Family Vacations to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks, Utah

Arches National Park
Arches National Park (PhotoDisc)

Just five miles north of Moab, Utah, Arches National Park boasts more than 2,000 majestic arches, red-rock canyons, fins, spires, and balancing rocks created by sandstone erosion over the course of some 150 million years. With tweens or teens in tow, pair a visit to Arches with time at nearby Canyonlands National Park, a more rugged and less accessible exemplar of southern Utah's dramatic landscape. Although the visitor's centers at these parks have exhibits, bathrooms, and water fountains, the parks do not have lodging, stores for food and supplies, or gas stations, so come prepared. Plan to camp or overnight in Moab, the quintessential outdoor-adventure base camp.

At Arches, follow the paved road for several miles to access various trailheads with easy to moderate hikes suitable for kids. Park Avenue Viewpoint is the beginning of a one-mile hike (best for older children) along the red-rock canyon bottom that leads to Courthouse Towers, an impressive formation whose high vertical walls resemble a city skyline. Balanced Rock, a massive 50-foot boulder that appears to be precariously balanced atop a slim 75-foot pedestal, can be reached by an easy 0.3-mile loop.

The Windows Section of the park features some of the largest arches. An easy one-mile trail loops past North and South Windows and onto Turret Arch. Wolfe Ranch, an 1898 homesteader's cabin and corral located on a spur road, is the trailhead for the adventuresome who want to hike to Delicate Arch, a park and national landmark. The three-mile round-trip hike is moderately strenuous and includes some climbing up slick rocks. If you want to skip the hike and are satisfied with a mile-away view, drive to the Delicate Arch Viewpoint for the iconic view of Utah's signature rock formation. The main road ends at Devils Garden, where there are about a dozen significant arches for the kids to ogle and snap pictures. Here, there are many trailheads and campsites if you wish to explore further.

Canyonlands National Park is an immense, 527-square-mile wilderness divided into three districts. Island in the Sky, a towering, level mesa between the Green and Colorado rivers, is the most accessible district for families. From the visitor center, 45 minutes from Moab, there are short walks to great views. One of the most impressive sites, Upheaval Dome, a two-mile-wide crater filled with colored spires and boulders, is accessible from Crater View Trail, an easy one-mile loop. But hold on to the kids because the overlook is not fenced! For an unforgettable vacation moment, catch the sun rising over Mesa Arch, reachable by an easy half-mile round-trip hike. In the Needles District, sightseeing requires four-wheel driving over difficult roads, strenuous hiking, or mountain biking. The Maze District, one of the most remote corners of any national park in the continental United States, is for hardy outdoor adventurers only.

Don't want to go it alone? Outfitters, including Tag-A-Long Expeditions, Canyonlands Field Institute, and NAVTEC Expeditions, offer guided jeep, rafting, hiking, and bicycling outings in one or both parks.

For an indoor activity, visit the Dan O'Laurie Museum in Moab, featuring archaeological, geological, and historical exhibits about the area from Ute Indian days to the uranium boom of the 1950s. The Mill Canyon Dinosaur Trail, 13 miles northwest of Moab, is an outdoor paleontologic museum, where you'll tread past ancient dinosaur bones and fossils embedded in the landscape on an hour-long hike.

Tips: Although the parks are open year-round, ranger-led interpretive walks and campfire talks are only scheduled April through October. Also, summer temperatures can reach 110 degrees, so the best times to visit are spring and fall, or very early in the morning in summer.

Recommended Side Trips: Colorado Springs


Away.com's resident family expert Candyce Stapen has written the book on family travel, having authored some 1,400 travel articles and 27 books, 26 of them on family travel. She is the winner of the 2004 "Caribbean Travel Writer of the Year for North America" award and a three-time winner of the Society of American Travel Writers' Lowell Thomas Travel Journalism award. Her articles have appeared in publications including Nick Jr , FamilyFun , Parents , Better Homes & Gardens , Conde Nast Traveler , National Geographic Traveler , and the Family Travel Network , among others. Her book, the National Geographic Guide to Caribbean Family Vacations is available from Amazon.com.

Published: 3 Oct 2007 | Last Updated: 6 Aug 2012
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication

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