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Arches National Park
By Charles Shugart, Jr.
Two thousand arches. A hundred really big arches.
That’s Arches National Park – in eastern Utah.
The nearby town of Moab is the place for motels, restaurants, markets, gas stations and gift shops galore. 20 years ago, it was an ordinary old western town, having grown up with the personality of the people who lived there. In recent years, the town has changed considerably. There are now more latte bars than beer bars – surely the sign of a declining civilization.
For most travelers though, the main attraction is Arches National Park – a few miles away.
But first, RVers need to find their overnight stopping place.
Although there is a dry campground at the end of the road in Arches National Park, it only has 52 sites, some of which are big enough for RVs up to 30 feet long. Half the sites can be reserved; the others are on a first-come basis. Toilets, water, and picnic tables make up the facilities. I’ve usually found the campground to be filled with tenters and, although the location is excellent, for RVers it may be better to take advantage of the many RV parks in and around Moab (mainly along US Highway 191). Most offer full hookups and other amenities.
Well, there are other camping choices, too. For one, State Highway 128 follows the Colorado River upstream through a spectacular canyon. BLM offers several campgrounds that are close to the river. They also have the minimum facilities.
Wherever you overnight, make sure you disconnect and go exploring in your drive-around vehicle. Many of the excellent sightseeing pullouts are too small for long rigs, and you’ll be stopping at most of them to drink in the spectacular beauty of nature’s offerings.
The geology of the region is complicated, and I make no pretense at being an expert. The beauty and wonder of Arches National Park is, however, the direct result of its geological formation and subsequent erosion, so it’s worth giving it a whirl. 300 million years ago, the entire region was at a much lower elevation and was covered by ocean. Thick salt deposits formed. Mineral rock layers formed on top of the salt. Then the land slowly rose because of tectonic plate movement. The subterranean salt layers provided an unstable base for overlying sandstone layers. It is because of the salt’s instability that the region has so many parallel rows of fins.
So far, so good. Next, erosion creates the arches themselves.
Rainwater dissolves the natural cement that binds together innumerable grains of sand; water seeps into tiny cracks, freezing and expanding on winter nights; extremes of heat and cold cause expansion and contraction. Plus, there is the unrelenting pull of gravity. After many thousands of years, holes appear in the thinnest of the fins. After more thousands of years, the holes grow larger. Sadly, the erosion that created the arches will destroy them.
The changes are slow, but we’re talking about millions of years. We can consider ourselves lucky because this brief and temporary blip in geologic time occurs when it does, and has given us these marvelous natural features to enjoy.
Arches National Park is a few miles north of Moab along US 191. Pay at the gate – or show your National Park or Golden Age Pass – and enter this special place. Stop at the Visitor Center for information. Then, with park map in hand, drive up the road to higher elevations, where you suddenly find all the magic spread out before you.
Although the arches themselves are of greatest interest, there are other features to garner your attention. Soon after arriving at this higher plateau, you come to Park Avenue. The mile-long walking trail comes out a bit further along the road. There are no arches, but the massive red-walled monuments are quite impressive.
Continuing down the road, you’ll notice petrified sand dunes and the La Sal Mountains to the east.
Approaching Balanced Rock, park and walk the short path all the way around the rock. Every perspective is different. Try to photograph from the angle that best shows the narrow connection that keeps the top balanced. When you find that place, notice the crumbling appearance of the narrow part. When it goes kaput, so also Balanced Rock goes kaput. Nothing is forever, and a good earthquake might topple the rock.
Just beyond Balanced Rock is the turnoff to the Windows Section of the park. It contains some of the park’s most fascinating arches. Double Arch is huge! And really is two arches together. It’s much better when viewed up close, so take the short trail. Take at least one photograph with someone standing under the arch. In fact, do that whenever you can. Otherwise, your pictures will not show how very big the arches are.
Across the parking lot from Double Arch, another short trail takes you to North Window, South Window, and Turret Arch. After taking close looks at both of the Windows, walk through Turret Arch and find a place where you can look back through the arch and see South Window. Wow! It’s another great place for a photograph.
Back to the car. Take the turn-off to Wolfe Ranch and the 1.5-mile trail to Delicate Arch.
the Delicate Arch Viewpoint does let you see the arch – from a distance. But if you have the energy for a 3-mile round trip, few hikes will be more rewarding than the one to Delicate Arch. Among its intriguing aspects is that you can’t see the arch until you round the last corner. Suddenly it is right in front of you. A hundred feet away!
15 minutes later, when you realize your mouth has been open as you stare, close your mouth and start taking pictures. Walk down to the arch and stand under it. Photograph someone else standing under it. Then sit down opposite the arch; absorb the sense of the place. And consider this: there was rock all over the place for millions of years. Yet, through the strange and often unpredictable workings of Mother Nature, the forces of erosion have removed everything around Delicate Arch except the arch itself.
When you’re totally sated with the beauty and uniqueness of the arch, hike back to the car.
On to Fiery Furnace, a collection of rows upon rows of fins sufficiently confusing to prohibit hiking among them without an experienced park ranger taking you. So make the arrangements, and go.
Continuing toward the end of the paved road, you see Broken Arch and Skyline Arch. Park and walk close to them. Every arch is different. They’re all worth a look and a few photographs.
At the campground turnoff the road loops, heading back the direction from which you just came. Stop! Park and do some hiking through Devil’s Garden. You’ll discover another Double Arch (much smaller than the first), and Landscape Arch, which is 188 feet tall and 291 feet long. It’s one of the longest natural arches in the world.
Remember to take water (and drink it) on all hikes, especially during hot weather. Even though you don’t notice it because of the dry desert air, you’re losing water through perspiration, and it must be replaced.
You could easily spend a delightful week in Arches National Park without taking any major hikes, by just seeing all the splendid monuments and arches at different times of the day and with different kinds of lighting.
But make sure you leave enough time to go across the highway to visit Canyonlands National Park. It also is special and unique.
Arches National Park is high desert country, which means that summer days are usually very hot, and winter nights can be well below freezing. Spring and autumn are the best times to visit for most people.
Whether driving or hiking, carry drinking water. The dry desert air requires that you drink a lot more water than you would in most other regions.
If you have a high-clearance 4x4 with low-range transfer case, there are some interesting 4x4 trails to explore. One in particular leaves the pavement near Broken Arch and heads toward the Klondike Bluffs, where you can see Marching Men and Tower Arch. Taking the turnoff to Tower Arch, the route becomes a one-way 4x4 road, leading to the paved road at Balanced Rock. If you're unfamiliar with low-range 4-wheeling, you may want to skip this. Some technical skill – and confidence – is a good thing. But then, if you’ve gone to the trouble of buying a vehicle with real off-road capability, you have to learn someplace. That's how I learned.
It’s always best to go off-road with another vehicle if possible. Otherwise, at least take extra food and water with you. And remember, cell phones and CB radios can’t always be relied on in remote country. Also, let someone know where you’re going and when you expect to return. Just make sure you contact that person when you do return.
As to photography:
Arches is one of those places where you can’t take too many pictures. It is that special. And if you take too many, so what? Hide the lousy ones and show only the good ones. Family and friends will not only fall in love with Arches National Park, but they’ll think you’re a great photographer.
P.S. If you don’t tell them about the bad photos, they may never find out.