Pillars of uniquely shaped red rocks in Arches National Park in the foreground with the snow capped La Sal Mountains in the background

Three Perfect Days at Arches National Park

Three days exploring one of our favorite national parks. From viewing the Milky Way over Delicate Arch to hiking Devil's Garden, find out everything we did in Arches and plan your own trip to this iconic Utah destination.

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Day One

We notice the headlights winding their way up. Switchbacking the steep climb up beyond the Visitor Center, casting beams of cool color onto the sheer red rock cliffs before making the next sharp turn.

We’ve just idled past the vacant entrance station for Arches National Park, making the drive in the pitch black under Moab’s acclaimed dark skies. We’re here to enter before 7 AM, in part to hit our first trailhead as early as possible, but also to guarantee ourselves a full day at the Park.

Since 2022, visitors to Arches during the busiest part of the year have a few options when planning their trip: Secure a timed entry pass for a one hour window between 7 AM and 4 PM, choose the early bird option and enter before a pass is required, or wait and visit in the evening, after the timed entry period.

For those who know the exact dates they’ll visit, passes can be purchased online up to three months in advance. If you’re arriving on shorter notice a pass can still be obtained. The NPS opens another block of passes at 6 PM MDT the day before.

It’s not long at all before we’re given a glimpse of the unique landscape here. As we follow a trail of fellow early risers’ tail lights, the snow capped La Sal Mountains loom to the right, contrasted by the sandstone pinnacles, cliffs, and precariously balanced rocks along the main road.

Unable to resist the temptation of sunlight peeking over the horizon, we pull over and hop out of our van, cameras in hand.

A woman in a wide brimmed hat stands with her back to the camera in front of a desert landscape leading to distant mountains during a hazy sunrise
Looking through a vehicle window at the reflection of a red rock formation in the side view mirrorClose up on the textured surface of a sheer red rock cliff in Arches National Park with harsh shadows

The story of what makes this place such an incredible sight begins long ago. Layers of sandstone, manipulated by geologic forces, were wrinkled and warped into strange formations. Then, wind and rain, used like a sculptor’s tools, chiseled away the rock to reveal deeper layers. Seeping water penetrated the porous rock, freezing, expanding and shaping it from the inside out.

Water continuously reshapes and sculpts this land, eroding the sandstone and carrying it off into the Colorado River. Pools of snowmelt gather in voids, fracturing off chunks and forming fins. These fins become arches when a weaker pocket of stone erodes away more quickly.

More than 2,000 documented arches here gave this place its name and it’s been protected as a national park since 1971, drawing in millions of visitors each year.

A woman standing out of focus in the foreground with a tall wall of red rock in the distance

We’ve chosen Devil’s Garden, a 7.9 mile loop trail with views of almost a dozen arches and other formations, to introduce ourselves to the landscape. Traveling clockwise, we encounter Tunnel and Pine Tree Arches first, off a short spur trail.

The next stop is at Landscape Arch, one of the most popular in the Park. Some will come here just to see what’s left of the largest arch in North America, turning back and making this a 1.8 mile round trip hike.

What is left is a thin stretch of rock with a massive 306 foot opening. In 1991 a large chunk fell from Landscape Arch, reducing it to a mere six feet thick at its narrowest point, a reminder of the ever-changing nature of this place.

A panoramic shot of Landscape Arch in Arches National Park

The rest of the Devil’s Garden loop winds us up and over the sandstone, requiring some light scrambling at times. When we reach the highest point, about 300 feet above the trailhead, we’re rewarded with impressive views looking back towards the La Sals.

The side trails leading to sights like Navajo Arch, Bat Guano Arch, and Double O Arch are impressive, but not at the top of our must-see list here.

The second half of the hike sports almost none of these views and, even with an early start, the harsh Utah sun is beating down on us as we walk almost directly south. We sometimes encounter patches of deep sand and there’s almost no shade to speak of under a cloudless sky, so we have to press on.

Plenty of water, sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat are essentials out here at an elevation over 5,000 feet.

After returning to the trailhead we use the heat of the afternoon to relax, with the fan pulling air through the van as fast as it can. We slip hiking boots off our tired feet and enjoy lunch, while planning out the evening’s activities.

A red rock landscape dotted with shrubby green bushes and the snow capped La Sal Mountains in the distance
Looking up the winding dirt hiking trail at Devil's Garden in Arches National Park on a sunny morningA person stands underneath a massive rock arch in Arches National Park with the sun shining through near the top

Our next outing will be familiar to anyone who’s ever heard of Arches National Park, or been to Utah for that matter. The unmistakable silhouette of Delicate Arch has become iconic. It even adorns the state’s license plate with the tagline “Life Elevated”.

The trail to the arch lives up to the slogan, both literally and figuratively. With 629 feet of elevation, the 3.2 mile hike begins on mostly flat ground, but leads to a modest ascent.

We momentarily break off the main trail to visit Wolfe Ranch and Ute petroglyphs believed to be up to 400 years old.

Native American petroglyphs of rams and horses carved into the face of a red rock wall in Arches National Park

After some switchbacking the trail reaches an open expanse of “slickrock”. This short climb is the most strenuous part, awarding Delicate Arch Trail a “moderate” difficulty rating.

From here we meander through boulders and shrubs, keeping an eye on the tracks in front of us to stay on trail. It’s easy to wander off some here, with signs and cairns being a bit spread out.

Of course we’ve come today to see the most famous arch in the Park, but we’ve got a second agenda in mind - getting to know this trail during daylight, to prepare us for an even bigger adventure.

After more than a mile of fairly wide open terrain, the trail suddenly corrals hikers up along a much more narrow path, wall of rock on one side, steep drop on the other.

Then, rounding a corner, Delicate Arch suddenly comes into view. And it’s here that we see how elevated it truly is, perched alone, along a rim, with drop offs to either side.

There’s a crowd of people, dispersed in small groups or pairs all along the rim, but the mood is quiet and calm. We’ve come for sunset. Most onlookers are seated, taking in the scenery, chatting with their hiking companions in hushed voices, so as to not spoil the view we’ve all worked for.

Some are fidgeting with tripods. Others take a turn walking out to the arch, posing with arms thrown up in the air, or a peace sign. A memento they’ll share with friends and family later.

Then the golden light descends and hits Delicate Arch. We got exactly what we came for and our little scouting mission is complete.

Delicate Arch catching golden sunset across its face with the snow capped La Sal Mountains in the distance

Day Two

Rising temperatures on our second afternoon give way to a cloudy mid-spring day as we arrive at The Windows Section, what the NPS calls the “beating heart of Arches”.

The drive in past Balanced Rock, Garden of Eden, and Elephant Butte is spectacular enough on its own. The trailhead parking lot offers two short walks, each less than a mile, to some of the best sights in the entire Park.

Double Arch, a personal favorite, is immediately visible from the road and only becomes more impressive while walking up to and under the 112 foot tall span.

Looking up at a person silhouetted against the sky seated underneath Double Arch in Arches National Park
A silhouette of a man stepping down underneath one of the giant rock arches at Double Arch Looking up at the peak of a massive arch at Double Arch

The clouds continue to darken as we hike back past the van and up a short hill towards the North and South Windows. From Turret Arch, we see both at the same time, a view known as “The Spectacles”.

A panoramic shot of North and South Windows in Arches National Park giving the appearance of a pair of glasses

While climbing the rough terrain under and through the North Window, debating a trip all the way around the 1.2 mile Primitive Loop, the raindrops start.

Being out in open terrain during a Utah thunderstorm is no place to be, but being present immediately after one sure is a memorable experience. We can’t recommend staying put when the thunder starts rolling, but that’s what we do.

While a brief shower of heavy drops falls around us we tuck in against a rock overhang. The passing clouds leave behind a rainbow and we emerge to photograph the landscape, offered a brand new perspective from the glistening rain and distant storm.

A red rock landscape in Arches National Park dotted with green shrubs under a gray and stormy afternoon sky

Day Three

Our second day at Arches has barely come to an end when we receive a 1:30 AM wake up call. Time to start our third trip into the Park and we have a very special plan in mind.

We’ve been watching the weather closely and saw the chance for a clear view of Moab’s night sky. Timed just right, we’ll be able to watch the Milky Way make its appearance, just after the moon has settled below the horizon.

We complete the now familiar drive through the dark all the way to the Delicate Arch trailhead, slip on our packs, adjust our headlamps, and set off.

Two other beams of light are bobbing along up the slickrock ahead and we know we aren’t the only ones seizing this opportunity.

Our scouting mission earlier in the week pays dividends, since we have no problems finding our way up the trail. Reflectors on the sparsely placed markers now shine in the light of our headlamps, making it easier to stay on track.

Once at the top, we find just a handful of other stargazing photographers. We carefully edge our way along the sloped rock to a predetermined spot - where we think we’ll have the best chance of lining the Milky Way up with Delicate Arch.

Using an app that visualizes the path it will take, some final adjustments are made and we lock the tripod down as firmly as we can.

Then the blanket and, at last, a steaming mug of coffee come out.

Nestled in under the blanket together, we take turns sipping and pass the coffee back and forth.

The smooth rock slopes down toward what looks like a pit of doom. During the day it can be nerve-wracking to walk along it as you inch closer to the arch. Tonight it’s at the perfect angle to lay back and stare up at a seemingly infinite number of stars.

Three hours after our alarm stirred us awake, it’s showtime.

The Milky Way is at its brightest, easily distinguishable with the naked eye. We’ve watched it arcing into position almost directly above Delicate Arch. The camera comes on, focus is set, and we wait eagerly for the long exposure to finish.

What we see in the viewfinder is even better than we expected.

The Milky Way galaxy directly above Delicate Arch in Arches National Park
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Once again, Arches has delivered exactly what we came for. We take a few more exposures while the sun makes its way into view and the other photographers trickle back down onto the trail.

We’re here, so we might as well stay for sunrise.

Droves of hikers begin to make their arrival and it’s like a repeat scene of our sunset visit.

A wide shot of Delicate Arch beginning to catch the morning light at sunrise with the snow capped La Sal Mountains in the distance

The benefits of having a campervan in a situation like this can’t be overstated. By 9 AM we’ve been awake for almost eight hours. We find ourselves a quiet parking area, throw up the window covers and fall back into our bed for an afternoon nap.

Still on a high from our overnight experience and feeling a bit refreshed, but still worn out, we decide to finish our Arches tour on an easy note.

We head north on the main road to a viewpoint of Fiery Furnace, vowing to come back some day for the Ranger-led hike.

A woman stands underneath a massive red rock arch with a large patch of sand at its base in Arches National Park
The rounded red rock formations with shrubby bushes in Arches National ParkA woman stands and looks up between to massive sheer rock walls along a sandy trail in Arches National Park

The next stop is Sand Dune Arch, a 0.3 mile walk back to a secluded and memorable arch surrounded by tall fins.

And, just as the sun eases down one more time, we make it to Skyline Arch. It’s lit up briefly with golden light the moment we arrive on the trail - a picturesque scene and one of our favorite memories from three perfect days in Arches.

The dirt hiking trail leading to Skyline Arch which is illuminated with golden light from sunset

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The Milky Way directly above Delicate Arch with text overlay that says Three Days Exploring Arches National Park

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