Length of stay: 1 day
Visited: January 2023
Arches National Park is home to more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, the largest concentration found anywhere in the world. These arches have formed over time, starting from cracks in sandstone fins that begin to widen from mechanical and chemical weathering. Besides arches, the park also contains other geological formations including spires, pinnacles, towering sandstone cliffs and balanced rocks. There is a paved scenic drive through the park that provides access to many viewpoints and hiking trails to catch a better glimpse of the desert scenery and interesting rock features.
Our game plan for the day was to see as many arches in Arches as we could. So we got an early start and arrived at the park first thing in the morning. The visitor center was still closed, so we continued along the scenic drive and planned to check it out on our drive out of the park at the end of the day.
We stopped at a series of viewpoints along the scenic drive, starting with the Park Avenue Viewpoint. From the parking lot, there’s a short path that’s paved that leads to a viewing platform of several massive sandstone fins on either side of the canyon walls. These rock formations reminded early visitors of skyscrapers lining a big city street. There’s a trail that winds down to the canyon floor to provide a closer look of the towering rock formations, but we had other plans for the day to see the arches.
Shortly after the road runs parallel to the Great Wall and there’s a series of more viewpoints of La Sal Mountains and other monoliths including The Organ, Courthouse Towers, Tower of Babel and Three Gossips.
We hopped back in the car for another few kilometres, stopping at the Balanced Rock (0.4km loop, rated easy) for a short hike. The trail is partially paved and wraps around a rock formation where the top looks like it’s balancing precariously on the lower, thinner rock pillar. It was formed as different rock layers erode at different rates. Eventually it will collapse.
From the scenic drive, the road branches off and leads to a few other viewpoints and trails. We turned right and drove to the end of the road where there’s a parking lot with access to a couple of hiking trails. We started with The Windows (1.6km loop, rated easy). The trail is short and sweet and passes the North and South Windows, two openings through the sandstone cliffs. There’s also a short detour to Turret Arch. The path then loops around the back of the Windows. This portion of the trail is considered primitive, but it was in good condition with minimal elevation gain and was super easy to navigate.
When we looped back to the parking lot, we took the short connector path to the trailhead for the Double Arch (1km round trip, rated easy). It’s a short trail through the sand that leads to the base of two giant arches that are connected at one end.
On the drive back to the main road, we stopped to check out the Garden of Eden Viewpoint that provides a closer look of a cluster of interesting rock formations.
We made another detour from the main road to check the Delicate Arch, the most iconic arch in Arches. There’s a hiking trail that starts at Wolfe Ranch that leads to the arch, but it’s rated difficult and is reputed to be icy in the winter. There are also two viewpoints of the Delicate Arch that don’t require much hiking to get to.
In the interest of time (and because we weren’t sure what the conditions were like on the trail), we opted for the easy route and went to the Lower and Upper Delicate Arch Viewpoints. From the two viewpoints, there is no access to the Delicate Arch from these trails. The path to the lower viewpoint is relatively flat and wide. It connects with the trail to the upper viewpoint that’s a bit more challenging and requires some uphill hiking. The views were okay as we were still pretty far from the Delicate Arch. This is where I wish my camera did a better job of zooming in.
We were back on the road for a short stretch before pulling over at the Fiery Furnace Viewpoint. The Fiery Furnace is a labyrinth of narrow sandstone canyons. The only way to enter is to join a ranger-led hike (which are only available spring through fall) or obtain a self-guided day-use permit. We haven’t quite mastered navigating trails in the desert and didn’t trust our ability to handle the maze-like nature of the challenging terrain, so instead we admired the views from the viewpoint. It’s good to stick to your strengths sometimes.
Most of the rocks in the park get their colour from the presence or absence of iron. When iron oxidizes it gives the rocks a red colour. The bands of white occur where water has removed the iron or bleached the rock through chemical reaction. Fiery Furnace gets its name from the warm glow seen on the red rocks as the sun sets later in the afternoon.
We made another short stop to hike to the Skyline Arch (0.6km round trip, rated easy). There’s a short path through the sand that leads to the base of a sandstone cliff with a large arch carved near the top.
We drove to the end of the road which marks the trailhead for the Devils Garden where there’s a high density of arches and other natural rock formations. There are several hiking options depending on how much time you have and how much of a challenge you’re looking for.
Our plan was to hike to Double O Arch, exploring all the various spur trails along the way. We followed along the Devils Garden Trail. The first portion of the path is wide and there are a few hilly sections, but it’s not too bad. Right away we got to start crossing some arches off our list. There’s a short side trail that leads to Tunnel Arch (0.2km one-way) and Pine Tree Arch (0.3km one-way).
Once we joined the main trail again, it’s about a kilometre to get to Landscape Arch. It spans 306 feet base to base and is the longest natural arch in the park.
After this point, the path becomes more challenging and starts with an intense climb up a steep ridge. The trail levels off and we followed the rock cairns to a junction where more arches are located in every direction.
We started with a detour to the left to check out Partition Arch, a window-like arch that overlooks the valley below and is located on the same fin as Landscape Arch, and Navajo Arch, a deeper arch-like tunnel through the rocks.
When we circled back to the junction we continued straight for the Double O Arch. This portion of the path required navigating over some ledges and slick rocks, but the path was well-signed with posts and arrows to point us in the right direction. There were some nice views of the valley below, including an overlook of Black Arch.
From Double O Arch, we took the spur trail to Dark Angel (0.8km one-way). Dark is right as the first portion is a bit sketchy. The path is narrow and super muddy, but we were committed. The path improves and leads to a ridge. As we were approaching the ridge, we were passed by a group of women who were running (!) the trail. We saw that they went down to the left of the ridge, so we figured that’s where the trail went. It wasn’t obvious how or where to scramble down the ridge, but we found a spot with some decent footholds and gave it a whirl. We then followed the footprints in the sand.
We turned a corner and found a sign that said we found something special. There was an impressive collection of petroglyphs etched into the walls of the ridge, showing signs that Native Americans have been here for thousands of years.
We kept going, not sure what we were heading towards. We continued to follow the footprints in the sand. There weren’t many of them but we knew that the group of women were still in front of us. We came across a dark rock pillar and found a sign to indicate that we had arrived at Dark Angel.
We found the main path again and followed that back to the junction for Double O Arch. The primitive trail continues onwards for a longer loop, but our navigational skills in the desert were still a bit questionable. And we were getting tired. So we turned around and headed back the way we came, but this time we didn’t have to take any of the side trails since we already hit them up on the way up.
On the drive out of the park, we made a quick stop to hike to Sand Dune Arch (0.6km round trip, rated easy). This out-and-back trail leads through the sand to an arch tucked among sandstone fins. The trail continues to Broken Arch and Tapestry Arch to form a longer loop, but at this point we were done for the day.
We hopped back in the car and started the long drive to Page, Arizona.