Arches National Park

I’ve come to understand that regularly spending time outdoors is essential for me to be happy. I think that’s kind of profound, really.

Arches National Park isn’t known for its long, elaborate trail system. It’s built more like Yellowstone: it’s car-friendly. It’s the type of park that the average visitor can easily grab a map, read about a few landmarks, and then drive from point A to point B and so on and see what there is to see without ever “hiking” more than a mile away from their car. You can see the whole park and still stay in a hotel every night. It’s the antithesis of what I’m typically into (sorry, Yellowstone).

As expected, my first afternoon in Arches was spent driving from parking lot to parking lot, never really “hiking” to any of the features I was photographing. By the end of the day, I was getting stir-crazy, vowing to find somewhere, anywhere, to go on a real hike the following morning. In consulting the park’s brochure, I found a trail description that seemed to be everything I wanted: Difficult. Longest of the trails. Includes Double O Arch, Landscape Arch, and primitive trail. The name of the trail? Devil’s Garden. It sounded weird and creepy and perfect. I’d head there in the morning, with the hope of finding something I’ve never seen before (and with the hope of escaping the throngs of tourists that left me feeling claustrophobic all day).

My trip to Arches happened back in September, but the mid-day temperatures were still well into the mid-nineties. There were no natural water sources to be seen (the park only receives 8-10 inches of precipitation per year). So, if you didn’t bring water with you, you were toast – and you didn’t want to be wandering around the desert in the afternoon sun. So, I loaded up three liters of water into my camelback, threw in my camera, and took off down the Devil’s Garden Trail just after sunrise.

The Devil’s Garden Trail is an awesome little network of trails and tributaries that allow a visitor to see several different arch formations. If you ask me, it’s one of the few must-dos in Arches. It’s only 7-8 miles long, it leads you to more named features than any other trail in the park, and despite its collection of sights, it offers more seclusion from the crowds than anywhere else I visited in the park.

The arches in Arches come in all shapes and sizes: from over three hundred feet wide to more than one hundred feet tall; some are estimated to be more than 65 million years old. And, as much as a part of me equates 65 million years of being with forever, I came to understand that the giant rock formations in Arches are constantly eroding and breaking down – that even fixtures that have stood for 65 million years aren’t permanent. More, I came to understand that these seemingly everlasting stone giants are incredibly delicate; that something as soft as snow can make them crumble.

Rather unexpectedly, my trip to Arches had a profound impact on me. There was something about seeing and reading about the arches in Arches that made me fully understand that nothing – not even stone – lasts forever. And, still, the same natural forces that destroy the stone arches we see today are the same forces that continue to create new ones. There was something about being able to actually see both of those things – the rubble of the old, and the small windows of the future – that left me deeply affected.

While hiking the Devil’s Garden Trail, I saw a series of new arches forming. In a section of stone that stretched a few hundred feet wide, I noticed small portholes in the rock, scattered across the rock, all three to ten feet off the ground. Looking at the holes in the wall, I couldn’t help but see perfect-looking holds for climbing. As I stood there, analyzing the wall, a German couple in their twenties suddenly came into the same section of the trail that I was in. We looked at each other, as if to say, “Are you seeing what I’m seeing?”, and without speaking, the three of us started taking turns climbing and traversing the wall. With the language barrier between us, we barely spoke to each other; we just laughed and gestured with our hands and acted like a group of kids who had stumbled onto a secret playground.

The older I get, the more I appreciate how rare and how valuable moments like that are: where I’m completely, effortlessly present in where I am and what I’m doing and with whom I’m with. I’ve found that getting into that state of flow is incredibly therapeutic for me; that it happens almost automatically when I’m outdoors; that it’s essential for me to be happy. That afternoon I spent climbing with two strangers in Arches was the culminating moment in my entire summer of coming to that realization.

Matt Patterson

Seattle, Washington