National Park Number: 44 of 59
A visit to Arches is all about timing. This park is geographically small and receives over a million visitors per year; most will want to visit the same handful of sites, including Delicate Arch and the Windows, which means you’re likely to encounter at least a bit of a crowd at some point.
We don’t usually mind having lots of other people around—we’re happy to see so many people enjoying the parks—but it can definitely hamper a nature experience. Coming to Arches from the less-visited Canyonlands, we were struck by how much more trammeled this park looked: the trails are thoroughly tamped and huge swaths of cryptobiotic crust have been wiped out by social trails. More than probably any park we’ve visited, Arches' high visitor volume was very apparent.
And it’s no wonder so many people should want to visit: the geology on display here is just mind-boggling. The park is a wonderland of spires, fins, buttes and, of course, the eponymous arches, which are absolutely breathtaking to see in person. The scenery also includes rolling fields of petrified sand dunes, green valleys left over from the collapse of a massive underground salt deposit (of which more later), and the majestic La Sal Mountains in the background.
So visit, but time your visit right: come on a weekday during one of the winter months if possible, or hit the trails very early (also a good idea because this place gets baking hot in the summer.) The night sky is often beautifully clear in this area and some areas would make for great night hikes as long as you bring along a headlamp and watch your step. And if you take along a tripod, you should be able to get some stunning star pictures.
The other factor with timing is one you’ve already got in the bag, so congratulations ;). In a much longer sense, the wonders of Arches are fleeting and we’re lucky that we humans exist in the same geological moment so we can see them. Arches don’t last forever; in 1994, Landscape Arch lost literal tons of rock from its underside. 2008 saw the end of Wall Arch, and Ring Arch partially collapsed in 2014. Spanning dozens of feet as they do and supporting vast amounts of weight, the arches are quite fragile. The process that formed them is geologically pretty unusual: anciently, a sea covered this part of Utah; when it retreated, it left behind salt deposits. This happened over and over again—a sea growing over the area, then retreating back—and more and more salt collected. After the sea left for the last time, sediments gathered on top of the salts and eventually hardened into sandstone.
A fault running under the area caused uplift and the salt deposits gathered in the new lower elevation, forming a big dome. The uplift also cracked the sandstone, and water seeping through the cracks eventually dissolved the salts and caused the overlying sandstone to sink, creating Salt Valley (which runs through the middle of Arches.)
All this cracking and seeping created fins: long, thin sandstone formations that look exactly the way their name suggests. And this is the origin of arches: parts of these fins break away or erode, and sometimes the erosion happens in just the right way to form an arch. It’s a beautiful anomaly, a temporary wonder, and the unique geology of Arches has brought about the densest concentration of natural stone arches in the world.
We started our visit with the Park Avenue hike, which runs through a wash between sandstone buttes. From the trail, you can see the formations Nerfertiti, the Three Gossips, and the Tower of Babel. The rock walls soar above as you follow the canyon and though it’s only a mile, it’s a nice introduction to the park.
From there we headed to Sand Dune Arch, which turned out to be one of my favorites. The trail to it follows a narrow opening between large sandstone fins, leading through thick red sand to the arch, which hides between the cliffs. This was a shady hike that would be perfect for a hot day. But even in mild weather, it was delightful. Near Sand Dune Arch is Broken Arch, which isn’t really broken but does have a large crack at the top. On the trail, we ran into a friend of mine from high school—we love when the world proves small :).
Next we headed to the trailhead of Delicate Arch and headed up so we could catch sunset. The trail to the arch is pretty steep and leads over a slick rock mound, along a ledge in the sandstone, and to a large bowl in the butte. Delicate Arch is iconic, of course—everyone’s seen it and if you live in Utah, you’ve seen it a whole lot, on a good number of the license plates in the state.
But far from making Delicate Arch less impressive, its familiarity breeds almost a kind of comfort, a feeling that you know this spot, that this view is a part of you and that, cheesy at it sounds, you belong there looking at it.
You and many other people, because this is a popular sunset spot. The view for us was dotted with spectators, many of whom waited in a sort of informal line to have their picture taken beneath the arch. The sun set and cast its colors across the sandstone and David took pictures and the kids ate snacks and I tried to sketch the arch and it was all lovely.
We hiked down in the dark with a headlamp, had dinner and put the kids to bed, and on our way out of the park stopped at Balanced Rock to see it by light of the moon.
The next morning, both David’s and my feet had erupted in shooting pain: mine from an under-toenail blister I acquired at Havasupai that had subsequently swelled my big toe to double its normal size, David from what we suspect is tendinitis in his Achilles. It wasn’t a great formula for hiking, but we were determined to explore Devil’s Garden, so off we went. Devil’s Garden lies at the end of the park road and is a concentrated area of fins, spires and arches. Its most popular sight is Landscape Arch, the world’s largest at 190 feet. It’s thin and enormous and terribly impressive, definitely worth the hobble we performed to get there.
From Landscape Arch, we headed up the trail toward the Double O Arch. To keep hikers off the cryptobiotic crust, the trail leads mainly along sandstone fins, sometimes steeply, and the views of the surrounding rock are absolutely beautiful. Along the way to Double O, we passed Partition Arch and Navajo Arch, and none of the arches was any less impressive for us having seen more of them.
We took a break at Black Arch Overlook for snacks and to mourn our sorry feet, finished up the hike and limped back to the bus to drive to the visitor’s center to get Graham’s Jr. Ranger badge.
At this point we were pretty well ready to cry ourselves to sleep (don’t judge, we hurt), but we still hadn’t checked out one of Arches most famous areas: the Windows.
The Windows has the most accessible densely packed collection of arches and it is IMPRESSIVE. Though we weren’t up for a whole lot of walking, we took the trail around the Windows and Turret Arch, and watched the sunset behind Double Arch—so named because the legs of each arch have the same base (these arches were caused by downward erosion instead of the side-to-side erosion that formed most of the other arches.)
This park is just a stunner, start to finish. I hope you don't get sick of us being in love with every park; we honestly can't help it. And Utah's parks just go massively above and beyond in every way—they are PERFECT.