Arches, Canyonlands, and Dead Horse Point

This post is the sixth in a seven part series about our trip through six national parks and other landmarks in Arizona and Utah over Labor Day Week in September. Stay tuned for our other posts!

After an amazing drive up the Grand Staircase, we found ourselves in Moab, the gateway city for three amazing parks: Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and Dead Horse Point State Park. With an early start, we managed to hit all of these parks in one day (note: this involves about 4 hours of driving and about 8 miles of hiking):

  • Get into Arches National Park just before sunrise, and drive straight to the Windows Section (40 minute drive, short trail).
  • Drive to the very end of the main park road, and get an early start on the Devil’s Garden Trail, and be sure to explore the trail at least to Navajo and Partition Arch (25 minute drive, 4 mile trail).
  • Double back and hike the slick-rock trail to see Delicate Arch – it really is worth bearing the crowds (14 minute drive, 3.2 mile trail).
  • Visit some other landmarks, like Balanced Rock and Park Avenue, on your way out of Arches (45 minutes of driving, with some stops for pictures).
  • After lunch, ice cream, and some shopping in Moab, head down to the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park, and take the short trail to the Mesa Arch. (52 minute drive, 0.5 mile trail)
  • Visit the Green River Overlook if you have time (5 minute drive).
  • Walk along part of the West Rim Trail at Dead Horse Point State Park about an hour or two before sunset (36 minute drive, short walk).
  • Return to Moab for dinner (43 minute drive).

Logistics

Because this was such an early and long day, we decided to spend two nights in Moab. We are so glad we did, as this was a great gateway town with lots of nice shops and eateries to check out!

  • The parks, especially Arches, can get very hot during the day, so we’d advise getting your hikes in early and carrying lots of water (at least a gallon per person) when you’re out exploring the park.
  • We stayed at the Homewood Suites Moab, which is brand new and super convenient to walk to restaurants and shops in Moab’s small downtown strip.
  • For coffee and ice cream, we loved the Moab Garage, a hip, new small business on Main Street. The ice cream treats are made-to-order using liquid nitrogen, and they are packed with flavor because the shop uses real chunks of different ingredients mixed into one of the two regular bases (vanilla and chocolate). For example, the coffee and doughnuts flavor had real coffee grounds and chunks of doughnuts mixed into the vanilla base, and the strawberry/basil used real fruits and herbs. You can also have your ice cream as a sandwich between cookies or cereal treats. This place was so amazing that we came back twice in two days!
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Moab Garage Ice Cream. Left: coffee/doughnut. Right: strawberry/basil with a fruity pebble tile
  • For dinner, we checked out two restaurants on our two nights. Sing Ha Thai, located at 92 Center Street, was friendly, not very busy, and served some decent Thai food (albeit with a little less flavor than we’re used to). You definitely would not need reservations to eat there. 98 Center, just next door, is a Vietnamese fusion restaurant with some interesting dishes, including a great tofu banh mi sandwich. The apple crumble à la mode with rosemary ice cream was complex and unique, too! We visited the restaurant pretty late, and so we didn’t have to wait long; however, the restaurant was pretty busy earlier in the evening.
  • There are lots of cool shops for souvenirs, artwork, and clothing in town. One of our favorites was the Sandstone Gallery, which has beautiful pieces of art (including a number of spheres and arches) made from sandstone. Check out the 50% off section in the back of the store for beautiful pieces at deeply discounted prices.
  • If you see lighting, stay indoors! We almost learned this lesson the hard way. Read on to find out more…

Itinerary

After an early breakfast at our hotel in Moab, we left for Arches National Park while it was still dark out. Arches is about a lot more than, well, arches. There are incredible rock fins, rock towers, and incredible scenery that rival the beauty of the arches themselves, and because the park is relatively compact, you can experience a lot of it between sunrise and noon.

We arrived at the parking lot for the Windows Section of the park when it was light in the sky but just before the sun started fully illuminating the arches here. You’ll find the turn off for the Windows about 9 miles after the park entrance.

From the trailhead, you’ll see Turret Arch, which looks kind of like a sandcastle, on your right, and a large opening in the rocks on your left. The opening is the North Window, and Vijay made a quick dash towards it capture one of the most iconic sunrise images in the park. By proceeding carefully through the North Window and making a small but significant scramble up the rock pile on the far side, Vijay was able to see Turret Arch through the window as the sun illuminated both in brilliant orange. Please note that the far side of the window has no maintained trail, so be very careful to avoid damaging the rocks (or yourself) if you try to get this shot! With the wide angle lens we used, you can also just make out the outline of the South Window on the left side of this picture, which together with the North Window makes a pair of “spectacles.” Indeed, the site was quite spectacular.

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Turret Arch through the North Window at sunrise

We returned to the car and took a quick glance at the nearby Double Arch before proceeding further into the park to the Devil’s Garden Trail. Most people visit this trail to see Landscape Arch, the world’s largest arch with a 290 foot span. However, there are a total of 7 arches along the trail if you walk its full length. If you’re short on time, like us, we’d recommend going at least to the Navajo and Partition Arches because you’ll have an unforgettable hiking experience along the way. Our hike was about 4 miles long and took a little under two hours.

At the trailhead, you can get a nature guide for a small donation. We set out to Landscape Arch, taking two small detours to see Pine Tree Arch and Tunnel Arch along the way. The thick outline of Tunnel Arch was particularly impressive.

Landscape Arch itself was beautiful. Coming here in the morning is wonderful because of the lack of crowds and because the arch is well illumimated until mid morning by the rising sun. You can best appreciate the size of this fragile structure by standing as close to it as possible along the Devil’s Garden Trail – because of the danger of rockfalls, visitors are not allow to get too close to the arch anymore.

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Landscape Arch

After Landscape Arch, the real fun began. We followed the Primitive Trail and signs for the Navajo and Partition Arches, and soon enough, we realized that to get to the next two arches, we had to climb up and along a rock fin! Rock fins play a significant role in the park, because it is these narrow geological structures that produce the arches when water causes the middle of the fin to break off. To hike up and along one of these thin fins is quite a unique experience. Don’t be afraid to use your hands here; the path can get very slippery!

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Ruth hiking up a rock fin

Once we got to the top of the fin, it was a relatively easy walk to both the Partition and Navajo Arches. We loved the way the light illuminated the side of Partition Arch in the morning.

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Partition Arch

Walking into the small alcove formed by the Navajo Arch reveals a scene that looks like a beautiful Japanese Garden.

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Navajo Arch

From Navajo Arch, we made our way back to the car, getting more glimpses of amazing rock fins along the way.

After a quick bathroom break back at the trailhead, we proceeded back down the park road to the turn-off for the Delicate Arch trail head. Note that the parking lot at the trail head can be quite full, but that there is always a steady stream of people coming and going. The trail is straightforward, following a large slab of slick rock straight uphill, and then winding along a ridge towards Delicate Arch.

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The edge of the trail to Delicate Arch. Note the steep dropoff.

Even though we’ve seen the arch in many pictures and symbols, our first view of Delicate Arch was no less dramatic. A lot of people say to visit Delicate Arch in the afternoon or sunset for the best lighting, but we found the light very dramatic just before noon. The arch sits above a bowl, and in the late morning, the arch casts a long shadow into the bowl, framed in the background by striated rocks and the La Sal Mountains.

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You’ll probably see a ton of people lined up to take their picture under the arch. If you’re keen to get as clear a picture of the arch as possible, you can walk to your left, counter-clockwise around the bowl. If you take a portrait orientation picture, there will often be a clear area right around the arch as people change positions.

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Delicate Arch casting a long shadow in the late morning

Once again, we walked back to our car. On the way, we took a short detour to check out some petroglyphs near the base of the trail.

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Petroglyphs on the Delicate Arch Trail.

As we headed out of the park back to Moab, we saw some of the other rock formations that make Arches famous. First, we saw Balanced Rock (the picnic area was closed the day we visited, so we couldn’t pull over).

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Balanced Rock

Just before exiting, we pulled over to see the entrance to Park Avenue. The walls of rock lining the wash on two sides were just gorgeous under the blue skies.

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Park Avenue

We returned to Moab to recharge our batteries with some leftovers for lunch and liquid nitrogen ice cream at Moab Garage. We also visited the galleries and shops on Main Street and found great souvenirs, t-shirts, and artwork to take home for our families. We left for Canyonlands National Park around 3PM. Canyonlands is an enormous park with four distinct districts, but we only had time to visit the district closest to Moab, the Island in the Sky.

A must-do short hike at Canyonlands is the 0.5 mile round-trip walk to Mesa Arch. By the time we got to the park, the winds were picking up and the sky had become very grey. Worried that rain was coming, we quickly walked to get a view through the arch. Through it, the alien landscape of this part of the park came into view.

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View through Mesa Arch

At that moment, the wind became to whip dust into our faces, and we saw a bolt of lightning crash down across the canyon. We immediately hurried back to the car, worried that we were vulnerable for a lightning strike on the exposed parts of the trail.

When we got back to the car, it had started drizzling a little, but we didn’t see any more lightning in the area. Thinking the worst of the storm had passed, we drove to the Green River Overlook, an otherworldly lookout over the terrain in Canyonlands. You could see the water vapor rising from the ground because of the heat and humidity in the region.

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Green River Overlook

At that moment, we noticed that our hair was standing on end! We caught some pictures before hustling back to the car.

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Electrified hair

In retrospect, this situation was extremely dangerous. In 1975, two brothers were hit by lightning moments after they took a similar picture at Sequoia National Park. When your hair stands on end, it means that a stepped leader of electrons has possibly extended down from the clouds and is seeking a path to ground to neutralize the charge. A lightning strike could follow at any moment. Luckily, our hair settled down by the time we got back to the car, and we didn’t see any more lightning in the park.

The lesson we learned from this episode is that if you hear thunder, see any lightning, or just feel like a storm is coming, it means that lightning is close enough to hit you. Follow the same rules as a swimming pool; stay indoors until about 30 minutes after the last time you hear thunder. Also, if you get stuck outside in a lightning storm and can’t take shelter, crouch and minimize your contact area with the ground.

With storm clouds still looming, we decided to leave the park and head towards a different part of the region, Dead Horse Point State Park. Luckily, the park ranger told us that the storm had already moved through that area and the weather was stable. The park was not at all crowded; it was easy to park near the point and walk along the West Rim Trail to get some views. Dead Horse Point used to be an old horse corral. It is part of the canyon formed by the Green River.

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The Green River, with a rainbow overhead

From the Point itself, we had an excellent view of the green waters of the river surrounded by crimson red rocks. When we were there, the sun was setting behind some clouds, adding extra color to the scene.

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View from Dead Horse Point

After spending a few minutes admiring the view from the Point, we drove back to the “neck” section of the West Rim Trail, where you get an incredible view of the canyon’s crevasses, possibly all to yourself. There’s no guard rail here, so it’s important to watch your step as you explore this area. This was one of the most spectacular sunsets we saw during our trip.

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View from the “neck” at sunset

Three parks (and plenty of excitement) later, our day was done! We returned to Moab for dinner, more ice cream, and a good night’s sleep before we set out for Salt Lake City the next day.

Stay tuned for our next blog post, which will have a few tips for exploring Salt Lake City, the final destination on our trip.

3 thoughts on “Arches, Canyonlands, and Dead Horse Point

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