Arches National Park: Primitive Trail

Date hiked: 04/13/16

Mileage: 9 miles to complete the loop with every side-trip; 3.5 hours

Head Count (how many other hikers I saw): Too many to count from the parking lot to Landscape Arch. This tapers off until I was one of only a handful of groups hiking the loop in its entirety.

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My first ever trip to Utah.

It was until a few years ago that I really started getting into hiking, and from the moment I first set my sights on Utah, Arches National Park been sitting firmly on the top of my bucket list.

Crossing the state line, the Leaving Colorful Colorado sign fading in my rearview mirror, I leave the hustle and bustle of Grand Junction behind, beckoned by new lands. It’s weird, having lived my entire life on the Front Range, everything west of the foothills seemed like the boondocks to me. And yet, here, I’ve only lived in Montrose for a couple of months now, and already Grand Junction is starting to seem like a Metropolis in comparison. Go figure.

Faraway views of the La Sal Mountains feel like home, but the wide mesas inch across my windshield with a quick flutter of excitement stirring deep within my gut. The three hour drive comes and goes faster than the flip of a switch, and as I make my last sweeping curve into Devil’s Garden, I know I’m at the end of the world when the road literally stops, and the dirt begins.

As the longest continuous trail in Arches, the Devil’s Garden and Primitive Trail loop leads you on a nine mile grand tour to some of the most majestic arches the park has to offer. Devil’s Garden is also one of the most visited spots in Arches, second only to Delicate Arch, so be sure to get to the park early to secure a good spot at the trailhead.

Wedged into the hollow space between two rock fins, the trail leaves the parking lot before quickly reaching the first spur towards Pine Tree Arch and Tunnel Arch in just a mere quarter mile of hiking.

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Pine Tree Arch, so named for the ragged pine tree growing at its threshold.

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Tunnel Arch is actually a double arch carved into the thicker bulk of a fin.

A mile from the trailhead, the pavement ends at Landscape Arch. It’s the longest arch in the park, and the fifth longest natural arch in the world. A trail once used to pass through the heart of it, but due to three instances of falling rock, the route was closed to the public. Today, the rock measures only six feet at its thinnest section, and as an arc natural arch, it’s near the end of it’s lifespan. Much like the nearby Wall Arch, which collapsed in 2008, it could come down at any time.

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Continuing on past Landscape Arch, traffic thins out as a second fork branches off, first towards Partition Arch and it’s amazing vistas of wide sweeping mesas, and then to Navajo Arch, a more private affair with a good shady spot for a rest.

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Partition Arch

The ins and outs of Navajo Arch:

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This is the point where most tourist turn back. But for the adventurous, the track segues into the rugged Primitive Trail, leading off towards the Double O Arch.

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Part of the trail traces the spine on one of the Devil’s Garden fins.

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A rainy day breeds a deep sunset over Black Arch on a later trip out to Arches. The arch is hard to spot, but it’s almost dead center just below the sun line.

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Just hangin’ out.

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Double O Arch, aptly named for the two arches stacked one on top of the other, eases up on you amid the vast empty landscape.

Beyond Double O Arch, a secondary path clatters through the rocks and into the desert towards Dark Angel. The 150-foot monolith stands watch over Devil’s Garden like the staff of the Dark Angel himself. Looking back the way we came, the snow capped La Sal mountains, which mark the general Colorado-Utah border, rise up to Mt. Peale’s 12,721 feet of elevation. And to the west, beyond Arches and the western mesas, further even than Canyonlands, a hazy outline of the Henry Mountain’s northern cluster breaks into the horizon. This makes a great spot for a lunch break.

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Dark Angel bursts into view.

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La Sal Mountains

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A very faint outline of the Henry Mountains beyond the mesas.

Finding your second steam with lunch, the loop back towards the parking lot grows a lot more arduous. I don’t recommend this portion of the trail for the casual hiker. Jumping from one cairn to the next, the route treks through primitive land – hence the name – across sandy washes and narrow patches of slickrock with steep dropoffs on either side. With careful route-finding, the trail can be easily followed. This was my first foray into this type of open desert hiking, and while it took some getting used to, soon enough reading the trail becomes almost second nature.

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Top Story Window. Now that’s a room with a view.

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Cairns mark the trail.

Don’t forget to make the side trip to Private Arch, a more recent discovery in the park, rightly named for its hidden locale alongside a massive ocean liner of a fin. The spot boasts spectacular views of the knobby fingers of Fin Canyon clawing from the earth like the Devil’s reaching hands.

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The trail then doubles back to the south on its final 2.5 mile hike back to the trailhead.

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End

Losing daylight on that same rainy day.

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Directions

(From Main Street and E. Center Street in Moab): Drive North on U.S. 191 for 4.6 miles. Turn right onto the Arches National Park Entrance Road, which turns into the Arches Scenic Road after .8 miles as you pass through the fee station. Follow the scenic drive 16.3 miles where it becomes the Devil’s Garden Road. After another 1.3 miles, the road ends at the Devil’s Garden Trailhead.

23 miles; 44 min

Fees: $25/car to enter Arches National Park

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