The AFT Guide to Arches National Park

The geology on display in Arches National Park 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, and the majestic La Sal Mountains in the background.

For notes from our first visit to Arches National Park, see this post!

Where Arches National Park is located:

Arches is located in southeastern Utah, in a little paradise town called Moab.

Getting to Arches National Park:

The nearest major towns are Grand Junction, CO (1 hour 40 minutes) and Salt Lake City, UT (3 hours 40 minutes), both of which have large airports. There is no public transportation to the park—you’ll need a car for this one (or some steady hitching thumbs.)

Where to stay in and around Arches National Park:

The park operates one campground, Devils Garden. Reservations are essential from March through October. Outside those months, the sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis. There is also first-come, first-served BLM camping near the park. 

Moab has every kind of lodging your heart could desire. Reserve in advance for better deals, or to make sure you have a place at all during weekends in the high season.

How long to stay in Arches National Park:

Arches is tiny but mighty. You could spend just a half-day cruising around to the major sites, or several days hiking, climbing and getting maximum golden hour time. Taking in the wider Moab area, including Canyonlands, as well? You could spend months here, my friend. The sky is the limit.

When to go to Arches National Park:

Arches is scorching in July and August, and only mildly less scorching in June and September. Spring or fall visits can bring more pleasant temperatures and wildflowers—but they also bring heavy crowds and traffic. As is common in the desert, thunderstorms can descend quickly in late summer.

Trails remain open throughout the winter (barring unsafe conditions) and a winter visit can give you a chance to see the park dusted with snow. 

Special considerations:

The desert is an extremely fragile environment. Stay on established trails, hard rock or in sandy washes. The desert relies on biological soil crust (cryptobiotic soil) for plants to establish themselves. These crusts take decades to grow and many of them are hundreds of years old, but they can be crushed by a single step. If you see others going off trail, kindly let them know about the crust! A lot of people don’t realize there’s anything special about the soil and won’t have a clue what they’re destroying. 

Stay off the arches! Arches are fragile rock formations. To preserve them and for your own safety, don’t climb, walk or stand on them—not even if it would make an awesome picture. I know we’re preaching to the choir here, but you can be a national park warrior by helping others know and follow the rules too! 

Best for:

  • Hiking
  • Canyoneering
  • History
  • Scenery

Pair with:

Moab is an outdoorsy person’s paradise. Double up on national parks by visiting Canyonlands while you’re near. Mountain bikers rejoice in the area’s world-renowned slickrock trails. Paddle the Colorado River, or take a short detour to Dead Horse Point State Park or a longer one to Goblin Valley State Park. Colorado National Monument in Grand Junction (an hour and 40 minutes away) is break-taking and eminently worth visiting.

Activities:

Biking:

Biking is allowed in the park on all roads; bikes are not allowed on trails. Since traffic is often heavy, it might be harrowing to bike around the park, but if you’re up for it, it’s a good way to avoid parking stress.Outside the park boundaries, there are trails for bikers of every ability. Check for info. with the Moab Area Travel Council here.

Canyoneering:

There are several established canyoneering routes within the park. Climbing requires you to register first (permits are free.) Group sizes are limited, and everyone involved should be well-versed in Leave No Trace principles. 

Stargazing:

Arches is far from any major cities and the light pollution in the area is low, which makes this park a terrific place to stargaze. Sometimes rangers lead stargazing programs with special telescopes. Check the park’s calendar for events.

Fiery Furnace:

Fiery Furnace is a labyrinth of rock features that requires some squeezing, (nontechnical) climbing and scrambling to get through. To enter, you must first purchase a permit. Permits are offered for specific days, up to 7 days in advance. Children under 5 aren’t allowed. Getting lost inside the maze of fins is definite possibility, so don’t go if you don’t know what you’re doing!

The other option for visiting Fiery Furnace (and the best option for first-timers) is to join a ranger-led hike. Guided hikes generally run from May through September. You can get a ticket to join the morning hike up to 6 months in advance right here, or get a ticket for an afternoon hike in person at the visitor center up to 7 days in advance. Again, no kids under 5.

Hiking:

Hiking is the best and most accessible way to experience Arches National Park. There are just over a dozen established trails, and several options for backcountry camping if you’re up for a bigger adventure (find info. on backpacking in the park here.)

Here are a few options:

Park Avenue:

A canyon lined with towering stone monoliths Nefertiti, the Three Gossips and more, this 2-mile trail is a good introduction to the park.

The Windows:

An easy paved loop takes you past 3 arches: North Window, South Window and Turret Arch. Part of the trail is accessible for wheelchairs/strollers. 

Balanced Rock:

Exactly what it sounds like, Balanced Rock is an iconic Arches sight. You can see it from the road, or walk a 0.3-mile loop around it.

Sand Dune Arch:

Less of a hike than a short jaunt from the parking lot, this trail leads to an arch between giant fins that form a canyon-like area. This is a shady spot and a great option for a hot day. It’s also very sandy, making it a good spot to head if you have kids that just want to play around for a while.

Landscape Arch:

An easy 0.75-mile trail leads to one of the longest natural arches in the world. 

Devil’s Garden:

Beyond Landscape Arch, you can continue on a more difficult trail (it’s a 7.2 mile loop if you complete the whole thing.) Stick to the main trail to see Double O Arch, or take spur trails to Tunnel, Pine Tree, Partition, Navajo, or Black Arches.

Past Double O, you can continue a half mile to Dark Angel (a giant spire), return the way you came, or loop back on the Primitive Trail, which will take you down Fin Canyon.

Delicate Arch:

Arches’ most iconic view can be reached via a 1.5-mile (one-way) trip up steep slickrock to Delicate Arch. The trail can be tricky to find in places; follow the cairns and other hikers (you’re unlikely to be making the trip alone.) Just before reaching the arch, you’ll traverse a fairly narrow ledge with steep drop-offs on one side.

Sunset is the most popular time to be at Delicate Arch and makes for beautiful views. Just know there will likely be some (or many, depending on the time of year) people watching with you.

We had no trouble doing this hike with a 2- and 5-year-old, but it is a fairly strenuous climb. In front of the arch, there is a deep crater in the rock, so keep little ones close. (Keep water bottles close or attached, too! We saw several down in the basin of the crater that had obviously rolled away from their owners.)

Bringing Kids:

Arches is an easy-to-visit and very kid-friendly park. Our kids loved the rock formations and had a great time climbing around on slick rock. The only major issue you might run into is heat. If you’re visiting during summer, be prepared with loads of water, sunscreen, hats, sunglasses, and long sleeves and pants if you can stand them. Seek out shade or the indoors during the hottest hours of the day. 

Hikes to Delicate Arch or within the Devil’s Garden area past Landscape Arch are only suitable for kids if you’re sure-footed and comfortable hiking with them. For some kids, these hikes will be an absolute blast (ours loved them!), but if your kids aren’t used to hiking, these might be too ambitious. 

FAQ’s

The following are questions we received from our followers about visiting Arches National Park.

Any tips on taking pictures in a place that is uber-photographed?

From David:

I’ve wrestled with versions of this question for a long time. Most of the inspiring places we visit in national parks have inspired thousands of other photographers before me. All the iconic postcard pictures have been taken, and frankly, if you’re willing to hang around for the good light and sometimes fight a dozen or so other photographers for “the spot” you can get those same pictures yourself. The conclusion I’ve come to personally is to try and accept these places for what they are now, which is basically an outdoor museum. The spectacle and the collective experience are part of the landscape now, and that’s not a bad thing. I’ve looked up to photographers like Thomas Struth, Mitch Epstien, Rebecca Norris Webb, Martin Parr and others who manage to capture the human emotion and all the complication that is inherent in visiting public lands or any public attraction for that matter. These places have only become more interesting as subjects since they got popular. I just try to look at what’s going on around me and capture it without editing out too much. Don’t be afraid to get people in the frame! Sometimes they’re the most interesting part.

Do you have any tips for taking an infant?

The biggest thing to worry about with a baby is heat! Keep him or her well covered against the sun, take breaks in a cool place during the hottest hours of the day, and make sure baby has plenty of liquids.

If, on the other hand, you’re visiting when it’s not very hot, you can just strap baby on and go! I’d avoid bringing a stroller, because of the crowds and because there really aren’t many places to use one.

Where’s an alternative camp spot when they are full? Most are filthy in Moab!

We camped on BLM land and it was great, but the conditions probably depend on the time of year and how heavily the camping areas are being used. Breaks our hearts to hear some aren’t being taken care of!

Our favorite resources for finding free camping are https://freecampsites.net/ and the AllStays app.

Where’s the best non-crowded place to go?

Longer hikes will get you some solitude, as well as any trails in the backcountry. If you can get a permit or go with a ranger-guided tour, the Fiery Furnace area will get you away from the crowds as well.

You can also try your luck arriving at the park very early, sticking around late, going on a weekday during the school year, or visiting in the winter.

Do you recommend using hiking poles if carrying a baby on your back? [This question isn’t directly related to Arches, but it was asked in conjunction with visiting this park, so we thought we’d answer it here anyway!]

Yes! Being able to distribute your weight when you’re carrying extra is HUGE. Poles can help take pressure off your hips and knees, and they’re also really useful for balance when you’ve got a baby throwing you off.

Advice From Our Readers:

“If you don’t want to hike Delicate Arch, go to the lower viewpoint and do that small hike.”

“Bring your own sand toys for Sand Arch.”

“If you like dirt roads, Tower Arch hike is awesome and doesn’t have as many crowds.”

“Be prepared for the gradual steep incline to see Delicate Arch. Take lunch for a picnic at the top.”

“Go early spring or late fall. The park has closed from too many visitors in the summer.”

“Get there early!! Even in the busy season, if you’re in the park before 10 it’s fairly empty.”

“Don’t skip Canyonlands when you’re in Moab!”

Final tips:

As a small and heavily visited park, try to live extra lightly here. Be patient with parking, avoid peak hours and dates (see here for times of peak visitation), embrace the communal spirit of hikes, stay on trail, and be kind to others and to the landscape. Focus on what a geological wonder it is that you and these arches exist in the same moment—it’s absolutely incredible!

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