Arches National Park
|The Three Gossips, Arches National Park. (courtesy, NPS)|
At 73,379 acres, Arches is relatively small for a National Park, with very few areas far enough from roads to qualify as backcountry. Still, it's not hard to get away from crowds even at this very popular destination, since the major attractions here are viewable by car and many visitors don't bother to stray farther afield than the park's major road.
A nice thing about Arches is that "easy" doesn't mean "boring," at least as far as the scenery is concerned. The Balanced Rock Loop is a short jaunt around the base of a fragile and highly improbable geological rarity. A slightly longer walk to the Windows takes you to two massive sandstone portals you can climb through, plus Turret Arch as a bonus. For a lesser-known but simple walk to Delicate Arch, take the Delicate Arch Viewpoint trail. A half-mile trail takes you to the rim of a steep canyon where you can glimpse one of the nation's most photographed natural features.
The moderate hikes in the park are a little longer and a little steeper. Park Avenue is a one-mile (one way) walk through a deep canyon to the Courthouse Towers, an amazing set of red-rock spires shooting up from the earth. The Tower Arch hike is a longer meander through rocks and dunes to Tower Arch, which if you didn't know better you'd think was built for the set of a sci-fi movie.
Owing particularly to the rugged desert landscape, the difficult hikes in Arches are just that: steep, dry, and demanding. The Fiery Furnace is a maze of canyons that takes you deep into the heart of sandstone country. Hikers in this area need to pay for a permit at the visitor's center before venturing out. The Devils Garden Trail is the longest in the park at over seven miles, including its various spurs to Arches attractions. The trail takes in eight arches altogether as it clambers over slickrock and down narrow rocky ledges.
Outside the park's developed areas there are no designated trails, campsites, or reliable water sources, which makes backpacking in this desert environment a hearty challenge. In order to backpack in Arches, you must obtain a free backcountry permit at the visitor center. The maximum group size is 12, but smaller groups are strongly recommended to reduce impact on the park environment. Permits may not be reserved in advance.
Backpackers should know how to navigate with a topographic map, recognize safety hazards, and practice low-impact camping specific to the high desert. Primary hazards to watch out for include steep terrain, loose rock, lightning, flash floods, and dehydration.
Camping is permissible anywhere in the backcountry with these exceptions: no camping in Salt Valley or Fiery Furnace, and no camping in Klondike Bluffs from January 1 to July 15 because of nesting raptors. Other camping rules to keep in mind: Campsites must be one mile from roads and one-half mile from trails.
Campsites must not be visible from trails or Arches marked on USGS topographic maps. Campsites must be 300 feet from non-flowing water sources as well as archaeological sites such as petroglyphs. No open fires are allowed in the park; during periods of extreme dryness, camp stoves may also be prohibited.
Hiking Safety & Guidelines
Arches is a great place to explore, but the climate and landscape can cause major problems for the unprepared. Summer temperatures can exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit (38 Celsius). Carry water (one gallon or four liters per person each day is recommended), and wear protective clothing.
Winter daytime temperatures are generally comfortable, but at night, they often drop below freezing. Plan ahead.
Trails are marked with cairns (piles of rocks). Follow these carefully and stay on the trails. Sandstone "slickrock" is fun to climb on, but can crumble and break easily and can be very slippery. It is much easier to climb up some areas than to get back down. Listen to your common sense and turn back before you reach your skill limits.
Be aware: Pets are not allowed on any hiking trails here, nor are they allowed in the backcountry.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication