When you visit Arches National Park, you’re witnessing geology in action. Everything you see—towering pinnacles, buttes, giant balanced rocks, enormous walls called “fins” and the park’s namesake arches—were once buried thousands of feet below a dry seabed. Tectonic forces and the flow of rivers created a new landscape.
Today, rain continues to erode and shape the rock formations, seeping into cracks to dissolve the calcium carbonate that holds the sandstone together, freezing in winter to pry the rock apart. When the water does its work on large fins, a hole appears, then slowly widens to form an arch. They’re massive illustrations of nature at work, and the park is home to more than 2,000 of them. It’s the largest concentration of natural arch formations anywhere in the world.
People are drawn to this wonderland of red rock to see firsthand the massive arches in all their glory, to climb the tall cliffs and to explore the gnarly maze of slots known as Fiery Furnace. In times after a significant seasonal rainfall, people can also see a colorful display of wildflowers.
If you plan on visiting Arches, check our suggestions for getting the most out of your trip. The National Park Service is also a good resource for information on camping, day hiking, backpacking, rock climbing, canyoneering, biking and wildflower viewing in Arches.
Camping in Arches
Devils Garden is the only National Park Service (NPS) campground in Arches. It’s open year-round and located 18 miles from the park entrance. There are 50 individual sites, which are $25 per night and accommodate up to 10 people, as well as two group sites for 11 or more. The campground is very family friendly, with enough sand to be a giant sandbox for your kids, and has sweeping views of the La Sal Mountains. It’s also close to a number of hiking trails in the park.
Sites can be reserved throughout the year, but during the busy season (March through October) all sites are reservation only. To make a reservation, go to www.recreation.gov or call 877-444-6777.
Other Camping Options: If you try to make a reservation at Devils Garden but nothing is available, don’t despair. In the nearby Moab area, there are also private campgrounds, other state and national park campgrounds and Bureau of Land Management (BLM) campgrounds. Many of the BLM campgrounds are located right on the Colorado River, which runs along the southwest border of Arches. To see where those campgrounds are, and to view all of your public camping options in the Moab area, download the Moab Campground Information Map.
Backpacking and Hiking in Arches
Some of the arches in the park can be seen from the main road, but taking a hike to see them up close is a more impressive experience. There are a number of trails in Arches that let you do just that. They take you into the desert landscape, past enormous buttes and rock spires, to walk around and beneath the arches. On some of the trails you can see several of the park’s most famous arches. If you happen to hike when wildflowers are in bloom, you’re in for some desert magic.
Keep in mind that the summer daytime temperatures in the park often exceed 100°F, so if you hike during summer months a good rule of thumb is to do it all during morning hours when the temperature is cooler. The National Weather Service offers an extended forecast for the Arches area. You can also check sunrise and sunset times, as well as the current moon phase, here.
Backpacking: Compared to other national parks, Arches has a lot less area to explore, more regulations to follow and no reliable sources of water. Having said that, the park still provides an experience that adventurous backpackers look for: the chance to trek into a desert landscape and feel like you’re the first one to set foot there. Because there are no designated trails, venturing into the park’s backcountry requires excellent navigation skills.
Backcountry Camping Permits: They’re required for overnight backcountry travel, and need to be picked up in person at the Arches Visitor Center. There are a few rules about where you can camp in the backcountry. The Backpacking Brochure has a map and other information showing you how to do it right.
Bring Water: Packing in all the water you’ll need will make your time in the backcountry simpler because natural sources of water are few and far between. One to two gallons per day is recommended, depending on your activity level and the temperature. That’s just for drinking. For hygiene and cooking, you’ll need more.
Backcountry Critters: In Arches, you’ll be sharing the backcountry with scorpions, rattlesnakes, black widow spiders, cone-nosed kissing bugs and other desert creatures that make their homes there. Keep your tent zipped shut to keep them outside, and shake out your clothing and boots before putting them on.
Bear Safety: Occasionally black bears wander down from the mountains and into the park. In places where bears are known to be active, keep your sleeping area away from your cooking and food-storage area. Store food, garbage and other scented items in bear-proof containers, or hang them in a sturdy bag high in a tree. The Bear Safety page has more information.
For more information about backpacking in Arches check the park service’s backpacking page and the Lost Spring Canyon page. To check on current road or trail closures, visit the park’s Current Conditions page.
Recommended Hikes in Arches
The Windows Day Hike (easy; 1 mile round-trip): This is a very popular hike that’s best done early in the morning to beat the crowds. Highlights include Turret Arch, North Window and South Window. A window is a freestanding arch that’s positioned to create a frame onto a scenic view. If you do this hike counterclockwise on the primitive loop (1 mile), you’ll go around the backside of both windows and see them lined up beside each other, looking like a giant face with a large stone fin serving as a nose. It’s referred to as The Spectacles.
The beginning of the hike takes you up a long line of stone steps. Beyond that, there’s about 200 feet of elevation gain and a short section of scrambling on the primitive loop. If you choose the shorter, easier loop, the total is 0.7 miles.
Delicate Arch Day Hike (moderate; 3.0 miles round-trip): It’s the arch that’s featured prominently on the Utah license plate. Delicate Arch commands the landscape by standing alone on a giant sandstone fin and framing the snow-capped La Sal Mountains in the distance. To get to the trailhead, take the main park road 12 miles to the Delicate Arch turnoff and follow that just over a mile to the historic Wolfe Ranch. This family-friendly hike happens to be the most popular in the park, so an early start is the best way to do it. In summer months, this hike should be completed before noon.
At the beginning of the trail is The Petroglyph, a wall of Indian rock art, which has it’s own short loop trail. Beyond that, you cross a vast stretch of slickrock, climb a short slope, then wind your way through a small canyon. The final stretch of the hike goes along a 4 ft. wide path chiseled into the rock wall. The total elevation gain to the arch is around 550 feet.
To view Delicate Arch without trekking 3 miles, you can drive past Wolfe Ranch to the accessible Lower Delicate Arch Viewpoint. A 0.5-mile walk takes you to Upper Delicate Arch Viewpoint, a ridge where you enjoy a spectacular view of the arch.
Tower Arch Day Hike (moderate; 3.4 miles round-trip): Tucked into the northwest corner of the park, this trail is your best bet for finding solitude in Arches. The hike takes you through an area known as The Klondike Bluffs and begins with some steep climbing on slickrock. After the trail levels on a bluff with a view of the La Sal Mountains, it descends into a basin, where you pass giant fins that look like fists and fingers, then the towering stone pinnacles known as The Marching Men. The next section of the trail has you hiking uphill in sand, which adds to the workout. It’s not until you enter the next basin when you get your first up-close view of the beautiful Tower Arch. It makes for a gorgeous photo at sunset. If you stick around to snap a sunset shot, be sure to bring a headlamp for the return hike.
To get to the Tower Arch trailhead, take the main park road for 16 miles and turn sharp left just after Sand Dune Arch. This puts you on Salt Valley Road, where you’ll drive to a 3-way fork at 7.2 miles. Take the middle road and travel 1 mile to the trailhead parking area.
Fiery Furnace Day Hike (moderate; 2 miles round-trip): It’s named for the glow of the red rocks that make up the towering fins. In the afternoon sunlight, the rocks evoke the intense heat of a furnace. This hike takes you through a labyrinth of sandstone hoodoos and narrow slots, where the shade keeps the temperature relatively cool. At places, you’ll be scrambling over rock piles and squeezing between rock walls. A side trail takes you into Raven Canyon and eventually to a towering double arch known as Skull Arch. Farther down the main trail, you’ll get a view of more interesting arches, including Balanced Rock. It’s a giant boulder, the size of three school buses, perched precariously on a stone pedestal.
There’s no established trail to Fiery Furnace. To hike it, you have to get a hiking permit at the visitor center or accompany a ranger on a guided hike. The park service encourages a guided hike, both for your own safety and to reduce impacts on the area. Fiery Furnace Hikes are offered daily, spring through fall. Children under five aren’t permitted. You can purchase available tickets at the visitor center, but to be safe it’s best to make reservations well ahead of time at www.recreation.gov, then check in at the visitor center an hour before your hike starts.
Devils Garden Day Hike (moderate–strenuous; 7.2 miles round-trip): If you want to see a lot of arches in one day, Devils Garden is the place to do it. At 7.2 miles, it’s the longest official trail in the park and takes you past more than ten arches, beginning with the massive Landscape Arch. At 290 ft., it’s the longest in the park. (If you’re hiking with kids, this is a good turn-around point.) From here, the trail does a clockwise loop. The trail crosses over slickrock and becomes more of a workout with some steep sections and hiking through soft sand.
A side trail at 1.3 miles takes you to Partition Arch and Navajo Arch, which are both worth seeing. As you approach Double O Arch, the trail rises onto a rock fin with steep drop-offs on either side, making it a little uncomfortable for anyone with a fear of heights.
At many points along the loop, you get an expansive view of the desert with its enormous buttes, delicate spires and tall stone fins, which look like the fins of giant whales. Devils Garden is a very popular trail, especially at sunset, so it’s best to hike it early in the morning. If you can be at Landscape Arch to watch the sunrise, that’s even better.
Rock Climbing in Arches
Arches is a fantastic place to climb and offers a great mix, from easy one-pitch towers to serious multi-pitch towers, and hard cracks on long buttresses. The dominant rock is Entrada sandstone that’s somewhat soft but still decent. Only free climbing or clean aid climbing are allowed in the park, and most of the routes require advanced techniques.
In 2013, the park service developed a Climbing and Canyoneering Management Plan that resulted in a number of regulations to protect the natural environment and visitor experience in Arches, such as limiting the number in a climbing group to five. You can read all the regulations on the park’s Climbing page.
Climbing Permits: If you plan to climb in Arches, you’re encouraged to register by getting a permit. The good news: permits are free. Also, there aren’t any daily limits on routes, so you can pick up a permit on the day of your climb. Get your permit via the online reservation system or self-register at the kiosk outside the visitor center.
Some popular and highly rated routes in the park include Zenyatta Entrada, Virgin Wool, Right Chimney, West Face and Standard (West Fins). For more information on climbing in Arches, and for a full list of routes, visit the Mountain Project.
Canyoneering in Arches
While Arches has no real slot canyons, many of its sandstone walls are cross-hatched with narrow passages that are fascinating to explore. There are currently 11 established canyoneering routes in six different areas of the park.
The park’s Climbing and Canyoneering Management Plan resulted in a number of regulations, which are listed on the Canyoneering page. Before heading into the park, be sure to review the canyoneering access and egress routes.
Canyoneering Permits: Everybody canyoneering in Arches National Park has to register by getting a free permit. There are no daily limits on routes (except the Fiery Furnace), so you can pick up a permit on the day of your trip. Get your permit via the online reservation system or self-register at the kiosk outside the visitor center.
Planning to canyoneer in the Fiery Furnace? Your entire party has to go to the front desk at the visitor center to get a Fiery Furnace permit ($4 per person). Fiery Furnace permits are limited to 50 people a day and often sell out during the busy season.
Cycling in the Arches Area
If you’re looking to have fun on two wheels in the Arches area, the national park might not be the best place for it. Cycling is allowed on all paved and unpaved roads in Arches, but there aren’t any bike lanes or paved shoulders, so you end up sharing the lane with busses and RVs.
However, if you leave the national park you’ll find some awesome riding nearby. Moab offers some of the best mountain biking you’ll find anywhere. Discover Moab has great lists of mountain bike trails and road biking routesin the area.
Wildflower Viewing in Arches
Many visitors are surprised at the amount of vegetation in Arches. That includes a wide variety of wildflowers that bloom every month from late February through October. There are also nine species of cactus found in the park.
If you’re wondering what might be in bloom when you visit, you can check by Alphabetical List, List Sorted by Bloom Date and List Sorted by Bloom Month. Find even more information on the park’s Wildflower page.
Tips for Visiting Arches
Getting to Arches National Park: Located in southeast Utah just outside Moab, Arches can be accessed through an entrance at the southern end of the park close to the intersection of routes 191 and 128. See the park’s Directions & Transportation page for information on traveling to Arches.
Certain times of year can be much busier than others. Check the Traffic & Travel Trips page for tips on avoiding the crowds. Because parking is limited at all destinations in the park, including trailheads, consider starting your day early to make it hassle-free. The park’s Current Conditions page lets you know about current road conditions and any construction projects.
Park Fees and Passes: Fees for entering the park depend on the type of pass you choose and your vehicle. You can opt for a single-use park pass (for 7 days: $25 per vehicle; $15 per motorcycle; $10 per cyclist or hiker), an annual parks pass or the America the Beautiful Interagency Annual Pass that covers all national parks and federal fee areas. See all fee details at the fees and passes page.
Arches Weather: Part of the Colorado Plateau, Arches is in a “high desert” region, where temperature can fluctuate dramatically, sometimes more than 40 degrees in a single day. The most popular seasons in the park are spring (April through May) and fall (mid-September through October). During those times, daytime highs average 60 to 80°F and lows average 30 to 50°F.
Summer temperatures often exceed 100°F, making outdoor activity difficult. Late summer is monsoon season, which brings violent storms that often cause flash floods. Winters are cold, with highs averaging 30 to 50°F, and lows 0 to 20°F. The Arches area doesn’t typically get much snowfall (except in nearby mountains), but even small amounts can make local trails and roads impassable.
The park’s Weather page shows a breakdown of temperature and precipitation throughout the year. To check local weather conditions and forecasts, call (801) 524-5133 (recorded information), or visit the National Weather Service.
Sunrise/sunset times may be found at www.discovermoab.com/sunshine.htm.
Guidebooks and Maps: The park service has online versions of a park map, Lost Spring Canyon map, and trail guide for Devils Garden and Wolfe Ranch. For more detailed versions, the Canyonlands Natural History Association (CNHA) a nonprofit organization assisting the National Park Service, has an excellent selection of books and maps for the area. You can also find guidebooks and maps at REI.com.
Animal Safety: Arches is home to a number of desert critters, including scorpions, rattlesnakes, black widow spiders and cone-nosed kissing bugs. Avoid reaching your hands or feet behind rocks or into other hidden places. To reduce your risk of animal-transmitted diseases, such as hantavirus, review these tips. The park is also visited occasionally by black bears. Check the park’s Bear Safety page to learn how to reduce the risk of bear encounters.
Written by Steve Burke. REI Adventures guide Tim Dice contributed to this article.