Cairn Spotting: Hiking Arches National Park’s Primitive Trail

Today was what I hoped my Arches experience would be! Perfect hiking weather (not too hot and just enough cloud cover) and great scenery!

I went to bed super early with the plan to breakfast at McDonald’s so I could use their wifi. By the time I’d dressed, packed my lunch and day pack, and made it down the road, it was just past 6:00. I caught up on some online stuff over some hot cakes and sausage (knowing I would work that off soon enough!) and a really good cup of coffee.

This would be my last day in the park since tomorrow’s forecast is cruddy, so I could fit in only one major hike. A popular one is to the famous Delicate Arch, but it just looked like an uphill slog to me. The most difficult and longest hike in the park, the Primitive Trail, sounded like a lot more fun and would let me see several arches that are not otherwise accessible. I’d spoken to someone at the visitor’s centre yesterday about the difficulty level of the hike and told him I found Angels Landing at Zion easy. He said that absolutely nothing in Arches compared to that hike and that the Primitive Trail would hardly be a challenge for me as long as the weather was good (rain would make the trail slippery). So that helped cement my decision.

I drove straight to the Devil’s Garden parking lot, arriving around 7:30. It is about a half hour drive from Moab to that parking lot! Since I was early, I was able to park right at the trailhead.

The hike did end up being pretty easy except for one section. You have to follow cairns to make sure you stay on track and I had bits where the cairns were pretty far apart, so I was moving with caution to make sure I didn’t get lost and could get back to the last cairn I’d spotted.

Well, I got to the first fin I had to cross and the cairns were confusing. I crossed a very narrow and steeply sloped ledge on my butt to find myself faced with a very steep climb up. That just didn’t seem right. It look positively impossible and I felt a flutter of something I hadn’t really faced at Zion: fear. If that was the trail, I was done. I started to scoot back across the ledge and realised as I looked at the sheer drop down that I was truly afraid, bordering on terrified, and coming back across felt like it took forever. I was really glad to reach a wider section where I could get back on my feet. I’m glad to know my survival instincts work and that I know when to turn back! But I couldn’t believe that that was truly the trail, based on what I’d been told.

So I took a look around and up and finally spotted a tiny cairn at the top of a steep slope of bare rock! The second cairn I’d spotted that I thought was telling me to go across the ledge was actually telling me that this was a good spot to step up onto the first foothold of the slope. From there, I could just barely see the other spots where I could get decent footing and pull myself up. This wasn’t quite as bad as watching someone climb a vertical rock face without any equipment (think Kirk at the start of “The Final Frontier”) since I was on a slope, but there was zero room for error as it was a tumble straight down if I slipped.

I got a comment yesterday about my footwear that I want to address. I wear Keen Newports on hikes like these. They are a cross between a sandal and a closed shoe and the absolute perfect thing to wear for scrambling around sandstone. The guy at the visitor’s centre commended me for having them and said that they are his favourite shoes for hiking in Utah parks. The sandstone can get slick if there is sand under your shoes and the way the Keen tread is made, sand doesn’t really stick to the bottoms unless it’s really wet. They do suck in sand, but I still wouldn’t want anything else, not even proper hiking boots, when scrambling around sandstone. I really trust my Keens to not slip out from under me.

Once I got over the two fins, the rest of my day was rather uneventful. Some bits were harder than others and I had to sort of throw myself up stuff (my knees are black and blue), but there wasn’t really anything that was particularly challenging.

I really liked the spur to Private Arch, where you get to the end of the trail, turn a corner, and there’s an arch!

Dark Angel is a column of dark sandstone jutting out of the northern end of the park and the northernmost thing on the map. So I took the spur there and back, but found it wasn’t really worth the energy I had to expend compared to what was at the end of other spurs. But what can I say, I’m a completist. 🙂

Double O Arch, at the end/start of the primitive trail was pretty anticlimactic. Further down, at the end of a spur, I found my favourite arch of all, Partition Arch.

The end of my hike was the start of the Double O Arch trail, also considered difficult/strenuous. The final bit (first bit if doing the trail in that direction) was a bit of work, but nothing like what I’d experienced so far.

With all the spurs, I hiked a total of 7.2 miles or just shy of 12KM by the time I got back to my truck. I did the hike in just under 4.5 hours, a very good time considering that I stopped to eat and enjoy the view.

I actually still had stamina to do the Delicate Arch hike, but my knees were done. How the damn knees feel compared to how much stamina I have is just incongruous. I’ll just push on through the pain as long as I can…

The trailhead parking lot was very full as I pulled out. Arches is definitely a park to enjoy early in the day. Even if I had decided to try the Delicate Arch trail, there was no parking at its trailhead.

And now, pictures. With blue sky!

I’ll probably head back out on the road sometime tomorrow, but today was so perfect that another day in the park, especially in crappy weather, would be a disappointment!

5 thoughts on “Cairn Spotting: Hiking Arches National Park’s Primitive Trail

  1. I saw the face 🙂 Quite the day. Well done. Not sure that I have that one part of the hike straight up in me but thanks for the photos. So glad you had the weather today to make this such a perfect day. Really appreciate you taking the time to share with us.

    • That climb up was really my limit. I was concerned that there would be worse bits beyond it because once I was up, there was no way I was coming back down! Glad you enjoyed the post.

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