In November of 2008 my friend Nathan and I drove across the country from New Jersey to Los Angeles. We made very few stops along the way, but one of those stops was at Arches National Park. Arches was my first introduction to what I think of as National Parks in the U.S. Sure, I had been to a few places on the east coast like Shenandoah and Valley Forge, but they didn’t resonate with me the same way. At that point my travel plans were usually focused on cities and historical sites–being from Philly will do that to you. But once I saw Arches my mind was blown wide open to the natural wonders that existed in my proverbial back yard.
Since that fateful trip I have been back to Arches at least a dozen times. While I’ve explored the rest of the country and discovered so many amazing National Parks, mountains, and natural areas this one will always hold a special place for me. It’s a relatively small park (120 square miles compared to nearby Canyonlands’ 849 square miles,) but it packs a lot into that space. Most of the trails can be hiked in a day or at least in a weekend. There’s no need to rush, and the best part about some of the trails is the solitude you get on even a busy weekend. Now that I’m spending my first full year in Utah I’ve found that the best time to go is winter.
This past weekend Becca and I decided we wanted to go to Moab to get away from the city and enjoy the beautiful weather. It’s late January and the temperatures were forecasted to be in the 50s. We drove down Friday and got a motel so we could be up bright and early for the sunrise Saturday–dark and early actually. We drove into the park and quickly “hiked” the short trail to the Windows, two large arches carved in the same sandstone fin. We climbed out through the north Window to a perch where we could see the formation just beyond that holds Turret Arch.
As we stood in the chillier-than-expected morning hue, the sun began to rise beautifully behind the distant La Sal Mountains and over towering, snow-covered hoodoos. The first sunlight on red rock is an amazing thing to witness. The dull sandstone explodes with deep red and orange color as the light slowly washes over it. Turret Arch and its surrounding spires are perfectly framed through North Window Arch as the sun rises and begins painting the Windows with morning light as well. We were joined by another photographer here, but other than a handful of people we were remarkably alone on a Saturday at one of the most popular sections of the park for sunrise. It was incredible. And we only had to ask nicely one time for those people to step out of our frame.
After warming up a bit we walked across the parking area to Double Arch, a magnificent formation of intertwining arches which captures the imagination. Standing beneath the overhanging rock is humbling and awe-inspiring. The landscape in this small area is enough to satisfy anyone’s desire for natural wonder, but it is merely a taste of what this park has to offer.
Devil’s Garden marks the end of the 18-mile park road and one of the busiest sections of the park. While there is ample parking, this area often fills up completely in warmer months. When we arrived there were 5 other cars there. I could hardly believe it. The trail through Devil’s Garden is about 7 miles if you go take all of the side trails and the primitive loop. This area has the highest concentration of arches, and if you only have time for one trail this is the one.
After just a short walk you can take a side trail to Tunnel Arch and Pine Tree Arch, which both give you a little taste of what’s to come. Less than a mile in you arrive at the appropriately-named Landscape Arch, stretching precariously across the sky. After climbing over tall rock fins that drop off steeply on either side you can take a side trail to Partition Arch, a smaller arch with a great view of the desert behind it, and Navajo Arch, a ground arch with deep reds and blacks saturating its underside. Continuing on you climb over a tall fin that allows you a sweeping view of the park below. Red rock fins rise out of the desert like battle submarines in a crimson sea. This is my favorite view on the trail.
After climbing down off this fin you will arrive at Double O Arch. I have been enamored with this arch since this first time I saw it. The trick is to walk right up to the lower portion and climb through to view it from the back side. I am never happier than when sitting here looking through this massive monument to the cascading rock formations behind it. Not only is this a great view, but it seems like few people find their way back there so it is often serene. It’s a great midpoint for a snack and a little rest. You can carry on from here to Dark Angel, a dramatic sandstone monolith rising out of the desert, on an out-and-back trail before continuing the loop.
The primitive trail begins beyond Double O Arch. This sandy wash will take you beneath, over, and beyond the fins you saw from the trail high above. There is only one side trail to Private Arch, and we were truly the only ones there for the hour we spent in that area. It’s not a standout arch like some of the others, but the solitude makes up for the lack of spectacle. You can also climb out to gorgeous views of the landscape and watch hikers high above on the fin approaching Double O. The rest of the primitive trail will take you over some of the most challenging hiking in the park, but it’s nothing most people can’t handle–a few steep drops and skirting the edge of pooled water. After some exposed desert walking with views of the La Sals you will return to the main trail back to the parking area.
There are multiple viewpoints and short walking trails to other arches along the park road to explore along the way, but everyone is turning down the road to Delicate Arch. It’s probably the most famous arch in the world but definitely in the state of Utah. It’s on our license plates. It is well known that sunset is the best time to see Delicate Arch in all its glory. The late-day light brings out the rich red-orange in an amazing way. The 1.5 mile hike allows most people to access it easily, though beyond the steep climb there were a few sections of precarious snow and ice this time.
The typically crowded viewing area was quite bare even for a winter day. We arrived early and expected to see the usual line of people queuing for photos underneath the famous arch, but we found none of that. Several people took their photos and then moved along. It was the calmest I have ever seen it, to the joy of all of the photographers present. As the sun dropped I found a different vantage point than I usually get and shot the arch from the side with the sun behind it, creating a lovely beam of light. The clouds lit up at sunset for a gorgeous backdrop to the scene and our hike back down.
On the way out of the park you will pass the Park Avenue overlook. Even if you’ve seen it in the day, the night sky through this section is especially magical. It’s easy to spend a full day in this park, and it’s hard to leave. I think what stands out about this park over others for me is the ability to interact with the rocks. You can stand beneath them, on top of them, and touch them. It feels like they are communicating with you in a manner that I haven’t experienced any other place. Whether you spend an hour, a day, or a week here you will leave feeling different every time. And you will be planning your next visit as soon as you can.