Arches National Park: The Complete Guide

Glowing Arch
Mark Brodkin Photography / Getty Images
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Arches National Park

Address
Utah, USA
Phone +1 435-719-2299

Welcome to red rock country! A colorful member of Utah’s Mighty 5, Arches National Park contains the world’s largest concentration of natural sandstone arches as well as an impressive variety of other striking geological formations, including giant sandstone fins, balanced rocks, tall pinnacles, soaring spires, gargoyles, and hoodoos. Northwest of Moab and about 30 miles from Canyonlands National Park, Arches offers year-round hiking, canyoneering, camping, rock climbing, and stargazing. This complete guide aims to help you plan when to go, what to do and see while visiting, and where to camp/stay. It also details some of the park’s rules and fees.

Established first as a national monument by President Herbert Hoover in 1929 and elevated to a national park in 1971, Arches occupies 76,518 acres of land that have historical connections to numerous indigenous tribes, including Hopi Tribe, Kaibab Band of Paiute Indians, Las Vegas Paiute, Moapa Band of Paiute Indians of the Moapa River Reservation, Navajo Nation, Paiute Indian Tribe of Utah, Pueblo of Zuni, Rosebud Sioux, San Juan Southern Paiute, Southern Ute Indian Tribe, Ute Indian Tribe of Uintah and Ouray Reservation, and Ute Mountain Ute Tribe. Some left evidence of their time spent there via rock markings and drawings—like the petroglyph panel near Wolfe Ranch—and various artifacts. According to a multi-year study presented in 2017 by the University of Arizona’s Bureau of Applied Research in Anthropology and participated in by six bands and tribes, all described Arches as a powerful place used ceremonially and for trade and travel. Several of them believe the namesake arches that entice more than 1.5 million people to visit the park annually are “portals in space and time that play an important role in tribal religious practices.” The rock spires are “sentient beings who continue to provide help to people.” The La Sal Mountains were described as a dwelling place for spirits and sacred beings, so visitors should visit with respect.

Things To Do

A smart place to start any visit to this geological wonderland (especially for first-timers) is at the visitor center, the newest version of which opened in 2005. Inside, guests will find a 150-seat theater with a 15-minute orientation film, interactive computer programs and exhibits on geology, plants, animals, and past residents, rangers eager to answer questions, restrooms, drinking water, and a bookstore. It has a large outdoor plaza for after-hours visitors as well. It is open daily from 9 a.m. to 4 p.m., except for Christmas.

Contrary to the name, you don’t have to be a kid to participate in the Junior Ranger program. Pick up the booklet at the visitor center and after you complete the tasks (and hopefully learn a few things), return it there to retrieve an honorary badge. This is, of course, also fun for children and teens.

Most of the park’s most famous arches and sites like Delicate Arch, Devils Garden, The Windows, and Wolfe Ranch are along, and often visible from, the 18-mile paved road.  Others require hiking to get a closer look.

Ranger-led programs are held spring through fall and include talks, evening programs, stargazing, arts, easy one-mile guided walks, and demanding hikes in the Fiery Furnace.

With limited amenities, minimal light pollution from nearby towns, unlit trails, and almost 100 percent of night-sky friendly lighting, Arches attained certification as an international dark sky park in 2019. If stargazing is your priority, plan your trip to include a moonless night. Night photography is encouraged, but the use of artificial light is prohibited. 

A woman hiking a scenic trail in Arches National Park.
Jordan Siemens / Getty Images

Best Hikes & Trails

Taking anywhere from 15 minutes to five hours to complete, Arches has trails for every level of hiker that range in length from 50 yards long (the nature trail at the visitor center) to 7.8 miles. Be careful where you step as the living biological soil crust can take centuries to recover from damage. The safest places to walk are on rocks, on trails, and in sandy washes. 

Weather in the high desert is unpredictable, so pack sunscreen, lots of water, and an extra layer of clothing. Don’t forget to pack out all trash, including human waste.

The maze-like Fiery Furnace is the must-do hike as it winds around red rock verticals and features hidden arches and dunes. But it’s strenuous, requiring hikers to walk along narrow ledges, navigate tight passages and uneven ground, jump across gaps, scramble up and down rocks, and hold yourself off the ground by pushing against the sandstone walls with your hands and feet. Children under 5 are not permitted. The number of people that are allowed per day is also regulated to help preserve fragile plants and habitats, so hikers must obtain a private self-guided permit for $3 to $15 (annual pass) or reserve a space on the ranger-led hike ($8 for ages 5-12 and $16 for adults). Tours often book up online several months in advance, so plan ahead.

Other favorites include:

  • Hikes to Balanced Rock, Double Arch, and Sand Dune Arch are easy and less than a mile long. Delicate Arch viewpoint is also a piece of cake and short. But to get all the way to the formation, you’ll have to walk three miles, climb 480 feet, and traverse a small ledge.
  • A mile-long gentle climb, gravel path, and stone steps lead to the North and South Windows and Turret Arch.
  • Broken Arch Trail is slightly more of a commitment at two miles, but it contains dunes and slick rock.
  • Courthouse Wash has a prehistoric art panel at the base of the cliff walls facing west.
  • The park’s longest hike is the primitive trail at Devils Garden, an alternate route to the Double O Arch. It has spurs that lead to Partition, Navajo, and Dark Angel and is not recommended when rocks are wet or snowy.

There are a few designated sites where backpacking is acceptable, but be warned that conditions are wild and unmanaged. Be prepared for difficult wayfinding, hiking through dense brush, and potentially encountering quicksand. Required permits can be obtained at the visitor center.

Canyoneering & Rock Climbing

Both are allowed but there are lots of site-specific rules to follow and free permits must be acquired first. They can be secured online or in-person at the visitor center. Get more information about what is allowed in terms of these two sports here.

Where To Camp

Arches has one campground, Devils Garden, 18 miles from the entrance. It has 51 sites, two of which are group sites, set amid slickrock outcroppings. Facilities include grills, picnic tables, drinking water, and both pit and flush toilets. There are no sites with RV hookups or dump stations, but some can accommodate trailers and RVs up to 30 feet long. 

Between March and October, reservations are available and highly recommended as the campground is full most nights. You can reserve up to six months in advance.  In the low season, November through February, sites are operated on a first-come, first-served basis. Individual sites cost $25 per night for one to 10 campers. The per-night prices at the Juniper and Canyon Wren group sites vary from $75 to $250, depending on the number of campers.

There are several private campgrounds in and around Moab. You can find a full list at discovermoab.com.

main street Moab

John Elk III/Getty Images

Where To Stay

There are no hotels or lodges within the park’s borders. But there are many places to choose from in and around Moab, which is about 5 miles from the park entrance. They range from budget chains like Best Western Plus and quirky indie options like The Gonzo Inn to high-end dude ranches like Sorrel River Ranch.

Where To Eat

There are no restaurants inside the park either, but you can buy supplies in Moab and use one of Arches' many picnic areas. You can find great spots to refuel and rest between hiking and sightseeing at the visitor center, across from Balanced Rock, Panorama Point, Delicate Arch Viewpoint, and Devils Garden. All have tables and toilets; some even have fire grates. Canyonlands Natural History Association sells select hiking snacks in the bookstore.

Moab also has many fantastic places to grab a bite, including a plethora of breakfast cafes and a food truck park serving shave ice, tacos, pizza, and donuts. 

How To Get There

Arches is located off US-191 and I-70, about 10 minutes from the city of Moab. It is a little less than 30 miles from Canyonlands National Park, so it’s quite easy to see both in one trip. By car, the drive is just shy of four hours from Salt Lake City International Airport. The regional airport in Grand Junction, Colorado, is closer—only 109 miles from the park—but has fewer flights. 

Accessibility

Many of the most notable arches and rock formations are visible from the road for people with physical or mobility concerns. Some trails, picnic areas, and viewpoints have paved surfaces. Some trails are hard-packed and relatively flat like Double Arch Trail and therefore considered barrier-free. 

The visitor center features automatic doors and bench seating and has accessible parking, restrooms, water fountains, and the front desk. The film and videos have captions. 

There are two accessible campsites in Devils Garden. The tent pad is dirt, but the rest of the site is paved for easier wheelchair maneuvering. All of the restrooms in the campground are accessible. 

Find more detailed information here.

Tips For Your Visit

• Arches charges a fee year-round. It’s $15 per individual on foot or bicycle, $25 per motorcycle, or $30 per car. There is a one-year Southeast Utah Parks Pass for $55 or guests can also use system-wide annual America The Beautiful passes, which are typically $80. Active military; fourth-graders; and citizens or permanent residents with permanent disabilities are eligible for a free pass, while seniors qualify for a $20 annual pass or $80 lifetime pass. 

• The high season is generally March through October and Easter week, Memorial Day weekend, Labor Day weekday, and the Utah Education Association break are particularly busy every year. Most visitors visit mid-morning through mid-afternoon. There can be limited parking, long lines at the entrance gate, crowded trails, and traffic during those times. Use webcams to see if there’s a line to get in.

• Before you go, download the free National Park Service app through the Apple Store or Google Play. It has info on more than 400 national parks, including maps and information for this park.

• Pets are allowed but where they can go is limited. They are not allowed on trails. Read more about touring Arches with a pet in tow here.

• Driving off-road, carving into rocks, graffiti, feeding wildlife, or biking off-road is illegal and punishable by law. Also, do not swim in or drink from ephemeral pools or sandstone basins. If you observe these things, report them to a ranger.

• Cell phone and internet access are extremely spotty and slow in some areas and nonexistent in others.

 

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Arches National Park: The Complete Guide