There might be no finer time to hike in Arches National Park than early mornings, when the soft light of the rising sun glints off red-rock and spindly Utah junipers and waves of sandstone fins cast long shadows.
With the soft crunch of sand under foot and the distinctive smell of the desert -- pungent sage and sweet juniper seem to dominate, though even the sandstone has an earthy aroma to it -- enveloping you, exploring the park before the day's high heat sets in doesn't get much better.
While many visitors to Arches seem perfectly satisfied to make the 30-minute walk from the Devils Garden parking area to admire Landscape Arch, and more than a few embark on 4-mile roundtrip to Double O Arch, only a handful or two endeavor to explore the 7.2-mile Primitive Loop that climbs and drops across this incredible landscape.
Perhaps the Caution, Primitive Trail, Difficult Hiking sign at the spur that wanders off from the side of Double O Arch intimidates folks. Many, no doubt, never even get to that point, as early on there's a thin rock fin that might be too much for hikers who prefer to be more grounded, as it must be traversed for maybe 75 yards while you avoid a fall far enough down to do some bodily damage.
Those who venture down the trail, though, are pulled into a landscape where Arches' renowned geology is being manufactured. Here the trail takes you past patches of prickly pear and, in season, red bursts of Indian paintbrush. You walk across thin fins of rock still being whittled into arches by erosion, down the shoulders of these fins, and through narrow passageways between the fins. At times you negotiate potholes filled from recent rains, and stroll down dusty washes, ever watchful for small cairns of rocks that slowly but surely lead you back to the main trail near Landscape Arch.
Take a chance on this trail, which can take three or more hours to negotiate depending on how much you like to dawdle, and you'll not only pass well-known arches such as Landscape, Double O, and the remains of Wall Arch, but short side trails leading to Navajo, Partition, and Private arches.
Best of all, though, you'll be pulled into the red-rock landscape, away from the crowds, and into your own private corner of Arches.
Trail: Devils Garden Primitive Loop
Trailhead: Devils Gardening parking lot
Length: 7.2 miles roundtrip
Difficulty: Moderate to strenuous, both due to heights that must be conquered and, in summer, the hot, arid climate.
Advice: Pack plenty of water, snacks, lots of sunscreen, and wear a wide-brimmed hat.
Payoff: Gorgeous landscape, solitude