Arches National Park sees over a million visitors each year. Take a look at any photo of the 76,619-acre park and you’ll see why adventurers flock here to experience its surreal geological wonders, including the world’s largest concentration of natural sandstone arches.
As the first stop on our seven-day road trip, Arches set the bar extremely high. We only had one day to squeeze in the sights, so we trusted Parker (a former Trek America guide) to show us the best of the best.
Although you can see the whole park from the comfort of your air-conditioned car in only three hours, we were more interested in getting up close and personal on the hiking trails. Experienced hikers could try to hit both of the hikes outlined below in one day like we did, while novice hikers might find it easier to break them up over the span of two days. Either way, you don’t want to miss these!
We started with the Primitive Trail Loop at Devil’s Garden, entering from the right rather than the left to get the super sandy stretch of the trail out of the way first. No one wants to be trudging through sand at the end of a 7-mile hike. Nor do you want to be cooking in the peak heat of the day, so I’d highly recommend getting there by 8am at the latest.
It’s possible I’m forgetting an epic hike from the past, but I think this was one of the best ones I’ve ever done. We got to scramble up rocks to take in the expansive landscapes and trek through breezy, shaded valleys full of baby cacti and twisted trees. We saw so many arches and stacked rock formations, and I learned all about lichen and cryptobiotic soil (#1 lesson: don’t disturb them!).
It reminded me how much I love to monkey around, pushing me to take the steeper routes and try the more challenging climbs. Nothing gets the adrenaline flowing like scaling a narrow ledge or leaping from one uneven surface to another.
The best part was the Choose Your Own Adventure feel to it. Daredevils have the option of finding a new path among the peaks, while those that like to play it safe could stick to the trail on lower ground. Even though each direction has probably been hiked hundreds of times, it really felt like we were forging our own path.
Despite our late arrival (we didn’t hit the trail until 11am), a nice breeze and plenty of breaks in the shade kept us from overheating in the 3.5 hours it took us to finish the loop. You could imagine we worked up quite an appetite, so we hit a nearby picnic area before taking on Delicate Arch.
We were all feeling pretty exhausted after our big picnic lunch, but knew we had it in us to do Delicate Arch ~ Utah’s most iconic landmark (it’s even on the license plate!).
But we didn’t account for just how rough it would be.
We started around 4pm and I swear it was hotter than the first half of the day. The 1.5-mile hike up to the arch (3 miles roundtrip) is also completely unshaded with a few bushes popping out from the sloping slickrock as the only exception. The steep incline is brutal with the sun beating down on your skin and the jagged stone. I just kept putting one foot in front of the other, letting my body go on autopilot.
I wanted to fall over by the time we reached level ground. Roman revived me with his bandana soaked in cold water, and it was just the pick-me-up I needed to traverse the rest of the rock ledge on the way up to the arch.
Delicate Arch sits poised on one edge of a titled rock formation in the shape of a semi-circle. From a ledge on the opposite edge, you can take amazing photos and admire it in all its glory. Mountains stretch across the sky in the distance, the blues and greens juxtaposed beautifully against the red rocks.
Head throbbing and muscles aching, I kept repeating to myself how worth it the trek was on the brutal walk back. Even though it was mostly downhill and nearing 6pm, I was just completely done for. If you have more time, I’d recommend doing these hikes on separate days – or at least get an earlier start to avoid the strongest heat of the afternoon and early evening.
Know Before You Go
Arches is located in the cute mountain town of Moab, Utah. You’ll find plenty of hotels and guesthouses in the area, but camping is the best way to get the full outdoor experience. We stayed on BLM land at Hunter Canyon, but there are many other sites with more amenities. Check out the National Park Service’s list for recommendations.
The park entrance fee is $25 per vehicle, $15 per motorcycle, or $10 per pedestrian/bicycle.
Drink lots of water! Arches is in the high desert, so it’s easier to get dehydrated – even in colder temperatures. Plan on drinking AT LEAST one gallon of water each day.
Cell service is shoddy throughout most of Southeast Utah, particularly in the parks, so set meeting points in case your group gets split up. Or go big with walkie-talkies to ensure you can always get in contact!
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