June 2, 2021
Arrival at the Devil’s Garden Trail
After entering the park at the crack of dawn, we drove in towards the very back of the main, paved roadway. The Devil’s Garden Trail is easily the biggest “main attraction” in the park. Its many spurs lead to 8 marquee arches, some more accessible than others. You can make this an easy two-mile out-and-back to Landscape Arch and call it a day. Or you can do a full 8-mile journey along the full loop + spurs, making this Arches one true “hiker’s hike”.
To summarize the main attractions:
- Easy: Landscape Arch, Tunnel Arch and Pine Tree Arch. All these star attractions sit within a mile of the trailhead along a broad, well-marked, flat-ish path.
- Medium: Partition Arch, Navajo Arch and Double-O Arch lie a bit further afield past Landscape Arch, along a trail that requires upright walking along a bit of sloped, narrow slickrock. This adds a couple miles to the adventure and a few hundred feet of vertical
- Hard: The “full monty” turns this journey into an 8-mile loop + spurs, complete with some exposed slick rock scrambling. The trail rises and falls for a gross vertical rise of 1000′. This is a legit hike!
Let’s talk about the crowds
Much ink has been spilled over how crowded our national parks have become in recent years. And Arches—with its 1.6 million visitors as of 2019 and small footprint—has gained a reputation for being among the worst offenders. The park website warns of long lines at the entrance gate. On peak hours of peak days, the park even turns visitors away, claiming they are “full”.
Given all that, I arrived in Arches fearing the worst. I was accompanying my parents on a road trip from Denver to Los Angeles, which brought us through Moab just after Memorial Day—high season for Utah’s “Mighty Five“. Luckily for us, a bit of strategic planning helped to avoid any big issues.
Tips for managing crowds at Arches (or any national park)
Here are some easy steps you can take to avoid the crowds, get prime parking spots, and enjoy some quality time with Utah’s flagship geological features:
- Arrive Early: There are a million reasons you should start a day of hiking or sightseeing as early as possible. Cooler weather, fewer crowds and amazing sunrise lighting are just the start. We arrived around the crack of dawn, which meant zero wait to enter the park and ample parking right at the trailhead.
- Avoid Midday: Get in some great morning adventures. Then go chill by the pool at your hotel. Oddly enough, Arches tends to be much less crowded in the late afternoon/early evening than midday. People just seem to prefer being really hot and miserable.
- Don’t go on a major holiday: Because Arches is a remote “bucket list” kind of park, the weekday/weekend distinction is not a huge deal. But major holidays like Memorial Day, Independence Day and Labor Day are huge no-nos.
- Consider Winter: The park’s own stats show that winter is dramatically less crowded at Arches. Remember this park sits at relatively low elevation for the mountain west. Snow and ice are possible here, but it’s nothing some micro-spikes or strategic timing can’t fix.
After a pleasant stroll through massive “fin” rock formations, the trail leads to a viewpoint just beneath Landscape Arch. This formation probably represents the second-most popular/famous formation in the park after Delicate Arch. In fact, a rumor suggests these two ‘star’ arches had their names swapped by mistake. Landscape Arch is a very “delicate” formation, spanning roughly 300′ across and just 6 feet thick at its narrowest!
The trail gets just close enough for the enormity of this formation to sink in. But sadly, due to both safety and impact concerns, you’re unable to hike directly beneath this incredible site. Climbing on rock formations is allowed and encouraged throughout this park, but never onto the spans of its myriad arches.
Onward to Navajo Arch
Immediately after Landscape Arch, the trail becomes more tricky to navigate. Small rock cairns lead you up a steep, narrow ramp of slick rock. Here my parents doubled back to check out Tunnel and Pine Arches. I continued forward, to complete a quick “trail run” along the rest of the loop.
A majority of main attractions in Arches National Park involve less than a mile of hiking from a paved trailhead. This makes the park an ideal mix of active, accessible recreation opportunities for everyone from small kids to grandparents. But the Devil’s Garden bucks that trend. The upshot? Dramatically thinner crowds.
Sure enough, I saw perhaps only a dozen people on my journey from Landscape Arch to Double-O Arch, including a quick detour to Navajo Arch.
The spur to Navajo arch ends in a short loop through the archway itself. If you loop counterclockwise, it takes you up through a brief, fun scramble through a narrow rock passage. The arch itself feels very peaceful and secluded, with ample shade in the early morning.
An airy passage to Double-O Arch
Back on the main loop, I opted to skip Partition Arch (and later, Dark Angel and Private Arch). I didn’t want to keep my parents waiting too long. I also wanted to be back towards the trailhead before the sun got too high in the sky and started heating things up.
The trail continued along an excitingly exposed rock fin. The path itself was smooth, flat, and wide enough to keep me from getting too nervous. But with steep drops on either side and expansive views in every direction, it became perhaps the highlight of this hike.
The trail descended towards the last “big attraction”: Double-O Arch. I think “figure-eight arch” might have proven a more accurate moniker. The formation consists of two massive arches stacked right on top of each other.
Unlike Landscape Arch, Double-O features neither crowds nor fencing. You can get right underneath and explore all around the formation.
Closing the Loop along Devil’s Garden’s Trail
Immediately after Double-O Arch, the trail becomes even more narrow, scrambly, and less trafficked. A somewhat ominous sign warns visitors to that effect.
There are only two “big attractions” along this wilder half of the loop, and both involve half-mile detours. That said, I still found this portion of the hike incredibly beautiful. You wander among massive rock formations like fins and hoodoos. And from Double-O to the junction with the main trail to the parking lot, I saw perhaps 20 people (10 of them in one go).
The last mile or two of the loop are perhaps the least exciting. You pass through desert scrub brush up a gently sloping dirt path towards the main trail. It was now past 8:30 am, and the route to Landscape Arch was getting a bit crowded. In the final mile of primitive trail, in contrast, I ran into just two older women out for a power walk. We grinned as we passed each other.