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playing in the devil’s garden

One day is a pittance when visiting any national park, but in Arches at least, it is enough to see most of the park’s star attractions and develop a good appreciation for their unique grandeur.

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After taking a scenic drive through most of the park, we arrived at the farthest trailhead in Arches, which led into the Devil’s Garden. The 7.5 mile loop trail through the Devil’s Garden connects eight arches — the most by far that can be encountered along a single trail. Part of the loop takes visitors on a primitive trail, but the Devil’s Garden has something for everyone, including arches that are accessible via short, well-groomed paths. Not surprisingly, the parking lot was so packed that we barely found a spot.

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There are a couple of less impressive arches near the trailhead a short hike downhill from the main path, but we saved these for the end and first made our way along the loop trail towards the Devil’s Garden’s most famed attraction. The thin Landscape Arch, which lies just a mile from the trailhead, is the longest natural span in the United States, narrowly beating out the Kolob Arch in Zion. It is also the second longest natural span in the world, and trails only the Fairy Bridge in southern China in this respect.

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The path to the Landscape Arch is flat and well-maintained. There were a lot of other visitors, and though the crowd thinned out considerably once we passed the Landscape Arch, there were still plenty of hikers who pushed on to the Double-O Arch at the end of the groomed trail.

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To see all of the arches in the Devil’s Garden, one has to take short spur trails off the main path. Many of the visitors decided the extra side trips were not worth the added effort since the Landscape Arch and the Double-O Arch are the most impressive features of the loop. We thought it was silly to skip the smaller arches after coming so far to visit the park, and were rewarded with a surprising amount of solitude in front of some stunning rock formations for our effort. While the Private and Tunnel Arches, which we saw at the end of our hike, could be skipped if pressed for time, both the Navajo and Partition Arches are splendid and definitely worth visiting.

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The Double-O Arch, which is pictured at the top of the post, was probably our favorite arch of the day, though we lost quite a bit of time there on account of a handful of inconsiderate visitors. Multiple signs throughout the park warn hikers not to climb on top of the arches. Not only did these structures take nature many millennia to form, but they are also incredibly fragile. A sign at the Double-O Arch pointed out a spot where a large chunk of the lower arch had fallen away earlier this year. Notwithstanding these exhortations, a large, none-too-bright family had climbed atop the arch with their small children and lingered there. We joined a handful of other peeved tourists, some of whom had travelled halfway across the world to visit Arches, in waiting for them to descend. No one wants a bunch of knuckleheads in their photos, so if you visit the park (and it’s definitely worth a visit), please be respectful and don’t climb the arches.

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Most visitors turn around at the Double-O Arch and retrace their steps along the groomed trail. In so doing, they miss the best part of the hike. As soon as we set foot on the primitive trail, we developed a new appreciation for the Devil’s Garden. We hiked through sand and scrambled across exposed sandstone slopes, descending into narrow canyons and passing through a varied and ever-changing landscape that took us through the sandstone fins of the Devil’s Garden, which we had admired from an overlook a few hours before. Best of all, there was no sign of the crowds that milled along the beginning of the trail. Over a couple of hours, we only saw a handful of other hikers, and most of the time we walked alone.

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We hiked a lot of southern Utah, and saw a lot of rocks, but we never lost our appreciation for the unique natural formations we were fortunate enough to see. Beautiful might not be the first adjective that springs to mind when describing the arches; unique, grand, and awe-inspiring might be better descriptors. They are unlike anything we had ever seen before, and understanding the rare circumstances that led to their creation lends them an extra degree of magnificence.

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