Arches National Park is an enduring image of the rugged American red desert. The iconic Delicate Arch decorated the Utah license plate starting in 1992 until recently. Located in the eastern Utah town of Moab, Arches National Park is home to the highest concentration of natural arches in the world, many of which are just a few steps from the road.
With so many iconic and beautiful rock formations located in close proximity, visiting Arches National Park in one day is not only feasible, it is all most folks need to see the highlights of the park. Arches National Park is less than a third as large as neighboring Canyonlands National Park. Unlike the neighboring park, the iconic sites and views do not require significant travel time.
So, let’s talk about exploring this park and getting the most out of your day exploring Arches National Park.
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Planning Your Visit to Arches National Park
The first thing you need to know about visiting Arches National Park is it’s popular and it gets crowded. So much so that traffic would back up on US 191 all the way into downtown Moab. As a result, the National Park Service instituted a pilot Timed Entry System from April to October. Don’t worry, I go over how to get a reservation/entry ticket below.
The next thing you need to understand about this park is it is located in the desert. As such, all of the trails get a lot of sunshine. Temperatures can get into the 100s from May all the way to October. If you plan on doing any hiking (and you should!), you need to come prepared for bright sun, no shade and hot temperatures. Make sure you have appropriate clothing to protect you from the sun. Bring a lot more water than you think you need. We were glad to have a full 3 liters of water in our packs. We also had water and Gatorade in a cooler in the truck.
Seasonally, we have been to Arches National Park in both the summer and the winter. We got lucky with both of our visits. When we visited in the winter, there was a nice dusting of snow, making for exquisite views. Still, it never got above freezing while we were there. Ice was a problem on our hike up to Delicate Arch. This past summer, we had great temperatures for mid-June. It rarely got above the upper-80s the entire time we were in Moab.
Other Things to See and Do in the Moab Area
There’s a lot to see and do in the Moab area, including Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park, along with significant opportunities to explore the surrounding desert, much of which is public land. We spent a week in Moab and feel like we missed a lot of stuff while we were there.
Navigating Arches National Park’s Timed Entry System
The Timed Entry System allows you to reserve a timed entrance to the park three months in advance on recreation.gov. Tickets are available at the beginning of the month at 8 a.m. Mountain Time. So, for example, if you were visiting on July 15, the tickets for entrance would be available on April 1 at 8 am Mountain Time. Your ticket reserves your entrance time. Once inside the park, you can stay as long as you want.
What if you don’t get a ticket? First, don’t panic, it’s not the end of the world. There are other ways to get into the park.
The Park releases additional tickets at 6 pm Mountain Time the day before. That’s how we got our ticket to see the park. It was easy and we got an early slot so we could enjoy the park before it got hot.
Whether you are trying to get a ticket during the initial release or the day before, we suggest you log on to the recreation.gov app (or website) immediately when tickets are released. Tickets will go quickly and if you’re not ready, you might miss out. Don’t worry, though… there are still other options!
If you strike out at getting a timed entry ticket at all, it’s ok. The tickets are only required from 6 a.m. to 5 p.m. That’s right, if you want to enjoy sunrise or sunset in the park, you DO NOT need an entry ticket! While we were in Moab, we made a point to drive into the park twice for sunset after dinner. It was a great experience both times.
Now, this is a pilot program and is likely to change in the future. So, be sure to check the park’s website for up-to-date details.
That said, we feel like Timed Entry System was a success. We visited in the midst of the summer. We only needed to hunt for a parking spot one time on our visit to the park.
Planning A One-Day Visit to Arches National Park
Normally, I would tell you to stop at the visitor center first thing upon arrival in the park. That is our standard when we visit any park. For this park, however, we recommend skipping the visitor center when you arrive, especially if it is going to be a hot day. Use your time in the cool of the morning to get out on the trail to explore either Devils Garden or Delicate Arch.
Pro Tip: If you are towing a trailer, we suggest dropping your trailer or camper at the visitor center parking lot and using your tow/towed vehicle to get around.
While both are great hikes, Delicate Arch has more limited parking. This is the only place in the park we had to hunt for a parking spot on our latest visit. So, if hiking out to that arch is your priority, we recommend going early.
Starting at Delicate Arch
We hiked out to Delicate Arch when we visited back in the winter of 2015. This is the hike to do if you want to be right at the arch. It is also one of the most popular hikes in the park, so expect a crowded parking lot and lots of people on the trail.
The Park Service advertises the hike as difficult. I would say that is more due to the fact it is wide open with no shade to be found. It is also moderately steep and traverses slickrock. When we hiked it, it was quite cold (20s). There was one brief section of ice-covered rock steps which I slipped on and busted my butt (not to mention my camera). There is also a narrow section with a steep drop-off but, otherwise, it was a good hike and not too difficult.
This year, we decided to skip the crowds and do the hikes to the Delicate Arch viewpoints. The Lower Delicate Arch viewpoint can be reached via a short, paved, handicap-accessible trail. The hike up to the Upper Delicate Arch viewpoint is moderately strenuous, traveling uphill over uneven terrain. For those not looking to do the 3-mile hike to the arch itself, this is a good alternative. Obviously, you won’t get as close but the viewpoints still allow you to see the arch.
After the viewpoints, we made a point to stop at the Delicate Arch Trailhead to see the Wolfe Ranch, settled by a 69-year-old Civil War veteran from Ohio, who made this harsh landscape home in 1898 and lived here for 12 years.
At one point, six members of Wolfe’s family, including his son, daughter, son-in-law, and two grandchildren, lived together sharing the 17-foot by 15-foot one-room cabin. I don’t know about you but that’s a lot people in a small space!
From Fiery Furnace to Devils Garden
After leaving the Wolfe Ranch, we drove north toward Devils Garden, stopping first at the Salt Valley Overlook. While it does not seem to have a lot to see, be sure to stop here. The Salt Valley is an important geological feature of the park and there is a lot about this in the Visitor Center. Plus, the view is pretty cool.
From there, we continued to the Fiery Furnace, a really cool cluster of narrow canyons, fins and arches. The overlook allows you to see these gorgeous formations from a distance. If you want to see the Fiery Furnace up close, you need to either go on a ranger-led tour or get a permit to hike, both available on recreation.gov. The reason for this is simple: this is a complicated hike in a maze-like area with significantly difficult terrain. Basically, it’s really easy to get lost here!
Still, it is high up on our list of things we want to do on our next visit to Arches National Park!
Following our stops at the Salt Valley Overlook and Fiery Furnace Overlook, we continued north to the Skyline Arch. Seeing this arch is not difficult but does require a short hike from the road. It is more than worth the effort!
When we visited in the winter, we also stopped at the Sand Dune Arch, which is a very easy walk from the road in between two fins that often offers shade. It is quick and the arch is pretty but not as scenic as many of the other arches in the park. Still, it is worth your time.
Once we got to the Devils Garden area, we found plenty of parking, even for RVs.
Exploring Devils Garden
Devils Garden is a large area of rugged rock formations including several fins, which are narrow rock walls. You can easily spend most of the day hiking the entire 7.8-mile loop trail. Since we had other things we wanted to see in the park, we chose to just hike out the 1.9 miles to Landscape Arch, along with the side trips to Pine Tree Arch and Tunnel Arch.
Landscape Arch is the longest arch in North America at 306 feet long and is only 6 feet wide at its narrowest part. This arch has had large segments fall off and is hanging on by a “very thin thread” according to the Park Service.
The other two arches in the area, Pine Tree and Tunnel Arch, are also really cool but Landscape Arch definitely steals the show. If you have the time and are looking for a far more strenuous hike, completing the full Devils Garden loop is another hike that is pretty high on our list for a return trip to Arches National Park.
After our hike, we began working our way south, passing the turn-off for Delicate Arch and stopping at Panorama Point for lunch at one of the great covered picnic tables there.
Gawking at The Windows
After lunch, we continued south until we saw the turn-off for the Windows Section. We turned east and drove along the road, enjoying the rock formations until we reached the Windows Area. The parking lot, like Devils Garden, is circular, so if you don’t find a spot by the trail for the Windows, keep going around to the trail for the Double Arch. You will likely find a spot there. If not, you can circle back around. While it took a minute, we found a spot without having to hunt for one. There is a trail that connects the two trailheads.
There are four amazing arches right here, all within easy walking distance from each other. We started by walking up to the Windows, an iconic wall with two arches. You can easily stand inside the North Window and the view through it is pretty cool. If you go through the North Window, you will find it frames Turret Arch perfectly.
Just to the southeast is Turret Arch, which has a unique spire jutting up from the surrounding rocks, offering a unique shape overall. To the north is probably my favorite arch, the Double Arch, because its unique shape and the fact that it’s both the tallest and second longest arch in the park.
You can easily hike up to both Turret Arch and Double Arch and we recommend taking the time to do just that. These arches are truly jaw-dropping and well worth your time.
Pro Tip: If you plan on coming back in the evening, the area on the way into Windows Section has some great spots to see the sunset.
Enjoying The Southern End of Arches National Park
From the Windows Section, continue west and then south to see the rest of the park. Be sure to stop at Balanced Rock, a large rock formation seemingly perched atop a narrow spire, which you can easily see from the road or take the brief trail around.
Your next stop is the Courthouse Towers Viewpoint, which offers views of Sheep Rock, the Tower of Babel, the Organ and the Three Gossips. While these aren’t arches, they are still really cool formations. Beyond this stop is the La Sal Mountains Viewpoint, which offers views of both mountains in the distance to the east and the Courthouse Towers to the northwest.
Just down the road is Park Avenue, which is a really cool canyon that has a nice trail going through it. While the trail is only two miles round-trip, we did not get to it until mid-afternoon, so it was too hot to hike. Honestly, the air temperature wasn’t that bad, but hiking in a sandstone canyon is kinda like hiking in an oven. The sun reflects off the walls and makes it feel much hotter inside.
Still, it was gorgeous and is added to our list of hikes to do when we return.
Your final stop, ironically enough, is the visitor center. You may ask why stop here but the exhibits in the visitor center do an excellent job explaining the geology of the otherworldly formations within the park and what wildlife you could expect to see in the early mornings or late afternoons. It also makes a great place to get out of the sun and into the air conditioning.
If You Have Multiple Days in Arches National Park
If we had more days to just explore Arches National Park, we would certainly get a permit to hike the Fiery Furnace. I really want to explore this maze of narrow canyon walls. A ranger-led tour would be really cool so we could get an expert narration of what we are seeing.
We would also make a point to spend a day hiking Devils Garden Loop since it is such a long trail and we would want to get such an early start. The only grumble about this hike is there are sandy sections and some steep, exposed slopes. Those kinds of trails make Bonnie a bit anxious about heights.
The hike in Park Avenue really looks nice and could be done in the late evening, so this could be done after an early dinner and before relaxing to watch a spectacular sunset in the park.
Lastly, I would really like to spend some time driving the unpaved and unimproved roads on the west side of the park. After our flat tire in Dinosaur National Monument and the quality of the replacement, we did not feel our vehicle was up for another rugged, rocky road.
Where to Stay in Moab
Moab has a great downtown area. Despite the popularity of the parks and the town itself, it has retained its small-town charm. That said, you’ll find plenty of restaurants, hotels, campgrounds and shops.
We camped at the Moab Rim Campark, an RV park on the south end of town. In addition to RV sites, they have a few tent sites and even some cabins. Perhaps the only downside to the campground is its proximity to the highway.
Our site was on the first row, right off the main highway and we heard a ton of road noise all day and night. It wasn’t bad inside the camper but sitting outside was noisy. Everything else was well-kept and clean. We would recommend the park regardless of the road noise.
If you prefer a hotel, there are a number of great options in town. When we visited in the winter of 2015, we stayed at the Hampton Inn. Most hotels, including the Hampton Inn, are within walking distance to downtown and a variety of restaurants.
Where to Eat in Moab
In terms of where to eat, we highly recommend breakfast at the Moab Diner, lunch at the Moab Brewery and dinner at Hidden Cuisine. The Moab Diner serves up traditional diner fare, including a variety of skillets featuring potatoes, bacon, peppers, eggs and cheese. The Moab Brewery is a great place to get a local craft beer after a long hike or a day in the sun.
Finally, Hidden Cuisine serves up authentic South African-inspired cuisine that you just don’t find in a lot of places. The South African-style ribs I had were tangy and delicious. Bonnie had bobotie, which is a beef stew, and it was tremendous.
We also recommend Antica Forma if you are looking for pizza, pasta or other Italian fare. We ate at the Vernal, UT location while visiting Dinosaur National Monument and it was fantastic.
Final Thoughts on Arches National Park
Arches National Park is chock full of tremendous sights but the park is relatively condensed in a small area, making it easy to explore in one day and see the vast majority of sights without difficulty. An additional day or two would allow you to really explore this park wholly and feel like you saw everything there is to see.
Still, when you do visit, prepare to say, “Wow!” a lot. The gravity-defying arches are simply awe-inspiring. Even on our second visit, we were just blown away.
Add in the town of Moab and the surrounding sites, and this area could easily become home to a two-week vacation on its own.
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