This time we got up even earlier - 5:00 AM. A quiet drive through the park as the sky lightened through shades of grey into peach and finally to blue. It had cooled down to about 70 degrees Fahrenheit overnight and the air felt heavy with moisture, something I had never felt in Moab before. On the other hand, I had never visited Arches National Park this early in the morning. Maybe it was always like this at dawn?
We weren't the only ones smart enough to hike at dawn on one of the hottest days of the year, but we were some of the few. Only a handful of cars were at the trail head parking lot as we piled out of the rental and had one last restroom break.
Then onto the trail we went.
One of the first things I noticed was the abundance of critters: chipmunks, birds, lizards, rabbits, all scurrying around like their lives depended on it, which I suppose they did. It was going to be close to 110 degrees Fahrenheit. If they didn't make arrangements now, get water and food, they might end up some other critter's nourishment tomorrow. Come later in the day, especially a hot one, and you won't see as much movement on the periphery.
As the sky brightened, clouds reached across the sky like fingers and the low sun cast oddly-shaped shadows across the land, the other thing I noticed was a strange variance in temperature. The trail might dip slightly, almost imperceptibly, and I would step through a pocket of air much colder than just a step before or a step after. This happened in several places on our way through the Devil's Garden. I remembered hearing once that these cold spots happened where there were ghosts, or openings to the spirit world, or something spooky like that. As I glanced around at the bizarre shapes and shadows I was tempted to believe it.
One of the first major sights on the Devil's Garden trail is Landscape Arch, a wide expanse that hangs impossibly above a bed of sand and slickrock. It is somewhat stupefying and demands you take as many as pictures as you can because it is almost impossible to get the right angle. But you try anyway, getting sand in your shoes as you squat, lean, or tiptoe for the right shot.
In fact, the sand along the trail in this area gets a little deep, and it is tiring to hike through. With this handsome payoff already accomplished you find yourself wondering if you should keep moving on through the rest of the trail.
The answer is yes. The answer is always yes.
The trail begins to climb, and you scramble up and across a long spine of rock - itself a thrill - until you reach a point where you can survey a field of sandstone fins, lined up in front of you like a crowd of spectators, an expanse of plateaus and mountains watching from cheaper seats in the vast distances beyond. This is the evidence of millions of years of geological processes laid bare at your feet, and you confront your own puny mortality as you gaze across it. At this point you lose touch with reality a bit and begin to ponder questions like "Why am I here?" and "What am I doing with my life?"
Being blessed with increasingly short attention spans, most of us snap back from this existentialist abyss and just end up uttering something simple out loud, like "Wow!" or "Holy shit!"
The full Devil's Garden trail loop offers seven arches. One of my favorites is Partition Arch. It is relatively easy to access, has a fascinating shape and two windows. It was spectacular on this July morning, the rock glowing red while framing a green and dusty blue landscape.
You can also walk through Partition Arch and view things from the other side. From here the slickrock rises high above head and curls over you like a sandstone wave hurtling towards a massive shore. Look up carefully, I almost tumbled over backwards and had to sit down to take pictures.
This was the day we were heading back to Salt Lake City, so we did not have time to complete the whole loop. We stopped at Double-O Arch and didn't make it out to Dark Angel (you should, though, as it will further blow your mind.)
As we made our way back to the trail head and the heat began to climb to something I believe the devil would truly appreciate, we noticed more and more people making their way out on the trail. Most of them were poorly dressed for hiking and too many of them were carrying little to no water. We chatted with the ranger in the parking lot, remarking how surprised we were that so many people were just arriving now as the hottest part of the day was approaching.
"Yeah," he replied calmly, "the slickrock surface gets to about 125 degrees in weather like this." Many of these people were going to be miserable.
And with that we got into the car and headed off for a quick shower and a big lunch, happy with the thought we had managed to beat the devil, and in his own garden at that.