Hiking & Exploring Arches National Park – Moab, Utah
Updated: Mar 8
Utah has five national parks and we've been to all of them: Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park. But of all these national parks, we have been to Arches National Park numerous times, by ourselves or with family and friends. The park is a fun place to explore. Every time we go there, the unusual formations never stop to amaze. We have driven all over the park to see all the popular arches and formations, too many to name here. We also hiked to several arches not seen from the road.
The best time to visit Arches National Park is either in spring or fall, when the weather is not too hot. Summer heat in the desert is unbearable, if you are not used to it. In Spring, the desert flowers are in bloom while in the Fall, the golden colors of cottonwood trees among red rock formations are amazing, so you have a choice.
Arches National Park is located just to the northeast of Moab, Utah. The park has more than 2,000 known natural sandstone arches and countless other geological formations. Some are known to have collapsed over the years, one of which, Wall Arch, we have seen both before and after the collapse in 2008.
The park lies over layers of salt beds deposited over 300 million years ago, when a sea flowed onto the region in the Pennsylvanian Period. The water evaporated and layers of salt deposits from repeated flooding piled up over many millions of years. It was covered with debris, sandstone and sediments; over time, the debris was compressed into rocks, which pushed the salt aside. That is what created domes, cavities, faults and anticlines (upfolds of the earth).
Between 60 million and 10 million years ago, the accumulation of rocks on top of the salt deposits slowed and erosion began. Erosion stripped away more than 5,000 vertical feet of rock. Cracks began to open and support was weakened by groundwater seeping into cracks. The salt valley collapsed and arch formations, fins and sculpted rocks began to form. The results are what we can see in Arches National Park today. The area was created as a National Monument in 1929 and was upgraded to National Park in 1971.
Besides arches, there are other noteworthy sights to see in the park such as Petroglyphs. A wall of Petroglyphs can be found just off the main trail to Delicate Arch. They were created between 1650 and 1850. The horse and rider with the bighorn sheep and dog-like animals are typical of Ute Indian artworks.
You can find the Rock Art Sites (Indian Writing) on Scenic Byway 279, there is a sign by the road.
The Wolfe Ranch cabin, also known as Turnbow Cabin, is 17 feet x 15 feet was built in 1906. It was once home of John Wesley Wolfe, his son and daughter, together with her husband and two kids. Wolfe sold the ranch in 1910 to Tommy Larson and who then four years later sold it to J. Marvin Turnbow, first custodian of Arches National Monument. The last owner was Emmit Elizondo who sold the property to the U.S. Government to be included in the park.
ROCK FORMATIONS & ARCHES
Some arches can be seen from the car or from very short walks, while others require moderate or even long hikes. If you are not a hiker there are arches that are just short walking distance, as well as other rock formations including the Three Gossips, Queen Nefertiti and the Courthouse Tower.
Some popular arches and formations that you can explore without walking far are: The Windows, Sand Dune Arch, Tunnel Arch, Double Arch, Pine Tree Arch, Turret Arch and Balanced Rock.
Balanced Rock is one of the most popular rock formations in Arches National Park, located beside the park’s main road, about 9 miles from the entrance. A balanced rock is a naturally occurring geological formation - a large rock or boulder resting on other rocks, bedrock or glacial till.
This Balanced Rock, also called Balancing Rock, sits on top of a 55 foot pedestal. The balanced rock itself is about the size of three school buses. It weighs as much as 1,600 full-sized cars, about 3,577 tons. That should give some idea of how big that thing is. Someday, it will tumble as the softer pedestal rock erodes and crumbles. You don’t want to be nearby when that happens.
- HIKING TRAILS -
To get up close and personal to some of the arches in the park requires a little effort on your part. Some of the best arches can only be reached by hiking. It's worth it though. You will realized how big some of these arches are as you stand near them. There are plenty of hiking trails in the park that you can choose, you can make it longer or shorter such as by taking the Broken Arch/Tapestry Arch/Skyline Arch Loop Trail. If you feel a little adventurous take the trail to Landscape Arch and then all the way to Double O Arch. These are all moderate hikes, but you have to consider the weather as the heat can slow you down. One fun way to explore is to take a guided tour of the Fiery Furnace, this is one of the best experiences you can get in the park.
BROKEN ARCH/TAPESTRY ARCH/SKYLINE ARCH LOOP TRAIL - 4.5 miles round trip
We begin this loop trail at the Sand Dune Arch parking area, along Arches Scenic Drive. Or you can visit these three arches by starting at the parking lot by the Devil's Garden Campground. To start the hike, you can choose to visit the Sand Dune Arch first, if you haven't yet, before following the trail to Broken Arch. From there, the trail continues to Tapestry Arch, then you have to back track a little on the trail to Skyline Arch.
Before completing the loop, the trail goes between tall rock formations. This is a family-friendly trail, easy, nothing strenuous. Just mind the heat and bring water with you.
DELICATE ARCH - 3.0 miles round trip
Delicate Arch is one of the best known arches in the park. You can see it from a viewpoint below, but for the best view, it can be reached by hiking up 1.5 miles to the top, where you will get the classic view.
It sits at the edge of a slick-rock bowl with the view of the mesas, river canyons and the La Sal Mountains. Delicate Arch is about 46 feet high and 35 feet wide. It is the best-known and most recognized feature of the park. It is best seen in the late afternoon, although it can be a very hot hike to get there at that time of day.
DEVILS GARDEN TRAIL TO DOUBLE O ARCH - 7 miles round trip
In an area called the Devil's Garden is the Landscape Arch - considered the longest natural arch in the world at 291 feet. Since 1991, there have been three instances of large slabs of rock falling out of the thinnest part of the arch. This has prompted the National Park service to close the trail that went under the arch. It is bound to collapse "soon" - maybe even in our lifetime.
This is a maintained trail about 1.5 miles long (each way), not a major hike. But to continue to Double O Arch then the trail gets a bit more strenuous with a little scrambling on rocks.
Shortly after Landscape Arch, you will pass the site of a collapsed arch. We were lucky enough to see it before its collapsed during the night of August 4/5, 2008. The Wall Arch (below left) as it looked before the collapse and the remains of Wall Arch (below right) after it collapsed. No one saw it happen but some campers in the park heard the sound during the night. It was the most significant collapse since a large section of Landscape Arch fell in 1991.
Wall Arch was the 12th biggest arch in the park; it measured 71 feet wide by 33 1/2 feet high. It was named by Lewis T. McKinney in 1948. If Hermann had known that the arch would collapse 10 months after this picture (below left) was taken, he might not have posed under it!
On this trail, you will pass a side trail to several arches - Navajo Arch and Partition Arch. You need to backtrack to get back to Devils Garden Trail. If you choose to end your hike here or continue on to Double O Arch, you have another mile of hiking to reach it, but it's worth the effort.
Past the Navajo Arch and Partition Arch, the trail continues to Double O Arch. If you can climb through the small arch to the other side, you will be rewarded with a stunning view. For a small person like me, Hermann had to lift me up to reach the small arch.
If you have more time and energy, this trail continues on to Dark Angel, a 150 foot sandstone tower a half mile from Double O Arch. From there, the trail continues all the way to the Salt Valley Road. From Salt Valley Road, you can even extend your hike all the way to Tower Arch, but that is probably too much hiking in one day. Save it for another day, that's what we did.
TOWER ARCH - 3.5 round trip
If you want to hike with less crowds, this is one of the trails that you can take. Tower Arch is located in a remote section of the park called Klondike Bluffs. From Salt Valley Road, take the Klondike Bluffs Road, the trailhead is at the end of the road, just less than a mile. The trail is well marked and easy enough to follow. Although the hike is short, the heat will make the hike longer than it seems. Bring plenty of water and mind the Cryptobiotic soil crust, they take many years to grow back. These crusts are important in preventing soil erosion due to rainfall.
On the trail, if you are not looking up, it is easy enough to miss Parallel Arch. It is well camouflaged against the cliffs and hidden behind the trees.
Tower Arch is not the biggest in the park, it spans about 92 foot, but its immensity and thickness are quite impressive, very solid. There is a shorter route to this arch, but you will need a four-wheel drive.
FIERY FURNACE - 2.5 miles
Hiking in Fiery Furnace you will need a guide as you can easily get lost on your own. It is a fun trail and really worth doing if you are in Arches National Park. The trail follows a deep maze of narrow passages, tall columns, fins and hidden arches. We did this tour twice, once with family, and it's always fun.
Expect to do some scrambling on rocks and going through very narrow passages between walls. You also need to use your butt to get through some of these passages, but it is fun.
Besides rock formations, you will find two arches in this maze, Twin Arch, also called Skull Arch, and Surprise Arch.
So, after this guided tour I'm sure you will come out of the maze smiling, with a little knowledge about the park and its habitat and a little more appreciation of the desert. You will say to yourself that it is worth the tour.
Don't just explore in the park, there are plenty more hiking trails and arches outside of Arches National Park such as Jeep Arch, Negro Bill Canyon Trail (Morning Glory Bridge), Corona Arch, Pinto Arch.