Arches National Park is one of the shining jewels of Utah, offering the most astounding and diverse natural red rock formations in the United States.
Situated on top of a huge underground salt bed, Arches was formed by a combination of extreme temperatures, shifting unstable earth below, and 100 million years of erosion from above. As a result, it has the highest concentration of natural arches in the world, with more than 2,000 catalogued arches ranging in size from 3 to 306 feet in length. All of this and other geological and historical information about the park can be found in an excellent brochure.
Write to or call:
PO Box 907
Moab, UT 84532
How to Get There
Arches National Park is located on Utah Highway 191, five miles north of Moab. The closest places commercial airlines serve are Grand Junction, Colorado, and Salt Lake City, Utah. From Salt Lake City, Alpine Air (801-575-2839) and Bighorn Express bus (435-587-3061) provide transportation to Moab.
Although Amtrak and Greyhound both serve Green River, over 50 miles from Moab, you will soon come to realize that the only practical way to get around here is by car. Even though taxi and shuttle services can be arranged, you should face up to the fact that without your own wheels, you’re not going to be able to do what you want when you want to.
The best advice is to get together with a couple of friends and rent a vehicle from whatever major thoroughfare you’re starting from. Don’t forget that you have to be at least 25 to rent a vehicle in the United States, if you’re not, they may not let you have a car or charge you double the going rate.
Where To Stay
The only campground Arches National Park offers is at the far end of the main park road, near the Devil’s Garden Trailhead. This site offers the only set of restrooms in the park besides those at the Visitors Center. Remember that! They don’t take reservations, but if your heart is set on staying in the park overnight, check with the park rangers first thing in the morning to see if there’s room. There’s also the nearby:
Arch View RV Park Campground
PO Box 1406, Moab, Utah 84532, 1-800-813-MOAB (6622)
Peacefully located just 10 minutes north of Moab. General Store, Texaco Mini Mart, Laundry, Showers, 50 pull-thru w/ full hook-ups and 28 tent areas.
The best place to stay, for several reasons, is the city of Moab, only five miles south of the park entrance. Despite the droves of German tourists dressed like cowboys and the lack of a stiff drink, this town has the only night life, restaurants, and “bars” for miles. Any of the many campgrounds here are acceptable and relatively cheap, and almost everything in Moab is reachable by foot or by 5 minute car ride. On the main drag through Moab, you’ll see many different ads for RV campgrounds and motels. Go with your instincts and pocketbook. One old standby is:
Moab Valley RV & Campground
1773 N. Hwy 191, Moab Utah 84532. Phone & Fax: (435) 259-4469
Open March 1 through October 31. They have small tent sites, picnic tables and BBQs, but they don’t allow pets.
Moab also offers a public swimming pool, a movie theater, coffee shops, and good grocery stores. Strangely enough, there is even a brewery, but since it is hard to get your hands on any kind of alcohol in Utah because of the Mormon majority, it is only open limited hours. Bottoms up early!
If you want to rent off road vehicles, rafts for the calm river nearby, or mountain bikes, you should also do this in Moab. I would recommend renting mountain bikes and taking advantage of this world-renowned biking destination.
Since mountain biking through Arches National Park is only allowed in some places, you should take advantage of the highly celebrated slickrock trails just outside Moab. Uniquely suited to mountain bikes, the trails are hard, but easy to follow. Many of the old mining roads are accessible on your own, but I would highly recommend hiring one of the professional outfitters and guides available in Moab. The one that I’ve found to be excellent for all skill levels is:
Kaibab Mountain Bikes
391 South Main Street, Moab, (435) 259-7723.
By going mountain biking with a guide, you’ll also get some interesting background into the area’s history, flora, fauna, and geology. If you’re lucky, your guide will even point out where Thelma and Louise drove their car off a cliff or a sleeping black widow spider. Even if you’ve never gone mountain biking before, you should give it a shot. It’s a fast, fun, and really exciting ride in the most beautiful surroundings you could find.
Before You Go Into The Park…
Before you start exploring, there are a few simple things to remember:
Since there is no food or gas in the park, you should have fueled and stocked up in Moab, situated five miles south of the park entrance.
Make sure you have your camera, plenty of film, sunscreen, and a sturdy sun hat before venturing out into the heat of the Utah sun. Temperatures can reach up to 111°F in the summer, so you will get dehydrated. It is crucial that you bring as much water with you as you can, at least a gallon. Drink it! Also be aware that any kind of shade is scarce here, so always wear lots of sunscreen and a hat. Always.
Take heed and be warned that the mosquitoes are vicious here year round, so bring bug spray and use it if you don’t want to look like a smallpox victim. Also, make sure that when you enter and exit out of your car, tent, or motel room, that you don’t bring any of those critters inside with you. We all know that the most terrifying sound in the world is a mosquito buzzing by your ear just as you’re about to nod off to sleep.
A Word About Native Animals
Although most of the mammals in the park are nocturnal by nature, keep your eyes out. You might be lucky enough to spy mule deer, kit fox, jackrabbits, cottontails, kangaroo rats, and golden eagles. Of course, the further you get away from the roads and other people, the better your chances are for a magic moment with a local animal.
Hiking and What-Not
Although you can see a lot of high-quality stuff through your car window, some of the best geological features are only reachable by foot. In the following section, I’ll outline some of the best things to see and do within the park. Whether you have a day or a week, I’m sure you’ll enjoy whatever you manage to take on.
All Arches’ trails are clearly marked by creepy little piles of rocks called cairns. Don’t worry though, as far as I know the Blair Witch hasn’t made it out this far west yet, so don’t be freaked out. The sandstone is called “slickrock” and is generally pretty stable, but it can sometimes crumble or be very slippery, hence the name. Also remember that it’s often much easier to climb up than it is to climb down. Don’t get rimrocked!
Be sure not to stray from the trails. Not only because you could get lost, but because we need to protect the fragile cryptobiotic crust. This soil protects the land from erosion, provides nutrients to plants and animals, and absorbs precious moisture. Don’t step on it! Also be careful not to disturb the bright wildflowers that bloom from April until July. Enjoy them from a distance.
The first thing you should do upon entering Arches is stop at the Visitor’s Center. Ask the Park Rangers about any special programs going on during your stay, and also about any trail closures or inclement weather. You should grab a detailed map, use the indoor rest rooms, grab some postcards, and also watch an amusingly outdated slide show on the park asking you to “sniff the silence”. It will bring a grin to your face, I guarantee it.
Once you get your maps and supplies from the Visitor’s Center, you’ll head up a steep first bend, following the two-lane road. After a couple of miles, you’ll see the beginning of the red rock formations that make this place famous. Of course, they’ve all been named appropriately for your convenience. The Organ, Sheep Rock, and the Three Gossips greet you first. Then you’ll drive through the Petrified Dunes, and make a photo stop at Balanced Rock. You’ve probably seen this formation in a ton of movies and car commercials. Take a picture, as it won’t stay balanced forever. If you’d like, you can do a short easy hike to the base of the formation, just hope the boulder doesn’t choose that exact moment to topple down!
Follow the road towards the Windows section by taking a right at the fork in the road. You can do a couple of short hikes from the parking lot. One is a loop hike to North and South Windows, and Turret Arch. The total distance is about three quarters of a mile, but remember to take lots of water even if you aren’t doing strenuous walking. Another little climb up to Double Arch from the Windows parking lot yields great views of the park. Called the Cove of Caves, you’ll be able to sit underneath one of the largest double arches in the world, one 86 feet wide, the other 144 feet wide. It’s spectacular up there, but be careful climbing back down.
No matter how you decide to plan your day, you want to make sure that you get to Delicate Arch for the sunset. Check with the park rangers for the exact time of sundown and then calculate how long you’ll need to reach the arch’s summit from the trailhead. Park at Wolfe Ranch. From here, it is about a mile and a half up. You’ll hike on a well-marked gradual slope of sandstone, with a fun and sheer last 500 feet around a tight bend. Don’t do this if you’re afraid of heights. When you make your final turn you’ll be graced with the presence of the Arch so beautiful, the people of Utah decided to put it on their license plate. Grab a seat or a picture inside the seemingly fragile arch before clearing out and getting ready for the fireworks at sunset. An electric hum eclipses the din of humans, as everyone automatically quiets. The sun is like paint being poured down into the valley and across the panorama behind the Arch.
At the far end of the park, about 18 miles from the entrance, you’ll find Devil’s Garden. Here you should take the trail leading you to the second largest arch in the world: Landscape Arch. Along the way, you’ll pass short side trails leading to Tunnel Arch and Pine Tree Arch, both aptly named. Continuing on this trail, about 1.3 miles after Landscape Arch you’ll see Double O Arch with it’s two oval-shaped holes. From here you can either follow the trail back to the trailhead, or take the more difficult “primitive” trail back. Overall, this will add about one mile to your hike and either way, you’ll see beautiful formations. I recommend the “primitive” trail, as it allows you to get a little further away from the other visitors. You might even see some animals on the prowl if you go at dawn or dusk.
By completing these major trails, you’ll have spent several days exploring the park. If you like guided hikes, however, check in at the Visitor’s Center to see if the Park Rangers are leading their hikes through Fiery Furnace. Since the narrow, twisty passageways in this area can be confusing and somewhat disorienting, you must follow the Ranger’s lead or buy a special permit to enter the area. It is definitely worth it to try to get in on one of their hikes. You’ll learn a lot about the area and get a chance to ask any questions which may have brewed during your stay. Reservations can be made up to 48 hours in advance to the day you would like to go.
All in all, Arches is a real stunner. If you’re careful to take care of yourself while you’re inside, you will have a bunch of vivid memories to take back out with you. Enjoy it and be sure to take advantage of this raw natural phenomenon.
©1999 Emma Beyn. Reproduction of this work and photographic images in whole or in part, including reproduction in electronic media, without the expressed written permission of the author is prohibited.
Images by Emma Beyn