Your Guide to Arches National Park

Arches National Park is a place to see sweeping views of a pristine Southern Utah desert landscape. The park’s main attraction is its over 2,000 natural arches, the largest concentration in the world, but it contains other wonders in the shapes of pinnacles, spires, hoodoos, and balanced rocks, all of which are stunning to look at and even more fun to explore. The allure of Arches is amplified by what’s around it: Canyonlands National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park, the town of Moab, and numerous other outdoor activities. The entire area has become a destination for adventure seekers, and Arches National Park is one of the top attractions.

Arches was made a national monument in 1929 and has been a national park since 1971. Its visitation numbers have climbed to about 1.5 million people per year. You can experience the beauty of the park without leaving your car, driving the 36-mile roundtrip scenic road, or by setting off on foot to hike amongst the arches in relative solitude, miles from any parking lot. It would only take two or three days to hike most of the trails and see the sights in the park, but you could spend weeks in the area around Moab exploring all of its natural wonders.

Where it is

Arches NP is about 20 miles west of the Utah-Colorado border, in the lower third of the state. The park’s entrance is five miles north of Moab on Highway 191, and 27 miles south of Interstate-70 on Highway 191. The closest major cities are Denver, 350 miles to the east, and Salt Lake City, 230 miles to the northwest. Follow this link to a map of the park.

When to go

The park is open all year; spring and fall are the best times to go weather-wise, but the park is busy from March through October. Summer can be warm with daytime highs in the 90s and nighttime lows in the 60s. The park’s elevation ranges from about 4,000 to 5,600 feet, so in the winter you can expect daytime highs in the 40s with nighttime lows in the 20s. Regardless of the season or temperature, it’s more often sunny than not. October is the wettest month of the year when the park gets about two inches of rain. The area doesn’t get much snow in the winter, but when it does, a dusting of white against the natural reddish-brown colors of the rocks makes for stunning scenes.

Hiking

Delicate Arch

Delicate Arch is one of the most-photographed natural arches in the world. It’s so popular that for over a decade it was the background image on Utah’s license plates. From the trailhead at the Wolf Ranch turnoff, it’s a 3-mile (round trip) moderately strenuous hike to the arch. Most of the time, the trail is crowded, and the scene at the arch can be aggravating. People wait in line to stand under the arch and have their picture taken. Some linger, oblivious to the visitors who want a photo of the arch without anyone in it. We’ve even seen people sit under the arch and eat lunch while hundreds of people wait to take a photo. If you want to see the arch with fewer people around, try going very early in the morning or at dusk (be sure to bring a flashlight or headlamp). Or go in the offseason; a cold, wintery day may make the hike more challenging, but you’ll have a better chance at photos of the arch without other visitors in the shot.

Fiery Furnace

According to the park’s website, Fiery Furnace is a “natural labyrinth of narrow passages between towering sandstone walls.” Inside this maze, it feels like a scavenger hunt as you look for the next small arrow to guide you past the numerous dead-end passageways. In the process, you’ll get lost a few times and have a chance to explore the nooks and crannies in this beautiful part of the park. Other than the occasional arrows epoxied to the sandstone walls, there’s no formal trail, but when you reach the end, you will have hiked about 2.5 miles, with an elevation gain of about 650 feet. Navigating your way up and down the slickrock and boulders can be moderately strenuous. Fiery Furnace will challenge your sense of direction and route-finding skills—at least it challenged ours. We recommend that you experience the trail for the first time as part of a ranger-led tour.

Karen navigating one of the tight spots in the Fiery Furnace

Permits to hike the trail on your own must be obtained in person at the visitor center up to seven days in advance. Set aside time to attend the mandatory orientation session when getting your permit; the orientation takes about 30-45 minutes. You can reserve tickets for the ranger-led morning hikes up to six months in advance at www.recreation.gov. See the park’s Fiery Furnace webpage for more details.

Devils Garden

At the end of the park road, 18 miles from the Visitor Center, is the trailhead for one of our favorite hikes, the Devils Garden Trail. It’s the longest maintained trail in the park at 7.2 miles (spur trails included) and takes you past eight natural arches if you hike the entire loop. Starting as an easy hike, it gets progressively more challenging the further you go. The trail to the first three arches, Pine Tree, Tunnel and Landscape Arches, is well maintained and family-friendly. The massive Landscape Arch, spanning 306 feet across, is 1.6 miles from the trailhead and the spot where many people turn around.

Matt walking along the sandstone fin beyond Landscape Arch.

Just beyond Landscape Arch is the beginning of a loop where the trail becomes more strenuous. The path soon climbs up a slickrock fin, gaining 250 feet in a quarter mile with some steep drop-offs on either side. You’ll come across spur tails to Navajo Arch and Partition Arch, followed by Double O Arch. You can turn around here and head back to the parking lot or continue onto the Primitive Trail. Most of the loop beyond Landscape Arch is not suitable for young kids or anyone uncomfortable with heights, scrambling or navigating from cairn to cairn over slick-rock. (It’s also inadvisable to hike this in the rain, snow or icy conditions.) We love this part of Devils Garden because of the solitude, the rock formations, and the incredible views. The Primitive Trail rejoins the main trail, where you’ll have just under a mile of hiking left to reach the parking lot.

The Windows

Turret Arch

The first side road you’ll come to when driving back into the park will take you to the Windows Section. At the end of this road is a parking area from which you can hike to several amazing natural arches: Double Arch, Parade of Elephants (not an arch but still cool to see), Turret Arch, North Window, and South Window. Set aside at least a couple of hours and visit them all. This area of the park is a great place to watch the sunset. Again, be sure to have a flashlight or headlamp with you; it’s easy to get caught admiring the fading light off in the distance and then find yourself a mile or so away from the car in the dark—we speak of this from experience :).

Tower Arch

If you’d like to get off the main road and away from the crowds, Tower Arch is a great destination. An eight-mile drive down the well-maintained, unpaved Salt Valley Road takes you to the Klondike Bluffs parking lot and the trailhead for Tower Arch. The beginning of the trail is steep, then levels off as you hike through rock formations and a small area of sand dunes, following cairns most of the way. Listed as a difficult trail on the NPS website, we’d consider the 3.4-mile roundtrip hike more of a moderate trek through an amazing landscape. And Tower Arch is pretty spectacular, too.

Tower Arch

Park Avenue

The trailhead for this hike is at the first parking area you’ll come to on your left when driving into the park from the visitor center. The trail is an easy, .9-mile hike one way. From the Park Avenue parking area, you’ll descend about 300 feet in elevation as you walk through a beautiful canyon. Continue following the dry wash to reach the park road at Courthouse Towers. Some hikers arrange for a shuttle driver to pick them up here and drive them back to their car. Alternatively, you can retrace your path for a 1.8-mile round trip. The trail is usually crowded, but it’s still worth doing.

Petroglyphs in the park

One of the finest petroglyph panels we’ve seen is in Arches National Park along the trail to Delicate Arch. Fight the urge to charge forward toward the arch and skip this site; it’s definitely worth the extra time. The Ute rock art panel is about 300 years old and a short walk from the trailhead parking lot. Watch for the sign along the trail and take the short detour to see this magnificent site.

Petroglyph panel on the way to Delicate Arch

Camping

Devils Garden Campground, 18 miles from the park entrance, is the only campground in the park. You can reserve one of its 51 sites up to six months in advance at www.recreation.gov for dates between March 1 and October 31. The rest of the year, campsites are on a first-come, first-served basis. Go to the park’s camping web page for the latest information about camping at Arches.

Backpacking is also an option; permits are required, and you must get them in person up to seven days in advance at the visitor center. Check out this site for more information about backpacking.

Where to stay

The town of Moab is a five-minute drive south of the park. It has many hotels, and given the popularity of the area, it seems there are a couple of new ones each time we visit. Two pieces of advice: expect to pay higher-than-normal rates, especially from spring to fall, and book early; Moab is a popular place. We’ve stayed at the Hampton Inn in Moab several times and have no complaints. For up-to-date listings of places to stay, check out sites such as TripAdvisor and Expedia. You might also consider looking for a house to rent on Airbnb or VRBO; a couple of years ago, we rented a house close to downtown with another couple and enjoyed having the extra space and the relaxed feel of staying in a home for a few days.

Where to eat

The restaurant scene constantly evolves in Moab. For simple, casual dining we recommend Zax (pizza buffet plus full menu) or Moab Brewery. Both will likely be crowded, so adjust your expectations regarding wait times. If you aren’t traveling with children, consider going straight to the bar areas of these restaurants; this usually works for us as there are often a couple of empty seats available even when there’s a long wait list for a table.

Moab has a food truck park right in the downtown area at 39 W 100 N, which is a dining option with an outdoor vibe. A half of a block away is the stand-alone food truck Quesadilla Mobilla. According to online reviews, Quesadilla Mobilla is supposed to be the best place to eat in Moab. We can’t say for sure because the one time we tried to eat there, the line was so long we gave up and found a less-crowded vendor in the food truck park. If you’re more patient than we are—most people are—you might want to check out their famous quesadillas.

Other attractions close to Arches NP

It’s worth your time to visit the Information Center in downtown Moab to learn about other places to see and activities to do in the area. They’re open seven days a week, 9:00 am to 5;00 pm, except Christmas and Thanksgiving; you’ll find them on the town’s main drag at, 25 E Center Street. You can also go to their website for more information. While there are countless adventure opportunities in the area, we have a few favorites you might want to check out: Canyonlands National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park, the Hidden Valley hike, petroglyph hunting, and the Corona Arch hike.

Double Arch at sunset

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