Arches National Park

Fiery Furnace (John Clet Jones, Greater West Images)

Arches is a different kind of national park. Like other parks in the system, it has its share of impressive vistas, beautiful plants, and exciting wildlife. What separates it is that, while places like Yosemite and Yellowstone impress with the dramatic scope of their natural features, Arches attracts visitors because its landscape is truly odd.

Among the meandering canyons of the park is the world's largest concentration of sandstone arches, not to mention spires, fins, pinnacles, balanced rocks, and pedestals. It is a veritable geologic menagerie, where each formation seems to have its own strange personality.

The Arches

The most famous arch in the park and, no doubt, the world is Delicate Arch, the de facto symbol of the park and favorite cover subject of countless road atlases. Almost gothic in its proportions and shape, the stately La Sal range is visible through its portal. Second in renown only to Delicate Arch is the common-sense-defying Landscape Arch, which at 291 feet is the longest arch of its kind.

Other well-loved arches in the park include the Windows, a pair of adjacent arches that let you glimpse through a large sandstone wall; Skyline Arch, as sturdy and solid-looking as Landscape Arch is fragile; Double Arch, which is actually two arches joined at one end to the same rocky post; and Turret Arch, which looks like the otherworldy home of an alien hermit.

The Land

Among Arches' wonderful anomalies, it's possible to lose sight of the fascinating topography that comprises the park as a whole.

The Petrified Dunes lie to your right not far from the park entrance. At one time, this broad stretch of rolling slickrock was soft sand, which from a distance it still resembles. On the other side of the main road from the Dunes stands the Great Wall, a tall, sheer cliff topped by towering sandstone fins.

A popular and highly entertaining guided walk led by Arches rangers leads you through the Fiery Furnace, an elaborate maze of narrow canyons that can get very hot in the summer. Note that, if you don't plan on taking the guided tour, the Park Service requires anyone who wishes to visit the Fiery Furnace to buy a visitor's permit.

Along the Way

As you wander across the slickrock and sand that dominate the park, you might start to notice that the desert's reputation for being barren and devoid of flora isn't all that deserved. Anywhere you find a thin layer of soil you're likely to find juniper and pinyon taking root. These tough plants are to Arches what trees are to the forest. In damp, shaded overhangs you'll find a more diverse group of organisms, referred to in desert lingo as hanging gardens. Here, sheltered from the climate's harsh edge, ferns, wildflowers, and exotic succulents thrive.

If you want to see the wildlife that makes its home among the flora here, your best bet is to wait until nightfall. Most of the smaller mammals here, like packrats and jackrabbits, wait until the hot Utah sun (and most of the tourists) have left for the day to emerge from their burrows to feed. Far more rare are the bobcats and mountain lions that inhabit the park, stalking mule deer and keeping very much to themselves. Fortunately for all of us, the park's rattlesnake population is also very skittish, preferring the shade of a remote canyon to being stepped on by someone's hiking boot along the trail.


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