Hiking Fiery Fur… err, I mean, Devils Garden

Arches Devils Garden

I really wanted to go down to the Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park a couple of weeks ago. The weather was supposed to be gorgeous. The snow was beginning to melt up in Utah County. I had an extended weekend, meaning that all of the work that I did not get accomplished on Saturday, I could finish on Monday.

My wife had a few houses that she was scheduled to visit-we're still in the house-hunting stage-so she would not be able to join us. That meant that my daughter would not make it either; the one time so far that I have been courageous enough to take the kid hiking without her mother, she did remarkably well. But she enjoys it more-and thereby we enjoy it more-when mom is along for the trip.

With the lack of a Florida-girl and a baby, this meant that I would have the chance to undertake one of the old grueling, iron man-style trips, like the ones I used to go on before moving away from Utah. But, my priorities different now that I am getting older, I decided that I should try something else.

Instead of going it alone (which is not altogether a good idea anyway), I invited my sisters, my brother, and their spouses. The plan was to go down and see if the Fiery Furnace was a viable option for the trip. According to the national park website, their recorded phone messages, and every other method of collecting solid information I had at my disposal other than actually going down to the park to find out in person, the guided hikes did not begin until mid-March.

So what? You might be wondering something along those lines. For those who have ever been down there, the Fiery Furnace is not the kind of place that you can casually just enter with the idea of an easy stroll in mind. Miles and miles of interwoven canyons, tight, twisting, slot-styled, some of them requiring rappelling. Even experienced canyoneers have been known to get lost or stuck in the Fiery Furnace. Getting a rescue helicopter down somewhere within the vicinity of its labyrinthine depths is about as close to the definition of the phrase lost cause as you can get in the park.

Arches Wall Arch

And this is certainly a national park, and a carefully protected area within a national park at that; there would be no leaving a trail of breadcrumbs like Hansel and Gretel, or chalking the canyon walls, building rock cairns, or any other method of trail-marking. It is not the kind of place that you want to find yourself alone and directionless on your first vacation away from small-town Crandon, Wisconsin.

Every website that I had been to, every expert I had consulted was telling me that I should go explore the Fiery Furnace-that it would be a crime not to-but that I should just wait until mid-March to enjoy the its rugged beauty with a knowledgeable park ranger leading the tour.

So we jumped in the car Saturday morning and made our way into Spanish Fork Canyon. Our plan was intentionally up in the air. If we could reasonably get into the Fiery Furnace, that was what we were going to do. If not, we were discussing alternate plans even as we wrestled over who's turn it was to plug their iPod into the car stereo.

Devils Garden was the leading candidate for an alternate, with the Windows area following as a close second, and a few other places bouncing around in the back of my mind, like Tower Arch and the Klondike Bluffs.

We arrived at Arches while the sun was still just barely a few hours above the red rock to the east, meaning that the winter ground was numbingly cold still. There was a disappointing amount of snow on the ground still. If there was so much snow out in the open with the full power of the limited winter sun, how much more would there be on the trails, within the perpetual shadows of colossal sandstone fins and arches?

Already a little displeased, we entered the main visitors center where we would have to pay-there is an extra fee of $10 per person for special entrance into the Fiery Furnace-and watch a mandated video that details how to enjoy the desert while impacting the fragile environment as little as possible. When I approached the desk and said that we want to visit the Fiery Furnace, the ranger asked immediately if I had been there before. I said that I hadn't. Without hesitation, she activated the Fiery Furnace contingency plan, and pulled a binder from under the desk with information meant to discourage first-time casual visitors.

I listened politely to her reasoning, attempting to take this more seriously than I normally would-after all, I was here not just by myself, but with five others. Not only that, but as a representative of Utah recreation, I figured that I should do things the way I was going to be writing about them; it would be ignorant of myself to warn people in my article about the dangers of entering the Fiery Furnace without guide or prior experience, when that was I had just done, no matter how experienced I consider myself or my group.

I asked how much snow was within the maze of fins that made up the Fiery Furnace, and I was not surprised to learn that the canyons were still covered in it. Would it be any better out in the Devils Garden, I asked? No, there was snow all over the park still; it has been quite a stormy winter.

I sighed, drumming my fingers along the countertop. I needed some better information about my alternatives. What date in mid-March do the tours start, and at what time of day? Nonchalantly she told me that the tours had already started for the year, but that they were running only once per day. What time, I asked incredulously.

Fifteen minutes ago.

I stood there, trying to find a more reasonable way to phrase the explicatives and accusations that were running through my head. Never in all of the emails that I had sent over the last few weeks was I told that the schedule had changed, never had they bothered to update their phone recordings, their internet site, and never had they bothered to even pick up the phone when I called their front desk during working hours.

Irritation was beginning to set in. Is there any way that we could hurry and catch up to the group, since they only left 15 minutes ago? No, she said. They wouldn't advise it.

I've been through the national parks many times, and have been accustomed to more cooperation and better service than this. I do pay to get into the park after all; I do not see a difference between a restaurant and a park as far as the need for competent customer service goes.

Whatever. Grumbling and simmering, I turned back to the group and asked what they felt most like doing. We agreed that we could probably have fun in the Fiery (or more accurately, the Frosty) Furnace without getting lost, stranded, or any other variant of the fate that the rangers warned us about. But, we also decided that in order to be respectful, safe, dry, and responsible, we would enjoy the Devils Garden, and come back in April or May for the Fiery (hoping that by then it would indeed by well on its way towards Fiery) Furnace.

So, irritation and prior planning aside, we made our choice. The Devils Garden is a must-see for anyone new to the area, and even the Arches veterans still enjoy it, no matter how many times they've taken the walk. A magical playground, very similar to the Fiery Furnace in many respects, the Devils Garden is in actuality the northern extension of the formations that make up that restricted, elusive maze to the southeast. Compared to the Furnace, Devils Garden is easily navigable in most places, wider and not as maze-like as long as hikers stick to the designated trails.

Hiking the Devils Garden route will take visitors past a number of extraordinary monuments, not the least of which is Landscape Arch, bragging the largest span of any arch in the world. This arch alone draws thousands of visitors every year from all corners of the globe. While not as famous as the iconic Delicate Arch, Landscape has its own mystique and wonder. You cannot help but stare in awe, expecting the slender bridge to fall in any moment. Apparently the park service worries about that as well, as the spur trail leading underneath the arch is no longer accessible. To be fair, some of the pieces of solid sandstone that the arch has shed were larger than the property upon which some of your houses are built, and certainly weighed in the dozens of tons.

We enjoyed the view (from a safe distance of a few hundred yards or so, behind a fence) of the magnificent natural arch, but were eager to move on to those landmarks that could be approached directly.

Immediately past Landscape Arch is the exploration-friendly Wall Arch. This arch sits above the trail, but is climbed to without difficulty. It is illegal to climb the arch itself, but the surrounding fins of sandstone are a veritable playground for rock-climbers and boulderers. There is nothing so sheer or so tall right here as to attract the climbing enthusiast with their expensive ropes and space-age harnesses, but there were dozens of bouldering routes that just begged us to get in touch with our inner lizards.

The Devils Garden Trail continues west past Wall Arch. The spur trail to Navajo Arch and Partition Arch is just around a few corners, and here we spent a large portion of the hike, playing, exploring, bouldering, photographing. My brother and I had a little friendly competition to see who could make it the farthest up some of the rock faces, while the others looked on and laughed at our pathetically amateur attempts. It has indeed been a while since I have been climbing on a regular basis, and the walls adjacent to Partition Arch in particular reminded me of how much I need to be out there every chance I get.

Partition Arch owns a very nice view, sitting up high on the same fin that becomes Landscape Arch farther to the southeast. Hikers can gaze through the portal of Partition Arch, across the awesome fins of the Devils Garden, and into the red and pink valleys of the park beyond that. I climbed atop the wall behind the arch, trying to line up the exquisite panorama with my lounging group at the foot of the arch. I snapped some decent photos, but was unable to get the angle that I wanted; there was so much snow and ice up on the steeply sloping ledge that even I did not dare to inch out too far into space. In fact, I am not even sure that the angle I wanted is feasible, and will not know until I return on a nice, dry, snow-less day.

Navajo Arch is a thick, sturdy arch that leads into a tiny alcove, more like a cave with a skylight. Though we had not recognized it before, we now joked around how the park service must drag logs across the park, until they have one under every arch, because there did seem to be a large number of arches whose bases were decorated with gnarly pine trees or dead logs.

The trail is rocky and challenging immediately following Landscape Arch - up until then it is graded, mostly level, and extremely easy to follow. But after the Navajo Arch spur, the main trail begins to climb up and down the slopes of sandstone fins. This makes the journey both more difficult, and much more interesting. There are a number of steep sections of the trail that would not be particularly daunting normally, except that they were covered in a five-month old crust of slick, brittle ice. This became exceptionally difficult when we reached the few places that are steep enough to require steps carved into the rock. Most of these obstacles could be bypassed easily enough, but half of the fun of the hike was to see if you could overcome them without taking an easy route.

With the amount of time that we spent playing at Partition and Navajo Arches, it was nearing the middle of the afternoon by the time we reached Double O Arch, and it was beginning to get colder again. The sun was sinking toward the western horizon, leaving long, thick cast shadows behind the fins of the Garden, creating many awesome photo opportunities. We sat under the waning afternoon warmth for a few minutes, enjoying the visual play of white snow on red rock, wishing that we had more time, more sunlight, and more warmth in the canyons.

The idea had been to return to the car by way of the Primitive Loop Trail that circles back around to the parking lot from the north, dropping lower into the Garden and exploring some of the canyons and fins that we could see from the main trail along the ridge. But with the short span of daylight, and our loitering at the Navajo Arch Spur Trail, we now did not have the time.

Slowly, hesitantly, we rose and began the trek back toward the parking area. Not stopping to play around this time, we made quick work of the Devils Garden Trail, passing the Navajo Arch Spur Trail, Wall Arch, and Landscape Arch in remarkable time.

Back in the car, as we drove back down the Arches Entrance Road, we talked about a place in Moab to eat, and about a return visit to Arches in the spring. Priorities for a return trip would be a second visit to Devils Garden, taking time to visit Black Arch and the Primitive Loop, and of course, the elusive Fiery Furnace.