I’m not one to pick favorites, but... oh who I am kidding, I do pick favorites and Arches National Park is absolutely one of them.
The park is located 25 miles South of Interstate 70 and 10 miles North of Moab, Utah. Most visitors to the park stay in Moab as it is the only real city for miles in the area and has a vast array of lodging and campgrounds. It’s advisable to make reservations as far an advance as possible during the high season which runs from May to October.
For camping, the best spot would probably be right inside the park at Devil’s Garden Campground. It’s about the cheapest site you’ll find at 18 dollars, and you can wake up at sunrise and be just minutes from the arches. It has no amenities but it does have peace and quiet which is more than can be said about Moab’s campgrounds which are all situated right off Highway 191, a road that is notoriously loud. Reserve your site as soon as you can, especially on weekends.
If you are coming from the North, take Highway 128 into the park. 191 is faster but 128 is a gorgeous scenic route that starts in the high desert plains with the La Sal Mountains on your left and begins weaving right next to the Colorado River, eventually melting into an orange canyon with lots of curves and pull outs.
About 10 miles before hitting Moab there is a National Recreation Area right next to the river where you can set up camp. It looked so enticing I believe that is where I will stay the next time I make it out to Arches.
There is a small ghost town called Cisco right off old Highway 6 as you meet up with 128. We arrived here on October 26th and the fall colors were at their peak:
For me, Fall is the best time to visit Arches. Though the Spring wildflowers are alluring and the Summer’s monsoon season brings the most dramatic clouds to the skies, I loved the solitude of Fall, the colorful leaves, and the seamless blue of the sky. The temperatures were much cooler, around 55 during the day and 30 at night, which is perfect hiking weather and feasible camping weather. (Just bring a LOT of blankets!)
This is the canyon you’ll drive through right before meeting up with Highway 191.
With only one day to spend at Arches and so many unique sights to choose from, I’ve decided that the next time I visit I will stay for a week or more. Certain Arches look their prime in the sunrise, others at sunset. There is incredible star gazing to be had and an amazing number of hiking trails to take, some that are so long that they require a full day to themselves.
After a stop on the floor at the Visitor Center, you will drive up a series of long steep switchbacks which takes you quickly up several hundred feet until you’re looking over the City of Moab. It’s one of the coolest entrances to any National Park that I’ve seen. Once you’re through the switchbacks you are in a fantasy land.
One of the best sections of the park is where we headed first: The Windows and Double Arch. We ended up spending most of the day here, in fact.
Here’s Brett sitting inside the North Window to show some perspective on how big these arches can be:
It is about a 2-3 mile hike around The Windows and Turret Arch. To get out to Double Arch, it is about 1 mile.
I am standing a few yards from The Windows with a neat old twisted pine tree in front of me and Turret Arch beyond:
The South Window from afar and up close:
One of the best things about this park is the access that you get. You can really feel as though you are apart of it because you’re able to walk right up to and under many of the arches.
What makes an Arch?
To make a very long, 300 million-year-story short, the Colorado Plateau is what makes the Arches and many of the the other incredible formations of the American Southwest possible.
300 million years ago, the majority of the land of Southern Utah was once an ancient inland sea which retreated and entreated again and again over hundreds of thousands of years, depositing sediment after sediment, the most important for forming the arches being the Entrada Sandstone.
Arches are found in many of the other Southwestern National Parks: Rainbow Bridge being one of the most beautiful and well known arches in the world is located deep in the twisted canyons of what is now Lake Powell, and Capitol Reef, Zion, Bryce, and the Grand Canyon all boast beautiful arches. The reason why this park has so many in concentration, (there are as many as 2 thousand arches within these 74,000 acres) is because of a specific sediment layer filled with salt. Once upon a time, Arches National Park was a coastal desert.
The salt in this layer of rock made wind, water, and ice erosion just a little bit easier in this piece of the country. Over time, the elements and gravity carved away at the rock, which is fickle in certain places and gets eroded away, and which is stronger in other places and that is, essentially, what is left behind.
Landscape Arch, which I have no photos of from this trip, is one of the most incredible sights to behold. If you’re able, visit Landscape at sunrise as the desert sun hits this arch perfectly at this time of day. It spans 306 feet across and is only 6 feet wide at its thinnest portion and is considered to be at the end of its life.
There are many more sections of this park that make staying here for a week or more a good idea. There are hikes that range from 1 mile to 20, all taking you past spectacular rock formations, spires, balanced rocks, fins, and of course, arches.
A walk out to Turret Arch in the midday sun:
Sand Dune Arch is quite charming and is a short hike as well, probably no more than 1.5 miles round trip. The whole hike is in sand; the arch definitely lives up to its name. As the sun was starting to fall into the western half of the sky, most of this hike was in shade:
Sand that seems to glow:
Sand Dune arch is tucked back into a cove and is around 40 feet tall:
I liked being able to walk all around it:
A great thing about traveling during the “shoulder season” is fewer crowds. Even though we landed there on a weekend, it still wasn’t too terribly busy. We had this arch to ourselves for a while.
The sun sets very quickly during the Fall months. We visited Park Avenue just as the sun was sinking over the tall cliff sides.
One of my favorite pieces of Park Avenue is the Three Gossips. You can see them easily from the road and it’s a short hike to get closer to them:
Just before heading up to Delicate Arch for the famous sunset, a hiker along the trail noticed my camera and felt the need to let me know that a wedding party was going to be “using” the Delicate Arch during sunset for their pictures.
Sunset at Delicate Arch is a renowned experience not just in Utah and the US but people come from all over the world to see it. It didn’t seem right that a group of people would find it fitting to monopolize the sunset for themselves alone. I would guess that at least half the people who are at Delicate Arch will be there only once in their life. I don’t care how much you paid me, I’d consider it immoral as a photographer to take that experience away from everyone else.
So we went back to The Windows for the sunset, instead. The sun was going down right in the middle of Turret Arch. I thought it looked even prettier bursting through a Juniper Pine as well:
The moonrise through North Window:
Light fading quickly:
We spent most of the sunset on a secluded piece of slick rock just beyond Turret Arch:
Views of the sunset lighting up the beautiful rock at Arches National Park:
The windows and the moon:
A photographer’s spot beyond North Window and the views from there:
Delicate Arch Sunset
What is it about these arches that draws people in from all over the world? I’ll tell you. They invoke a sense of wonder into even the most desensitized soul. A sense of wonder is something every person is born with. Most people lose it by the time they become an adult; nowadays with technology and society’s demand kids seem to lose it sooner than ever. But the arches stop you in your tracks and make you wonder how, why, or even... who? Because it’s all too outstanding, too circumstance to not have a purpose. And none is so enchanting as Delicate, a freestanding fin-become-arch. From where it stands on the rim of a sandstone bowl that creates a natural amphitheater, it frames the La Sal Mountains to the East. It is in the ideal spot to receive the light of the setting sun all year round. It’s too perfect to be nothing less than fate.
The hike is 3 miles long and considered moderately strenuous, mostly because it’s a straight incline to the amphitheater. At the bottom there is Wolfe Ranch and a few petroglyphs but I’m usually too exited to spend time at the arch so I don’t make much of a stop there. Beyond that are two steep switchbacks that take you up and over a hill and this will be your view:
This picture shows no depth whatsoever, it’s really just a snapshot of the layers that you will be walking upon. For the first 1/2 mile you’ll be walking on a gravelly path. The next 1/2 mile is the tough one, which is a tiring 45 degree angle up the side of bare slickrock. I can only imagine how hot this section of the hike would be in the summer time as temperatures can soar to 110. The last 1/2 mile is my favorite. It’s a climb through slickrock that is scattered with sand, trees, and boulders. It has been ingeniously designed to keep the arch from your view until the absolute last second.
You will round the side of a steep cliff. If you’re scared of heights this will be the worst of it, but it really isn’t too bad. This is the last curve before you turn the corner and see the arch:
Delicate Arch and me:
The arch from straight on. It’s around 80 feet tall:
It was overcast that day. We left for the hike around 3 and it only got more and more cloudy as the evening wore on.
An interesting thing about the arch, at least during the two times I have visited. I’ve been during the “shoulder seasons” where the crowds aren’t as heavy. There were probably around 75 people there but in the summer I am sure than can be multiplied many times. But anyway, most people take turns letting each other stand under the arch and get their photos under it and so on. A sort of line forms and you just have to take your opportunity when it comes up. I got about 5 glorious minutes all to myself.
I loved the sun that was coming right through it:
Standing under it:
Standing back to show the arch on the edge of the slickrock cliff and the amphitheater that couldn’t be more perfect to allow admirers to sit for hours. Also, see the guy standing at the bottom? He really puts into perspective how big the arch really is. Most people say it looks a lot smaller in pictures than it does in person:
The photographers gather in the top left corner, the best angle to be when the sunset light hits the arch:
I actually like my midday photos of the arch better than the sunset ones. It was overcast enough where the shadows weren’t so harsh and yet the clouds weren't so abundant that they whited out the sky:
Give yourself a lot of time there. There is more to see than just the arch. Its views from beyond are lovely as well:
I climbed around a bit to try and get a different perspective of the arch. All the tourists constantly swarming around and the thousands of photographers that have taken pictures of this place over the decades has made it hard to get a unique shot, but it’s fun to try anyway.
What’s funny is an entire family was standing under the arch when I took this photo but you can’t tell because I was at such a steep angle that it completely cut them out.
Sunset that night was not the climactic experience that it typically is. During “golden hour” which really isn’t an hour at all but a few fleeting moments where the sun is low against the horizon and creating a spectacular light called Alpenglow, Delicate Arch can usually glow red as though it’s burning. But the clouds were just too thick this night. We did get a touch of it, though:
An old German man stood staring at the arch and started to sing a song from his own country. He just started up out of the blue, and people all around got quiet and listened. He seemed to get a little choked up towards the end and he put his arm around his wife. When he was done we clapped; even though I had no idea what the words to his song were, they seemed fitting enough.
The light is hitting the La Sal Mountains behind the arch:
It is almost impossible to walk away from the arch disappointed. You can’t control the weather, you can only make the best of it.
The hike back down is a piece of cake considered to the hike up there. Just remember a flashlight if you’re going to stay past sunset.
Here is the moon rising over the slickrock on our way back down:
An ephemeral pool left over from a torrential storm a few weeks prior, with a few lights from cars leaving the park in the distance:
Even with a full moon rising high in the sky, Arches National Park is still so secluded to be dark enough at night where the Milky Way is visible.
Moonlight on the Three Gossips with a trace of the Milky Way behind them:
Courthouse Tower with stars and a silhouette: