Utah - Arches National Park
A plea of caution before you step off into this desert wonderland:
the desert soil is very fragile. In some spots you will be walking on
deep, soft sand; these sandy patches may be the result of wind gathering
the sand into one spot, but they may also be the result of too much human
interference. Where the sand is not loose, a crust of symbiotic micro-organisms
(cyanobacteria, moss, and fungus) holds the desert together, preventing the
sand from overwhelming the plants in the area and collecting moisture. This
cryptobiotic crust is fragile, and takes decades to recover from a
single footstep - stay on the paths and off of the crust. If you are for
some reason not on a path (or cannot find it), travel in the washes or on
The park is on a plateau above the city of Moab, and your first introduction
to the park is a winding road leading up the side of the canyon.
The Great Wall - a towering series of red Entrada slickrock sandstone
walls - imposes itself over your car as you begin the drive.
- The first stop - a sign explaining the Moab Fault - is probably
only of interest to those with a geological bent, though it also offers a
long view back into the Moab area.
- The second stop is a major one (as evidenced by the parking lot).
You can see from your first view that the area is aptly named - Park Avenue. Walls of sandstone tower over the descending path; runoff from
rainstorms has carved a fine wash between these impressive fins. A
one mile path leads down to the far end of the Avenue - hikers can return
via the path or arrange to be picked up at the far end. The trail is
typical for the park - unimproved, with cairns (small piles of stone) marking
the trail when it crosses over sandstone.
- The third stop provides a good view across the desert plateau to the
La Sal Mountains. However, the mountains are in view though
the lower half of the park (and to some extent through the rest as well),
so unless you have an interest in the mountains themselves, this is also
an optional stop.
- As you wind your way down past the Organ (on the right, marked
by a sign), you'll approach the stop at Courthouse Towers. This
stop is also the bottom of the Park Avenue trail. The towers
(two) are monuments named for their tops, which resemble the jurors in a court.
The Three Gossips are visible across the way, just past the end of
Park Avenue - three (actually four, but one is behind the others)
spires at the top of this monument appear to be figures facing one another.
To the right of the Three Gossips is Sheep Rock.
- After passing over the Courthouse Wash - a large riverbed usually
dry - the next stop on the road is a lookout over the Petrified Sand Dunes. These Navajo Sandstone formations are the remains of a great dune
field; the lookout has views across to the Windows area of the park
and the La Sal Mountains.
- The road then goes for a ways without a major stop. Eventually,
you'll approach the stop at Balanced Rock. There are a lot of
balanced rocks in the desert, but this one seems somehow more impressive than
most. It used to have a companion, but it fell over some years ago.
There is a short, handicapped-accessible trail leading around the rock.
- A right turn just after Balanced Rock leads to the Garden
of Eden and the Windows area of the park. This section of
the park is densely packed with spires, hoodoos, and arches, and most of
it is easily viewed from the car and viewpoints. Among the sites without
pullouts are Ham Rock (look up - it's the one shaped like a half-ham)
and Pothole Arch (marked with a sign - pothole arches are horizontal,
caused by swirling water or whirlwinds drilling a hole through the rock).
- A stop just after you turn into the Windows side road offers
a view of the Garden of Eden. This is a jumble of spires and
hoodoos, with some fin canyons thrown for good measure. There are no
trails here, just the overlook.
- The road winds further along, and you come to a stop for Cove Arch
viewpoint and the Cove of Caves. Geologically, this viewpoint
is interesting because it shows the different stages of arch evolution.
Photogenically, there isn't much to see at this stop and I usually pass it
- The end of the road leads to a massive parking lot at The Windows.
From here you can take two trails. A short (.2 mile round)
trail leads to Double Arch, while a longer, branching trail leads to
The Windows and Turret Arch. Double Arch is
one of the more famous arches in the park, with its twin, angled arches; the
trail leads through deep sand, but has been improved somewhat with retaining
boards. The Windows trail leads (.2 miles) to North Window
and then (another .1 mile) to South Window; the trail is of hard-packed
dirt with wood retainer walls, and is largely uphill (very wide, shallow steps).
These arches are solidly in the middle of a fin wall - hence the "window"
appellation - and the ridge between them has given them a second nickname
- The Spectacles. Also off of this trail is Turret Arch
(a .1 mile side trail). A .3 mile "primitive trail" leads around the
back of the arches and back to the parking lot between the two main trails;
the primitive trail leads over rock, sand, and hard dirt. In the background
of The Windows and Turret Arch is the La Sal Mountains
- very scenic, especially at sunset.
- Your tour at this point will lead you back to the main road, and on
towards the north end of the park. You'll come to a stop labelled
Panorama Point, which has a view of the Cache Valley Wash, the
Fiery Furnace, and the Colorado River canyons in the background.
The best part of the view is probably the polychromatic hills, stained blue,
black, and green from mineral stains and the cryptobiotic crust.
- A small side road leads out to Wolfe Ranch and the Delicate
Arch parking lots. There are two stops - at the Delicate Arch
/Wolfe Ranch Trailhead parking lot, and at the Delicate Arch Viewpoint
Trailhead. The road continues as a 4WD track, which I have not yet
had the time to explore.
- The Wolfe Ranch/Delicate Arch trail is 3.2 miles round-trip
from the parking lot. It almost immediately comes to the old Wolfe
Ranch buildings with their dessicated wood walls and sod roofing.
From there a small side trail leads out to a pair of petroglyph panels - one
of a solitary figure, the other of a herd of antelope and a horse rider.
After that, the path wanders through an eroded wash area before climbing
the slickrock. More than half of the trail is on the slickrock, and
it's all uphill with no cover from the sun - you did remember that water,
didn't you? Towards the top there is a short area where you walk along
a two-foot wide ledge - cliff wall on one side, dropoff on the other.
An arch immediately up the cliff wall peeks through to a view of Delicate
Arch (not too hard of a climb). Across the canyon to your left at
this point at about 11 o'clock is another large arch. And just around
the corner up the hill you come to the Delicate Arch area.
The Arch itself sits alone on a ridge of sandstone; to one side are a couple
of formations which elsewhere in the region are labelled "teepees" or "haystacks";
in front of the Arch is a depression, while beyond the Arch is a view of
the La Sal Mountains.
- The Delicate Arch Viewpoint trail has a decent view of the arch
- perched alone on top of a sandstone swell - but the view is pretty
distant. On the bright side, it is a reasonable walk on a handicapped-accessible
trail. If you are not planning on the difficult hike up to the Arch
itself, this trail is a must - Delicate Arch is the symbol of the
park, one of the Utah state symbols, and (this year) the picture on the National
Park Pass (in short, it is very famous).
- Moving on down the main road, you come to a pulloff for the Salt
Valley Overlook. There isn't a lot to see here aside from the desert
valley of the Salt Valley Wash.
- Shortly after the Salt Valley Overlook, you come to the turnoff
for Fiery Furnace. This area of the park is largely uncharted
- no trail maps exist of the maze of fin canyons and spires here, no GPS signals
reach the depths of the canyons, and there are no marked trails. Much
of the area is solid sandstone, and most of the rest is soft sand which is
occasionally wiped clean by runoff from thunderstorms. So why is this
parking lot here? The park offers guided tours in the warmer months
of the year, and you can get a permit to walk through the area if you desire.
I highly recommend the guided tour; it was about 3 hours of adventurous exploration
- hidden arches, narrow canyons, and good information. The tour is
not for those with a fear of heights or closed in spaces; there were several
walks across narrow ledges and several sections where you shuffle and chimney
through narrow canyon slots. Additionally, I do not recommend going
it alone - the tour guide indicated it took him six runs just to memorize
the tour route... Ironically, this is probably the coolest section of
the park during the summer - the fins place their shadows across the entire
- The next stretch of road contains several pulloffs for arch views.
The first is for Sand Dune Arch and Broken Arch. This
trail in deep, soft sand goes .5 mile (one-way). At .2 miles, the trail
splits; the right side enters an even sandier fin canyon which leads up to
Sand Dune Arch. True to its name, the arch sits in a large
accumulation of sand. A favorite of kids, but brutal for such a short
path in hot weather due to the sand. Back on the main path, another
.3 miles will take you out to Broken Arch (which is also visible in
the distance long before you go that far...).
- Just down the road from Sand Dune Arch is a gravel and dirt track
leading into Salt Valley. I have driven the road to the main Tower
Arch trailhead, but have not gone further; the road was rough, with sections
of packed sand, and others of large gravel. Several high-clearance 4WD tracks
lead off from the general area of the trailhead parking area; one goes back
to Balanced Rock, and another leads to a closer trailhead for Tower Arch.
The Tower Arch trail is 3.7 miles round-trip; immediately after leaving
the parking lot, the trail heads steeply up the side of the
Klondike Bluffs, mostly on sloped rock. Once at the top, the path
weaves down into a wash area notable for the white limestone rocks which
litter the red sandstone ground. On both sides are blocky walls of sandstone
(at the top, a small section of less stable Entrada sandstone is eroded into
a stand of hoodoos). After you cross the wash, you begin to come into view
of the Marching Men on the South (left) wall; these spires stand
freely, in contrast to much of the scenery to date. At about the same time
you see the Marching Men, you cross the wash floor and begin to head
up the other side - into some pretty serious sand dunes. Along the way up
the hill is a curiosity - an intrusion dike made of light material, sticking
up right by the trailside; it reminded me of Kodachrome Basin. At the top
of the dunes, the trail breaks away from the wash and through a small set
of fin canyons. At the far side is Tower Arch, one of the largest
in the park. The remoteness of this trail makes it an ideal spot to
escape from more crowded sections of the park, enforced by the extremely
limited number of parking spaces at the trailhead.
- Back on the main road, another small pulloff on the right marks the
trailhead to Skyline Arch. The arch is visible from the roadside,
but the trail leads up into the fin canyons for a closeup view (and a view
into Fiery Furnace, or so I am told).
- The main road ends finally at Devil's Garden. A picnic
area and campground occupy the area to the South of the parking lot, and the
Devil's Garden trail leads off to the North. The Devil's
Garden trail is a 7+ mile (round trip) variety pack. The first stretch,
.9 miles, leads out to Landscape Arch, and is well-maintained (hard
dirt with retaining walls). Along the way, a .3 mile side trail leads
to Pine Arch and Tunnel Arch. Landscape Arch
is one of the largest natural spans in the world; only a front view is now
possible of the arch - pieces of the arch are falling off, and it is not very
sturdy as arches go (I have seen a rumor that Landscape and Delicate
Arches were mis-labeled on an early map of the park, and the name switch
stuck). From Landscape, the trail goes another 1.3 miles to
Double O Arch; this section of the trail leads through fin canyons
and wanders up and over the fins themselves at spots - not for those afraid
of heights. Along the way to Double O Arch, there is another
.3 mile side trip to Navajo Arch and Partition Arch (to which
I have not been). An overlook along the path looks out to Wall Arch
- set against a heavily varnished wall. Double O Arch consists
of two arches on top of each other, and is set back in a forested cove in
the fin canyons. From here, an out-and-back trail leads to Dark
Angel; this portion of the trail is an up-and-down wandering over sand
and hard dirt, and is approximately .7 miles. Dark Angel is
a spire darkened by desert varnish, sitting alone at the end of a group of
spires and hoodoos; this area of the trail seems exceptionally desolate.
After returning to Double O Arch, you can opt to take the primitive
trail back to the parking lot; this adds another mile to the trip, over a
mixture of terrain, including a number of decents over fins and potholes -
it starts out easy, but towards the end it gets fun (read: also not for the
faint-of-heart). A side trip of about .4 miles will take you to
Private Arch - a largeish arch hiding between the fin canyons.
The primitive trail leads you back near the side trail to Pine Arch; I
don't recommend taking the trail in reverse - there are a couple of areas
with few footholds and steep grades (both were butt-slides on the way down).