“This is the most beautiful place on earth.” – Ed Abbey, Desert Solitaire
Those are the opening words of Ed Abbey’s classic portrait of the land, life, seasons and people of the Moab area in southeastern Utah. That book sent many a flatlander, myself included, west in a quest to soak in the desert. We eventually ended up in the Salt Lake Valley, four hour or less from Moab. Close enough.
Ed was right, by the way. Arches National Park is the most beautiful place on earth. At the time Abbey wrote his book, Arches was a little-visited National Monument. Since then it’s been “improved,” with paved roads, parking lots and hordes and hordes of crowds.
But for all its civilization, Arches is still the most beautiful place on earth, and bucket-list destination for millions of Americans (and foreign tourists) each year.
Don’t put it off, if you haven’t been. Visit while you can, and take the kids.
Of all the camping and hiking we’ve done in Utah since moving here, Arches has the easiest hiking for kids. Most of the grandest and most-famous arches are within a mile’s walk of the parking lots. It was tougher finding a parking spot than it was getting to the arches in most cases.
We were there to see Delicate Arch.
This is the most famous arch of all. It’s on Utah’s license plates, our quarter, and a photo of Delicate Arch hangs in probably every Utah home, waiting room, office and classroom in the state.
For visitors, this is THE arch to get to. As a result, it’s also one of the most crowded hikes. In the spring of 2015, the parking lot near the Delicate Arch trailhead was undergoing construction and expansion, squeezing parking even more.
If there’s one piece of advice I could give to anybody who wants a halfway-peacable time getting to and staring at Delicate Arch, it’s this: Park before dawn.
Our family woke up before 5 a.m. and drove to the parking lot. The strategy paid off – at 6 a.m. there were only two other cars in the parking lot.
The guidebooks describe the Delicate Arch hike as “strenuous.” Honestly, it’s something any average person could do. It’s about 1.5 miles in each direction. The first half of the trail headed out is on a wide gravel trail.
Right out of the parking lot, you’ll visit the John Wolfe Ranch log cabin, and a short spur trail will take you to some petroglyphs on a rock panel. It’s worth visiting, but I’d recommend doing it on the way back, when you’re no longer in a hurry.
About halfway through, the trail turns to slickrock, marked by a series of cairns (small stacks of rocks). Most of the slickrock portion is uphill. It’s an easy enough climb (but be careful if wet or freezing – it’s not called slickrock for nothing).
Other than that, it’s a trail any average person could do. My 5-year-old daughter practically skipped up it (when she wasn’t stopping to spot cairns, lizards, jackrabbits or potholes in the slickrock).
The trail is quite cleverly built. The entirety of it, you never do see Delicate Arch. Then at the very end you come around a cliff face and there it is.
It took my breath away, first time I saw it.
“If Delicate Arch has any significance, it lies; I will venture, in the power of the odd and unexpected to startle the senses and surprise the mind out of their ruts of habit, to compel us into a reawakened awareness of the wonderful – that which is full of wonder.” – Ed Abbey.
For the past two years, my older daughter has been talking of the time she got to see Delicate Arch in person. If 5-year-olds had bucket lists, this was it – to see the arch.
So it was a special moment when I watched her come around the bend and put eyes on the improbable Delicate Arch for the first time. Then she did something she never does. She went quiet. And stared at the arch for minutes on end, saying nothing. I don’t know what she was thinking, and I didn’t want to ask. I just wanted her to soak it in. I don’t know at what age lasting memories are made, but I hope that the moment of seeing Delicate Arch in person would be one of them.
When you go to Delicate Arch, you’ll want to photograph it. Sunrise and sunset are the most popular times. Like I said, you’ll have fewer crowds at the sunrise option. Just before you get to Delicate Arch, there’s a small arch called Frame Arch in the wall above. It’s something of a scramble to get up there, but Frame Arch is a popular viewpoint for getting an aerial shot of Delicate.
On the level with Delicate Arch, there’s a steep slope into a sort of bowl. Between you and the “bowl” and arch itself is a waist-high natural rock wall. We were comfortable with the thought of myself and my 5-year-old crossing over the wall and getting up close and personal with Delicate, but it would have been too much for the 3-year-old.
If you’re going to see one arch in your life, make it Delicate. Just be sure to get there early. And be sure to go. Delicate Arch looks so frail, you never are sure when the last straw will come, when some freezing and thawing of the water that seeps through the sandstone pores does too much, and Arches collapses, finally surrendering to gravity. It could happen, for all I know, tomorrow. Or it could happen in 20 years. Or in 5,000. Or Delicate Arch could stand past the end of humanity. But why take the chance. Go see it sooner rather than later.
When it comes to staying in Moab, you’ve got several options. Arches National Park has one campground, Devils Garden Campground, with 50 sites. You’ll need to reserve a spot, and you’ll want to do it well in advance, like 6 months or more.
One option we often use is Sand Flats campground. Just outside Moab, it’s a 120-site campground near some mountain bike and OHV trails. In the busy season, it’s full of noisy vehicles. But in off times, you can sometimes have an entire section of campground to yourself.
The BLM also operates several sites along Highway 128. On this trip, we stayed about 30 miles up 128 in the Dewey Bridge Campground. With only 7 spots, it’s a secluded-feeling campground. On our trip, we camped next to a family with children our own girls’ ages. We wound up eating dinner and cooking s’mores together, followed by a group storytime.
There are plenty more campgrounds in the area if you get there in time to look around.
Moab caters to tourists, so there’s a motel or lodge (or hostel) on nearly every block. If it’s not too crowded and you’re not much of a camper, you can get a motel room if you must.
If those fill up (it happens), Monticello, Utah, is about 50 miles south and should have rooms available (check the Rodeway Inn) for less than Moab costs. Green River, about 50 miles to the north, is another option.