Hiking to Delicate Arch in Winter
Arches National Park has over 2,000 natural arches, but Delicate Arch is probably the most iconic arch in the park. The arch is a symbol of Utah and more broadly the west, and it’s one of the most famous rock formations on Earth. When people picture a natural arch, there’s a good chance that they picture Delicate Arch.
Viewing thousands of beautiful pictures of Delicate Arch can’t even compare to standing under the huge arch and experiencing it in person. While there is a viewpoint that allows you to witness the arch from a distance of a mile, the three-mile round-trip hike is the best way to see Delicate Arch.
Although the Delicate Arch trail is only three miles long, it has 480 feet of elevation gain and is rated as strenuous. We hiked the trail in mid-December, and winter weather can change the conditions of the hike. You won’t have to contend with the blistering heat of summer, and it’s likely one of the few times you’ll be able to enjoy Delicate Arch without crowds. However, you may encounter icy conditions that could make the trail dangerous. Traction devices for your shoes may help, but you should be prepared to turn back if it’s too slippery.
The trail begins at Wolfe Ranch, the homestead of John Wesley Wolfe and his son Fred who lived there in the late 1800s. The father and son lived alone on the ranch for 10 years farming using the water from the nearby Salt Wash. They also grazed over 1000 head of cattle, which substantially decreased the native grasses in the area even to this day.
In 1906, Wolfe’s daughter, Flora, and her husband and two young children joined them on the homestead and insisted that they build a decent cabin, apparently being appalled at the condition that the Wolfes had been living in.
That stout one-room cabin of Wolfe Ranch still remains today, although it has been weathered and silvered by the dry desert conditions. The cabin has a wood floor and real glass windows, which were a luxury in the West at the time. Somehow the entire family of six slept and lived in the 17 by 15 foot cabin. (That’s like twice the space inside our van for six people.) After just two hard years, Flora and her family returned to Ohio because they disliked living in the harsh Utah environment so much.
Although life may have been difficult for the Wolfes (Wolves?), native people had been living and thriving in what is now Arches National Park for thousands of years. Just beyond Wolfe Ranch across a bridge over Salt Wash, make sure to check out evidence of earlier human life at the Ute rock art panel. Petroglyphs are chiseled into the desert varnish that has darkened a sandstone wall near the wash.
The art include depictions of a stylized horse with a rider, bighorn sheep, and dogs. Further to the left you can see an image of a figure in a unique headdress that stands alone. This rock art is actually not very old as far as petroglyphs go. It is believed that these petroglyphs were created between 1650 and 1850 BCE. (If you’re interested in petroglyphs, check out our blog posts about the much older petroglyphs at Grimes Point in Nevada or the hundreds petroglyphs in Valley of Fire State Park.)
After the Ute rock art, the trail continues to be flat and sandy for a little while longer, and then you begin to climb a slope of exposed slick rock. Follow cairns up the rock to make sure you are heading in the right direction. In some places there are staircases carved in the stone to help you ascend the slope. This portion of the trail has no shade, and we even in winter we got a bit warm on this slope.
Beyond the slick rock, the trail to Delicate Arch levels for a while as you wander up a wash surrounded by junipers. Then you walk along the edge of a rock wall with a bit of scrambling. This part of the hike was a bit icy when we were visiting. It was pretty easy to go around the ice though.
Don’t forget to look around while hiking the final portion of the Delicate Arch Trail, because there are some small arches and the beginnings of arches that can be spotted. The final 200 meters of the trail is on a narrow rock ledge with a long drop off to your left. Fortunately this portion is slopes inward and was largely clear of ice, but this ledge could easily become dangerous.
After the ledge you suddenly emerge onto an amphitheater of sandstone, and across from you is Delicate Arch. It will likely take you by surprise with its immensity and implausibility. I’ll let Ed Abbey, the famous writer of the Southwest, explain the feeling:
Unlike many of the other arches in the park, Delicate Arch is freestanding. It doesn’t have a cliff behind it, and it doesn’t span between two rock walls. It stands alone atop a massive sandstone bowl, high above the surrounding desert. Delicate Arch is the largest free-standing arch in the park. The opening beneath the arch is 46 feet high and 32 feet wide.
The arch has been know by a variety of names, including “Cowboy’s Chaps,” “Old Maid’s Bloomers,” and “Salt Wash Arch.” But somehow Delicate Arch seems appropriate, because although the arch is massive, this fragile piece of stone will only be around for a fleeting moment of geologic history.
Walk around the edge of the bowl and stand beneath the arch. It’s dizzying to look up at the arch from underneath it. We started our hike fairly early in the day, and for a while we had Delicate Arch completely to ourselves—an experience that is unique to winter.
Beyond Delicate Arch, a vista of Arches National Park and beyond stretches to the horizon. The Arch frames the deep blue, snow-capped La Sal Mountains in the distance.
The huge sandstone bowl underneath the arch is impressive on its own with its smooth rounded rock. If you’re brave, you can explore the area around the arch. Ian clambered down the other side of the arch to take some pictures from below.
The trail back is easy, since it’s all downhill, but before leaving, be sure to take a few photos and then take in the tremendous and transient beauty of Delicate Arch with your eyes rather than your screen. On your way back on the ledge portion of the trail, scramble above the trail to find Frame Arch. This small arch frames the view of Delicate Arch perfectly.