Arches National Park is a treasure trove of incredible landscapes and amazing geological features. According to the National Park Service website, “the park has over 2,000 natural stone arches, in addition to hundreds of soaring pinnacles, massive fins and giant balanced rocks.” The Devils Garden Trail includes all of this and offers the most challenging hike in the park, even for a seasoned hiker.
Arches is not considered a backcountry park, other than a few outlying areas accessible only in a high clearance vehicle, but this trail is your best chance of getting away from the crowds, even if it is only for short periods of time. This is the longest trail in Arches National Park. The NPS brochure for this hike places the total distance at 7.2 miles, including all of the side trails to the various arches and the primitive trail. It also includes some reasonably challenging rock scrambles, several steep climbs/descents, and narrow sections of trail with significant drop offs. If you reach a point where you do not feel comfortable traversing the terrain, I recommend you turn around and return via the primary trail. We encountered a number of hikers who did just this on the day we were there.
For your own safety and the protection of the sensitive desert landscape, stay on the trails! The sandstone fins are an amazing feature in the Devils Garden landscape, but they also present some interesting challenges to navigation. Pay close attention to the cairns that mark the way, especially on the primitive portion of the loop. Generally, the cairns are not too difficult to find, but make sure you locate the next cairn before you proceed, and backtrack to the last marker you observed if you are unable to find your way forward
At one point on the primitive trail it is possible you will encounter a pool of water that you will need to cross depending on the season (it was waist deep when we visited in mid-May). You will either need to drop into and wade through the water or scramble over the steep rock to one side. We chose the rock scramble which proved quite a challenge. It could easily have resulted in a dip in the pool we were attempting to avoid, but we successfully navigated the obstacle and remained dry in the process.
If you plan to do the full loop, I recommend following the primary trail out to Double O Arch and Dark Angel first and returning via the Primitive Trail. This allows you to visit most of the major landscape features first, just in case you encounter a section of the trail where you are not comfortable proceeding due to difficult conditions or your own skill level.
Don’t forget to pack plenty of water and enjoy the hike!
The first two arches you will encounter are Tunnel Arch and Pine Tree Arch both of which are accessible down a side trail that adds 0.5 miles to the total hike. Even though this is a short and easy trail, I suggest visiting these arches on the outbound trip as you may be inclined to bypass them if you are too tired on the return trip.
Pine Tree Arch
The next landmark you will encounter is Landscape Arch one of the best known arches in the park. Now at this point in the trail you will likely be thinking, “this is easy!” You may also be wondering if it is possible to escape the crowds, especially during busier times of the year. Not to worry, keep hiking because there is plenty of great scenery ahead, and the farther you go, the more likely you are to escape the crowd.
Just past Landscape arch you will encounter the first obstacle that will cause some to turn back…we witnessed this when one member of a party decided they would rather return to the trailhead than continue on. At this point on the trail this is a perfectly safe thing to do, even for an individual person. The scramble up the relatively steep face of this sandstone fin is not really that difficult; however, if you have a fear of falling or a poor sense of balance it can be rather intimidating.
Climbing a steep fin…the first major challenge
Shortly after reaching the top of this fin you will encounter a side trail that leads to Partition Arch and Navajo Arch. This trail adds an additional 0.8 miles to the hike and like the other side trails is worth the effort.
On the next section of trail, you traverse the top of a narrow fin with a serious drop off on both sides. For anyone with a fear of heights this will be a challenging section of trail, but the views are worth it! Descending off the fin also takes a bit of strategy so keep an eye out for markers that indicate the way down, as it is not the easiest route to find.
Traversing the top of a narrow fin
A little further along you will encounter Double O Arch. The area under the arch was closed off when we visited due to a large chunk of rock breaking off and falling away from the arch a few weeks earlier during a period of significant rain…just part of the ever changing landscape.
Double O Arch
The next landmark to visit is Dark Angel, a towering pinnacle, that requires an out and back side trail of 0.8 miles round trip, though I highly recommend not skipping this as the sweeping views at the end of the trail are well worth it!
The amazing view looking back from the end of the Dark Angel trail
After backtracking on the Dark Angel trail, you have the option to return to the trailhead via the primary trail by which you came, or you can complete the loop on the Primitive Trail. If you found the main trail was intimidating and pushed your limits, then I do not recommend taking the Primitive Trail. If you are up to the challenge the effort is worth it, and make sure you don’t miss the only side trail out to Private Arch.
Even though you won’t completely escape the crowds, especially on the easier portions of the trail, this hike is a must do for any serious hiker visiting Arches National Park. You can hike nearly all of the shorter trails in the park in the span of a single day, but make sure you carve out at least half a day (more if you are a photography buff) to do the entire Devil’s Garden Trail, including the Primitive Trail if you are up for the challenge!
View from the back side of the Primitive Trail, looking up at the fin we crossed earlier in the hike…those are hikers up there!
© Todd D. Nystrom and Todd the Hiker, 2016.
Great post Todd. I visited nearby Canyonlands National Park 32 years ago when I was in my 20’s. This was my one and only exposure to landscape like this and I loved it.
I vowed to one day return to this area and include Arches. So far I have not made it, but this post really put that stirring within me. Your photos and commentary is unbelievable.
Thanks for sharing! 🙂
Thanks, and you’re welcome, Carl. Canyonlands and Arches are both filled with some amazing landscapes!