Delicate Arch is the rock formation for which Arches National Park is best known. It is a beautiful sight to behold in person and possibly the most striking example of a natural, sandstone arch in the park. That’s why there is usually a horde of people hiking to this natural wonder and taking its picture. Despite the crowds, this is a must-see destination and worth the extra effort it takes to experience it.
How to get there
Starting at the main (south) entrance to Arches National Park, drive about 11.5 miles into the park along the main road. Turn right (east) onto Delicate Arch Road and drive 1.2 miles to the parking area on the left (north) side of the road. The trail begins adjacent to the parking lot.
The trailhead has a large parking area. By some miracle, we’ve always been able to find a spot either in the lot or within a short walking distance. Getting there early in the day will improve your chances.
Once you’re ready to tackle the hike, resist the urge to head straight to the arch. There are two bonuses waiting for you at the beginning of the trail you should check out first.
Wolfe Ranch Ruins
Mere steps away from the parking lot, you’ll notice the remains of an old cabin. John Wolfe built this structure in 1906 while he and his son raised cattle nearby. The ruins of the cabin give you a glimpse of what life must have been like here over a hundred years ago as settlers from the east started homesteading in the area.
A short distance past the Wolfe Ranch ruins, you’ll see a sign at the edge of the trail that says “petroglyphs.” Take the short side trail to the left (north) to see one of the best-preserved examples of petroglyphs in the southwest. A small panel of rock carvings depict desert sheep and riders on horseback. The exact date of these carvings is unknown, but considering that native people in the area would have acquired horses from Europeans sometime after the mid-1600’s, the petroglyphs must have been created after that.
Continuing along the trail to the main event, you’ll hike 1.6 miles and climb about 600 feet elevation to reach Delicate Arch. The trail is moderately difficult in mild weather, but can be dangerous in the full sun and high heat of summer. (Total distance out and back is 3.2 miles)
The sandy trail gives way to slickrock as you get closer to the arch. If you happen to be hiking the trail when few others are around, you’ll have to navigate by looking for cairns and noticing signs of footprints on the hard rock surface.
There’s only one spot on the trail that is a little sketchy. Very close to the last turn before reaching the arch, there is a short stretch of trail with a bit of a steep drop to one side. Go slow, pay attention to where you place your steps, and get a helping hand if you need it and you should be fine.
It tends to be crowded at the arch
Seeing Delicate Arch in person is a thrill, but of course, you’ll want to get a photo of it. Capturing an image of the arch without humans in the picture is challenging. Visitors usually form a line to take turns getting their photo taken under the arch. On one of our visits to this sight, a woman decided to use her turn to sit down in the center of the opening, take her lunch out of her pack, and casually eat her sandwich. Suffice to say, the other visitors strongly encouraged her to take her lunch break somewhere else.
Years ago, it was possible to catch the odd 5-to-10 second break in the action to snap a shot before the next visitor stepped under the arch. That’s difficult to do these days unless you are there very early in the day.
Get a photo of the arch
One thing we’ve found that works is to ask everyone who is waiting in line to pause for a minute to let everyone else take a photo of the arch without people in it. It’s not easy getting an unruly crowd to cooperate, but it can work if you are persistent. Here’s how you do it. First, scout your ideal vantage point of the arch and frame the shot you want to take in your phone or camera. This is an important step because you won’t have long to take your photo.
Once you are ready, yell as loud as you can, “Hey, people! Could everyone move away from the arch so the rest of us can get a picture without you in it!” You might have to add, “Hey, you! Yeah, you! Move back! Move! Back!” It’s also key to use hand gestures for those who don’t understand what you’re saying.
If done correctly, this technique will buy you about 7 seconds to take a picture of the arch without someone in the frame holding their crouch, giving the peace sign, covering their eyes with their forearm while bending over and pointing at the arch with their other arm (why do people do this?), jumping several times while their partner tries to capture them mid-air, or eating their lunch. You might think we are kidding with this advice, but I (Matt) have seen visitors (Karen) perform this technique with success.
So there you have it; the scene at Delicate Arch can be a circus at times, but it is still worth seeing it.