Friday, October 31, 2014

Arches National Park: Landscape Arch and Double O Arch Via The Primitive Trail

Essence: The short walk from Devils Garden Trailhead to sublime Landscape Arch accommodates people of all ages and abilities. A more natural trail continues to Double O Arch primarily on sandstone. The Primitive Loop lures the hiker into cracks, under arches, and on top of fins. Visit seven named arches and a solitary earth pillar on the longest hiking trail in the park.

Landscape Arch is the longest natural rock span in the world, 306 feet. We are hold-your-breath lucky to be living simultaneously with this fragile aperture. Visit soon.

Travel and Water: From Center Street in Moab, drive 5.0 miles north on Hwy 191 and turn right/east at the sign for Arches National Park. Reset your trip meter at the entrance station. The Visitor Center follows shortly on the right. A 24-hour, year-round outdoor water spigot is located steps from the parking lot on the north side of the building. Devils Garden Trailhead is at the end of the park road at 17.4 miles. The drinking faucet is seasonal. However, there is year-round water in the campground. Although the parking lot is generous, it does fill regularly so arrive early or visit in winter. There are outhouses at the trailhead.
Fee Information
Devils Garden Campground: The campground has 50 individual sites which accommodate up to ten people. Sites may be reserved between March 1st and October 31st. You may, and should, make your reservation six months out. During winter months, 24 sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Campground information. To make a reservation, visit
Distance and Elevation Gain: 1.8 miles roundtrip to Landscape Arch; 4.2 miles roundtrip to Double O Arch; 5.2 miles for the Primitive Trail stem and loop; 8.0 miles for the aggregate of spur trails. Elevation gain is approximately 1,000 feet for the 8 mile option.
Roundtrip Time: 2:30 to 5:00, depending on extent of explorations
Difficulty: Wide, highly maintained and manicured trail to Landscape Arch is barrier-free, suitable for wheelchairs. Most of the route beyond Landscape is on sandstone and occasionally crosses the tops of low-lying fins. Navigation is easy IF cairns are carefully followed. People with a fear of heights may experience mild exposure crossing one of the fins north of Landscape Arch.
Maps: Trails Illustrated: Arches National Park; Mollie Hogans, Utah 7.5 Quad
Latest Date Hiked: October 30, 2014
Quote: Men come and go, cities rise and fall, whole civilizations appear and disappear--the earth remains, slightly modified. The earth remains, and the heartbreaking beauty where there are no hearts to break. Turning Plato and Hegel on their heads I sometimes choose to think, no doubt perversely, that man is a dream, thought an illusion, and only rock is real. Rock and sun. Edward Abbey, Desert Solitaire
Route: The beauty of this stem and loop is that any portion may be undertaken separately or in combination. The majority of people turn around at Landscape Arch. For those unsure of their desert backcountry prowess, go to Double O Arch before committing to the Primitive Trail. Most will think the loop is the definition of fun. However, I have assisted lost hikers (one group missed Double O Arch entirely), and people alarmed by short friction pitches. Do not venture on the Primitive Trail if rock is snow or ice covered.

From the trailhead, elevation 5,155 feet, on a wide, firm track enter a labyrinth of Entrada Sandstone. Fins provide a sense of intimacy and enclosure.

This is an excellent hike for children with proven hiking ability. A sandslide corridor comes up shortly on the left and all playful hearts will race.

The 0.5 mile roundtrip spur to Pine Tree Arch and Tunnel Arch takes off on the right at 0.3 mile. The main trail is not a wilderness or private experience. However, the contemplative's heart may be satisfied steps away in other regions of the park and certainly in the greater Moab topography. Walk to the accompaniment of the world-wide language of euphoria. A woman seated in an electric wheelchair exclaimed, "I'm going as far as I can!" Considering the immaculately groomed trail in this image, she made it to Landscape Arch.

At 0.9 mile, Landscape Arch, while it fills the visual frame, sneaks up on the unaware. It is an improbably thin ribbon below the horizon. A few more steps and the merest strip of Utah blue emerges, giving the arch away. Years ago, I stood directly under the arch. In 1991, it lost a sizable chunk of itself to natural weathering and is now fenced off. A placard display tells the story. Directly across from the placard, the Primitive Trail branches off for those hiking in the counter-clockwise direction. From the main trail a short spur towards the arch affords the best photographs.

Double O Arch is 1.2 miles northwest of Landscape on a pleasingly natural trail. Walk up a rock ramp. The experience is at once bounded and expansive. Follow the cairns; they will delight and surprise.

At 1.3 miles, there is a sign for a left spur to Navajo Arch (0.3 miles roundtrip) and Partition Arch (0.5 miles roundtrip). At 1.7 miles the route climbs to the top of a wide, flat fin (shown) and traverses the length of it. While most people will relish the view of Book Cliffs north of I-70 and finlandia below, those with a fear of heights may need encouragement.

Assuming no side trips, Double O Arch is at 2.1 miles on the left. It is named for the two circular openings stacked on top of each other. As can be seen in this image, the lower arch is quite small yet it carries its hefty companion.

A juniper log helps when clambering up and through the lower arch. This is a must.

The best view of the pair is from the other side.

The obelisk Dark Angel is 0.5 miles to the north.

Return through the arch and find this trail junction. If you've had enough adventuring, return to the trailhead as you came. For those excited for more, the Primitive Trail awaits.

The 0.5 mile roundtrip trail to Private Arch heads off to the right, 0.5 mile from Double O. Chances are excellent that you will garner solitude at this arch.

There is a crazy abundance of off-trail play in this area. Everywhere is an entrance into restricted space. Go into the squeeze, climbing cracks between fins. Give in to your irresistible desire to walk on fin spines. Some are nearly flat; others will test the stickiness of your boot soles. In this image the "Book End Fins" are some distance to the south. The rules are simple: stay on the rock and off the top of arches and cryptobiotic soil.

Obviously, our route must follow the dictates of the landscape so keep a sharp eye out for cairns. If you do find yourself no longer in the company of those reassuring rock piles, follow the time-honored practice of promptly returning to the last one you were sure of. Now locate the next cairn and proceed. In this image, a cairn shows the least troublesome route up and over a fin at its lowest point. When the rock is dry, it is easy enough. If the rock is wet, it is slick. However, the pitches are never terribly exposed. The steep slab that gets my attention requires just a few steps to skirt a pool.

The park really should be called Fins and Arches National Park. In the distance, two teens explore fin-top.
After 0.1 mile in a wash, the trail gradually climbs out of the maze of stone. Here is a look back at the terrain that contains the Primitive Trail.

Half a mile before rejoining the main trail at Landscape Arch (take another look!), the track becomes sandy as it heads south. Plants in this area include Indian rice grass, euphedra, juniper, sage, yucca, and rabbitbrush. The La Sal Mountains are in the background. From Landscape, it is a quick 0.9 mile walk back to the trailhead.

Arches are defined by emptiness, space between stone. The park has the largest concentration of natural stone arches in the world, 2,000 and counting. To qualify, the opening must be at least three feet long in any one direction. The skyhole can be a mere slit.

For photos of the Devils Garden Campground and information on road riding in Arches, please see the end of the Delicate Arch travelogue.

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