The distance between Sioux Falls and Arches National Park on a map is only about nine inches. In reality, the distance is over 1,000 miles, which translates into almost 17 hours of hard road time—one way.
When I was planning a trip to Utah’s most famous park, I wasn’t thinking about how long it would take to get there. I only thought about hiking the high desert trails and seeing the iconic sandstone arches for the first time. If I were a more sensible person, I probably never would have made the trip.
But I’ve never been accused of being sensible.
Utah has always been one of those “maybe someday” places that I’ve only seen from 30,000 feet. Looking out the window from my economy coach seat, I always imagined what it would be like to wander free through the vast wilderness below.
I thought early March would be a good time to turn “maybe someday” into “we are definitely doing this.” My son would be home from college on spring break and I had a few vacation days to burn.
From what I found online, March is considered the best time to visit Arches National Park before the crowds and heat become intolerable.
A quick check on Weather.com predicted highs in the mid-60s and lows in the upper-40s for the entire week. That was all the encouragement we needed. After a long South Dakota winter, a couple of days in the desert sun would be a relief.
Even if you are not familiar with Arches National Park, you probably recognize its iconic sandstone formations. Delicate Arch, the one that resembles a pair of bowlegged cowboy chaps, is like the Mount Rushmore of Utah. It is featured on everything from license plates to U-haul trailers. The difference, however, is this rock formation occurred naturally.
The 73,000-acre park contains over 2,000 sandstone arches, each carved by 100 million years of erosion from water, ice and extreme temperatures. Exposed red rock rises from the desert floor to create a rugged, otherworldly skyline of fins, pinnacles, spires and impossibly balanced rocks.
With only two days to explore the area, my son and I decided to hike Devils Garden loop, a 7.2-mile trail that would take us past some of the most renowned arches in the park. Under normal circumstances we would start off with a shorter hike to warm up, but we were anxious to put five months of winter and 17 hours on the road behind us.
The first mile and a half was easy. The wide, well-maintained path made the hike feel more like a casual stroll. Our first stop was Landscape Arch, the longest natural arch in the world spanning over 290 feet. The thin ribbon of sandstone looked like it would crumble at any moment. (In 1991, a 60-foot slab of rock fell off the underside of the arch—so yeah, it could happen.)
Soon, the path narrowed until it faded into the terrain. We were on a primitive trail, which sounded intimidating, but really wasn’t. The winding trail was clearly marked by cairns, a series of stacked stones placed by previous hikers over the years. All we had to do was follow one stack to the next.
We discovered why the trail was called “primitive” about five miles into our hike. Water from the recent snowmelt had flowed over the rocks and settled into deep pools along the trail. We were able to sidestep most of the pools without a problem. However, at one point, the trail dead-ended at a pool with steep, smooth rock on both sides of the trial. We couldn’t cross without getting soaked, which wouldn’t be so bad if I weren’t carrying all my camera gear.
Moments later, we were joined by four other hikers who quickly came to the same conclusion—someone was going to get wet. Just as I started to take off my boots and socks, one of the hikers took a running leap up the rock face and found a foothold in a narrow crevice. Once he was safely perched on the steep incline, he offered his outstretched leg so we could pull ourselves over the rock. Thankfully, that was the last obstacle we encountered.
Five hours after beginning our hike, we emerged from Devil’s Garden. We were greeted at the end of the trail by a spectacular view of the snowcapped La Sal Mountains to the south. A wall of red sandstone rocks protruding from a sea of spring sage laid out before us.
My son and I paused to rest and admire the scene.
I grabbed a handful of snow from the shade of a sage bush, the last trace of winter, and washed my face. The ice crystals melted quickly against my sunburned cheeks.
In that moment, a 1,000-mile trip to the desert made all the sense in the world.
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