A Vanlife Guide to Arches National Park
Arches National Park has over 2,000 natural sandstone arches with light openings taller than three feet. In fact the national park has the highest concentration of natural stone arches in the world. Besides the arches, there are balanced rocks, fins and towers of sandstone, and stone spires and obelisks sprinkled liberally throughout the arid desert landscape.
Because of the incredible beauty of Arches, it has become a very popular national park. Visitation to Arches National Park has increased by more than 50 percent, with more than 1.5 million people visiting the park annually in recent years. Most visitors come to park between March and October, and on a summer day it’s not uncommon for there to be 4,000 visitors to this relatively small national park.
If you have the option, visiting Arches National Park in winter is the way to go, because you won’t have to deal with huge lines snaking out of the park and crowded trails. Plus if you’re traveling in a van or RV like us, you’ll have no trouble finding places to camp for free just outside the park’s boundaries. We visited Arches National Park in mid-December, and we felt like we almost had the park to ourselves. We’ve got a couple of recommendations for free campsites near Arches National Park at the bottom of this blog post.
Start at the Visitor Center
As with any visit to a national park, it’s not a bad idea to start your trip in the visitor center. At Arches there is an electronic kiosk where you can plan your trip based on the amount of time you have and what you want to do. The kiosk told us that with the two days we had to spend in the park, we could literally visit every viewpoint and developed trail in the park. We found that we didn’t quite have enough time to visit everything in two days, but we were able to fit a lot in. Here’s our vanlife guide to our favorite spots in Arches National Park.
Hike the Devils Garden Trail
We spent our first day in Arches National Park hiking the 8 mile Devils Garden loop—the longest trail in the park. On this loop a number of spur trails allow you to visit eight arches up close, and there are countless other beautiful sculpted rock formations to discover and explore. We liked this trail so much that we wrote an entire blogpost about it.
An easy trail 0.8 mile trail leads to Landscape Arch, and beyond that the Devils Garden loop is considered a “primitive trail.” The trail requires scrambling, and hiking the trail in winter, we had to cross some extremely slippery, icy sections.
Visit Tunnel Arch
Tunnel Arch is one of the first arches on the Devils Garden Trail. Tunnel Arch is a symmetrical arch in the center of a fin of sandstone. Tunnel Arch gained its name, because early visitors thought it looked like a railway tunnel. Next to tunnel arch is smaller unnamed arch that runs through the rock at a 45 degree angle.
Stop By Pine Tree Arch
Being only about 500 yards from Tunnel Arch, it’s a no-brainer to stop by Pine Tree Arch. It’s certainly not the most dramatic arch in the park, but it’s still a beautiful piece of stone. If you weren’t surrounded by 1,999 other arches, you’d likely be very impressed by Pine Tree Arch.
Witness One of the Longest Arches: Landscape Arch
Landscape Arch is the longest arch in North America, and it’s one of the longest in the world. The light opening of this slender, graceful arch is over 306 feet wide. The center of Landscape Arch is only a delicate sliver of rock of about six feet thick.
In the 90s pieces of Landscape Arch nearly fell on a group of visitors sitting below the arch. The people fortunately moved after hearing loud cracking noises. Unfortunately for that same reason, you can no longer walk underneath the arch. You can appreciate Landscape Arch’s fleeting beauty from a fenced viewing area along the trail.
Peer through Partition Arch
Partition Arch is above Landscape Arch. You can find it on a spur trail off the Devils Garden Trail. The arch is a hole in a wall of Entrada sandstone through which you can see a vista of Arches National Park. In the distance, the blue La Sal mountains and red buttes grace the horizon. Next to the arch there is a small window as well.
Spelunk into Navajo Arch
Along the same spur trail off Devils Garden Trail as Partition Arch is Navajo Arch. Navajo Arch is a wide, low arch with another wall of sandstone behind its opening. Walking under Navajo Arch feels more like walking into a cave than under an arch. One of the highlights of Navajo Arch is that a twisted Utah Juniper grows in the opening of arch and is framed by the stone above it.
Do a Double-Take at Double O Arch
Getting to Double O Arch along the Devils Garden trail required some tricky scrambling, and there were some really sketchy areas of ice on our way there. Double O Arch is actually two arches stacked one on top of each other making the entire formation remarkably tall. The top arch is the larger of the two arches, and it’s actually a fairly narrow stretch of rock that crosses the opening.
The lower arch is smaller, but it’s very round. We climbed up into the lower arch, and then down the other side so that we could take in the arch from all angles. Ian scrambled to a perch above the arch so that he could take a photo of the full scale of the arch in, but I preferred to stay a little bit closer to the ground.
Behold the Dark Angel
There is a rock formation along the Devils Garden Trail that is completely unlike any other stone we saw in the park. The Dark Angel is a strange obelisk rising imposingly from the juniper, pinyon, and sand of Utah. The 150 foot sandstone monolith is stained its deep color by iron and manganese.
Uncover Private Arch
On the primitive portion of the Devils Garden Loop there is a half mile spur trail that leads you to Private Arch. The name fits. The arch is hidden between two fins of sandstone and from the viewpoint you look down on this nearly hidden arch. You’re in a part of the park known as the Valley of Fins. Look around and you’ll notice parallel walls of rock. Take a closer look at a map, and you’ll realize these fins conceal countless other arches.
Hike to Delicate Arch
Delicate Arch is without a doubt the most iconic arch in Arches National Park and in Utah. It’s even on the Utah state license plate! When someone pictures a sandstone arch, there’s a good chance they’re envisioning Delicate Arch.
Although you may have an image of Delicate Arch in your mind, what you likely don’t realize is that Delicate Arch is the largest free standing arch in the park with a light opening of 46 feet high and 32 feet wide. Delicate Arch stands alone atop a massive sandstone bowl that is beautiful even without the arch perched atop it. The curving, sculpted bowl gives you the opportunity to walk around the arch and stand beneath it. If you visit in winter like we did there’s a chance you’ll even have the world’s most iconic arch to yourself.
Witness Pioneer History at Wolfe Ranch
At the start of the Delicate Arch Trail you pass a squatty log cabin and a dug out house. This was the homestead of the Wolfe family in the late 1800s. At some points during the history of the ranch, the Wolfes were grazing over 1000 head of cattle along Salt Wash. The native grass that once grew in this area of the park is still in the process of recovering from this grazing over 100 years ago, so you may notice the ecological restoration projects happening in this area of the park.
Encounter Ute Rock Art
Human history extends thousands of years further into the past than the Wolfes’ ranch. Along the way to Delicate Arch, there is some rock art carved into a wall of stone darkened by a desert varnish by Ute Indians. Depictions of horses and riders reveal that this rock art is actually relatively new as far as petroglyphs go, being created sometime between 1650 and 1850 BCE.
Feast Your Eyes at Panorama Point
Panorama Point is a short stop, but it gives you the opportunity to look out over a classic Utah landscape toward Colorado. In front of you there are colorful hills, and in the distance there are mountains and sandstone fins and buttes.
Take In Turret Arch and The Windows
Along a one mile easy walk, you can view three different arches—Turret Arch and the North and South Windows. Turret Arch is the first arch along the trail. The arch is kind of a lumpy, irregularly shaped opening with another very small window next to its opening. It’s named Turret Arch, because it has a kind of conical stone tower, or turret, next to it.
After Turret Arch, we continued to the North and South Windows. You can walk underneath both of the arches, which are both fairly large round openings along the same wall. These two twin arches have also been called The Spectacles, they are divided by a huge nose that is a remnant of what was once a sandstone fin.
We decided to complete the Windows loop by taking the primitive trail back to the parking area. It seems that the only reason that it’s primitive is that you have to follow cairns to find your way along the trail and scramble in a couple places. It’s actually a pretty easy trail. On the primitive trail, you can see the backside of the windows, and we actually thought the view from the back was actually better.
Stand in Awe of Double Arch
Double Arch, as the name implies, is actually two arches set close to each other at a 45 degree opening with an opening between them, so there are actually three light openings. The larger of the two arches has the largest opening of all the arches in the park.
You can walk beneath the massive arches and look up into the huge cathedral like space. Getting directly underneath the second arch requires scrambling up a short little rock wall, but it’s almost like there are natural stair steps to climb up to reach the opening.
Question the Laws of Gravity at Balanced Rock
Along with Delicate Arch, Balanced Rock is another one of the iconic rock formations in Arches National Park. Balanced Rock is a massive boulder sitting upon a narrow spire. In reality, Balanced Rock isn’t balanced at all. It’s actually a huge piece of the relatively hard Entrada Sandstone attached to a more rapidly eroding mudstone pedestal. It’s kind of strange that such a huge rock can be at rest atop such a spindly little piece of stone.
It truly feels like you’re witnessing a brief moment in geologic history while you’re standing beneath Balanced Rock. At any moment, this enormous mass of stone could tumble to the ground. Balanced Rock once had a neighbor of very similar form. This miniature of the spire was humorously called “Chip of the Old Block.” Unfortunately “Chip” succumbed to erosive forces in the winter of 1976, revealing just how truly ephemeral Balanced Rock is.
To circumnavigate Balanced Rock it’s an easy 0.3 mile walk. This is kind of one of those places as in many national parks that might be overly busy, but it’s just such a classic view that you have to make a point of stopping and doing this quick walk.
Stroll Down Park Avenue
One of the first things you’ll notice as you drive into Arches is huge red monoliths rising out of the desert landscape on either side of the road. A paved 100 foot walkway leads you to a fabulous view point looking down on a red canyon surrounded by the Courthouse Towers. The actual Park Avenue in New York is a wide boulevard lined with towering skyscrapers. Park Avenue definitely calls to mind a cityscape.
Park Avenue, Double O Arch, and Balanced Rock were featured briefly as the backdrop in the beginning of Indiana Jones: The Last Crusade. Unfortunately we only had time to stop at the view point, but the hike down Park Avenue is definitely going on our list for our next visit to Arches.
Bonus Stop: Grab a Warm Breakfast at Moab Diner
It was pretty cold to be sleeping in our unheated van in December in Utah when we were visiting Arches, so we warmed up one morning by grabbing breakfast at the Moab Diner. Although not technically in Arches National Park, we’d highly recommend trying their cinnamon rolls or a green chile skillet.
Free Camping Near Arches National Park:
We found a pretty nice free camping spot only about 20 minutes north of Moab and Arches National Park. It was a large open area on BLM land in an area called Klondike Trails. Any vehicle could make it into this area without having to worry about the road, which was nice because it was getting dark as we pulled in here. It was a quiet, unassuming spot, and we didn’t see anyone else, except for cows.
Our second night’s camping spot was also on BLM land along Willow Springs Road. In contrast to Klondike Trails, this road was crazy busy with campers, RVs, and a small convention of skoolies. We were surprised there was this much traffic in the middle of December, but maybe it was because this spot is just 10 minutes from the park entrance. One nice thing about busy campsites is toilets! There was a pit toilet only about ¼ mile from our campsite.