The writer Edward Abbey, who spent a year as a ranger at ARCHES NATIONAL PARK in the 1950s, wrote that its arid landscape was as “naked, monolithic, austere and unadorned as the sculpture of the moon”. Apart from the single ribbon of black asphalt that snakes through the park, there’s nothing even vaguely human about it. Massive fins of red and golden sandstone stand to attention out of the bare desert plain and more than eighteen hundred natural arches of various shapes and sizes have been cut into the rock by eons of erosion. The narrow, hunching ridges are more like dinosaurs’ backbones than solid rock, and under a full moon you can’t help but imagine that the landscape has a life of its own.
While you could race through in a couple of hours, it takes at least a day to do Arches justice. A twenty-mile road cuts uphill sharply from US-191 and the visitor centre. The first possible stop is the south trailhead for Park Avenue, an easy trail leading one mile down a scoured, rock-bottomed wash. If you stay on the road, the La Sal Mountains Viewpoint provides a grandstand look at the distant 12,000ft peaks, as well as the huge red chunk of Courthouse Towers closer at hand.
From Balanced Rock beyond – a 50ft boulder atop a slender 75ft pedestal – a right turn winds two miles through the Windows section, where a half-mile trail loops through a dense concentration of massive arches, some more than 100ft high and 150ft across. A second trail, fifty yards beyond, leads to Double Arch, a staunch pair of arches that together support another.
Further on, the main road drops downhill for two miles past Panorama Point and the turnoff to Wolfe Ranch, where a century-old log cabin serves as the trailhead for the wonderful three-mile round-trip hike up to Delicate Arch. Crowds congregate each evening beside the arch, a freestanding crescent of rock perched at the brink of a deep canyon, for the superb sunset views; coming back down in the dark can be a little hair-raising, though. Three miles beyond the Wolfe Ranch turnoff, the deep, sharp-sided mini-canyons of the Fiery Furnace section form a labyrinth through which rangers lead regular hikes in spring, summer and autumn ($10; reserve at the visitor centre or via w recreation.gov).
From the Devil’s Garden trailhead at the end of the road, an easy one-mile walk leads to a view of the astonishing 306ft span of Landscape Arch, now too perilously slender to approach more closely. Several other arches lie along short spur trails off the route, though one, Wall Arch, finally collapsed in 2008. Seeing them all and returning from Double O Arch via the longer primitive trail requires a total hike of just over seven miles.