Arches National Park is one of the highlights of touring Utah’s The Mighty 5®. On our guided van trip out of Salt Lake City with Southwest Adventure Tours, we explored five breathtaking national parks: Canyonlands, Arches, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion.
Our first day we explored the vast vistas of Canyonlands National Park. We eagerly anticipated seeing Arches National Park, especially the iconic Delicate Arch depicted on Utah’s license plates and on the side of our touring van.
About Arches National Park
We put on our hiking boots and headed out early for Arches National Park, just outside our home base of Moab. Arches National Park is known for the 2,000 plus arches found within its borders—the highest density of natural arches in the world.
Arches sits on an underground salt bed, deposited across the Colorado Plateau 300 million years ago when the area was actually a sea. Rock eventually formed over the soft salt bed. Shifting rock on the salt bed, erosion from winds and water, and underground faults created the geological masterpieces known as arches, windows, and fins.
We encountered evidence of the upheaval and petrified sand dunes. We also learned that the landscape continues to shift, change, and erode. In fact, a huge rock slab fell from the underside of Landscape Arch back in 1991 and Wall Arch fell in 2008.
Hiking to Delicate Arch in Arches National Park
We drove through Arches National Park marveling at the sights… balanced rock, the distant sandstone windows, and the tall formation known as the Three Gossips. Our goal was to hike to Delicate Arch before the crowds arrived. It is a well-known arch, so the parking lot can fill up by mid-morning. Our guide told us that the Olympic Torch passed through the arch on its way to Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Olympics.
I was intrigued by the green layer in the nearby layered sandstone beautifully contrasting with the red rock layers. Our guide told us it was Glauconite, a greenish-gray iron-rich clay mineral associated with ocean sedimentation.
Even though the park has created wide, compacted trails for the beginning ascent, it's not an easy hike to the arch—a total of about three miles round trip. After hiking up the rolling dirt trail, hikers hit the long sandstone hill also known as Slickrock. At that point, cairns—stacks of rocks—mark the trail to the arch on a steady incline.
It was at that point, as we were admiring the surprising appearance of pink quartz boulders, that I opted to walk back and forgo seeing the arch up close. Despite having my hiking boots on, plenty of water, and a collapsible hiking stick, the 5,000 ft. altitude was taking its toll. I wasn’t excited about the Slickrock, either.
Some of our hardier travel companions continued on and had great photos to show for it, along with a real sense of accomplishment.
I meandered back down the trail, enjoying the vistas, the smell of the desert that comes only after a spring rain, and visited easily accessible points of interest.
From the trailhead, you can walk to the remains of the John Wesley Wolfe Ranch, which was abandoned in the early 20th century. There were two log structures—one partially underground while the other was reportedly more suited to Mrs. Wolfe who didn’t like the small cabin's dirt floor.
Just past that homestead, cross Salt Wash on a bridge and, to the left, there's a Ute petroglyph panel. It was easy to see the depiction of horned sheep and a rider.
Discovering the Wonders of Arches National Park
We wound our way further into the park as our driver pointed out the formations and popular areas … Park Avenue, Windows Section, Balanced Rock, Courthouse Wash, the Petrified Sand Dunes, Fiery Furnace, Double O Arch, and others. There were several photography stops and surprises at every turn.
Fortunately, our guide/driver Dennis knew that lines could form getting into Arches and knew what time to be there. Check the Arches National Park website for current road conditions before you visit.
We went into the park twice… once, early in the morning and again after lunch. It worked out well.
Best of Our Adventure in Arches National Park
One of our travel companions raved about an area called Park Avenue. I was happy to hear that our next hike was one way through the canyon—possible if you had a driver/guide as we did. It was one of the most beautiful one-mile hikes I have ever taken. Since our driver let us off at the highest point of the hike, we walked down into the canyon for the entire hike, making it very easy.
All around us were sheer rock walls, interesting rippled sandstone, gnarled trees, and the first of the spring wildflowers. This fairly easy hike was my wow moment of the day and one I’d recommend it for anyone visiting Arches.
As I walked, I got a sense of how this area got the name of Park Avenue. If you’ve walked the streets of New York City, you feel the immensity of the buildings on both sides of the avenue just as we were felt the immensity of the cliffs around us.
We took our time because there was so much to see. In the end, as we came out of the canyon, we saw the well-known rock formation, The Three Gossips. Our van was waiting at the end of the trail and we were off to discover more of the beauty and intrigue of Arches National Park.
Moab Dining and Shopping
After a wonderful morning of touring and hiking it was back to Moab and a hearty lunch at the Moab Brewery, the only microbrewery in town. It’s a fun place with bicycles hanging from the ceiling and a cool gear store. I opted for the special of the day, a chicken cordon bleu sandwich. By the way, their fries are excellent!
After that, our driver dropped us off at the intriguing Moab Rock Shop where some of us were looking for gifts to take home. They had rocks and minerals from all over the world, mining memorabilia and local Utah rocks and fossils. Yes, Moab had galleries and gift shops, but I was on the hunt for some interesting rocks to take home. I had been inspired by the local geology.
After going through the shop, I decided on a beautiful grey-blue geode from nearby Moki Dugway, a cool and fairly scary road full of switchbacks. I discovered Moki Dugway near Medicine Hat on a previous trip with a friend who had a reliable Jeep.
And, after all that hiking and shopping, in the evening we walked from our hotel to Fiesta Mexicana. It was an ideal spot for a refreshing Margarita and delicious Mexican-American dinner. Did you catch our earlier adventures at Fiesta Mexicana during our visit to Canyonlands National Park?
About Southwest Adventure Tours
Southwest Adventure Tours is a Utah based business providing individuals and groups with scenic, photography, and adventure tours throughout the Southwestern US. Their specialty is small group experiences… usually between 14 and 25 passengers. They offer a wide range of multi-day tours and day tours from Las Vegas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and other local areas adjacent to the National Parks. Our group numbered six and we enjoyed the comfort of a new Mercedes touring van with driver/guide. Our guide took care of all the details and made sure that everyone, no matter what their physical ability, had an enjoyable adventure along the way.
The next day we headed to Capitol Reef National Park.
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with tour, accommodations and meals for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.