I visited a lot of national parks as a kid, and my recollection was always that Arches was my favorite, so I anticipated seeing it again throughout this trip. After visiting, I determined that specific memories were quite accurate, but the park as a whole was different than I remembered.
Just a few miles outside Arches is Moab, one of the biggest tourist destinations in Utah. I knew this, but was taken aback by just how touristy it had become. The target audience here is ‘adventure tourists,’ that is, people who want to pay for guided rafting, 4×4, helicopter, ziplining, parachuting, and so on. As well as your normal tourists: the accessibility of the town, and Arches as a manageable national park less than a mile from a major interstate mean that there are some luxury hotels as well.
I’d figured September would see a drop-off in tourists as kids went back to school, but unfortunately most of the parks were just as crowded as those I saw during summer; the campgrounds of every park I stayed at in Utah filled up every night, and Arches was worst of all! I got in mid-morning and the campground was already full; it operates on a reservation system and I knew I had no hope of getting a site. I tried calling around to a bunch of budget hotels and all were completely booked up! This was on a Monday in September!
Finally I had to settle on a Motel 6, which priced out at a whopping $100/night – twice what I’d spent elsewhere. I stopped at the Arches visitor center and talked with a ranger for a while. He said that there’s BLM land abutting the park – not an official national forest, but it contains a variety of campgrounds along the Colorado river. I’d already reserved a hotel (I believe by the time I talked to him the campgrounds were already full anyway), but he showed me where they were on a map. He named each of the campgrounds (there were 4) and visibly winced when he got to the second: “Negro Bill,” which is actually an honest-to-god campground name. You’d think they could find something more suitable.
I spent the rest of the day relaxing at my pricey Motel 6, planning on grabbing a campground early the following morning and then spending the day in the park.
The town of Moab itself is about 1/4 restaurants, 1/4 hotels, 1/4 travel & adventure stores, and 1/4 actual stores. It has a vibe very similar to Jackson Hole, but the town is actually pretty ugly. Both Jackson Hole and Sedona are far more appealing.
View from my campsite at ‘Negro Bill;’ in the other direction was the Colorado river
Early the following morning I grabbed a campsite (as luck would have it, at “Negro Bill”), and then headed into Arches. It’s pretty small, a 15 mile road to the campground, with 2-3 side roads. One striking memory, of the huge looping climb from the highway and visitor center up to the main plateau, was surprisingly accurate after 15 years.
As you might expect with such a layout, the park was incredibly crowded. This was the single most overcrowded park I encountered; September is still the heart of tourist season here, and October there’s a chance of snow. I don’t know if there’s any good time to visit anymore.
Delicate Arch, see the queue to get your photo taken underneath. A tiny person under the arch itself. Rain advancing across the valley.
The most famous attraction in Arches is Delicate Arch, which is commonly seen on postcards, and which is featured on Utah license plates. And it’s deservedly famous. After a 1.5 mile climb you round a corner and are confronted with this arch. First off, it’s far larger than you’d expect: 65 feet tall. It really dwarfed the people who stood under it – there was a line of people patiently waiting to get their picture taken.
Petroglyphs on the Delicate Arch trail. The figures are on horses, so they are post-Columbian.
It’s also simply a peculiar spectacle. The arch is next to a steep cliff on one side, and a huge stone funnel on the other, and there’s no other rocks around it. It just stands there, alone. What geological process could have created it? How much stronger must the stone of the arch have been, compared to that which surrounded it?
The rain continued its pursuit of me here, and soon after arriving at Delicate Arch, clouds were rolling in. It was too far to get back to the car in time, so I simply put on my coat and pulled the cover over my backpack. The direction in which the clouds approached meant that I could watch the border of the rain as it progressed over the open ground nearby.
Large rock fins, prevalent in Devil’s Garden.
After the Delicate Arch, my next stop would be the ‘Devil’s Garden,’ at the far end of the park road. This area I also remembered from when I was younger; the campground was right next door. Here the crowds were at their most appalling. There’s a loop at the end of the road, probably about 2 miles in circumference, including a parking lot. It was completely full! There must have been at least 300-400 cars around this loop. I was able to find a spot, thankfully, but I talked to one guy who had to circle a few times before something opened up. I simply could not believe the crowds.
Double O arch – there’s a smaller arch visible underneath, about 9 feet high, which you can climb through.
The trail itself, which is comprised of a “finished” section – heavily worn and well-maintained – and a ‘primitive’ section, has a few loops and totals about 8 miles. It winds through a variety of fins and arches, and shows many of the most well-known landscape formations. But the sheer volume of people meant that the finished trail was quite congested. At times I felt I was walking on the High Line in NYC.
Landscape arch spans an entire football field
There are many arches here, the most famous being the Landscape Arch, which is 300 feet across. It’s a monumental spectacle, and this arch really defies belief. After seeing this, I continued on the primitive trail, which was probably the most technically challenging hiking I’ve done. That’s not to say it was difficult – it’s not – but it was not simply walking along, either. This primitive trail culminated in the ‘Double O’ arch, which was very impressive, as well as a spur trail to an isolated monolith, the Dark Angel.
Dark Angel monolith
The crowds weren’t as bad here and I enjoyed the hiking; scrambles that require you to use your hands are more fun than regular hiking, anyway. On the return trail there were some tough sections. The sheer rock, compounded by the layer of sand on your shoes mean that getting a grip on the rocks can be tough; some of these sections had drop-offs of 20 feet before you hit level ground.
The diciest stretch of trail in my travels. Doesn’t look bad, but the trail is in green. The red line is about 6 feet. To the left was a further drop of 20 feet into a ravine. The rock was coated in sand.
On one section, which I consider the most difficult stretch of my trip, I encountered another guy from New Jersey. He was on a business trip to Denver and had decided to stop at the park on his free day. That’s quite a commitment, as it’s a 5-hour drive to Denver! We talked for a while as we looked at the daunting stretch of trail ahead.
The primitive trail rejoins the main trail, and here I was stopped by a couple in their fifties. The woman clearly wanted to turn around, and she asked me “is there anything worth seeing down there?” I responded that there was another arch. “Is there anything special about it compared to the rest?” Yes, I responded, it’s much bigger (I was referring to Landscape Arch). With a groan she continued walking.
A short trail brings you to this pair of arches.
The fact is, Arches really has only 3 hikes: the 3-miles of Delicate Arch, the 8-miles of Devil’s Garden, and a stretch called the Fiery Furnace, which requires reservations and a ranger guide. So, if hiking at a reasonable pace, it’s possible to cover most of the park in a morning; if stopping at viewpoints you’ll take a few hours more, but there’s only a day’s worth of things to see at the park. Arches would be the perfect park to spend a relaxing few days in, but the crowds simply make that impossible.