popping noises. Immediately they fled as small rocks came tumbling down. Moments later, a sixty foot slab peeled off the right side! After the dust settled, 180 tons of debris lay scattered on the ground. Since then three more slabs have plummeted to the desert floor. Sadly, this treasured arch is nearing the end of its life. Its thinnest section is only eleven feet thick, and for obvious reasons the short trail below has been closed.

Since 1929, forty-two arches inside the park have collapsed. Wall Arch, which was just a few hundred feet beyond Landscape, lost its battle with gravity on August 4, 2008. The demise happened during the night and no one was there to witness the event. With a blink of an eye, it was gone and the rockfall completely blocked the trail. Ranked twelfth in size among the 2,000 known arches in the park, this landmark of gigantic proportions will be remembered for a long time.

It takes a mile to cover the easy-going cruise to Landscape Arch, but after that the interstate ends, and a more challenging route lies ahead - steep slickrock slopes and narrow rocky ledges with serious drop-offs on either side. Anyone with a fear of heights should not attempt this portion of the trail!

After some scampering up the slickrock, I’m at the next spur trail, where I wander off for a delightful half-mile stroll to seek out two more unique arches. First comes Navajo – the arch offering the most shade on a hot summer day - a small comfy opening with a wide-bodied dirt bottom, which is tucked in by a rock wall on the other side. Walking through its entry, I pause for awhile within the sanctum of its inner courtyard.

When I get to Partition Arch, I’m in for a surprise, because a mini arch sits adjacent to it. Situated on a long slickrock partition, this sandstone window turns out to be my favorite, a special place where I can protectively sit in its massive belly to absorb the picture-framed view of Salt Valley stretching across the park to the river corridor and beyond.

Eventually I continue along Partition’s extensive wall until an abrupt drop-off brings me to a screeching halt! Now the perspective changes - looking to the southeast across a series of fins my vision hits the horizontal image of the La Sal Mountains.

Returning to the main trail, I begin another climb, which feels like I’ve obtained the upper reaches of the park – the top of it all - as I stare down on the big rock structures below. Then I cautiously descend down the Moki steps, followed by a butt slide with an abrupt landing to the gentler grade that leads me to Double O Arch, the second largest arch in Devils Garden. Stopping to take a deep breath, I knock the dust off my seat. Now that I have arrived, I am impressed by a double-decker configuration – a big O with a girth of 71 feet stacked on top of a little O with a tiny waistline of only 21 feet.

Peeking around the corner I am mesmerized by the Dark Angel, a monolith rising 150 feet above the desert floor. Only half a mile away on a gentle trail, this distinctive landmark is tantalizingly close! But before long, the winter sun will slip below the horizon, and on this late afternoon of diminishing daylight I opt to turn around rather than push on. Along the way I have enjoyed the special features of a number of arches, and that is enough for now. I shall, however, return for the specific purpose of sitting against the formidable presence of the Dark Angel.

Cryptobiotic soil garden
Cryptobiotic soil garden

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