Behind the Arches National Park visitor center, craggy sandstone rises like a castle’s curtain wall between towers and turrets. The 40-mile scenic drive climbs high onto the plateau and crosses a vast and glorious landscape of panoramic views with distant snowcapped mountains. At sunset, you’ll swear photographers coined “magic hour” here as the red rock becomes saturated with the radiance of the sun. At sunrise, rays of light break over dramatic horizons. A new day in Arches begins. Let’s get hiking.
It’s no surprise that Arches National Park is one of the top national parks in America: it’s a 73,234-acre wonderland of eroded sandstone fins, towers, ribs, gargoyles, hoodoos, balanced rocks, and, of course, arches northwest of Moab. The park protects an amazing landscape that includes the largest proliferation of arches in the world. Over 2,000 arches (with an arch considered an opening with one side at least 3 feet wide) have been catalogued in Arches National Park. Landscape Arch, measuring 306 fragile feet, is the second-longest span in the world and it’s a sight you will never forget.
The sandstone formations in Arches National Park define not only the landscape but also its plants and animals. The scarce precipitation — 8.5 inches annually — extreme temperature ranges, and relatively high elevation, all conspire to limit life among the rocks to only species that can adapt to such a harsh environment. Elevations at Arches range from 3,960 feet along the Colorado River to 5,653-foot Elephant Butte, the park’s high point. A pygmy forest of piñon pine and juniper covers about half the park; scrubby steppe and bare slickrock blanket the rest.
Opportunities to see and explore Arches National Park abound for people of all ages and abilities, from the scenic roads that slice through the park to the many trails that wind among the 300-foot-high towers and take hikers to some of the most spectacular namesake arches. Many of these hikes are relatively easy, making Arches National Park one of the top national parks for families with children, and a world-class vacation destination for hikers in general.
And when you’re done taking in the park’s beauty, you can stay in one of Arches campgrounds or visit the nearby town of Moab, a classic Utah desert town famous for its a laid-back outdoorsy vibe and incredible array of nearby mountain biking trails. There is a lot to see and do in Arches National Park and the Moab area, so plan on spending a few days — at least!
Must-See Arches Guide
Hiking Arches National Park
Arches National Park is well suited for the visitor who wants to see amazing scenery on short hikes rather than serious, challenging treks. These wonderful trails offer spectacular scenery and, of course, plenty of arches.
Great easy day hikes include Double Arch, Broken Arch, Park Avenue (with its sandstone towers resembling its New York City namesake), and of course Landscape Arch — which, at over 300 feet, is the second-longest span in the world. Even though these hikes are relatively short, on a hot day they could be considered strenuous, so plan to hike early or late in the day to avoid the heat. And, as always, pack plenty of water along.
Although Arches National Park is more known for its easy day hikes than long, challenging hikes and backpacking routes, there are some great options for those seeking solitude and lengthier trips, such as the trail to Delicate Arch (probably the world’s most famous arch, and the one pictured on the Utah state license plate), and the Devils Garden Primitive Loop.
Another hike not to be missed is the hike to Fiery Furnace, named for the incredible reddish glow it often takes on at sunset that makes it look like a furnace. You will need to get a permit at the visitor center to do the Fiery Furnace hike, and it’s worth signing up for a ranger-led tour. As you walk along the 2-mile loop, the ranger explains the incredible natural history of the area and points out rare plants and semi-concealed arches.
Arches National Park is a wonderland and the sort of place that brings out the amateur geologist or landscape photographer in even the most citified of us. Arches offers more bang for your sightseeing buck from a vehicle than just about any other park. The park contains more than 1,500 recognized natural arches, ranging in size from just a few feet to the 306-foot span of mammoth Landscape Arch. As always, stop first at the visitor center, just inside the entrance, for an orientation and for resources and information on drives and hikes within the park. There is a very nice self-guiding booklet for the park road, which is called Arches Scenic Drive.
The road was very well designed to bring visitors close to park attractions, so it is easy to have a memorable experience in just a few hours of touring. If you only have a couple hours, drive to the Windows Section where you can check out some of the park’s largest arches, or drive to the Delicate Arch viewpoint and see Utah’s most famous arch at a distance. If you have four or five hours, you have time to drive all the park’s paved roads and spend about ten minutes at each viewpoint.
Arches National Park has one campground, the Devils Garden Campground located 18 miles north of the visitor center on the park road. This campground offers visitors an intimate connection with the amazing geography of Arches National Park and close proximity to excellent hiking, photography, sightseeing, and rock climbing.
Facilities at Devils Garden include potable water, picnic tables, toilets and grills (bring your own wood or charcoal for the grills as it is not available for sale). There are no showers or RV dump stations at the campground. Devils Garden has 50 individual campsites and 2 group campsites. Some sites will accommodate RVs up to 30 feet in length. Campsite rentals cost $20 per night (up to 10 people) and can be reserved through www.recreation.gov or by calling (877) 444-6777 (reservations recommended; from November 28 through February 1, some sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis.
If Devils Garden Campground is full, there are many other excellent campgrounds in the Moab area. Visit www.discovermoab.com for more information on campgrounds, hotels and motels in town.
Arches National Park is a wonderful place to partake in your photography hobby — the colors, light, and landscape blend in a way that allows you to make unforgettable images of near professional quality.
The trick to maximizing your photography time in Arches National Park is knowing what geographic features are best photographed in what light, i.e. what time of day. Features best photographed at sunrise or very early morning light include the Moab Fault, the Three Gossips, Sheep Rock, the Great Wall, Turret Arch, the Spectacles, Double Arch, Cache Valley, Wolfe Ranch, Landscape Arch, and Double O Arch.
During late afternoon or evening light, aim your camera toward Park Avenue, the Courthouse Towers, the Petrified Dunes, Balanced Rock, the Garden of Eden, North and South Windows, Delicate Arch, the Fiery Furnace (permit required), Skyline Arch, the fins in Devils Garden, and Tower Arch.
Remember, the landscape in the canyon country is very fragile. Avoid stepping off the trails or away from pullouts — you will damage the biological soil crust, which is actually a living surface and very important to the ecology of this desert environment.
Make plans to visit one of the top national parks in America and enjoy the experience of a lifetime!
Arches National Park
PO Box 907
Moab, Utah 84532