Arches National Park: A User's Guide

AHH-INSPIRING: Arches, spires, balanced rocks, eroded monoliths and slabs of slickrock beckon in the Utah desert. anthony heflin/Shutterstock

Arches National Park near Moab, Utah, may be the world’s largest sculpture garden — a place where Mother Nature has used wind and water to carve more than 2,000 arches ranging in size from a three-foot opening to Landscape Arch, which measures 306 feet from base to base. And arches aren’t the only works on display. There are spires and balanced rocks, fins and eroded monoliths, and slabs of slickrock peppered with potholes.

Who knew erosion could be so beautiful?


Must of the present-day national park was placed under federal protection when President Herbert Hoover proclaimed Arches National Monument on April 12, 1929. President Franklin D. Roosevelt signed a proclamation expanding the national monument in November 1938. President Lyndon B. Johnson did the same thing again in January 1969. Congress passed legislation giving the area national park status in 1971.

Things to do

Many visitors to Arches National Park pull into an overlook parking lot, snap a few photographs and drive off. A number of short, and gentle, hiking trails make it easy to gain a better look of the arches that draw so many here. The loop trail around the base of Balanced Rock is less than a half-mile. The hike to Double Arch — two spans joined at one end — is fairly flat and just a half-mile there and back. It’s less than a half-mile round trip to explore Sand Dune Arch and Skyline Arch, where in November 1940 a massive chunk dropped, doubling the size of the arch opening.

More adventurous hikers will want to make a reservation for a ranger-led hike through the Fiery Furnace, a maze of narrow sandstone canyons. The hike takes about three hours and requires a bit of scrambling up and down smooth sandstone.

At just over seven miles, Devils Garden Primitive Loop is the longest established trail in the park. The route — which, again, involves some scrambling on slickrock — takes you to eight of the more than 2,000 arches in the park.

Why you’ll want to come back

The night sky above Arches National Park practically glows, the Milky Way in its full glory. The park’s isolation means the stars aren’t washed out by the light pollution of more developed areas of the country.

Flora and fauna

The sandstone landscape of Arches National Park is populated with more wildlife than you might expect. There are more than 50 species of mammals found in the high desert of the park, including mule deer, desert cottontails, kangaroo rats, coyotes and desert bighorn sheep. The bighorn sheep, once hunted to extinction from the area, were reintroduced in the 1980s. There are about 75 sheep in Arches National Park.

There are also more than 180 species of birds in Arches National Park. You’re almost certain to spot pinion jays, mountain bluebirds and ravens. Lucky visitors will spot a California condor soaring high above the arches.

By the numbers


Park size: 76,519 acres or 119 square miles

2010 visitation: 1.01 million

Funky fact: Writer and environmental activist Edward Abbey worked as a seasonal park ranger at Arches National Park in the 1950s, and that experience is chronicled in his memoir "Desert Solitaire."

This is part of Explore America's Parks, a series of user's guides to national, state and local park systems across the United States.