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Erik Trautman

“Everything you can imagine is real.”
-- Pablo Picasso

Arches National Park

Moab is an off-roading town. The last curve of the highway emerges from between massive red cliffs that reach a thousand feet in the air and it is impossible not to notice all the jeeps and 4-wheelers parked along the street at the edge of town. There are outfitters on every corner offering to take you crawling or dirt biking or even on a stretched hummer off-roading tour. When I first pulled in, my cruiser seemed a bit out of place among all the dirt bikes that buzzed up and down the main strip.

I met my friend who had ridden in from Denver and we caught up over an all-you-can-eat pizza buffet downtown (and we definitely came out on top of that deal) before heading back to the campsite to set up. It was great catching up but we had a lot planned for the following day so we wanted to grab what rest we could. For the first evening in many, the threatening clouds didn’t even produce any rain.

Neither of us slept too well on the hard ground but nonetheless awoke the next morning excited to explore Arches National Park. After a quick and highly caloric fast food breakfast, we headed a couple miles up the road and into the park.

Arches is a stark and beautiful place. Once you ascend from the main highway to the top of the cliffs, you enter a dusty desert plain that is broken up by ridges, pillars and mesas of orange sandstone. The landscape is highly varied, and the road twists for many miles from one huge rock feature to the next.

There are about a dozen major destination arches in the park and a couple of thousand others scattered throughout. They are formed as the elements erode slots in the mesas and eventually produce a series of “fins”. The center of the base of the fins, in the right conditions, can erode away faster than the top, resulting in an arch.

We opted to hike the Devil’s Garden trail, an 8 mile loop that reaches over a half dozen major arches. I’d been looking forward to that hike for a long time. The trail began with a packed gravel path:

The path wound between great rock fins and past all manner of huge and disorganized geometries. The place had the feel of a giant child’s block corner; the stone formations looked strewn about like an afterthought. The scene was full of canyons and piles of rocks and imposing structures that looked like boulders but were in fact worn away from the underlying sandstone.

The first arch we got to see was Landscape Arch, the longest stone arch in the world. Hikers were prohibited from getting too close to it since a few years ago a giant piece had actually come crashing to the ground after several days of rain and they didn’t want anyone getting pancaked.

From there the organized portion of the trail stopped and the hike to the remaining arches quickly devolved into a game of find-the-rock-piles. We scrambled over the slickrock, stopping at each cairn to seek out the following one. After a few satisfying but somewhat less impressive arches we arrived at the Double-O. It may not be as famous as the Delicate Arch (which is on a different trail) but I think the Double-O is actually the most beautiful arch in the park. It is formed of two conjoined arches, one atop the other, and the view through it spans a hundred miles to the horizon.

We stopped there to rest and to make the other hikers in the area extremely nervous with our foolish shenanigans:

After Double-O, the trail went completely primitive. It became a challenge just to locate the correct route among all the false paths and bare rock. The heat had really turned up and the sun was relentless. We found ourselves looking off to one side to see another group of hikers going down a completely different (and… correct) trail on numerous occasions. Getting lost, though, really just added to the fun of it. I really couldn’t get enough of the landscape.

We did eventually make it back to the trailhead, a bit worn out but enjoying the late afternoon sun. We rode our way back out the park entrance, grabbed some beers, and settled by the pool at the campsite to eat and wait for it to get dark, when the next adventure would begin.

The afternoon light faded into dusk and finally the stars began to twinkle on, chasing the last glow over the horizon with their ever multiplying numbers. Beneath that otherwise black sky, we rolled out and headed back into the park. It was a slow ride up the cliffs and back along the scenic loop.

I don’t like riding at night anymore because I have finally internalized the risk that wildlife poses and it requires and unpleasant level of focus to do so. We passed a deer, two small foxes and numerous rodents along the way.

We arrived at the Delicate Arch Viewpoint trailhead just as the night sky began to lighten along the eastern horizon and the milky orb of the near-full moon peeked over the mountains there. We parked the bikes, grabbed our flashlights, and set out on the .5 mile trail.

Hiking at night is a very different experience and we didn’t exactly do everything right. It started as a straightforward walk along a packed trail but soon devolved into another scramble over slickrock while trying to locate the markers. The going got a bit easier as the moon rose but the trail went up and down so many steep hills that it was easy to get disoriented in the transitions from light to dark.

At last we made it to what seemed like the end of the trail and stared out over the barely-lit vista, looking for Delicate Arch. It was a bit disappointing to finally locate it far off in the distance and difficult to see. The trail that actually led to the base of the arch was much longer than the one we had chosen, and, though we lamented the poor viewing access, the difficulty of our hike in convinced us that the shorter trail was the correct choice.

The view of the arch may not have been ideal, but just being on the sandstone at night and standing beneath the infinite dome of the sky was a humbling experience.

The return hike was far more difficult than the way in. We had failed to landmark the location of the parking lot relative to the surrounding rock structures and quickly lost sight of the trail markers. One might even say we got lost. Many times. We split up and fanned out, staying within shouting distance and searching the soft patches of ground for footprints. Eventually, it seemed like we were going in circles and tracking our own steps.

It took the better part of an hour and an entire headlamp battery but we finally managed to locate familiar ground and make our way back to the bikes. A lesson was learned: Night hiking in the desert sounds like a good idea but really isn’t. And you should always bring more than one flashlight.

Regardless of the difficulties, it was an adventure and turned out just fine in the end. We fired up the bikes and rode back to the campsite, making just one last stop for photos of the gorgeous moonlit night.