Long Night into a Magic Morning

Things don’t always work according to plan. I guess I should’ve known from the name we were in for some trouble. Devil’s Campground (in Arches National Park) isn’t exactly a welcoming omen.

We were headed from Hovenweep, taking our time exploring the beauty of Utah, and ended up having to take out one of planned stops so we wouldn’t have to feel any kind of time crunch. Unfortunately, it seems I’ll never plan perfectly because we finally got to Arches ten minutes after the visitor center closed. I was worried this meant we couldn’t check into our campground, but we decided there was nothing to do but try for it.

An hour of driving through the park, passing massive cliffs and seeing a couple of arches, we finally made it to the end where the campground was…and it was closed. There was a small wooden blockade, which we assumed the rangers had just put up minutes before. Our access to Devil’s Campground was closed and now we were out of luck for the night.

We drove a bit further to one of the trails to park and figure out what to do. The sun had already set and after a quick Airbnb search there was nothing available for at least seventy miles. We sat in the car at a loss – there was no way three of us (and a dog) could sleep in the car for the night. In a split decision, we got moving toward the entrance of the closed campground and moved the small wooden blockade to gain access. We figured we could just pay at the visitor center in the morning and it wouldn’t be too big of a deal. So we quickly moved the wooden barrier, hearts racing, and made our way into the campground, hoping no fellow hikers would rat us out.

But there was literally not a single person in the entire campground.

When I’d been doing research, I’d found out the only campground in the park had been under construction for several months and was scheduled to be done only two days before our visit. From the website, everything looked like it was going to be good to go for our night’s camp. But based on the fact no one was inside and realizing the blockade had come from a construction crew, we decided we needed to get out before we were caught in a closed zone.

Unfortunately, right as we were only twenty yards from the exit, a big construction crew pulled up to the campground entrance. We shut our engine off in a parking spot and tried to be silent and figure out what to do. Would the Park kick us out on our first night before we’d even done any hiking? It was getting dark fast; where would we even go?

After almost an hour fretting in the near dark, trying to decide between just approaching the construction crew (who were apparently working on the entrance) and just setting up camp, we heard the crew noisily drive off. We were saved! We could now just hurriedly leave and no one would be the wiser. We started the car and crept toward the front with our headlights off. I jumped out of the car to dash toward the wooden blockade, and then a flash of headlights hit me. I was caught!

The construction crew had come back. (I was just glad there were no angry Park rangers.) After explaining everything, the guys were pretty easygoing and said they knew we were in the campground where we shouldn’t be but they now needed us to wait before escaping because they’d just freshly painted logos and lines on the campground asphalt. Of course.

So we finally made it out and were back to square one. Well, with increased heart rates and gratitude that I wasn’t in trouble with my beloved National Park Services. We parked at the trailhead and decided the only thing to do was set up camp. In the parking lot. In the dark. We were kind of out of options.

We turned on the car’s headlights and set up our tent in the beam. We tried to throw all the car’s blankets in to give us a bit more comfort. And then instead of the campfire dinner we’d planned, we dumped out all our best snacks. We hauled out a massive bottle of rosé and got to work. We knew we were in for a long cold, uncomfortable night so we poured our wine heavy-handed.

Spoiler alert, we made it through. My new (REI garage sale, literal lifesaver) sleeping bag was fully zippable and I had on leggings, a shirt, and a fluffy sweater. It was bearable with the little buzz I’d worked up. But better than the wine and the secret-sharing, had to be the next morning, waking up to the greatness of an Arches sunrise. All I’d had to do was turn over and unzip the door.

After a moment of lying (on the admittedly hard ground) I realized we would have the best choices for sunrise pictures in the Park. I woke up my friends and packed hurriedly, basically just throwing everything every which way into the car. We were dressed and decamped in ten minutes flat, driving like mad through Arches to get back to a spot we knew would be great to catch the full sunrise.

All in all, definitely worth it, even with all the bumps along the way. We drove the winding main road at the highlight of the day twice – both sunset and sunrise, enjoying the views basically all to ourselves. I’m definitely having a lot of fun traveling and ending with no regrets.

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