Our tips and tricks for spending a day in Arches National Park
Maybe it’s because it was the first official national park we visited on our trip, but Arches National Park has left a unforgettable impression on us. Located just about ten minutes driving from Moab, Utah, it has more than 2.000 natural arches and apparently, not all of them have been discovered yet. We were here for just a day but if you plan well, you can see all the highlights that Arches has to offer. Here is how you should spend a day in Arches National Park.
We woke up early and drove up to the park from Moab, the sun had just risen and made the rocks that surround Moab even more colorful. After entering the park, our first stop was at Balanced Rock, where we had breakfast, while the sun continued to rise higher and higher above us. As it still was quite early, there were almost no other tourists which was a great way to take pictures without the usual crowds. I mean, look at that, isn’t it awesome? I could look at Balanced Rock forever, waiting for it to fall down…
We decided to head all the way up north into the park first, to Devil’s Garden where there are plenty of arches and a good hike. In the park brochure this 2-3 hour roundtrip hike is described at strenuous, however we thought it was moderate. If you don’t like heights, then this probably isn’t the hike for you as you walk along narrow ledges with steep drop offs at both sides. If you love hiking, definitely make this one a priority!
The first arch we passed was Landscape Arch, one of the thinner ones. Back in the 90’s a huge chunk of rock broke off this arch, making it one of the more delicate ones in the park. Rangers predict the rest of the arch may come down one day, too, therefore the trail underneath it is closed.
Further up after some climbing we got to a ledge with the most stunning views of Arches and the area around it. The most interesting was the contrast between landscapes: the dry and desert like scenery of Arches versus the snowcapped La Sal Mountains in the background. As we were early in the season, they still had plenty of snow on them, which made it even more special!
After hiking for about 1.5 hours, we eventually reached Double O Arch which was pretty cool, having two arches on top of one another. Even though it may not seem very big, it is actually quite large, as we could easily stand on top of the lower arch. The trail continued a bit further up but since we wanted to do more that day, we decided to head back out the same way we came, instead of taking the primitive trail back. On the way back we also visited Partition Arch, Pine Tree Arch and Tunnel Arch, all stunning in their own ways.
The next stop was at The Windows where there are some more massive arches, such as Turret Arch and the North and South Windows Arch. It was very crowded and people were standing in line to take pictures, so we didn’t spend too much time there. Sometimes getting away from the crowds is the better option. Apparently, one of the Indiana Jones movies was shot here at Double Arch but we didn’t recognize it…
In the early afternoon it got too hot so we went back to the campsite in Moab, also because we needed to make mountain bike rental arrangements for the next day. Talking about campsites, those in the park were fully booked (they go by reservation only) so we stayed at Up the Creek campground in downtown Moab. Their showers were nice and refreshing and their sites are quite shady, which is a plus with the heat. So I’d definitely recommend staying there if you missed out on the park spots, like we did. In case you don’t want to camp, make sure to check out the best accommodations in Moab before you travel as accommodation is limited in high season!
In the late afternoon we went back to the park (the convenience of it being close to Moab) and first stopped at Park Avenue, an amazing row of rocks towering hundreds of feet into the sky and making a stunning landscape. We had no time to do the one way hike but it was well worth stopping here to take some pictures.
Our final stop of the day and the one we had been looking forward to most, was the one at Delicate Arch. The park brochure described the hike over as strenuous, though we thought it was pretty easy. Don’t hike during the middle of the day though because there is no shade and most of the trail goes over hot slick rock. Delicate Arch is the most picturesque arch in the park and gets thousands of visitors each year who want to see the sunset there. While hiking out, we noticed photographers sweating and scraping their way up, it turned out they carried about 30 kilos of cameras. I felt like a total amateur by then…
Upon arrival at Delicate Arch, we were amazed by the hundreds of people there, all wanting to take the one perfect shot of the sun reflecting on the arch. Luckily we were quite early (about 1.5 hrs before sunset) so we managed to get a good spot. You can easily walk over to the arch and pose for a picture, it will actually be a challenge to capture a good shot without anyone inside it. I just sat down though and enjoyed the view, trying to get that perfect shot. Sure, I am not a photographer but I still think the pictures worked out quite well. Upon walking back to the parking lot we had the most magnificent sunset and we left Arches behind, being very happy people to have experienced something extraordinary like this.
If you plan on spending a day in Arches National Park, try to stay away from the major sights during the middle of the day because it’s warm (barely any shade) and there will be many other tourists! We got up early and were among the first ones to arrive, and stayed late being among the last ones to leave. As the park is close to Moab, you can easily drive back there for lunch or a nap, if you feel like it.
The park can easily be seen in one day. There are no really long hiking trails so you can always do at least one or two shorter hikes during your visit. The park has one main road and several unpaved / 4WD roads, check with park services for their current conditions. At some places you can refill your water bottle but the only place with a shop is at the Visitors Center at the entrance, no food or drinks other than water are available throughout the park, so make sure to bring your own.
We tried to get into a guided Fiery Furnace hike, one of the main highlights, but it was already fully booked, two months before our trip. You can only access this maze of rocks on a guided hike or with someone who has a special permit, so unfortunately we couldn’t go there. I heard it’s really worth it though and would have loved to get out there… better luck next time!
I hope you enjoyed reading about our time and suggestions for how to spend a day in Arches National Park. Even though we saw many of them (not nearly 2.000, maybe just about 20) they didn’t bore me for one second and each one was fascinating one way or another. If you ever make it over to Utah, be sure not just to go to Bryce and Zion, try to make it over to Arches as well, you won’t be sorry! Also make sure to order your copy of Lonely Planet Utah for further trip planning!
Have you been to Arches National Park? Which was your favorite arch?
Want to read more? Check this blog about the best things to do in Moab by Photojeepers or any of the following We12travel posts:
– The best hikes in Zion National Park
– How to spend 24 hours in Bryce Canyon National Park
– How to beat the crowds at the Grand Canyon
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[This article was first published in July 2013 and updated and revised in July 2017]