The Complete Guide to Arches National Park

View jaw-dropping sandstone archways in a red-rock wonderland plus nearby Canyonlands and Capitol Reef

Professional photographers and camera-toting travelers flock to eastern Utah’s Arches National Park to marvel at its striking namesake geology created by millions of years of extreme temperatures, underground salt movement, and elemental erosion. With more than 2,000 arches spread across 76,519 acres of red rock and blue sky, no place on Earth hosts a higher concentration of natural sandstone archways. These miracles of nature as they’ve long been hailed span from three to a staggering 306 feet in width.

Native Americans including Ancestral Puebloans, Archaic, Fremont, and Ute peoples inhabited the area for thousands of years (petroglyphs provide evidence of their presence). Traders and trappers rode horses through the dusty region in more recent times but it wasn’t settled until the 1890s when disabled Civil War veteran John Wesley Wolfe and his son Fred built a log cabin and operated Wolfe Ranch. President Herbert Hoover declared the area a national monument in 1929 and it became a national park in 1971.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Decades later in 1956 and 1957 famed nature writer and environmental activist Edward Abbey worked as a ranger in what was then a national monument perched high above the Colorado River. Abbey anointed Arches the most beautiful place on Earth in the opening line of Desert Solitaire, his classic memoir and love letter to red-rock country.

The grandeur of Arches National Park’s dramatic terrain begins as soon as you enter the park and begin cruising the park’s scenic drive, the main thoroughfare swiftly ascending 500 feet over a series of winding switchbacks. Without warning, stunning geological wonders unveil themselves across the juniper-dotted red landscape: balanced rocks, fins, monoliths, petrified sand dunes, pinnacles, and spires.

Don’t be surprised if you feel like you’re on a movie set when you hit the road’s first straightaway. Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Thelma and Louise were both filmed inside the park.

From the park’s scenic drive, you can easily experience Arches National Parks’s most significant arches and viewpoints in one day. You’ll likely have plenty of company: This awe-inspiring red-rock wonderland attracted 1.4 million people in 2023.

At the end of this article you’ll also find information on nearby Capitol Reef and Canyonlands national parks.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Reservations

To control the crowds, Arches reintroduced a timed-entry program that runs from April 1 to October 31, 2023 with reservations available three months in advance of a visit date on recreation.gov (new reservations will become available once a month; see the park’s site for details). Each reservation which includes all passengers in a vehicle gives entry to the park during a one-hour time slot from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. daily (visitors can then stay as long as they like that day). Guided tours are exempt from the reservation requirement as are those who visit on foot or bike.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Plan your trip

Most visitors to Arches National Park drive 230 miles southeast from Salt Lake City to the town of Moab, the gateway to the park.

The park is open year-round but attracts the most visitors between March and October. Peak tourist months are July and August despite triple-digit temperatures most days. If visiting during this time be sure to pack a wide-brimmed hat, water bottle, and sunblock.

Pro tip: Arrive between 7 and 8 in the morning or 3 and 6 in the afternoon for cooler temperatures and any chance of a tourist-free arch photo; otherwise, expect long entrance lines into the park, limited parking at viewpoints, and crowded trails.

April, May, September, and October are the optimal time to visit with smaller crowds and daytime temperatures ranging from the upper 50s to 80s. If you can brave the cold, November through February will reward you with big savings in Moab and plenty of solitude in the park.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

No matter when you visit, dress in layers because you’re in the high desert (4,085 feet elevation at the park entrance) where temperatures can fluctuate as much as 40 degrees on a given day and are considerably cooler morning and evening.

Five miles north of Moab, the park’s lone visitor center sits directly off U.S. Route 191 just beyond the main entrance. Here, fill up your water bottle, shop for souvenirs in the bookstore, pick up free maps, and learn about ranger-led programs scheduled spring through fall.

There are no shuttles or public transportation to or in Arches so you’ll need your own vehicle. The 18-mile-long scenic drive runs through the heart of the park beginning at the entrance and ending at the Devils Garden Trailhead. The picturesque route provides access to Arches’s most outstanding rock formations and trailheads plus panoramas of the snowcapped La Sal Mountains.

You can drive it in about three hours including 10-minute stops at each viewpoint.  Be sure to start early in the day as parking lots along the way get crowded quickly.

There’s limited cellphone reception in the park.

Devils Garden Campground, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Where to stay and eat

You won’t find lodging options in Arches National Park and it has only one campground: the 51-site Devils Garden a stunning spot to sleep between slickrock ledges in your RV or tent. Reservations ($25 a night for a 10-person, two-vehicle site) can be made six months in advance for camping March through October; it’s first- come, first-served the rest of the year. Facilities include barbecue grills, potable water, and both flush and pit-style toilets but no showers or hookups.

The secluded Kayenta Campground at Dead Horse Point State Park ($20 per vehicle) is about a half-hour’s drive from Arches on the edge of Canyonlands National Park. Its 21 quiet campsites tucked within a juniper grove are open for tents ($35 per night) and RVs ($50 per night). The adjacent Wingate Campground atop a mesa has 31 campsites for tents and RVs and extensive views of the surrounding mountains and canyons.

You can find various places to pop your tent or park your RV on Bureau of Land Management (BLM) property, too, such as the Sand Flats Recreation Area near Moab where 140 individual campsites ($15 per night) are spread across nine campgrounds ranging from 4,500 feet to 5,700 feet in elevation.

For additional amenities, head to the Sun Outdoors Arches Getaway (from $59 a night) about 5 miles from the entrance to Arches National Park.

Since there are no restaurants or concessions in the park, pack a lunch or bring snacks. Enjoy your meal break at the scenic Devils Garden picnic area with charcoal grills, shaded tables to dodge the hot desert sun, and wheelchair-accessible restrooms. It’s right off the scenic drive.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Things to do

See the main arches

You can see most of Arches National Park’s grandest structures via access roads directly off the scenic drive. From the parking lots at each archway short walking trails lead to up-close views.

Freestanding 52-foot-tall Delicate Arch which adorns Utah’s state license plate is one of the world’s most recognized geological features. To marvel at what Abbey called “a weird, lovely, fantastic object,” park in the Wolfe Ranch parking lot (13 miles from the park entrance) and hike the Delicate Arch Trail, a 1.5-mile climb up a slickrock slope with 480 feet of elevation.

For a less-grueling alternative, park one mile up the road in the Delicate Arch Viewpoint lot. From there a flat 50-yard (and wheelchair-accessible) trail takes you to the Lower Delicate Arch Viewpoint where you can see the arch from a mile away. The Upper Delicate Arch Viewpoint requires a moderately challenging half-mile walk but gets you that much closer.

Twelve miles from the park entrance, the Windows Section contains the best concentration of Arches National Park’s most mesmerizing formations. Delicate Arch is the busiest spot in the park but the Windows Section is the park highlight.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

A gentle half-mile trail from the Windows Section parking lot (the first 100 yards are wheelchair-friendly) takes you to North and South windows also known as the spectacles because they look like a pair of reading glasses from afar. Stand inside the North Window’s 90-foot-wide mouth and admire the glistening peaks of the distant La Sal Mountains on your left then look right and snap a panoramic shot of the towering spire protecting nearby Turret Arch.

Elsewhere in the Windows Section is Double Arch easily accessible via a quarter-mile trail on the parking lot’s north side. Formed by water erosion from above, two arches share the same foundational stone with the southern span holding claim to the park’s tallest arch opening at 112 feet. You really need to stand underneath Double Arch to appreciate it. Scenes from Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade and Thelma and Louise were filmed in this exact location.

At the end of the scenic drive in the Devils Garden area, Landscape Arch’s staggering 306-foot-wide light opening (longer than a football field) is the widest span of any arch in North America. An easy 1.6-mile round-trip hike on the first portion of the Devils Garden Trail takes you to the razor-thin formation.

Landscape Arch, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Go hiking

Aside from the 3-mile round trip to Delicate Arch, the park’s signature attractions can be seen from flat, short trails.

For a lengthier, moderately difficult hike with a little bit of rock scrambling tackle the complete Devils Garden Trail, a 7.9-mile loop in the back of the park alongside spires and pine trees with spurs that lead to eight archways including the lesser-visited Double O Arch and Navajo Arch.

Insider tip: Hike this trail counterclockwise so you end at Landscape Arch.

For something truly special, sign up for a ranger-led hike ($16) through the Fiery Furnace, a 2-mile, three-hour adventure through an isolated labyrinth of canyons, fins, and body-scraping passageways. Offered daily March through October, you’ll need to reserve your ticket online at nps.gov) as spots typically fill up a couple of months in advance.

Note: In a fragile ecosystem like Arches one errant footprint can cause years of damage. Visitors are reminded to “stay on the trail and don’t bust the crust!” Cryptobiotic crusts are an amalgamation of green algae, fungi, and other tiny organisms that hold the soil together and prevent erosion.

The wheelchair-accessible Park Avenue Trail with its skyscraper-canyon walls is one of the most beautiful walks at Arches National Park. The easy stroll (2-mile round trip) along the valley floor gives you a close-up of the Courthouse Towers, towering stone columns that shoot from the desert like a NASA rocket.

Park Avenue, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Discover unique (non-arch) geology

Archways are Arches National Park’s marquee attraction but its other head-turning geological features deserve attention, too.

As you cruise the scenic drive, it’s hard to miss the Three Penguins, the park’s first significant sandstone tower (130 feet tall) which hovers above the visitor center and resembles a marching trio of the tuxedoed seabirds.

To the south of Double Arch, the Parade of Elephants—a lone section of sandstone shaped like a single-file herd of elephants parading through the desert—would make Michelangelo envious of nature’s ability to sculpt a masterpiece.

Balanced Rock (nine miles from the park entrance), a giant chunk of sandstone standing 128 feet tall sits atop an eroding pedestal of mudstone like a sundae cherry. You can see it from the scenic drive but hike the short 0.3-mile trail around its base to fully grasp its size and beauty.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Stargaze

On a clear night, a wealth of stars can be seen from anywhere in Arches, a certified dark sky destination. During the summer months, rangers lead one- to three-hour stargazing sessions that include constellation talks and telescope viewing at Panorama Point (11 miles from the park entrance). Reservations aren’t necessary but check with the visitor center for an updated schedule.

More parks nearby

Take in more natural beauty at two other national parks within driving distance of Arches National Park: Canyonlands National Park (26 miles southwest of Arches) and Capitol Reef National Park (132 miles southwest of Arches).

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Canyonlands National Park

Vast mesas, ethereal pinnacles, canyon mazes, and remote backcountry buttes paint the sprawling red-rock hinterland of Canyonlands National Park. Even though its Utah’s largest national park, the 337,598-acre desert wilderness attracts fewer than half the visitors of nearby Arches which is less than a quarter its size.

Canyonlands National Park is divided into three land districts split by the Colorado and Green rivers: Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the Maze spread apart by miles of roadless red rock. (Visitors must return to U.S. Route 191 and drive to the different park sections which takes anywhere from two to six hours).

More than three-quarters of visitors go to the Island in the Sky district where the 34-mile scenic drive is the park’s best sightseeing option. The high mesa cradled by the confluence of the rivers rests atop a sandstone bench—the White Rim—that rises 1,000 feet above the surrounding terrain.

Mesa Arch and the Green River Overlook are the best viewpoints with Green River being the best for photography. A short half-mile loop trail (not wheelchair-accessible) takes you to Mesa Arch, the park’s signature vista at the edge of a cliff. The Green River Overlook, ideal at sunset provides a rooftop view of one of Canyonlands’s powerful riverways.

The park offers ranger-led talks spring through fall at the Grand View Point Overlook (accessible to wheelchairs), a sweeping panorama of the Canyonland’s multilayered geology. And do stop at the Shafer Canyon Viewpoint for a bird’s-eye view of the snaking 18-mile Shafer Trail, a cliff-hanging dirt road with steep drop-offs that descends 1,500 feet to the canyon floor.

For backcountry exploration, head to the Needles district, a two-hour drive away. The park’s southeast corner named for the multicolored sandstone spires that skyrocket from the desert floor is home to 74 miles of trails ranging from short interpretive loops to heart-pumping day hikes.

The Maze district exemplifies some of the Lower 48’s most untrodden terrain. Located on the other side of the Green and Colorado rivers getting there requires a nearly six-hour drive from Moab. For unmatched solitude in the Maze’s wilds, an experienced guide is highly recommended.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Capitol Reef National Park

You haven’t landed on Mars but don’t be shocked if your first glimpse of Capitol Reef National Park with its otherworldly canyons and miles upon miles of rusty desert hues feels like a mission to the Red Planet.

What makes the park unique is the Waterpocket Fold and the topography that resulted from that. Created by a buckle in the Earth’s surface, the park’s defining geologic feature stretches nearly 100 miles running north-south from Thousand Lake Mountain to Lake Powell. The fold, rising from the desert like a massive ocean break, destined for the coast is one of the largest and best exposed monoclines in North America. When the uplift fired some 65 million years ago it left behind a dramatic landscape of jagged cliffs and giant monoliths. 

Drive the Scenic Drive (directly off state Route 24), an 8-mile route that begins near the visitor center and runs through the heart of the park. Besides the fold, you’ll see Cassidy Arch named after Butch Cassidy who is said to have hidden here following his first bank robbery, the slot canyon at Capitol Gorge with its rain-filled water pockets known as the Tanks, and the resplendent 7,041-foot Golden Throne dome.

For million-dollar views of one the park’s largest sandstone monoliths the challenging 4-mile Golden Throne Trail is a stunning hike. If you’re lucky, you’ll spot one of the park’s 20-something desert bighorn sheep.

Other must-see sites include Capitol Dome, a majestic white sandstone formation towering 800 feet above the road; thousand-year-old petroglyphs; Chimney Rock, an eroded sandstone pillar with a 6,420-foot summit; the 133-foot-long natural sandstone Hickman Bridge; and the Goosenecks Overlook, a striking viewpoint more than 800 feet above a serpentine canyon.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Arches National Park offers a unique and unforgettable experience. I hope this guide helps you plan your adventure and that you’ll soon discover the magic of this park.

Here are a few more articles to help you do just that:

Fact box

  • Location: Eastern Utah about 230 miles southeast of Salt Lake City
  • Acreage: 76,519
  • Highest point: Elephant Butte, 5,653 feet
  • Lowest point: Visitor Center, 4,085 feet
  • Miles of trails: 28
  • Main attraction: 2,000-plus natural sandstone arches
  • Cost: $30 per vehicle, valid for seven consecutive days; $20 for an annual Senior Pass (62+)
  • Best way to see it: By car along the scenic drive
  • When to go to avoid the crowds: November through February (if you want solitude and arch photos sans the tourists)

Worth Pondering…

A weird, lovely, fantastic object out of nature like Delicate Arch has the curious ability to remind us—like rock and sunlight and wind and wilderness—that out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men as sea and sky surround and sustain a ship.

—Edward Abbey, once a park ranger at Arches, from his classic novel Desert Solitaire