Arches National Park: Gateway to Another World

arches national park

With more than 2,000 stone arches carved out of the desert by the elements, Arches National Park is a magical place to visit. This protected natural area on the Colorado Plateau contains the world’s largest concentration of natural sandstone arches. These fascinating geological features and stunning desert scenery draw over a million people to Arches National Park every year.

Although it’s a relatively small national park, visiting Arches and the gateway town of Moab still requires some planning and preparation. This article covers all the essential information you need to start planning your trip to this otherworldly environment.

Arches National Park History

Humans have occupied the area that is now Arches National Park for around 12,000 years. Many tribes and peoples have called the area home, including the Ancestral Puebloans, Fremont, Ute, Paiute, Hopi, Navajo, and Zuni.

Spanish missionaries passed through the area in 1775, but the first Euro-Americans to settle on the land were part of the Mormon Elk Mountain Mission. The Mormons attempted settlement in 1855 but abandoned the area soon after. Around 20 years later, farmers, ranchers, and prospectors began settling in the Riverine Valley nearby. They marveled at the natural beauty and incredible rock formations, and word quickly spread about the region’s potential as a tourist destination.

It wasn’t until the 1920s that the National Park Service began showing interest in the land. Government investigators began examining the area and exploring its potential. The park service began seeking national monument status, but their efforts were shot down by Interior Secretary Hubert Work, working under President Calvin Coolidge.

Several years later, in 1929, President Herbert Hoover created Arches National Monument by signing a presidential proclamation. At the time, the monument consisted of two separate sections that were relatively small. President Franklin D. Roosevelt enlarged the protected area in 1938 and allowed new facilities to develop the region’s budding tourism industry.

Arches officially became a national park on 12 November 1971, when President Richard Nixon signed a bill from Congress into law. Since then, the park has grown significantly in popularity and welcomes around 1.6 million visitors each year.

arches national park

Key Facts about Arches National Park

Size: 119 square miles (308 km2)

Number of visitors: 1.6 million per year

Established on: 12 April 1929 (national monument), 12 November 1971 (national park)

Number of official hiking trails: 16

Highest point: 5,653 feet (1,723 m) at Elephant Butte

Lowest point: 4,085 feet (1,245 m) at the Visitor Center

Other interesting facts:

  • With over 2,000 sandstone arches, Arches National Park has the world’s largest concentration of these fascinating rock formations.
  • Delicate Arch is the park’s most iconic formation and is featured on Utah’s license plate.
  • The park is located on the Colorado Plateau and is considered a high desert region.
  • Some of the arches are very fragile, and visitors are no longer allowed near them. Wall Arch (one of the larger arches in the park) fell in 2008.
  • Landscape Arch is the park’s longest arch. It has a light opening measuring 306 feet (93.3 m) across. The arch is one of the longest stone spans in the world and is at risk of falling.
  • Double Arch South is the park’s tallest arch. It has a vertical light opening measuring 112 feet (34.1 meters).
  • There are 186 species of birds in the park, including threatened species like the Bald Eagle and Mexican Spotted Owl.
  • The park has 483 plant species, including the rare Canyonlands Biscuitroot.
  • There are 52 mammal species, six amphibian species, six fish species, and 21 reptile species in Arches. All but two of the fish species are endangered.
  • Arches National Park is a very dry environment that only receives between 6 and 8 inches (152-203 mm) of annual precipitation.

stone arch in arches national park

Climate and Weather

Located in a high desert region on the Colorado Plateau, Arches National Park experiences four main seasons and wide temperature fluctuations. No matter the season, the temperature can vary by 40°F (22°C) in a single day.

You can read more about what kinds of weather conditions to expect in each season below.

Summer (June to early September)

Summers in Arches are scorching and often marked by monsoon thunderstorms in the afternoons. The monsoon season runs from July to early September and brings the risk of flash floods. Temperatures in the summer frequently soar to 100°F (38°C) or higher during the day, making it uncomfortable to explore the park. Overnight, the temperatures drop to the 60s Fahrenheit (15° to 20°C).

Fall (mid-September to October)

Fall is a very pleasant season in Arches National Park. Skies are typically clear, and daytime highs average 60º to 80º F (15° to 27°C). Lows in the fall average 30º to 50º F (-1° to 10°C), so you’ll need to bring some warmer layers.

Winter (November to March)

Wintertime brings cooler temperatures that often dip below freezing overnight. Snow is most likely from November through February, but you may see occasional flurries in March. High temperatures in the winter average 30° to 50°F (-1° to 10°C), and lows average 0° to 20°F (-17° to -6°C). While mountainous areas nearby may see heavy snowfall, this is unusual in the park.

Spring (April to May)

Spring temperatures and conditions are very similar to the fall. You should expect warm, sunny days and cool nights. Trails begin to thaw out, and more visitors trickle in as the temperatures rise. The spring thaw also brings wildflowers, which you can see popping up through the desert soil.

When to Visit

Arches National Park and most of its hiking trails remain open year-round. As a result, you can visit this gorgeous natural area any time of year.

The most popular times to visit are between late March and October. Spring and fall are the best times to visit for most people since the temperatures are mild and perfect for exploring the great outdoors. These seasons feature numerous events and activities, including ranger-led programs and campfire talks.

Winter is the least popular time of year to visit Arches and lacks ranger-led walks and programs. If you’re looking to escape the crowds and want to see the iconic rock formations dusted with fresh snow, November to March is a fantastic time to visit. Even small amounts of ice and snow have been known to shut down some local trails and roads, so you’ll want to remain flexible in your plans if you decide to visit during the winter.

Courthouse Towers at Arches National Park

Recommended Gear

Visiting Arches National Park doesn’t require any special equipment. You should be good to go with standard outdoor gear that’s appropriate for the season.

Take a look at our comprehensive Day Hiking Checklist for a list of gear items to consider bringing with you for a day of exploring Arches. You can also view our Desert Hiking article for additional gear tips and advice about hiking in arid places.

If you’re planning a winter visit and want to do some hiking, make sure to add trekking poles and traction devices to your packing list. Trails in Arches can become slippery from ice and snow during the winter months, so these items will help you keep your balance. More tips about winter hiking are available in our detailed post.

What to Do in Arches National Park

Whether you’re planning to visit Arches for just a few hours or for several days, here are the top things to do in and around the park.

Hiking and Backpacking

Hiking is one of the most popular activities that visitors to Arches National Park enjoy. Most hiking trails remain open year-round, but the best time of year to hit the trails is in the spring and fall when temperatures are mild.

You can also go backpacking in Arches if you are up for a challenge, have previous backpacking experience, and have solid outdoor navigation skills. This high desert environment has rough terrain and very limited water sources, so you’ll need to carry everything you need with you. It’s essential to understand and comply with all of the park’s regulations since the desert ecosystem and its geologic features are highly sensitive.

Permits cost US$7 and are issued in person at the Backcountry Permit Office up to seven days before the start date of your trip. The office is located two miles south of Moab. More information on backpacking in the park and on public lands nearby is available from the National Park Service.

Whether you’re planning a short day hike or a multi-day excursion, make sure to check out our Desert Hiking article for tips on hiking in this unique environment.

Best Hikes in Arches National Park

  • Delicate Arch: Although the trail to the iconic Delicate Arch is only 3 miles (4.8 km) long, it’s considered moderate to challenging due to the steep terrain and minimal shade. Most of the trail is slickrock, or smooth wind-polished rock. The path can remain icy through the early spring, so use caution and consider bringing traction devices. You should also make sure to bring plenty of water – at least 2 quarts (2 liters) per person.
  • Double Arch Trail: At only 0.6 miles (1 km), this easy out-and-back trail is accessible to almost all visitors. The trail is mostly flat with a gravel surface and takes you to Double Arch – a formation with two nearly symmetrical rock arches. Hikers can easily combine this trail with the Windows Loop below.
  • Windows Loop and Turret Arch Trail: This easy trail is 1.2 miles (1.9 km) long and is an excellent choice for visitors with limited time in the park. In about 45-60 minutes, you’ll get to see stunning rock formations, including Turret Arch, Double Arch, and Parade of the Elephants. You can also take in views of the surrounding mountains framing the sandstone arches.
  • Devils Garden Primitive Trail: This 7.8-mile (12.6-km) trail is one of the longest in the park and is considered difficult. You’ll need about 4 hours to hike this route and should prepare for scrambling on slickrock, uneven surfaces, and narrow ledges with exposure. Hikers on the Primitive Trail will see gorgeous desert scenery and numerous arches, including Double O Arch. The National Park Service recommends avoiding this trail when conditions are wet or snowy, and there are occasionally seasonal closures.
  • Fiery Furnace: Experienced hikers looking for a unique challenge will enjoy the chance to explore Fiery Furnace. To do this hike, you’ll need to obtain a permit or join a ranger-guided trip. The trail consists of winding, maze-like passages through narrow sandstone corridors, requiring good physical fitness and navigation skills. The loop is only 1.7 miles (2.7 km) long but should not be underestimated.
  • Landscape Arch Trail: Hikers on this trail will get to see the park’s longest arch. With a light opening measuring 306 feet (93.3 m) across, Landscape Arch is one of the longest stone spans in the world. The hike to Landscape Arch is an easy out-and-back trail that’s only 1.9 miles (3.1 km) long. Since it takes less than an hour to complete, the hike is a great choice for visitors with time constraints.
  • Park Avenue Trail: If you’ve already seen the park’s iconic arches and are looking for a different kind of scenery, Park Avenue Trail is a perfect option. The trail is 2 miles (3.2 km) long and is considered easy to moderate in difficulty. As you hike through the valley, you can see sandstone cliffs and spires towering above you.
  • Tower Arch Trail: Located in the remote Klondike Bluffs section of Arches National Park, Tower Arch Trail is a rugged hike that will take you to lesser-known parts of the park. At 2.6 miles (4.2 km), the trail is moderate but can be strenuous on hot summer days. The trail tends to see less traffic than many other top hikes in the park, making it an ideal choice for visitors seeking a more secluded outing. To get to the trail, you’ll need to drive on some unpaved roads, which can be hazardous in wet conditions.

Desert Sky at Delicate Arch

Camping

There is only one campground in Arches National Park. Devils Garden Campground is 18 miles (29 km) from the park entrance and has 51 sites. The campground offers various facilities, including drinking water, grills, picnic tables, flush toilets, and pit-style toilets. RVs are allowed, but there are no electrical hookups.

Standard campsites are available for reservation up to six months in advance between 1 March and 31 October. Sites are booked months in advance, so we recommend making your reservations well ahead of your planned trip. Of the 51 sites at Devils Garden Campground, 25 remain open between November and February and operate on a first-come, first-served basis.

Biking

Regular bikes and electric bikes are permitted on all paved and unpaved roads in Arches National Park, making it an excellent place to enjoy cycling. Mountain bikes are highly recommended on unpaved roads. There are also fantastic opportunities for road biking and mountain biking in the area around Moab, with routes available for all skill levels.

Rock Climbing and Canyoneering

The unique geological features made of desert sandstone make for phenomenal rock climbing and canyoneering. Certain areas within the park allow climbing, and there are tons of places to enjoy this exciting pastime outside the park’s boundaries in the surrounding area. The National Park Service encourages climbers in Arches to register by obtaining a free permit at the self-register kiosk, located next to the visitor center. Rock climbing in many parts of the park is forbidden, so make sure to check the policies beforehand and only climb in designated areas.

Canyoneering in Arches requires a permit for each route. Lost Spring Canyon and Fiery Furnace are two of the most popular routes in the park and perfect places to enjoy this adventure sport.

Scenic Drives

If you have very limited time or are visiting on a scorching summer day, you can enjoy Arches’ stunning scenery from your vehicle. In 1.5 hours, you can see some of the park’s longest arches by driving to The Windows Section or drive to Delicate Arch Viewpoint to take a look at the park’s most famous landmark. If you have more time, consider doing both of the above routes and add a 30-minute walk to North Window or Double Arch.

Stargazing and Night Sky Photography

After dark, the desert sky becomes ablaze with starlight from thousands of stars, especially on nights with no moon. This beautiful sight makes Arches National Park a popular destination for stargazing and night photography.

You can go stargazing on your own or join a ranger-led program. Some of the top places to stargaze are Balanced Rock Picnic Area, The Windows Section, Garden of Eden Viewpoint, and Panorama Point.

night sky full of stars at arches national park

Where to Stay

There is no lodging inside the park. If you want to stay inside park boundaries, your only option is camping.

Outside of the park, the best place to stay is in Moab, Utah. At only 5 miles (8 km) from the park entrance, Moab is the most convenient place to stay and provides easy access to both Arches and Canyonlands National Park.

Moab offers a wide variety of lodging options ranging from affordable inns and hostels to high-end resorts. Lodging in Moab tends to fill up quickly during the high season, so make your reservations ahead of time if you’re planning to visit between April and October.

The town is a hub for outdoor adventures, with excellent hiking, mountain biking, rock climbing, four-wheeling, and rafting all within reach. You’ll find many interesting things to do and places to go in Moab, including shops, bookstores, art galleries, restaurants, bars, coffee shops, gear stores, and more. Some of these close for the winter, but many remain open year-round.

How to Get There and Getting Around

The best way to get around Arches National Park is by car, as there is no public transportation or shuttle service inside the park. The park only has one entrance, located 5 miles (8 km) north of Moab on US 191.

If you’re planning to fly into the Moab area, the closest airports are:

  • Canyonlands Field Airport (CNY) in Grand County, Utah – about 14 miles (22 km) north of the park entrance
  • Grand Junction Regional Airport (GJT) in Grand Junction, Colorado – about 110 miles (177 km) east of the park entrance
  • Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC) in Salt Lake City, Utah – about 230 miles (370 km) north of the park entrance

You can rent a car at any of these airports and then drive to the park. If you are interested in learning more about buses, trains, commercial van services, and taxis in the Moab area, you can visit the National Park Service’s website for more information.

Conclusion

Visiting Arches National Park for the first time feels almost like you’ve traveled to another planet. This magical place offers visitors unforgettable experiences any time of year – both day and night. From stargazing in the dark, quiet desert to watching the sunset illuminate Delicate Arch, you’ll never forget the incredible scenery in Arches National Park.

Did you enjoy this guide to Arches? Check out our other national park guides to start planning your next adventure.

 


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