Arches National Park feature some of the most unusual and memorable landscapes in the world. Set aside as a National Monument in 1929, it became a national park in 1969. It is 76,519 acres in size, with the majority of visitors in March through October, particularly during the summer. Like most national parks in the U.S., attendance is growing rapidly, reaching over 1.5 million in 2016, but is still not in the top-10 most visited national parks.
Arches National Park has the world’s largest concentration of natural arches in the world. Other striking geologic features, such as sandstone fins, balanced rocks and pinnacles add to the experience. The sandstone is of varied colors but mostly run to a bright orange-red that makes for great photography when contrasted against a bright-blue sky. The shapes of the stones are so dramatic that some early travelers speculated that they were the remains of some ancient civilization. For us, it is just an example of the wonder of creation and the power of erosion.
Wile E. Coyote
As a child who grew up watching Looney Tunes cartoons, the landscapes of Arches National park are reminiscent of the landscapes where Wile E. Coyote always failed miserably trying to catch the Road Runner. This is no accident – the cartoonists were inspired by Arches and other areas in the American Outback when they made the cartoons. And while it’s unlikely you will see any road runners or coyotes rushing about, it will be hard not to imagine some of the rocks dropping from their precarious ledges.
Lots of Arches
The National Park Service will tell you that there are over 2,000 arches within the park. But they include arches as small as a few feet – little more than windows in my vernacular. You can expect to reliably see 20 or so good sized arches in a couple of days if you are willing to make the hikes. If you include surrounding arches outside of Arches National Park but still near Moab (such as Corona Arch and Mesa Arch), add another ten or so, but you’ll need a bit more time. You can find additional arches to see in the local area by looking at my broader arches and natural bridges page.
Entrance and Visitor Center
When you get to Arches National Park, stop at the visitor center if you would like to learn a bit about the park. It is also your last chance to use a nice bathroom within the park (the rest are primative) or to get fill water bottles. After you leave the visitor center, you’ll drive up a steep road to get to the plateau where you’ll spend the rest of your time in the park.
The first area you’ll come to is the Courthouse Towers section of the park. The landscape here features dramatic towers and cliffs – incredibly narrow and tall. The large arches that once existed here collapsed long ago, but the terrain is still memorable. Stop at the Park Avenue viewpoint and hike through it if you desire. A portrait against this background is excellent. As you round the corner, there is a turnout to look at the La Sal Mountains in the distance. These 12,000+ foot tall mountains are snow covered into the late spring and will be an excellent backdrop for some of the pictures you’ll take in Arches National Park – particularly at Delicate Arch.
After that, you’ll reach a turnout where you can see the several tall towers. The Organ will be first, followed by the Tower of Babel, which appears to have a few sycophants climbing to the top. On the left across the road will be the formation known as the Three Gossips. Just past that is Sheep rock, which is the edge of what was once a large arch.
The Great Wall
After the Courthouse Towers, you’ll have about a 6 mile drive with fewer reasons to get out of your car, but take your time and take in the landscape. It is dramatic Great Wall will appear on your left about half way with petrified dunes on your right. There are also numerous rock pinnacles along the way.
The next place you’ll want to stop Balanced Rock. This features a short hike that circles the rock and lets you see it from all sides. As you approach it, it looks the most precarious. Rising about 128 feet high and estimated to weigh 3500 tons, it once had a smaller balanced rock companion known as Chip of the Old Block that fell in 1975. This is a reminder that the landscape of Arches National Park changes rapidly – Balanced Rock will fall from its perch some day.
A turn to the right leads to the next highlight in the park. The Windows Section features some of the easiest to see and dramatic arches in the world. First comes a region of pinnacles called the Garden of Eden. Past that, is the loop road with a pair of parking areas that give access to The North and South
The next highlight is the most famous arch in the world, Delicate Arch. There are two ways to experience the arch. If mobility is an issue, you can look at it from across the Salt Valley Wash from the Lower and Upper Arch Viewpoints (the latter being reached by a short hike). The better way is to hike up to the arch itself from Wolfe Ranch. Read about this hike at my post on Delicate Arch.
Fiery Furnace is the next area you will come to in Arches. This area has restricted access and you need a hiking pass to enter. It features some of the most dramatic landscape in the park, with tightly packed sandstone fins and hidden arches like Surprise Arch and Skull Arch. You’ll have to plan ahead to get here, and I talk all about your options and what you will see in my post on the Fiery Furnace.
The last easily access area in Arches National Park is the Devils Garden. This area features about 10 impressive arches, most of which require some degree of hiking. Highlights include Sand Dune Arch, Tunnel Arch, Pine Tree Arch and Landscape Arch, one of the biggest in the world. Hikes range from a few hundred yards to nearly 8 miles. To learn all about what there is to see, check out my detailed article on the Devil’s Garden.
If you have a good off-road vehicle, you can drive the unpaved road out to Klondike Bluffs and see Tower Arch and the Marching Men. This is still on my to-do list.
Lots to do
As you can see, there is lots to see in Arches National park. Any length visit is worthwhile. You could see the Courthouse Towers and Windows section in a few hours and have a great experience. But I recommend staying in Moab a few days and take in more of Arches as well as nearby Canyonlands National Park and the many other activities and worthy sites located in the region on other public lands. Moab is one of the premier mountain bike locations in the world and is also widely known as a jeeping capital. Adventure and beauty awaits.
Arches National Park is located in eastern Utah in the United States, near the town of Moab. It can be accessed by car by travelling from either east or west via I-70 and then taking either Hwy 191 (from the West) or Hwy 128 (from the east). Another likely approach is from the south via Hwy 191 north from Arizona where there are other interesting locations like Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon. The closest major airport to Arches Salt Lake City, Utah.
It costs $10 per vehicle for a 7 day pass. If you are going to numerous national parks and monuments, then the Golden Eagle, which provides for 1 year of access to all national parks and monuments, is a good value at $80. Access to the Fiery Furnace section in Arches National Park requires a separate hiking pass – go to my article on the Fiery Furnace for details.
There is a nice bathroom at the visitor station at the entrance as well as potable water. There are only outhouse-type toilets after this within the park, other than at at Devil’s Garden campground. Food, lodging and gas are in nearby Moab.
Be a Careful Adventurer
Arches is a very visited park, and you are likely to never be alone on any of the popular hikes. But stay on the trails and bring plenty of water with you. It gets extremely hot in Arches during the late spring through early fall. Know your limits and take your time. There are few high cliffs as such, but plenty of places where a fall could cause serious injury if you are not careful, but most of the hikes follow easy, safe trails. Elevation on hikes is fairly flat – Delicate Arch is probably the hardest hike as far as going uphill.
Thievery is not a big problem in most national parks, but please take proper precautions. Don’t carry a lot of valuables with you and don’t leave them visible in your car – lock them in your trunk when you leave for the park in the morning.
To help your planning, I’ve created a nice Arches National Park Interactive Map.
To see a gallery of hi-res pictures from Arches National Park, go here.
Read about all the Arches and Natural Bridges I have visited here.
Utah is a state with a lot to see and do. Check out some options here.
America is blessed with natural beauty. Check out my posting on National Parks here.