The Arches National Park in Utah sits firmly at the top of America’s national park pile as far as I’m concerned – but until I saw it with my own eyes I had no idea it even existed.
Honestly, for an embarrassingly long time I thought Carmen and I were heading toward ‘The Archers’ National Park. I hadn’t bothered to read up on the place at all and simply trusted that her eagerness to see the place would guarantee a good time.
It’s not the first time I’ve missed completely obvious things. For years I thought Beethoven was pronounced ‘Beeth Oven’ and the joke ‘What’s black, white and red all over? A newspaper!’ mystified me. There’s no red on a newspaper right?
Anyway, we’d planned to see Arches in September but some argy bargy in Washington shut the federal government down and the park’s doors were slammed shut. We kicked in a plan B and had a wonderful time exploring state parks instead; then we drove further east to Colorado to house sit for two weeks in the hills above Denver.
Then the government reopened…
‘Stuff it,’ we said in unison. We packed the car up and returned to Utah, driving five hundred or so kilometres back west to the little town of Moab which sits right near the entrance to park. We checked in to our motel, The Redstone Inn, and pulled out some guidebooks to plan our two and a half day visit.
Hiking in Arches National Park
Day 1, hike 1: The Devil’s Garden & Delicate Arch
The park opens very early and we drove in at around 7.30 am so we could get the most out of our day. We stopped in a at the visitor’s centre and booked places on a guided tour of The Fiery Furnace, a restricted area of the park that requires either a guide or a backcountry pass to see. Places fill quickly and spots are strictly limited so get in early! It cost us US$10 each – a bargain in our minds.
Then it was time to take a stroll through the Devil’s Garden. There are signs everywhere warning of how hot the desert is and reminding you to take lots of water – we filled up six drink bottles and filled our backpacks with food, tools, extra clothing and a few bits of first aid kit. It’s best to be prepared.
The Devil’s Garden is a loop trail that takes you on a meandering adventure around, up and over sheer walls of sandstone fins to see the spectacular arches that give the park its name. You can choose to do sections of it, but we decided to do all 11.5km of it, which includes the Primitive Loop section.
There are more than 2,000 arches in the park – some huge, some tiny, most of them awesome – and the Devil’s Garden has some of the most picturesque. It was great fun navigating the twisting path trying to find each way point. The scariest part was walking across a long rock like a balancing beam to reach one of the arches. We made it but my heart was racing!
After we’d crossed off Landscape, Navajo, Partition and Double O Arches we took the primitive trail through the rest of the Devil’s Garden. It’s an eerie place with narrow slabs of rock all bunched together like a giant radiator. We took a wrong turn near the end and had to crab walk our way down a very tall canyon filled with fallen rocks. When we got to the bottom I looked to the right and saw the trail, clearly marked with an easy grade; I did say I overlook the obvious sometimes…
We ended the day with a hike up to Delicate Arch, perhaps the best know formation in the park. It’s a short drive from the Devil’s Garden trailhead.
To get to Delicate Arch, you walk up a fairly steep slab of rock and pick your way along a cliff side path. The arch stands alone, a mighty curve shaped by countless years of wind and rain. The rock slab around and below it almost looks like a Roman amphitheatre and simply looking at the place is like taking a holiday on another world.
Day 2, hike 2: The Fiery Furnace
Wear good shoes for this one – if you can get a permit or a ticket on the tour. We parked in the lot at around 9am and met the Park Ranger who would be guiding us and twenty other people through one of the more challenging areas of the park. Even a cursory look at The Fiery Furnace can be intimidating; it’s a tightly packed mess of canyons, fins, boulders, drops and twisted pathways. A natural labyrinth with only one way through and one way out – follow the Ranger.
She led us down and down to the sunken floor of the formations and let us take in the view. ‘This place will seem a lot different to you when we reach the parking lot again,’ she said, and led us deeper into the towering rocks. It was thrilling, like something out of an Indiana Jones movie. The stone walls are as tall as apartment buildings in some areas and the contrast between the blue sky and the red rock is stunningly beautiful. We saw small arches poking out of the unlikeliest places, crawled through tiny openings and wedged ourselves through narrow spaces. The rocks were slippery in parts and there were a few gaps that needed jumping across, but otherwise it was very easy-going.
The ranger pointed out formations and plant life along the way and told us a few fun facts. The pools of water you see at the bottom of many gullies are actually teeming with microscopic life. The twisted Juniper trees that grow all over the place will discard whole sections of themselves to stay alive in the arid climate. And if anyone gets lost they have figured out three places in The Furnace you are statistically most likely to be found in!
When our group hiked up and out of The Fiery Furnace we all looked back and saw that the Ranger was right. Instead of a weird mass of forbidding rock I could see where we had picked our way down and out again and recognised scores of landmarks and formations. The guided hike is well worth doing and really gives you a deep appreciation of the park’s beauty.
Day 3, hike 3: The Windows
We needed to be on the road and driving back west on day three so we got up even earlier and got to the park for sunrise. My legs were pretty stiff and sore from all the hiking we’d done but I didn’t want to miss out on this must see experience at The Arches. The Windows are about a twenty-minute drive in from the main entrance and a short walk from the car park out there so I had no excuse for laziness.
The Windows are exactly that – rock formations that resemble windows. Two huge arches that frame the wide desert below them like a frame. There is a loop trail that is very easy to walk and will take you past the North and South Window, as well as the Turret Arch.
As we drove away from the park I felt a deep urge to pump the brakes and turn around so we could stay even longer. ‘They’ll always be there,’ I told myself, but that’s technically not true. The wind and rain and the turning of the earth will eventually crumble all of the arches we saw. But then again, hopefully new ones will form as well…
What you need to know:
Getting there – The US 191 will get you to the town of Moab which is the closest to the park. It’s a 10 minute drive to the entrance from there. There are also well constructed cycle paths.
Cost – We used our annual park pass to get in but the normal entry fee is $5 if you hike or cycle in and $10 for a car. For the Fiery Furnace, during the summer months it’s best to book in advance online because the passes sell out quickly. In October and through winter you can only buy your passes at the visitor’s centre so get to the park early.
When to go – Any time of year is fine though summer in the park is very hot and it does snow there in winter. We went in late October which was perfect, warm and dry with clear skies. The Fiery Furnace is the coolest place in the park so bring something warm to wear if it isn’t mid-summer.