They call it Dark Angel. It stands sentinel over the Devil’s Garden. Surrounded by stone arches, this lone, 150-foot tower marks the beginning of the garden’s primitive trail—the place where footsteps disappear, hikers become sparse and your guide home becomes a series of stacked rocks.
You’ve seen the rock stacks before, but maybe you thought they were hiker’s graffiti? They’re called cairns, and they have a purpose. The usually small, sometimes large, piles of stacked stone mark trails. In a land of boulders, canyons and pitfalls, the cairns might as well be lanterns. They beckon to weary travelers like the ghosts of shoes gone by.
To follow cairns is to invite adventure. If you’re lucky, they’ll carry you home.
The cairns in Devil’s Garden lead away from Dark Angel and onto a primitive trail that ducks in-and-out of sandstone fins and cliffs. They occassionally break through groves of bristlecone pines—trees who first set their roots in the canyon thousands of years ago. I tap “thanks” as I tread past a tree and leap over a chasm.
This is Arches National Park, a place that gets a lot of love from travelers and photographers worldwide. It’s easy to see why: Arches is just minutes from U.S. Highway 191. It’s an easy drive and a highly manicured national park that places some of its most famous features on the edge of a parking lot. In Arches, iconic photos loom at every bend of the road…but you won’t find any of them here. The cairns don’t lead their way.
Where they do lead, though, is away from the iconic heart of the park and into its bloodstream. They lead to paths long beaten and less followed, to places that worthy adventurers have traipsed for centuries.
Its places like this that I’ve begun to seek out inside of the national parks. (A lesson, first learned at Yellowstone, that’s paid off ever since.)
It’s one of the best tips I can give hopeful travelers: find the most difficult trail you can handle and give it a go. Do that, and you’ll break away from the herd. Do that, and you’ll find the soul of the place.
The soul of Devil’s Garden feels restless. In 1995, a massive section of Landscape Arch crashed onto the trail some 100 feet below. It was the third crash in four years, and the lands around its wreckage feel like they’re at war with time.
The cairns are an example of that—rocks thousands of years old that have been manipulated to mark trails that come and go in the blink of geologic time. Their travelers last even less. The bristlecones have watched the cairns come and go; the canyons have watched the trees grow and die. It’s a cycle that’s ever-changing and never-ending. And it makes you feel alive.
Seeing time under your feet, over your head and guiding your path has a way of putting human life in perspective. We aren’t here for long. To the garden, it doesn’t really matter if you come and go or never show…the only thing that’s constant is time.
But if you do come, if you do show yourself at Arches National Park, if you walk through the Devil’s Garden and onto its broken roads, you’ll discover something unexpected—this place isn’t evil. It doesn’t feel “bad.” It’s just uneasy.
Here in the Devil’s Garden, the trees thrive, the ravens fly, the cairns guide. And away in the distance, a far hill rises…it’s called The Garden of Eden.