With Arches National Park its name says it all. The park is home to more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches – the largest concentration in the world. And to think that the average visitor only sees about 1% of these arches during even the most ambitious day is even more impressive. The process of how these arches are formed is just as fascinating as the mind-bending shapes themselves. The short version of the story is that sandstone rock is shaped by water and wear, resulting in a variety striking formations ranging from rock walls and windows to fins, spires, bridges and of course arches. And fun fact, to be officially designated as an arch in the park the hole must have an opening of at least 3 feet in any direction. The landscape is dynamic and ever-changing and what we see today will inevitably look different for visitors in the future. It’s geologic alchemy at its finest.
Arches is an quick 10 minute drive from Moab off highway 191 and is great for people of all ages including families with kids since it offers a wide variety of ways to see its spectacular sites. You’ll find trails ranging from easy half-mile walks to longer and more adventurous hikes, plus other points of interest you can easily see from your car or parking lot viewpoints. Arches quickly became one of my favorite national parks because of its overall landscape and variety of things to see and do. We were also lucky to visit on a weekday in February when the park seemed empty in comparison to busier times of the year.
Immediately we were in awe of our surroundings as we drove along the park’s appropriately named main road Scenic Drive with large-than-life rock cliffs and formations in distinctive hues of red, orange and brown towering over us before the scenery transitioned to a wide open valley covered by a thin blanket of morning fog. Our first destination was Devils Garden at the end of the road where you can see 7 different arches along the longest and most difficult trail in the park. The first arch we encountered was Landscape Arch, which is the largest arch in North America with an opening of 306 feet across. By contrast this picturesque arch is only 11 feet thick at its center, making it extremely vulnerable to erosion.
After this point the trail becomes more challenging (and fun) as we scrambled up and down narrow sandstone slabs towards Double O Arch. The trail is a bit hard to follow with minimal signage along the way (follow the footsteps whenever you can) and just when you think you’ve reached a dead end, go around the left side of the large boulder and hike down to reach the arch. At this spot you’ll also have a nice view of Dark Angel about a half mile further in the distance.
From here you can continue along the Primitive trail for the full 7.8 miles or turn back like we did to explore the other side trails to Navajo Arch and Partition Arch (the latter has one of the most beautiful views in the park through its opening) and Pine Tree Arch and Tunnel Arch before returning to the trailhead parking lot. This hike took us about 3 hours total.
Thereafter we headed back to Scenic Drive and made a handful of stops along the way to see Skyline Arch (.4 miles), Sand Dune Arch (.3 miles, same trailhead as Broken Arch and Tapestry Arch) and the Fiery Furnace viewpoint (permit required to hike in this maze-like area).
Our next destination was Delicate Arch, arguably the most popular site in the park and throughout all of Utah as its image is pretty much ubiquitous around the state. The hike is only 3 miles but mostly uphill on the way there, and the key is to catch the arch at the end of the day when the lighting is at its best. Also, be sure not to confuse the trail to reach the arch itself with the Upper and Lower Delicate Arch Viewpoints further down the road. We made the initial climb fairly quickly in an attempt to catch some glimmers of sunlight in between the clouds that hovered above. As we climbed over the final ledge there it was, Delicate Arch standing about 60 feet high and anchoring the edge of the cliff with a swirling bowl of sandstone at its base and a vast landscape all around. It was a truly incredible scene but even more so that there was maybe only a dozen or so other people around (I can only imagine this spot teaming with people in high season!). We spent about half an hour taking in Delicate Arch from various angles while we waited for the sun to make a bolder appearance. Once it was clear that the clouds would be hanging around for good we made the downhill descent to the parking lot. Total active hiking time up and back was about an hour.
Afterwards we drove through the so-called Garden of Eden to the Windows Section of the park. We decided to save the North and South Windows for a future visit and instead walked down the easy half-mile trail to Double Arch as our final stop of the day. Without even knowing it, we had saved one of the best for last (see the first photo at the top of this post). This arch is the tallest in the park with an opening of 112 feet high that creates a huge cavernous space, like an amphitheater of golden arches glowing in the afternoon sunlight. There were a handful of areas we didn’t make it to but I left already daydreaming about my next visit.
Also Good to Know
Rule number one, don’t climb on the arches as they are extremely fragile. Enough said, right? In addition, the time of year and time of day you visit make a difference. The park can be very crowded during the summer months with tons of people at the most popular sites (and parking nearly impossible to find). It’s also best to avoid the hottest times of the day during warmer weather, so get an early start and plan your itinerary accordingly. Water is super important as it’s easy to get dehydrated even in cooler weather, and there’s no water beyond the Visitors Center. The sun in the desert can be intense and shade is in short supply on many trails around the park so be sure to protect yourself accordingly with sunscreen, sunglasses, a hat and more recently a face mask, which is mandatory on Federal lands including national parks as of January 2021. There are tons of other great hiking spots in and around Moab like Canyonlands National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park and others that you can read about in my post coming soon!
ARCHES BY THE NUMBERS
- Established as a National Monument in 1929 by Herbert Hoover and later a National Park in 1971
- More than 2,000 natural stone arches throughout the park
- Spans a total of 76,519 acres
- There are 7 arches along the Devils Garden/Primitive Loop trail
- Landscape Arch is the longest arch in North America with an opening of 306 feet across
- Double Arch is the tallest in the park with an opening of 112 feet high
- The most popular site is Delicate Arch, which has a modest 46 foot high opening
- Attracts more than 5 million visitors per year