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Copyright 2002-2015
Leslie M. Barstow III

Arches National Park

Why Visit?  Park Info  Tour Guide  When To Visit  Photo Tips  Nature  Photo Gallery

[Picture: Wintery Landscape]

A plea of caution before you step off into this desert wonderland: the desert soil is very fragile. In some spots you will be walking on deep, soft sand; these sandy patches may be the result of wind gathering the sand into one spot, but they may also be the result of too much human interference. Where the sand is not loose, a crust of symbiotic micro-organisms (cyanobacteria, moss, and fungus) holds the desert together, collecting moisture and preventing the sand from overwhelming the plants in the area. This cryptobiotic crust is fragile, and takes decades to recover from a single footstep - stay on the paths and off of the crust. If you are for some reason not on a path (or cannot find it), travel in the washes or on the slickrock.

The park is on a plateau above the city of Moab, and your first introduction to the park is a winding road leading up the side of the canyon.  The Great Wall - a towering series of red Entrada slickrock sandstone walls - imposes itself over your car as you begin the drive. Near the bottom, The Penguins stand out from the Great Wall - climbers may sometimes be seen climbing the Penguins. From here, the tour is arranged by road turnoff points.
Moab FaultThe first stop - a sign explaining the Moab Fault - is probably only of interest to those with a geological bent, though it also offers a long view back into the Moab area.
Park AvenueThe second stop is a major one (as evidenced by the parking lot).  You can see from your first view that the area is aptly named - Park Avenue.   Walls of sandstone tower over the descending path; runoff from rainstorms has carved a fine wash between these impressive fins.  A one mile path leads down to the far end of the Avenue - hikers can return via the path or arrange to be picked up at the far end.  The trail is typical for the park - unimproved, with cairns (small piles of stone) marking the trail when it crosses over sandstone.
La Sal MountainsThe third stop provides a good view across the desert plateau to the La Sal Mountains.  This pulloff also offers signs pointing out various formations in the area.
Courthouse TowersAs you wind your way down past several monoliths, you'll approach the stop at Courthouse Towers.  This stop is also the bottom of the Park Avenue trail.  The towers are monuments named for their tops, which resemble the jurors in a court.  The Tower of Babel and the Organ form the southern monument. Across the way are the Three Gossips - just past the end of Park Avenue - three (actually four, but one is behind the others) spires at the top of this monument appear to be figures facing one another.  To the right of the Three Gossips is Sheep Rock.
Courthouse WashCourthouse Wash is a large - usually dry - riverbed. The parking lot here is for hikers wishing to follow the wash into the Petrified Sand Dunes all the way back to Moab.
Petrified Sand DunesThe next stop on the road is a lookout over the Petrified Sand Dunes.  These Navajo Sandstone formations are the remains of a great dune field; the lookout has views across to the Windows area of the park and the La Sal Mountains.
Balanced RockThe road then goes for a ways without a major stop.  Eventually, you'll approach the stop at Balanced Rock.   There are a lot of balanced rocks in the desert, but this one seems somehow more impressive than most.  It used to have a companion, but it fell over some years ago.  There is a short, handicapped-accessible trail leading around the rock.
Windows TurnoffA right turn just after Balanced Rock leads to the Garden of Eden and the Windows area of the park.  This section of the park is densely packed with spires, hoodoos, and arches, and most of it is easily viewed from the car and viewpoints.  Among the sites without pullouts are Ham Rock (look up - it's the one shaped like a half-ham) and Pothole Arch (marked with a sign - pothole arches are horizontal, caused by swirling water or whirlwinds drilling a hole through the rock).
Garden of Eden A stop just after you turn into the Windows side road offers a view of the Garden of Eden.  This is a jumble of spires and hoodoos, with some fin canyons thrown in for good measure.  There are no trails here, just the overlook.
[Picture: Mists of Eden
Cove of Caves The road winds further along, and you come to a stop for Cove Arch viewpoint and the Cove of Caves.  Geologically, this viewpoint is interesting because it shows the different stages of arch evolution.  Photogenically, there isn't much to see at this stop and I usually pass it by.
The WindowsThe end of the road leads to a massive parking lot at The Windows.  From here you can take two trails.

A short (.2 mile round) trail leads to Double ArchDouble Arch is one of the more famous arches in the park, with its twin, angled arches; the trail leads through deep sand, but has been improved somewhat with retaining boards.

The Windows trail leads (.2 miles) to North Window and then (another .1 mile) to South Window; the trail is of hard-packed dirt with wood retainer walls, and is largely uphill (very wide, shallow steps).  These arches are solidly in the middle of a fin wall - hence the "window" appellation - and the ridge between them has given them a second nickname - The Spectacles.  Also off of this trail is Turret Arch (a .1 mile side trail).  A .3 mile "primitive trail" leads around the back of the arches and back to the parking lot between the two main trails; the primitive trail leads over rock, sand, and hard dirt.

In the background of The Windows and Turret Arch is the La Sal Mountains - very scenic, especially at sunset.
Panorama PointYour tour at this point will lead you back to the main road, and on towards the north end of the park.  You'll come to a stop labelled Panorama Point, which has a view of the Cache Valley Wash, the Fiery Furnace, and the Colorado River canyons in the background.  The best part of the view is probably the polychromatic hills, stained blue, black, and green from mineral stains and the cryptobiotic crust.
Delicate Arch Turnoff A small side road leads out to Wolfe Ranch and the Delicate Arch parking lots.  There are two stops, after which the road continues as a 4WD track.
Delicate ArchThe Wolfe Ranch/Delicate Arch trail is 3.2 miles round-trip from the parking lot:
  • Almost immediately the trail comes to the old Wolfe Ranch buildings with their dessicated wood walls and sod roofing.
  • Just past the ranch a small side trail leads out to a pair of petroglyph panels - one of a solitary figure, the other of a herd of antelope and a horse rider.
  • After that, the path wanders through an eroded wash area before climbing the slickrock. This area is rich in Chert - a fine-grained silica favored by Native Americans for use as arrowheads.
  • More than half of the trail is on the slickrock, and it's all uphill with no cover from the sun - you did remember that water, didn't you?
  • Towards the top there is a short area where you walk along a three-foot wide ledge - cliff wall on one side, dropoff on the other.  An arch immediately up the cliff wall peeks through to a view of Delicate Arch (not too hard of a climb).  Across the canyon to your left at this point at about 11 o'clock is another large arch.
  • Finally, just around the corner up the hill you come to the Delicate Arch area.   The Arch itself sits alone on a ridge of sandstone; to one side are a couple of formations which elsewhere in the region are labelled "teepees" or "haystacks"; in front of the Arch is a depression, while beyond the Arch is a view of the La Sal Mountains.
Delicate Arch Viewpoint The Delicate Arch Viewpoint trail has a decent view of the arch - perched alone on top of a sandstone swell - but the view is pretty distant.  On the bright side, it is a reasonable walk on a handicapped-accessible trail.  If you are not planning on the difficult hike up to the Arch itself, this trail is a must - Delicate Arch is the symbol of the park, one of the Utah state symbols, and (for 2002) the picture on the National Park Pass (in short, it is very famous).
Salt Valley Overlook Moving on down the main road, you come to a pulloff for the Salt Valley Overlook.  There isn't a lot to see here aside from the desert valley of the Salt Valley Wash.
Fiery FurnaceShortly after the Salt Valley Overlook, you come to the turnoff for Fiery Furnace.  This area of the park is largely uncharted - no trail maps exist of the maze of fin canyons and spires here, no GPS signals reach the depths of the canyons, and there are no marked trails.  Much of the area is solid sandstone, and most of the rest is soft sand which is occasionally wiped clean by runoff from thunderstorms.  So why is this parking lot here?  The park offers guided tours in the warmer months of the year, and you can get a permit to walk through the area if you desire.  I highly recommend the guided tour; it was about 3 hours of adventurous exploration - hidden arches, narrow canyons, and good information.  The tour is not for those with a fear of heights or closed in spaces; there were several walks across narrow ledges and several sections where you shuffle and chimney through narrow canyon slots.  Additionally, I do not recommend going it alone - the tour guide indicated it took him six runs just to memorize the tour route...  Ironically, this is probably the coolest section of the park during the summer - the fins place their shadows across the entire area.
Sand Dune & Broken Arches The next stretch of road contains several pulloffs for arch views.  The first is for Sand Dune Arch and Broken Arch.  This trail in deep, soft sand goes .5 mile (one-way).  At .2 miles, the trail splits; the right side enters an even sandier fin canyon which leads up to Sand Dune Arch.  True to its name, the arch sits in a large accumulation of sand.  A favorite of kids, but brutal for such a short path in hot weather due to the sand.  Back on the main path, another .3 miles will take you out to Broken Arch (which is also visible in the distance long before you go that far...).
Salt Valley Road Just down the road from Sand Dune Arch is a gravel and dirt track leading into Salt Valley.  I have driven the road to the main Tower Arch trailhead, but have not gone further; the road was rough, with sections of packed sand, and others of large gravel. Several high-clearance 4WD tracks lead off from the general area of the trailhead parking area; one goes back to Balanced Rock, and another leads to a closer trailhead for Tower Arch.
Klondike Bluffs The Tower Arch trail is 3.7 miles round-trip:
  • Immediately after leaving the parking lot, the trail heads steeply up the side of the Klondike Bluffs, mostly on sloped rock.
  • Once at the top, the path weaves down into a wash area notable for the white limestone rocks which litter the red sandstone ground. On both sides are blocky walls of sandstone (at the top, a small section of less stable Entrada sandstone is eroded into a stand of hoodoos).
  • After you cross the wash, you begin to come into view of the Marching Men on the South (left) wall; these spires stand freely, in contrast to much of the scenery to date.
  • At about the same time you see the Marching Men, you cross the wash floor and begin to head up the other side - into some pretty serious sand dunes.  Along the way up the hill is a curiosity - an intrusion dike made of light material, sticking up right by the trailside; it reminded me of Kodachrome Basin.
  • At the top of the dunes, the trail breaks away from the wash and through a small set of fin canyons. At the far side is Tower Arch, one of the largest in the park.
The remoteness of this trail makes it an ideal spot to escape from more crowded sections of the park, enforced by the extremely limited number of parking spaces at the trailhead.
Skyline ArchBack on the main road, another small pulloff on the right marks the trailhead to Skyline Arch.  The arch is visible from the roadside, but the trail leads up into the fin canyons for a closeup view (and a view into Fiery Furnace, or so I am told).
Devil's GardenThe main road ends finally at Devil's Garden.  A picnic area and campground occupy the area to the South of the parking lot, and the Devil's Garden trail leads off to the North.  The Devil's Garden trail is a 7+ mile (round trip) variety pack:
  • After starting out with a nice walk in a short fin canyon, a .2 mile side trail leads to Pine Arch and Tunnel Arch. Pine Arch is a large arch with a number of twisted pine trees; Tunnel Arch sits high on the wall of a fin canyon.
  • Back on the main trail, .9 miles into the hike, is Landscape Arch. The trail to this point is easy and well-maintained (hard dirt with retaining walls).  Landscape Arch is, at 306 feet, the largest natural span in the world; at its narrowest, it is only 11 feet thick!  Please respect the park signs warning you to stay away from the arch; it is very unstable - in fact, the original survey maps listed this arch as Delicate Arch - a future map maker reversed the labels.
  • Just past Landscape Arch there is another .3 mile side trip to Navajo Arch and Partition Arch (to which I have not been).
  • From Landscape Arch, the trail goes another 1.3 miles to Double O Arch; this section of the trail leads through fin canyons and wanders up and over the fins themselves at spots - not for those afraid of heights.  An overlook along the path looks out to Wall Arch - set against a heavily varnished wall.
  • Double O Arch consists of two arches on top of each other, and is set back in a forested cove in the fin canyons.
  • From here, an out-and-back trail leads to Dark Angel; this portion of the trail is an up-and-down wandering over sand and hard dirt, and is approximately .7 miles.  Dark Angel is a spire darkened by desert varnish, sitting alone at the end of a group of spires and hoodoos; this area of the trail seems exceptionally desolate.
  • After returning to Double O Arch, you can opt to take the primitive trail back to the parking lot; this adds another mile to the trip, over a mixture of terrain, including a number of decents over fins and potholes - it starts out easy, but towards the end it gets fun (read: also not for the faint-of-heart).
  • If you take the primitive trail, a side trip of about .4 miles will take you to Private Arch - a largeish arch hiding between the fin canyons. Several other lesser-known arches are also accessed from the primitive trail.
  • The primitive trail leads you back near the side trail to Pine Arch; I don't recommend taking the trail in reverse - there are a couple of areas with few footholds and steep grades (both were butt-slides on the way down).