Rocks are weird. And also very cool. It’s amazing to me how rocks can be arranged in such a way that differences in resistance to erosion result in the formation of such incredible geological features. Exhibit A: Arches National Park, where giant sandstone arches have formed as a result of thousands of years of exposure to water and wind.
Over 2000 arches decorate the landscape in this section of southern Utah. There are also numerous other rock features – giant monoliths that rise out of nothing, groups of red rock fins that form a maze, and even a giant balanced boulder. Geologically speaking, Arches is probably the most unique place I’ve ever been.
Arches National Park is located on US Highway 191 just north of Moab, UT. An 18 mile (29 km) road leads through the park, with pullouts at various viewpoints. There are also many trails of varying lengths. As we entered the park, we came first to the visitor center. Beyond this, the road winds through a couple of switchbacks, bringing us up to the top of the plateau. From here, the terrain flattens out and the views become expansive.
As we followed the first 10 miles (16 km) of the main road, we encountered many viewpoints overlooking mountains, pinnacles, and petrified dunes. First is Park Avenue, a canyon bordered by towering red rock fins. Next is a viewpoint for the La Sal Mountains, followed by the Courthouse Towers. A moderate 1 mile (1.6 km) trail through Park Avenue connects Courthouse Towers to the Park Avenue parking area.
As we continued along the road, we passed the petrified dunes on our right and The Great Wall and a section of rock pinnacles on our left. The petrified dunes formed when ancient sand dunes were buried and solidified into stone under the pressure. The top layer then eroded away, leaving behind the hardened dunes.
Next comes Balanced Rock, which was exactly what we expected it would be and fairly impossible to miss. Bathrooms and a picnic area are located here.
Just beyond Balanced Rock, the road to The Windows section of the park branches off to the right. We headed right. This road travels past Pothole Arch and a collection of rock spires called the Garden of Eden before dead-ending at The Windows. Here, short trails lead to 4 different arches; a 1 mile (1.6 km) round-trip trail to The Windows and Turret Arch, and a 0.5 mile (0.8 km) round-trip trail to my favorite arch: Double Arch.
Back on the main park road, the remaining viewpoints are Panorama Point, Salt Valley Overlook, and Fiery Furnace Overlook. The road dead-ends at the Devil’s Garden area, from which a couple more trails depart – this area of the park will feature in a future post.
If there’s one thing we wish we’d done, it’s the ranger-led hike through the Fiery Furnace. The hike is strenuous and involves climbing over boulders, walking along ledges, and squeezing through narrow gaps. Sounds like my kind of hike! The tour costs $16 per person (for adults) and lasts three hours. Tickets for the morning tours sell out months in advance, so reservations are a must, while tickets for the afternoon tours can be purchased at the visitor center up to one week in advance. If I ever return to Arches, I’ll definitely be reserving a ticket!
Update: we returned in 2019 and toured the Fiery Furnace, and it was amazing! Read about it here.
The Important Stuff:
- Getting there: Arches is located off of US Highway 191, 4 miles (6.4 km) north of Moab, Utah
- Fees and passes: $30 per car for a 7-day pass; Interagency Passes are accepted. As of April 2022, you will also need a timed-entry permit to enter the park. These must be reserved in advance here. If you have a Fiery Furnace Reservation, you are exempt from this requirement but must have a printed copy of your reservation to show at the entrance station
- Hiking: click here for a complete Arches hiking guide
- Where to stay: Devil’s Garden is the only campground in the park (51 sites, no hookups, reservations necessary most of the year), but there are many camping options ranging from primitive to full hookups in Moab and the surrounding BLM land, and Moab has hotels, cabins, and hostels as well. Reservations are required for most of these options, but BLM campgrounds are first-come-first-serve
- Other: despite being at an elevation of 5000 feet (1525 m), Arches is in the desert. It’s hot, dry, windy, and sandy. Water supplies in the park are scarce, the sun is intense, and it’s very easy to become dehydrated. Come prepared with plenty of food, fluids, and sun protection.