A Trip to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks

Today, we’re talking about Arches and Canyonlands, the national parks of Eastern Utah. Ever since Kaitlin and I saw Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef back in 2017, I’ve wanted to return to the eastern part of the state to see perhaps the most iconic park in Utah, Arches National Park, and its neighbor, Canyonlands—both a short drive from the town of Moab, UT. Last April, Justin and I visited these two epic places. In 2019, my dad took a trip with his friends to Moab for a backcountry mountain biking adventure (read all about it here!), and while we kept it a bit more tame than that (it was a hotel and restaurant food for us, plus lots of day hiking), we got to see so much of the area. I’ll show you how it went, along with some travel tips for planning your own journey. Let’s get into it! Turret Arch at sunrise in Arches National Park. Canyonlands National Park, with the La Sal Mountains in the background. Arches National Park Okay, let’s start with Arches. Arches National Park has the highest density of natural arches in the world, with over 2000 sandstone arch formations in a relatively small area. Each arch is beautiful and awe-inspiring, and the park is filled with easy to moderate hikes that are great for families. Of the two parks, Arches National Park is definitely the more congested, so it requires a bit more pre-planning—and earlier arrival times. Important Things to Know: Timed Entry From April through October, the park’s busiest season, all vehicles must have a timed entry ticket to enter. They’re available online at recreation.gov and only cost $2 to reserve. (Note: this timed entry ticket is needed in addition to a National Parks Pass or entrance fee.) Make sure you get your timed entrance ticket, or you won’t be able to enter the park! We suggest getting tickets for as early in the day as possible. By around 9:00 AM in peak season, the line to get into the park (even with the timed entries) can get really long, and you may be stuck waiting for 30 minutes or longer just to get in! Most Popular Hikes Delicate Arch This is the big one! Delicate Arch is all over Utah state license plates, and for good reason. It’s iconic. We suggest starting this hike in early morning to avoid crowds. This is one of the park’s moderate hikes, clocking in at 3 miles roundtrip, with 480 feet of elevation gain. The first half mile is a well-defined trail, with a couple cool things to see along the way. The first is Wolfe Ranch, a well-preserved homestead from the late 1800s. Imagine living with a family of six in this one-room cabin! Then you come across a panel of petroglyphs, carved by the indigenous Ute people of the Great Basin. So cool, and an important reminder of the native inhabitants of the area. Just remember to look, don’t touch! From there, the hike is on open slickrock with little to no shade, so bring sunscreen and follow the rock cairns when necessary. You’ll likely be hiking with a bunch of other people, so don’t worry, it’s not easy to get lost. You’ll know when you’ve reached your destination! Be really careful around the arch—there is basically a cliff on the other side, which people have fallen over. We saw someone doing handstands under the arch for a photo—perhaps not the best idea! Panorama Point and Balanced Rock After completing Delicate Arch in early morning, we suggest backtracking towards the entrance, to see some of the sights that others generally start their day with. (This is another great way to avoid crowds—to move in the opposite direction of general traffic coming into the park.) About 4 miles back towards the park entrance, you’ll find Balanced Rock, a 128 ft (39m) tall rock formation that you can see on a short (0.3 mile) 15-20 minute mostly flat walk. Eventually, erosion will cause that boulder (estimated to weight 3600 tons) to come down off that pedestal, so get out there and see it while it’s still there! On the way to Balanced Rock, you can also stop at Panorama Point for a sprawling view of the park, the La Sal Mountains, and Fiery Furnace, an area of narrow canyons and spires that you can’t enter without booking a Ranger-guided tour (more on that in a minute). The openness of this area also makes it a great spot for night-sky viewing, if you’d like to return after dark! Petrified Dunes Viewpoint From Balanced Rock, drive another 9 miles to Petrified Dunes Viewpoint, where you can see former sand dunes that have solidified into rock. It’s a quick stop/park/instant gratification view! Park Avenue Viewpoint, La Sal Mountains Viewpoint & Courthouse Towers Viewpoint Shortly after driving past the entrance station, you’ll hit a series of viewpoints that you can also park your car at to get some spectacular views! Be sure to make these quick stops. If you’re up for a walk, you can also hike between Park Avenue Viewpoint and Courthouse Towers (2 miles out and back, 320 ft. elevati

A Trip to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks

Today, we’re talking about Arches and Canyonlands, the national parks of Eastern Utah.

Ever since Kaitlin and I saw Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Capitol Reef back in 2017, I’ve wanted to return to the eastern part of the state to see perhaps the most iconic park in Utah, Arches National Park, and its neighbor, Canyonlands—both a short drive from the town of Moab, UT.

Last April, Justin and I visited these two epic places. In 2019, my dad took a trip with his friends to Moab for a backcountry mountain biking adventure (read all about it here!), and while we kept it a bit more tame than that (it was a hotel and restaurant food for us, plus lots of day hiking), we got to see so much of the area.

I’ll show you how it went, along with some travel tips for planning your own journey. Let’s get into it!

Arches National Park
Turret Arch at sunrise in Arches National Park.
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park, with the La Sal Mountains in the background.

Arches National Park

Okay, let’s start with Arches.

Arches National Park has the highest density of natural arches in the world, with over 2000 sandstone arch formations in a relatively small area. Each arch is beautiful and awe-inspiring, and the park is filled with easy to moderate hikes that are great for families.

Of the two parks, Arches National Park is definitely the more congested, so it requires a bit more pre-planning—and earlier arrival times.

Driving into Arches National Park

Important Things to Know:

Timed Entry

From April through October, the park’s busiest season, all vehicles must have a timed entry ticket to enter. They’re available online at recreation.gov and only cost $2 to reserve. (Note: this timed entry ticket is needed in addition to a National Parks Pass or entrance fee.)

Make sure you get your timed entrance ticket, or you won’t be able to enter the park!

We suggest getting tickets for as early in the day as possible. By around 9:00 AM in peak season, the line to get into the park (even with the timed entries) can get really long, and you may be stuck waiting for 30 minutes or longer just to get in!

Arches National Park Sign

Most Popular Hikes

Delicate Arch

This is the big one! Delicate Arch is all over Utah state license plates, and for good reason. It’s iconic. We suggest starting this hike in early morning to avoid crowds.

This is one of the park’s moderate hikes, clocking in at 3 miles roundtrip, with 480 feet of elevation gain. The first half mile is a well-defined trail, with a couple cool things to see along the way.

The first is Wolfe Ranch, a well-preserved homestead from the late 1800s. Imagine living with a family of six in this one-room cabin!

Wolfe Ranch Interpretive Sign

Then you come across a panel of petroglyphs, carved by the indigenous Ute people of the Great Basin. So cool, and an important reminder of the native inhabitants of the area. Just remember to look, don’t touch!

Ute Panel on delicate arch hike

From there, the hike is on open slickrock with little to no shade, so bring sunscreen and follow the rock cairns when necessary. You’ll likely be hiking with a bunch of other people, so don’t worry, it’s not easy to get lost.

You’ll know when you’ve reached your destination! Be really careful around the arch—there is basically a cliff on the other side, which people have fallen over. We saw someone doing handstands under the arch for a photo—perhaps not the best idea!

Panorama Point and Balanced Rock

After completing Delicate Arch in early morning, we suggest backtracking towards the entrance, to see some of the sights that others generally start their day with. (This is another great way to avoid crowds—to move in the opposite direction of general traffic coming into the park.)

About 4 miles back towards the park entrance, you’ll find Balanced Rock, a 128 ft (39m) tall rock formation that you can see on a short (0.3 mile) 15-20 minute mostly flat walk.

Eventually, erosion will cause that boulder (estimated to weight 3600 tons) to come down off that pedestal, so get out there and see it while it’s still there!

On the way to Balanced Rock, you can also stop at Panorama Point for a sprawling view of the park, the La Sal Mountains, and Fiery Furnace, an area of narrow canyons and spires that you can’t enter without booking a Ranger-guided tour (more on that in a minute).

The openness of this area also makes it a great spot for night-sky viewing, if you’d like to return after dark!

Petrified Dunes Viewpoint

From Balanced Rock, drive another 9 miles to Petrified Dunes Viewpoint, where you can see former sand dunes that have solidified into rock. It’s a quick stop/park/instant gratification view!

Park Avenue Viewpoint, La Sal Mountains Viewpoint & Courthouse Towers Viewpoint

Shortly after driving past the entrance station, you’ll hit a series of viewpoints that you can also park your car at to get some spectacular views! Be sure to make these quick stops.

If you’re up for a walk, you can also hike between Park Avenue Viewpoint and Courthouse Towers (2 miles out and back, 320 ft. elevation gain, 1 hour to 90 minutes to complete).

Justin parked at a viewpoint in Arches NP

On your way out of the park, stop at the Visitor Center, located just inside the entrance gate, for the exhibits, souvenirs, a short 10-minute nature walk, and a bathroom break before spending your evening in Moab!

Windows Loop & Turret Arch

Okay, so this is another very popular hiking area, which we also suggest getting to early in the morning. That makes this the start of a different day in the park!

The Windows are about halfway down the park road. The reason why it’s so popular is that you’ll find several spectacular arches, all reachable by moderate, relatively flat trails, within a concentrated area.

Start at the Windows. We did this at dawn, and watching the sun rise through the windows was pretty spectacular, and made for some really great golden hour pictures of both the Windows and Turret Arch.

The trail leads first to the North Window, and then to the South Window. Together, they are known as “the Spectacles.” You can see why:

The Windows at Arches National Park

Along this same trail, you’ll find a side trail leading to Turret Arch.

Turret Arch with golden hour light

Just make sure to stay on the gravel trail. Don’t step on any of the vegetation, which takes a long time to grow in this desert environment and can be easily damaged by footsteps.

Double Arch Trail

A short ways from this trail is what I think is one of the most spectacular features of the park: Double Arch. You can reach this trail from the same lot you parked in for the Windows, and a short 0.5 mile flat hike is all it takes to see this incredible thing:

double arch from underneath

Standing under it gives you the feeling of being in a natural cathedral. Just linger there for a while to appreciate it!

Sand Dune Arch

Drive deeper into the park, and you’ll find Sand Dune Arch, reachable by another short 0.3 mile hike through narrow rock walls.

The sand is incredibly soft and matches the beautiful color of the sandstone around you.

Broken Arch & Tapestry Arch

Also nearby is a 2.7-mile loop trail to Broken Arch and Tapestry Arch, which you can reach from the Sand Dunes trailhead. It took us about 1 hour to complete, walking at a good clip. The trail is flat, but exposed, so remember your hat and sunscreen!

Tapestry Arches

Landscape Arch & Offshoots (from Devil’s Garden Trailhead)

This is the deepest part of the park, and another popular hiking area. If you can’t find parking at the trailhead, however, you can park at the Devil’s Garden campground.

Here, you can choose how much of the trail you want to do, and how many arches you’d like to see. We did Landscape Arch, Pine Tree and Tunnel Arches, and Navajo and Partition Arches, for a total of 3 miles.

To Landscape Arch and back: ………………………………1.6 miles (6.7 km)

Trail to Pine Tree and Tunnel arches: ………….. add 0.5 miles (0.8 km) 

Trails to Navajo and Partition arches: …………. add 0.8 miles (1.3 km)

Landscape arch is not only the longest arch in the park, it’s the largest arch in the world—longer than a football field!

It also looks incredibly delicate—and IS. Apparently, in 1991, hikers in the area heard loud cracking sounds, and a huge chunk of the arch tore off! (Watch the video here.)

Landscape Arch

You can also include Double O Arch, which adds 1 additional mile to the hike. From Landscape Arch to Double O arch, however, the trail does get a bit more strenuous, with some narrow ledges and steep drop-offs, so keep that in mind if traveling with elders or kids.

If you’d like to do the ENTIRE Devil’s Garden Trail, which includes all the aforementioned arches, as well as Dark Angel (a sandstone tower) and a primitive loop trail, allow 3-5 hours to complete the 7.9 mile hike.

Fiery Furnace

If you have a third day to spend at Arches National Park, consider booking a Ranger-led hike into Fiery Furnace. This area is easy to get lost in, which is why you need a Ranger to take you in, or a special permit to enter. The hike lasts about 2.5 hours, and is described as difficult/strenuous.

See if it’s possible to book a hike later in the day. According to the NPS, if you “stand at this viewpoint near sunset…low-angle light makes the rock faces glow like a wood-fired furnace.”

More info on booking Fiery Furnace hikes here.

Canyonlands National Park

On to Canyonlands! I think this park doesn’t get enough credit. The landscapes are a little less up-close-and-personal compared with Arches, but they are vast and equally awe-inspiring.

Things to Know:

You may want to bring a 4-Wheel Drive Vehicle into Canyonlands, if you’re planning on driving Shafer Trail (more on that later) or the White Rim Road.

We did end up renting a Jeep for the trip, just for Canyonlands. Just look at it. It’s very Jeep commercial:

Jeep on Schaefer Trail in Canyonlands

Do not attempt these roads in anything but a high-clearance 4WD vehicle. And don’t let the relatively smooth, wide road in the photo above fool you. Parts of the trail are extremely bumpy, slippery when wet, and exposed (read: CLIFFS).

These trails also make this park a world-class mountain biking destination. If you’re into biking, my dad highly recommends Rim Tours for a Canyonlands mountain biking adventure! Read more about his Canyonlands/Moab trip here.

Hikes

I’m not much of a biker, generally preferring to stay on two feet, so I’ve got hikes for ya! We DID, however, drive Shafer Trail (my dad biked it), so I’ll tell you all about that harrowing adventure as well!

Mesa Arch

Mesa Arch is a short 0.6 mile flat hike to one of the most photographed arches in Utah.

mesa arch view

The arch frames an incredible view of the canyon below and the La Sal Mountains in the distance.

mesa arch view

Upheaval Dome

Right after Mesa Arch, turn onto Upheaval Dome Road, and drive 5 miles to this trailhead, where you’ll find a mile-wide crater that’s still a bit of a mystery. Scientists think it could have been formed by a meteor hitting earth 60 million years ago! This is a short (0.6 mile), but steep trail!

Grand View Point, Murphy Point & White Rim Overlook

Be sure to hit one of—or all—these hikes. Grand View Point and White Rim Overlook are each about 1.8 miles (1-1.5 hours to complete), while Murphy Point is 3.4 miles and takes about 2 hours to walk.

grand view point view in Canyonlands
View from white rim overlook

Aztec Butte

We didn’t get to do this hike, but according to the ranger we spoke with, it’s one of the more interesting hikes in the park. Not only does it climb up a butte (a flat-topped hill with steep sides—less broad than a mesa), you’ll also find Puebloan granaries! It’s 1.8 miles round trip—allow about 1 hour.

Shafer Trail

On to Shafer Trail! This is a 4WD/mountain biking route that’s pretty dang cool if you’re down for some adventure and you’re not too afraid of heights!

(I fall somewhere between the two, so I came out of the experience feeling that it was kind of harrowing, but ultimately worth the trip.)

As you can see from the photo below, the road is narrow, switchback-y, and pretty rugged. Honestly, if cars were only going one way up the road, it wouldn’t be all that bad.

We drove UP the road so that we could hug the inside of it most of the way, but when you pass another huge Jeep coming down, that’s when it started to feel really narrow!

Shafer Trail road from above
Shafer Trail Sign

The road starts innocently enough, being mostly flat, but with some pretty intense bumps in places. The entire car was rocking up and down, making us glad we were in a rental.