Arches National Park

Arches National Park sees more than 1.65 million visitors each year

Arches National Park features more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, with some of the most popular arches in the park being Delicate Arch, Landscape Arch and Double Arch. Millions of years of erosion have created these structures located in a desert climate where the arid ground has life-sustaining biological soil crusts and potholes that serve as natural water-collecting basins. Other geologic formations include stone pinnacles, fins, and balancing rocks.


The natural sandstone formations make this location amazing to visit.

The national park lies atop an underground evaporite layer or salt bed, which is the main cause of the formation of the arches, spires, balanced rocks, sandstone fins, and eroded monoliths in the area. This salt bed is thousands of feet thick in places, and was deposited in the Paradox Basin of the Colorado Plateau some 300 million years ago when a sea flowed into the region and eventually evaporated. Over millions of years, the salt bed was covered with debris eroded from the Uncompahgre Uplift to the northeast. During the Early Jurassic (about 210 Ma) desert conditions prevailed in the region and the vast Navajo Sandstone was deposited. An additional sequence of stream laid and windblown sediments, the Entrada Sandstone (about 140 Ma), was deposited on top of the Navajo. Over 5000 feet (1500 m) of younger sediments were deposited and have been mostly eroded away. Remnants of the cover exist in the area including exposures of the Cretaceous Mancos Shale. The arches of the area are developed mostly within the Entrada formation.

The weight of this cover caused the salt bed below it to liquefy and thrust up layers of rock into salt domes. The evaporites of the area formed more unusual salt anticlines or linear regions of uplift. Faulting occurred and whole sections of rock subsided into the areas between the domes. In some places, they turned almost on edge. The result of one such 2,500-foot (760 m) displacement, the Moab Fault, is seen from the visitor center.

As this subsurface movement of salt shaped the landscape, erosion removed the younger rock layers from the surface. Except for isolated remnants, the major formations visible in the park today are the salmon-colored Entrada Sandstone, in which most of the arches form, and the buff-colored Navajo Sandstone. These are visible in layer cake fashion throughout most of the park. Over time, water seeped into the surface cracks, joints, and folds of these layers. Ice formed in the fissures, expanding and putting pressure on surrounding rock, breaking off bits and pieces. Winds later cleaned out the loose particles. A series of free-standing fins remained. Wind and water attacked these fins until, in some, the cementing material gave way and chunks of rock tumbled out. Many damaged fins collapsed. Others, with the right degree of hardness and balance, survived despite their missing sections. These became the famous arches.

Although the park’s terrain appears rugged and durable, it is the exact opposite. More than 700,000 visitors each year threaten the fragile high desert ecosystem. The problem lies within the soil’s crust which is composed of cyanobacteria, algae, fungi, and lichens that grow in the dusty parts of the park. Factors that make Arches National Park sensitive to visitor damage include: semiarid region, and the scarce, unpredictable rainfall, lack of deep freezing, and lack of plant litter which results in soils that have both a low resistance to, and slow recovery from, compressional forces such as foot traffic. Methods of indicating effects on the soil are cytophobic soil crust index, measuring of water infiltration, and t-tests that are used to compare the values from the undisturbed and disturbed areas.

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Native American History

From the Puebloans to Fremonts to Utes

Rocks have attracted visitors to Arches National Park for thousands of years. The earliest visitors weren’t just sight-seeing, though. Hunter-gatherers migrated into the area about 10,000 years ago at the end of an Ice Age. As they explored Courthouse Wash and the Salt Valley area, they found pockets of chert and chalcedony: two forms of microcrystalline quartz perfect for making stone tools. Chipping or knapping these rocks into dart points, knives, and scrapers, they created debris piles that are still visible to the trained eye.

Then, roughly two thousand years ago, the nomadic hunters and gatherers began cultivating certain plants and settled the Four Corners region. These early agriculturalists, known as ancestral Puebloans, raised domesticated maize, beans, and squash, and lived in villages like those preserved at Mesa Verde National Park.

Few dwellings have been found in Arches, which was the northern edge of ancestral Puebloan territory, so it’s possible they only visited seasonally – or that their dwellings have been lost to time. What does remain, though, are their drawings. Rock art panels are an invitation to wonder: Who made this? What were they thinking? Like earlier people, the ancestral Puebloans also left lithic scatters, often near waterholes where someone may have shaped tools while watching for game.

The Fremont were contemporaries of the ancestral Puebloans who lived just to the northwest. Distinctions between the two cultures are blurry, though certain characteristics of Fremont rock art, pottery, and other artifacts clearly demonstrate the existence of different technologies and traditions.

For a variety of reasons, people began leaving the region about 700 years ago. Descendents of the ancestral Puebloans include people living in modern-day pueblos like Acoma, Cochiti, Santa Clara, Taos, and the Hopi Mesas.

As the ancestral Puebloan people were leaving, nomadic Shoshonean peoples such as the Ute and Paiute entered the area and were here to meet the first Europeans. The petroglyph panel near Wolfe Ranch is believed to have some Ute images since it shows people on horseback, and horses were adopted by the Utes only after they were introduced by the Spanish.

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Park History

How Arches became a National Park

Arches National Park in southeastern Utah has more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches. There are also many other wondrous formations like giant stone bluffs, pinnacles, and red-rock canyons within this preserved area. Arches were designated a national monument before being changed to a national park in 1971 by President Nixon. Native Americans lived in this region further back in history for thousands of years.

The Arches National Park lies on top of a salt bed which underwent extreme climate changes millions of years ago. The debris from floods and ocean waters compressed into rock, pushing the earth upward into domes and down into hollow pockets. Faults also occurred such as the park’s Moab Fault – one of the most highly studied geologic zones in the country. Vertical arches resulted from these conditions, and the only rock layers that weren’t eroded away with time still stand today. Petrified sand dunes can also be found here which indicate where ancient lakes covered the area.

One of the most famous arches in the park is Delicate Arch. This arch has become widely recognized as a symbol of Utah, appearing on a U.S. Postage stamp and the state license plates. This sandstone formation stands alone, unlike most arches in the park. The largest natural arch is Landscape Arch, which is a thin ribbon of rock spanning 290 feet in length. Other features of the park include Fiery Furnace, which is a collection of narrow rock canyons. There are also tall sandstone fins and columns such as The Organ and the Courthouse Towers. All of these structures make up an impressive landscape on the Colorado Plateau.

The park’s desert location can make it a difficult place to hike in the summer sun. It often reaches over 100 degrees, dropping quickly into the 60s at night. The winter is the least visited time at Arches National Park, as the temperature falls dramatically in these months. There is an occasional light dusting of snow over the area, which only adds to its unique coloring contrasts. There is a lot of plant life throughout the park such as prickly pear cacti, moss, Utah juniper, pinyon pine, and various grasses. The bright blue backdrop of the sky against the vivid rock towers is scenery that makes for beautiful photography.

There are many popular hikes for people to take around the park. You can climb between the sandstone fins of Devil’s Garden or walk to the field between Sand Dune and Broken Arch. There are also many scenic drives along the park grounds that provide views of balancing rocks and more of the world’s largest arches. The sunsets here are incredible and bring out the crimson hues of these immense rocks. There is also an array of wildlife to see including toads, jackrabbits, falcons, eagles, foxes, lizards, and deer. Another intriguing thing to observe in the park is the ancient rock art carved into stone near Wolfe Ranch. Visitors to this area also like to go horseback riding, mountain biking, skydiving, 4-wheeling, or cool off in the nearby rivers. Arches National Park is located next to many other national monuments and parks as well as nice tourism towns in Utah.

With so much to do and see in Arches National Park you’ll want to be sure that you book a hotel close to it all, check out some of these great lodges, inns and motels: Bighorn Lodge, The Apache Motel, Canyonlands Inn, Aarchway Inn, Gonzo Inn and the Best Western Greenwell Inn. Not sure which one is right for you? Let a National Park Reservations specialists help you decide!

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The best things to do in Arches National Park

Hiking Arches National Park
Arches National Park is well suited for the visitor who wants to see amazing scenery on short hikes rather than serious, challenging treks. These wonderful trails offer spectacular scenery and, of course, plenty of arches.

Great easy day hikes include Double Arch, Broken Arch, Park Avenue (with its sandstone towers resembling its New York City namesake), and of course Landscape Arch — which, at over 300 feet, is the second-longest span in the world. Even though these hikes are relatively short, on a hot day they could be considered strenuous, so plan to hike early or late in the day to avoid the heat. And, as always, pack plenty of water along.

Explore five of Arches National Park’s best family hikes.

Although Arches National Park is more known for its easy day hikes than long, challenging hikes and backpacking routes, there are some great options for those seeking solitude and lengthier trips, such as the trail to Delicate Arch (probably the world’s most famous arch, and the one pictured on the Utah state license plate), and the Devils Garden Primitive Loop.

Another hike not to be missed is the hike to Fiery Furnace, named for the incredible reddish glow it often takes on at sunset that makes it look like a furnace. You will need to get a permit at the visitor center to do the Fiery Furnace hike, and it’s worth signing up for a ranger-led tour. As you walk along the 2-mile loop, the ranger explains the incredible natural history of the area and points out rare plants and semi-concealed arches.

Read the Arches National Park Adventure Guide for more details on Fiery Furnace, the Delicate Arch Hike and other big national park adventures.

Scenic Driving
Arches National Park is a wonderland and the sort of place that brings out the amateur geologist or landscape photographer in even the most citified of us. Arches offers more bang for your sightseeing buck from a vehicle than just about any other park. The park contains more than 1,500 recognized natural arches, ranging in size from just a few feet to the 306-foot span of mammoth Landscape Arch. As always, stop first at the visitor center, just inside the entrance, for an orientation and for resources and information on drives and hikes within the park. There is a very nice self-guiding booklet for the park road, which is called Arches Scenic Drive.

The road was very well designed to bring visitors close to park attractions, so it is easy to have a memorable experience in just a few hours of touring. If you only have a couple hours, drive to the Windows Section where you can check out some of the park’s largest arches, or drive to the Delicate Arch viewpoint and see Utah’s most famous arch at a distance. If you have four or five hours, you have time to drive all the park’s paved roads and spend about ten minutes at each viewpoint.

Arches National Park has one campground, the Devils Garden Campground located 18 miles north of the visitor center on the park road. This campground offers visitors an intimate connection with the amazing geography of Arches National Park and close proximity to excellent hiking, photography, sightseeing, and rock climbing.

Facilities at Devils Garden include potable water, picnic tables, toilets and grills (bring your own wood or charcoal for the grills as it is not available for sale). There are no showers or RV dump stations at the campground. Devils Garden has 50 individual campsites and 2 group campsites. Some sites will accommodate RVs up to 30 feet in length. Campsite rentals cost $20 per night (up to 10 people) and can be reserved through or by calling (877) 444-6777 (reservations recommended; from November 28 through February 1, some sites are available on a first-come, first-served basis.

If Devils Garden Campground is full, there are many other excellent campgrounds in the Moab area. Visit for more information on campgrounds, hotels and motels in town.

Arches National Park is a wonderful place to partake in your photography hobby — the colors, light, and landscape blend in a way that allows you to make unforgettable images of near professional quality.

The trick to maximizing your photography time in Arches National Park is knowing what geographic features are best photographed in what light, i.e. what time of day. Features best photographed at sunrise or very early morning light include the Moab Fault, the Three Gossips, Sheep Rock, the Great Wall, Turret Arch, the Spectacles, Double Arch, Cache Valley, Wolfe Ranch, Landscape Arch, and Double O Arch.

During late afternoon or evening light, aim your camera toward Park Avenue, the Courthouse Towers, the Petrified Dunes, Balanced Rock, the Garden of Eden, North and South Windows, Delicate Arch, the Fiery Furnace (permit required), Skyline Arch, the fins in Devils Garden, and Tower Arch.

Remember, the landscape in the canyon country is very fragile. Avoid stepping off the trails or away from pullouts — you will damage the biological soil crust, which is actually a living surface and very important to the ecology of this desert environment.

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Drought resistant plants fill Arches National Park 

Many visitors are surprised at the amount of vegetation in Arches. Plants are critical components of all ecosystems, and Arches is no exception. Plants capture particulate dust in the air, filter gaseous pollutants, convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, provide animal habitat and possess many raw materials useful to humans. Diverse plant communities thrive in patches of biological soil crust, while others seem to grow right out of cracks in the rock. Many adaptations enable desert plants to survive the extremes of temperature and aridity found in Arches. These adaptations are grouped in three categories: drought escapers, drought resistors and drought evaders.

Drought escapers are plants that make use of favorable growing conditions when they exist. These plants are usually annuals that grow only when enough water is available. Seeds may lie dormant for years if conditions are not favorable. Most grasses are escapers, as are wildflowers that bloom after seasonal rains during spring or late summer.

Drought resistors are typically perennials. Many have small, spiny leaves that reduce the impact of solar radiation, and some may drop their leaves if water is unavailable. Spines and hairy leaves act to reduce exposure to air currents and solar radiation, limiting the amount of water lost to evaporation. Cacti, yuccas and mosses are examples of drought resistors. Yuccas have extensive taproots that are able to use water beyond the reach of other plants. Moss, a plant not commonly associated with deserts, thrives because it can tolerate complete dehydration: when rains finally return, mosses green up immediately.

Drought evaders, the final group, survive in riparian areas where water is plentiful. Monkey flower, columbine and maidenhair fern are found in well-shaded alcoves near seeps or dripping springs. Cottonwoods and willows require a lot of water, and only grow along river corridors and intermittent streams where their roots can reach the water table easily.

Soil chemistry and depth are also important factors that influence where plants grow. Deep soils tend to be covered with grasses. Shrubs like blackbrush and purple sage favor shallow sandy soil, while greasewood and Mormon tea are signs of alkalinity. The dominant plant community in Arches, the pinyon-juniper woodland, colonizes rocky soils and fractured bedrock.

Non-native plant species can also be found at Arches. Tamarisk lines waterways throughout the Colorado River drainage system with its feathery foliage, and Russian thistle (also known as tumbleweed) lines many trails and roadsides with its distinctive thorns.

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Animal Life

This sandstone desert offers a rich animal life

Though the natural quiet of Arches often creates the impression of lifelessness, many animals live here.The most frequently sighted animals include birds, lizards, and some small mammals, though seasons and weather play a large role in determining what animals are active.

Adapting in the Desert
Desert animals have a variety of adaptations for dealing with the temperature and moisture stresses present in Arches. Most desert animals are nocturnal, being most active at night. This can be an adaptation to both predation and hot summer daytime temperatures. Mostly nocturnal animals include kangaroo rats, woodrats (also called packrats), and most other small desert rodents, skunks, ringtails, foxes, bobcats, mountain lions, bats, and owls.

Animals that are most active at dawn and dusk are called “crepuscular.” These times of day are cooler than mid-day. The half-dark makes prey animals less visible, yet visibility is good enough to locate food. Some animals are crepuscular mostly because their prey is crepuscular. Crepuscular animals include mule deer, coyotes, porcupines, desert cottontails, black-tailed jackrabbits, and many songbirds.

A few desert animals are primarily active during the day, or “diurnal.” These include rock squirrels, antelope squirrels, chipmunks, lizards, snakes, hawks, and eagles. Many animals have a temperature range in which they are active, so alter their active times of day depending on the season. Snakes and lizards go into an inactive state of torpor during the winter, are active during the day during the late spring and early fall, and become crepuscular during the heat of summer. Many insects alter their times of activity. Mosquitoes, for example, may be out at night, at dawn, dusk or all day but not at night, depending on the temperatures.

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Hiking Trails

The best hikes in Arches National Park

Delicate Arch
Delicate Arch is the most recognizable arch in Arches National Park, and perhaps anywhere in the world. It also happens to be located along one of the…(more)

Landscape Arch
Landscape Arch is the largest arch on the planet, beating out Zion National Park’s Kolob Arch by a scant 3 feet. Pieces of Landscape Arch have broken…(more)

Balanced Rock Trail
Located almost in the middle of the small park, the Balanced Rock Trail takes visitors on a short loop hike up to, and around, the Balanced Rock, an easily…(more)

Double O Arch
Double O Arch is the second largest arch within the Devils Garden area – after Landscape Arch of course. As the name implies, there are two arches here…(more)

Fiery Furnace
The Fiery Furnace is routinely described as a maze, and that metaphor is fitting. A continuation of the shattered fins that make up the Devils Garden…(more)

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