For an introduction to the park’s geology and ecology, join a three-hour ranger-guided tour through the Fiery Furnace area, about 15 miles (24 kilometers) from the park’s entrance along the main road. The hike is moderately strenuous and will require some rock scrambling. To go solo through this part of the park, you will need a permit and must watch a five-minute video on safety issues before departing.
Bike along Salt Valley and Willow Springs Roads. Though you must stay on the roads, mountain bikes are the best way to travel this terrain.
If you have an hour and a half at your disposal, motor to The Windows Section of the park—the first major stop along the park's main road—to spot some of the largest arches. The two Window arches, North and South, and Turret Arch are an easy stroll from the parking lot. Across from them is large Double Arch.
If you have about three hours, continue along the main drive to the turnoff for Delicate Arch, the park’s most famous formation. You can park at Wolfe Ranch and hike 1.5 miles (2.4 kilometers) right to the arch—wear hiking boots and be prepared for some moderately strenuous ascents—or you can drive farther to the arch's roadside viewpoints, which afford vistas of the formation from a mile away. Also of interest here: the Wolfe Ranch Historical Site, a rustic pioneer settlement dating to the late 1800s.
Just outside of the park, traverse some of the quieter paved drives, like Potash Road, for a beautiful experience with less crowds. Be sure to check for road closures throughout 2017 while major construction is happening throughout the park.
Start with the mile-and-a-half (2.4-kilometer) Delicate Arch Trail, to what may be the most photographed arch in the park. National Geographic Traveler writer Charlie Kulander says seeing Delicate Arch is like seeing the "Mona Lisa" at the Louvre; “it’s great to behold—and there are so many more arches to discover.”
If you have about two hours to visit the park, hike the Windows Loop Trail for close-up views of North and South Windows and Turret Arch. Next, amble the short trail to nearby Double Arch. Later, drive back to Balanced Rock and take the loop trail around to its base.
If you have a half a day or more, sign up for a ranger-guided tour through Fiery Furnace, a labyrinth of sandstone fins and other striking red rock formations. Then drive on the main road to the park's far end (about 18 miles or 29 kilometers from the entrance gate). There take up the Devils Garden Trail, a 4.2-mile (6.8-kilometer) round-trip trek that takes hikers past Tunnel Arch, Landscape Arch (part of which sloughed off in 1991), Navajo Arch, Partition Arch, and Double O Arch. The trail is moderately rugged, so be prepared with good footwear. The scenic landscape is outstanding.
The park may appear lifeless at first blush, but look closer and you’ll see a variety of flora and fauna. All have made clever adaptations to survive in this harsh environment of ephemeral pools, dry arroyos, grasslands, and bare rocks.
Many of the park’s animals are nocturnal, including kangaroo rats, woodrats, skunks, foxes, bobcats, mountain lions, bats, and owls. Some are crepuscular—they’re most active at dawn and dusk—including mule deer, coyotes, and porcupines. Others are diurnal—most active during the day—such as squirrels, lizards, hawks, eagles, and bighorn sheep.
Plants at Arches generally fall into three categories in terms of adaptation to the environment: drought resistors, drought evaders, and drought escapers. Among them are cacti, grasses, lichens, and mosses.
Beat the sun to the park’s longest arch, Landscape Arch, to get a sunrise shot before high sun drains it of color.
As the day winds down, head over to the Windows formations and Delicate Arch to catch the rays of the setting sun at play along the prismatic sandstone of these park icons.
The park’s website provides a useful list of best photo sites by time of day. Recommended for early morning shots: Moab Fault, the Three Gossips, Sheep Rock, the Great Wall, Turret Arch, the Spectacles, Double Arch, Cache Valley, Wolfe Ranch, Landscape Arch, and Double O Arch.
In the late afternoon or early evening, stop by Park Avenue, Courthouse Towers, Petrified Dunes, Balanced Rock, the Garden of Eden, North and South Window Arches, Delicate Arch, Fiery Furnace, Skyline Arch, Devils Garden, and Tower Arch.
Smart Traveler Strategies
It is easy to forge your own way through this park, by car or bicycle. Pull-off points encourage strolls and hikes, and basic rest facilities are widely available. You can also opt for a tour organized by one of the several authorized, privately owned tour companies that operate in the park, such as Desert Highlights, NAVTEC Expeditions, and Tag-A-Long Expeditions.
Excursions Outside the Park
Arches National Park isn’t the only park in the region blessed with arches; nearby Canyonlands National Park also boasts excellent formations.
The National Park Service manages several other parks, monuments, and historic areas within a day's drive, including Aztec Ruins National Monument, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, Hovenweep National Monument, Mesa Verde National Park, and Natural Bridges National Monument.
The town of Moab is five miles (eight kilometers) south of Arches and offers just about everything a hungry, thirsty, or sleepy traveler may need, including restaurants, shops, art galleries, music festivals, accommodations, and farmers markets.
Arches National Park is located in Grand County, Utah. Check out the county’s site for other nearby attractions and special events in the region.