Professional photographers and camera-toting travelers flock to eastern Utah’s Arches National Park (ANP) to marvel at its striking namesake geology created by millions of years of extreme temperatures, underground salt movement and elemental erosion. With more than 2,000 arches spread across 76,519 acres of red rock and blue sky, no place on Earth hosts a higher concentration of natural sandstone archways. These “miracles of nature,” as they’ve long been hailed, span from three to a staggering 306 feet in width.
Native Americans — including Ancestral Puebloans, Archaic, Fremont and Ute peoples — inhabited the area for thousands of years (petroglyphs provide evidence of their presence). Traders and trappers rode horses through the dusty region in more recent times, but it wasn’t settled until the 1890s when disabled Civil War veteran John Wesley Wolfe and his son Fred built a log cabin and operated Wolfe Ranch. President Herbert Hoover declared the area a national monument in 1929, and it became a national park in 1971.
Decades later, in 1956 and 1957, famed nature writer and environmental activist Edward Abbey worked as a ranger in what was then a national monument perched high above the Colorado River. Abbey anointed Arches the “most beautiful place on Earth” in the opening line of Desert Solitaire, his classic memoir and love letter to red-rock country.
The grandeur of ANP’s dramatic terrain begins as soon as you enter the park and start cruising the park’s scenic drive, the main thoroughfare, swiftly ascending 500 feet over a series of winding switchbacks. Without warning, stunning geological wonders unveil themselves across the juniper-dotted red landscape: balanced rocks, fins, monoliths, petrified sand dunes, pinnacles and spires. Don’t be surprised if you feel like you’re on a movie set when you hit the road’s first straightaway. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Thelma and Louise were both filmed inside the park.
From the park’s scenic drive, you can easily experience ANP’s most significant arches and viewpoints in one day. You’ll likely have plenty of company: This awe-inspiring red-rock wonderland attracted 1.7 million people in 2021.
At the end of this story you’ll also find information on nearby Capitol Reef and Canyonlands national parks.
To control the crowds this year, ANP is introducing a new timed-entry program that will run from April 3 to Oct. 3, 2022, with reservations available three months in advance of a visit date on recreation.gov (new reservations will become available once a month; see the park’s site for details). Each reservation, which includes all passengers in a vehicle, gives entry to the park during a one-hour time slot from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (visitors can then stay as long as they like that day). Guided tours are exempt from the reservation requirement, as are those who visit on foot or bike.
Location: Eastern Utah, about 230 miles southeast of Salt Lake City
Highest point: Elephant Butte, 5,653 feet
Lowest point: Visitor Center, 4,085 feet
Miles of trails: 28
Main attraction: 2,000-plus natural sandstone arches
Cost: $30 per vehicle, valid for seven consecutive days; $20 for an annual Senior Pass (62+)
Best way to see it: By car along the scenic drive
When to go to avoid the crowds: November through February (if you want solitude and arch photos sans the tourists)
How to get in: ANP is introducing a timed-entry program in April. Visitors will be able to book park reservations three months in advance through recreation.gov
Plan Your Trip
ANP is 110 miles southwest of Grand Junction, Colorado, where you’ll find the closest major airport. Most visitors, however, fly into Salt Lake City — a larger hub with direct flights from multiple U.S. cities — and drive 230 miles southeast to the town of Moab, the gateway to the park. (Fifteen minutes outside of Moab, Canyonlands Field Airport services seasonal flights from Denver and Salt Lake City, but the schedule is limited and rental cars are in short supply).
The park is open year-round but attracts the most visitors between March and October. Peak tourist months are July and August, despite triple-digit temperatures most days. If visiting during this time, be sure to pack a hat, water bottle and sunblock. Pro tip: Arrive between 7 and 8 in the morning or 3 and 6 in the afternoon for cooler temperatures and any chance of a tourist-free arch photo; otherwise, expect long entrance lines into the park, limited parking at viewpoints and crowded trails.
April, May, September and October are the optimal time to visit, with smaller crowds and daytime temperatures ranging from the upper 50s to 80s. If you can brave the cold, November through February will reward you with big savings in Moab and plenty of solitude in the park.
No matter when you visit, dress in layers because you’re in the high desert (4,085 feet elevation at the park entrance), where temperatures can fluctuate as much as 40 degrees on a given day and are considerably cooler morning and evening.
Five miles north of Moab, the park’s lone visitor center sits directly off U.S. Route 191, just beyond the main entrance. Here, fill up your water bottle, shop for souvenirs in the bookstore, pick up free maps and learn about ranger-led programs scheduled spring through fall.
There are no shuttles or public transportation to or in ANP, so you’ll need your own vehicle. The 18-mile-long scenic drive runs through the heart of the park, beginning at the entrance and ending at the Devils Garden Trailhead. The picturesque route provides access to ANP’s most outstanding rock formations and trailheads, plus panoramas of the snowcapped La Sal Mountains. You can drive it in about three hours, including 10-minute stops at each viewpoint. Be sure to start early in the day, as parking lots along the way get crowded quickly.
There’s limited cellphone reception in the park.
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Where to stay and eat
You won’t find lodging options in ANP, and it has only one campground: the 51-site Devils Garden, a stunning spot to sleep between slickrock ledges. Reservations ($25 a night for a 10-person, two-vehicle site) can be made six months in advance nps.gov/arch) for camping March through October; it’s first- come, first-served the rest of the year. Facilities include barbecue grills, potable water and both flush and pit-style toilets, but no showers or hookups.
The secluded Kayenta Campground at Dead Horse Point State Park ($20 per vehicle) is about a half-hour’s drive from ANP on the edge of Canyonlands National Park. Its 21 quiet campsites, tucked within a juniper grove, are open for tents ($35 per night) and RVs ($50 per night). The adjacent Wingate Campground, atop a mesa, has 31 campsites for tents and RVs and extensive views of the surrounding mountains and canyons. You can find various places to pop your tent or park your RV on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property, too, such as the Sand Flats Recreation Area near Moab, where 140 individual campsites ($15 per night) are spread across nine campgrounds ranging from 4,500 feet to 5,700 feet in elevation. For additional amenities, head to the Moab Valley RV Resort & Campground (from $36 a night) for a pool and hot tub.
Dozens of lodging options, from name-brand hotels to upscale resorts, are available in and around Moab. Spacious modern bungalows make Moab Springs Ranch ideal for families. For safari-style glamping, Under Canvas Moab has you covered.
There are no restaurants or concessions in the park, so pack a lunch or bring snacks. Enjoy your meal break at the scenic Devils Garden picnic area, with charcoal grills, shaded tables to dodge the hot desert sun, and wheelchair-accessible restrooms. It’s right off the scenic drive.
Fuel up for a day in the park with breakfast in Moab. Order avocado toast at Moab Garage Co., a hip café on Main Street. Or travel up the road for a breakfast burrito or quinoa bowl at Love Muffin; these are favorites with locals and there’s always a line, so arrive early. For lunch, Milt’s Stop & Eat, an old-fashioned fast-food stand, has been slinging cheeseburgers, fries and hand-spun milkshakes since 1954. Come dinnertime, Sabaku Sushi serves up tasty sushi; try the elk tataki. For Thai, head to Arches Thai or Thai Bella. For Italian, order the funghi pie (a mushroom lover’s dream) at Antica Forma, which serves wood-fired Neapolitan pizza.
Things to do
See the main arches: You can see most of ANP’s grandest structures via access roads directly off the scenic drive. From the parking lots at each archway, short walking trails lead to up-close views.
Freestanding 52-foot-tall Delicate Arch, which adorns Utah’s state license plate, is one of the world’s most recognized geological features. To marvel at what Abbey called “a weird, lovely, fantastic object,” park in the Wolfe Ranch parking lot (13 miles from the park entrance) and hike the Delicate Arch Trail, a 1.5-mile climb up a slickrock slope with 480 feet of elevation. For a less-grueling alternative, park one mile up the road in the Delicate Arch Viewpoint lot. From there, a flat 50-yard (and wheelchair-accessible) trail takes you to the Lower Delicate Arch Viewpoint, where you can see the arch from a mile away. The Upper Delicate Arch Viewpoint requires a moderately challenging half-mile walk but gets you that much closer.
Twelve miles from the park entrance, the Windows Section contains the best concentration of ANP’s most mesmerizing formations. “Delicate Arch is the busiest spot in the park, but the Windows Section is the park highlight,” says Brian Martinez, of Navtec Expeditions, a tour operator in the park. “I’ve lived here for 20 years, and I still get giddy and antsy when I see it.”
A gentle half-mile trail from the Windows Section parking lot (the first 100 yards are wheelchair-friendly) takes you to North and South windows, also known as “the spectacles” because they look like a pair of reading glasses from afar. Stand inside the North Window’s 90-foot-wide mouth and admire the glistening peaks of the distant La Sal Mountains on your left; then look right and snap a panoramic shot of the towering spire protecting nearby Turret Arch.
Elsewhere in the Windows Section is Double Arch, easily accessible via a quarter-mile trail on the parking lot’s north side. Formed by water erosion from above, two arches share the same foundational stone, with the southern span holding claim to the park’s tallest arch opening at 112 feet. “You really need to stand underneath Double Arch to appreciate it,” says Martinez of the gyroscopic structure. Scenes from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Thelma and Louise were filmed in this exact location.
At the end of the scenic drive, in the Devils Garden area, Landscape Arch’s staggering 306-foot-wide light opening (longer than a football field) is the widest span of any arch in North America. An easy 1.6-mile round-trip hike on the first portion of the Devils Garden Trail takes you to the razor-thin formation.
Go hiking: Aside from the 3-mile round trip to Delicate Arch, the park’s signature attractions can be seen from flat, short trails.
For a lengthier, moderately difficult hike with a little bit of rock scrambling, tackle the complete Devils Garden Trail, a 7.9-mile loop in the back of the park alongside spires and pine trees with spurs that lead to eight archways, including the lesser-visited Double O Arch and Navajo Arch. Insider tip: Hike this trail counterclockwise so you end at Landscape Arch.
For something truly special, sign up for a ranger-led hike ($16) through the Fiery Furnace, a 2-mile, three-hour adventure through an isolated labyrinth of canyons, fins and body-scraping passageways. Offered daily March through October, you’ll need to reserve your ticket online at nps.gov) as spots typically fill up a couple of months in advance. (Note: In a fragile ecosystem like ANP, one errant footprint can cause years of damage. Martinez likes to remind all visitors to “stay on the trail and don’t bust the crust!” Cryptobiotic crusts are an amalgamation of green algae, fungi and other tiny organisms that hold the soil together and prevent erosion).
The wheelchair-accessible Park Avenue Trail, with its skyscraper-canyon walls, is one of the most beautiful walks at ANP. The easy stroll (2-mile round trip) along the valley floor gives you a close-up of the Courthouse Towers, towering stone columns that shoot from the desert like a NASA rocket.
Discover unique (non-arch) geology: Archways are ANP’s marquee attraction, but its other head-turning geological features deserve attention, too.
As you cruise the scenic drive, it’s hard to miss the Three Penguins, the park’s first significant sandstone tower (130 feet tall), which hovers above the visitor center and resembles a marching trio of the tuxedoed seabirds.
To the south of Double Arch, the Parade of Elephants — a lone section of sandstone shaped like a single-file herd of elephants parading through the desert — would make Michelangelo envious of nature’s ability to sculpt a masterpiece.
Balanced Rock (nine miles from the park entrance), a giant chunk of sandstone standing 128 feet tall, sits atop an eroding pedestal of mudstone like a sundae cherry. You can see it from the scenic drive, but hike the short 0.3-mile trail around its base to fully grasp its size and beauty.
Stargaze: On a clear night, a wealth of stars can be seen from anywhere in ANP, a certified “dark sky” destination. During the summer months, rangers lead one- to three-hour stargazing sessions that include constellation talks and telescope viewing at Panorama Point (11 miles from the park entrance). Reservations aren’t necessary, but check with the visitor center for an updated schedule.
More Parks Nearby
Take in more natural beauty at two other national parks within driving distance of ANP: Canyonlands National Park (26 miles southwest of ANP) and Capitol Reef National Park (132 miles southwest of ANP).
Canyonlands National Park
Vast mesas, ethereal pinnacles, canyon mazes and remote backcountry buttes paint the sprawling red-rock hinterland of Canyonlands National Park (CNP). Even though it’s Utah’s largest national park, the 337,598-acre desert wilderness attracts fewer than half the visitors of nearby Arches, which is less than a quarter its size.
CNP is divided into three land districts split by the Colorado and Green rivers: Island in the Sky, the Needles and the Maze, spread apart by miles of roadless red rock. (Visitors must return to U.S. Route 191 and drive to the different park sections, which takes anywhere from two to six hours).
More than three-quarters of visitors go to the Island in the Sky district, where the 34-mile scenic drive is the park’s best sightseeing option. The high mesa, cradled by the confluence of the rivers, rests atop a sandstone bench — the White Rim — that rises 1,000 feet above the surrounding terrain. “Mesa Arch and the Green River Overlook are the best viewpoints, with Green River being the best for photography,” says Brian Martinez, with Navtec Expeditions. A short half-mile loop trail (not wheelchair-accessible) takes you to Mesa Arch, the park’s signature vista at the edge of a cliff. The Green River Overlook, ideal at sunset, provides a rooftop view of one of CNP’s powerful riverways.
The park offers ranger-led talks spring through fall at the Grand View Point Overlook (accessible to wheelchairs), a sweeping panorama of the CNP’s multilayered geology. And do stop at the Shafer Canyon Viewpoint for a bird’s-eye view of the snaking 18-mile Shafer Trail, a cliff-hanging dirt road with steep drop-offs that descends 1,500 feet to the canyon floor.
For backcountry exploration, head to the Needles district, a two-hour drive away. The park’s southeast corner, named for the multicolored sandstone spires that skyrocket from the desert floor, is home to 74 miles of trails, ranging from short interpretive loops to heart-pumping day hikes.
The Maze district exemplifies some of the Lower 48’s most untrodden terrain. Located on the other side of the Green and Colorado rivers, getting there requires a nearly six-hour drive from Moab. For unmatched solitude in the Maze’s wilds, an experienced guide is highly recommended.
Capitol Reef National Park
You haven’t landed on Mars, but don’t be shocked if your first glimpse of Capitol Reef National Park (CRNP), with its otherworldly canyons and miles upon miles of rusty desert hues, feels like a mission to the Red Planet.
“What makes the park unique is the Waterpocket Fold and the topography that resulted from that,” says Rick Stinchfield, a volunteer park ranger. Created by a buckle in the Earth’s surface, the park’s defining geologic feature stretches nearly 100 miles, running north-south from Thousand Lake Mountain to Lake Powell. The fold, rising from the desert like a massive ocean break destined for the coast, is one of the largest and best exposed monoclines in North America. When the uplift fired some 65 million years ago, it left behind a dramatic landscape of jagged cliffs and giant monoliths.
The best way to see CRNP? Driving along Scenic Drive (directly off state Route 24), an 8-mile route that begins near the visitor center and runs through the heart of the park. Besides the fold, you’ll see Cassidy Arch, named after Butch Cassidy, who is said to have hidden here following his first bank robbery; the slot canyon at Capitol Gorge, with its rain-filled water pockets known as the “Tanks”; and the resplendent 7,041-foot Golden Throne dome.
For million-dollar views of one the park’s largest sandstone monoliths, the challenging 4-mile Golden Throne Trail is a stunning hike. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot one of the park’s 20-something desert bighorn sheep.
Other must-see sites: Capitol Dome, a majestic white sandstone formation towering 800 feet above the road; thousand-year-old petroglyphs; Chimney Rock, an eroded sandstone pillar with a 6,420-foot summit; the 133-foot-long natural sandstone Hickman Bridge; and the Goosenecks Overlook, a striking viewpoint more than 800 feet above a serpentine canyon.
T.J. Olwig is a St. Louis-based travel writer who has penned stories for BBC Travel, Delta Sky, Missouri Life and Virtuoso Life.