best day hikes

arches national park

arches national park

Arches National Park, near Moab in Utah, preserves some of the defining scenery of the American Southwest, including some two thousand natural sandstone arches. It's a relatively small park, and the most famous features are close enough to roads that you can easily see most of them in a day or two's visit. This page summarizes some of the best easy day hikes and photographic highlights of the park.

A tour of Arches in time lapse video

The Windows

the windows, arches national park

Driving from the park entrance, you pass Balanced Rock and various other canyons and rock formations to reach the first major concentration of large arches in the Windows section. No hiking is necessary here - the Windows themselves (shown in the photo to the left), Turret Arch, and the spectacular Double Arch are all within a few hundred yards of the parking lot. Unsurprisingly, this area is frequently very crowded.

The postcard image of Turret Arch seen through one of the Windows is a dawn shot, though the Windows are equally beautiful at sunset.

The Devil's Garden

The Devil's Garden section of the park lies at the end of the main paved road. The highlight of this area is the almost unbelievably fragile looking Landscape Arch, whose span of 300 feet competes with Kolob Arch (in Zion National Park) for the title of longest natural arch. It's an easy two mile round trip on a freeway of a trail to see the arch, and despite the crowds the trip should not be missed. The best light on the arch is at dawn or soon afterwards, though good photographs are hard to come by even then, since the locations close to or underneath the span which would offer the most interesting angles are off limits to hikers.

landscape arch Double O arch sandstone fins, devil's garden

Beyond Landscape Arch, a more lightly frequented trail makes a four or five mile loop across and through the sandstone fins of the Devil's Garden. Double O Arch (center photo above) is the most interesting formation along the loop, which boasts some great locations from which to see sunrise in the park. Together with the trek to Delicate Arch, this loop is the must-do hike in Arches.

Several smaller arches and more or less interesting rock formations can be reached from the Devil's Garden trail via short side trips. Most of these are worth seeing, but - as Samuel Johnson is supposed to have said of the Giants Causeway - not worth going to see. At least not if you're in a hurry.

Delicate Arch

hikers at delicate arch

Delicate Arch is the most famous feature of Arches, and the only major sight which requires a modicum of effort to visit, as it's some three miles (round trip) and 500 feet above the trailhead. The route is easy, though as there's no shade it's extremely hot during the summer. Take water, and avoid the worst heat by starting late in the day (or, better, go in the spring or fall), but do not pass up the opportunity to see the arch if at all possible. It's one of the best short hikes - and most beautiful sights - to be found in the American Southwest.

For photography, it's a safe guess that you won't find an original angle of such an iconic feature. For most of the day, in fact, you'll probably be hard pressed to photograph the arch without a crowd standing underneath mugging for the camera. The best light is invariably late in the day. The photo on the right was taken about two hours before sunset - the sandstone appears much redder closer to sundown. In winter and spring, snow on the La Sal mountains provides an interesting backdrop.

Visiting Arches and Moab, Utah

The nearest town is Moab, which has all the usual motels, shops, services etc. More unusually for this part of the world, there are even several good restaurants and bars. In addition to Arches, Moab is also the base for visiting the Island in the Sky and Needles districts of Canyonlands National Park, along with Dead Horse Point State Park and several other wilderness areas. The best long day hikes in the area are arguably to be found in the Needles district of Canyonlands - on a visit to Moab of more than a day or two I'd particularly recommend the trip to the confluence of the Green and the Colorado rivers, and the hike to Druid Arch in Elephant Canyon.

The nearest reasonably large airports are in Grand Junction (115 miles), Salt Lake City (230 miles) and Denver (350 miles). The drive from Denver on I70 across the Rockies and through Glenwood Canyon is scenic, though snow can close the road (usually briefly, but sometimes for several days) throughout the winter and into the spring.

Other places to see similar scenery in the area include Natural Bridges National Monument (the best place to stay for visiting the Monument is, alas, probably the aptly named Blanding), and the Black Ridge Canyons Wilderness, which is close to Grand Junction. Both are much less visited than Arches, and highly recommended.

Useful references

More information about Arches and the area is available from:

The official website for Arches from the National Park Service.

Arches National Park from the guide - a comprehensive web resource for the region.


photography, text and design by Phil Armitage