Arches National Park

Arches National Park contains some of the most beautiful land I've ever seen. While some may find the desert bleak, closer examination reveals a wealth of life, it's just not always as obvious as a forest or a lake. The geologic formations alone are spectacular.


Arches is located just north of Moab, Utah, in Grand County. This is about 5 hours from Salt Lake City by car. There seems to be one paved entrance to the park, off of highway 191 at the south edge of the park. Two other unpaved paths lead into the park from the western edge. The nearest airports are in Salt Lake City and Grand Junction, Colorado.


Much of the activities in the park center around the magnificent sandstone arches. One personal favorite of mine (and quite a few others I must add) is hiking to Delicate Arch for sunset. The trail leading to the arch is laid out so that you don't really see it until you come around the last corner. My words don't do it justice, but Delicate Arch is perched on the edge of a cliff, with a bowl shaped depression in front of it. I haven't seen it since I was five years old, but the image is still vivid to me. If you do plan to do this three mile hike for sunset, at least one quart of water and a flashlight are recommended.

The park contains over 2000 identified arches. These range from arches with 3 foot openings (the minimum size to be called an arch), to the 306 foot long Landscape Arch. There are also numerous spires, and rocks balanced on top of narrow towers. The landscape is almost difficult to believe, as it contains features that one just doesn't commonly see in other parts of the world.

Besides the sightseeing and hiking discussed above, there are several options for activities in the park. There are a good number of bike trails in the park and surrounding area, as this is just miles from Moab, famous for mountain biking and slickrock. Rock Climbing is rather popular as well, although climbing is prohibited on all of the named arches as well as several other features. Offroad vehicle travel is allowed on several 4-wheel drive unpaved roads. No food is available in the park, so plan to pack your own.

One final interesting feature of Arches is Cryptobiotic Crust. If you've ever seen Broken Arrow, there's a spot in it where the park ranger chastises Christian Slater for stepping on a patch of it. His remark? "What, now there's endangered dirt?" Arches National Park actually has a large amount of this feature, and it is requested that visitors not disturb it. It appears as a dark crust on the desert, and consists of cyanobacteria, lichen, algae, and fungi. The crust is quite important in the desert ecosystem, as it provides nitrogen, nutrients, and soil stability that allow other plants to survive.


An individual entry pass, for a hiker or bicyclist, is $5 for a seven day pass, with a vehicle pass for the same duration costing $10. Camping will cost $10 for an individual site in the summer, and $5 from November through mid-March (Water is off to the campsites during this time). Fees are also charge for access to Fiery Furnace and for guided walks.


The park is in a desert, and therefore very dry (only 7.71 inches of precipitation annually). In the summer, high temperatures range over 100 degree Fahrenheit. Temperatures can be as low as 18 degrees Fahrenheit in the winter. Although temperatures are quite warm in the day during the summer, nighttime temperatures drop considerably. Because the desert loses heat quickly, it is essential to be prepared for cool (40-50 degrees Fahrenheit) weather if you will be out at night.


As this is a desert, much of the plant life is smaller than would be found in a more temperate climate. The most prevalent plant life is the "pygmy forest", consisting of piƱon and juniper trees, which covers about 40% of the park. Most plants are shrubs or grasses, including sage, blackbrush, and ricegrasses. Wildflowers will often spring into bloom after a rain, briefly making the desert into a very colorful landscape. Cacti are common as well. Many of these plants are centered around washes or potholes that will occasionally contain water. The aforementioned cryptobiotic crust is also important to the survival of plants in the area.


There are quite a few animals that live in the park, but most are not easy to notice. Some of the mammals and birds include:

Due to the desert environment, reptiles are quite common. Two interesting reptiles are the collard lizard and leopard lizard. They prey upon other reptiles by lying in ambush, then killing them with venom that is lethal to other lizards. At least one venomous snake, the midget faded rattlesnake, lives in the park. However, it is fairly shy, so not so likely to harm humans. The gopher snake lives here as well, but I am unsure if it is venomous. Other venomous animals include the black widow spider and scorpions. As always in the southwest, watching where you put hands and shaking out clothes and sleeping bags is very important.


The striking scenery of Arches is mainly due to weathering processes. Around 300 million years ago, a vast salt bed was deposited on the Colorado Plateau while a sea was located there. After the sea evaporated, the salt bed was slowly covered by deposited sands and silts. Over time, this was compressed into rock, at places over a mile thick. As the rock applied pressure to the salt bed, the bed shifted, causing large displacements that created domes. These domes were made primarily of sandstone, which over time was eroded by water, wind, and ice. The progression from dome to arch went through free standing fins, which could possibly become arches or spires over time. Arches National Park, like any other sandstone formation, is really a testament to the power of nature if given enough time.


Evidence of human habitation in the Arches area dates back as far as 12,000 years, when Paleo-Indians (the ancestors of southwestern tribes such as Anasazi, Pueblo, and Navajo) nomadically lived in the area. White settlers first inhabited the area in the late 1800s, mainly relying on ranching for their livelihood.

Arches' history as a National Park began with its declaration as a National Monument by President Herbert Hoover on April 12, 1929. Its size fluctuated over the years, modified by Franklin Roosevelt, Dwight Eisenhower, and Lyndon Johnson. President Richard M. Nixon signed an act in 1971 which established Arches National Park.

Personal Experience

As I alluded to earlier, I visited Arches once when I was five years old. I was with my father and two of his high school students, and we first hiked to sunset at Delicate Arch. The next day we hiked around the park some more, including Double Arch if I remember correctly. To this day, I am struck by the beauty and color of the park, and someday hope to make time to visit again. If in the general area (Grand Canyon, Salt Lake City, southwestern Colorado), I would strongly suggest at least a brief visit to the park.

This node written as part of the U.S. National Parks and Monuments quest.

Arches National Park Information Page. . April 16, 2002.
Arches National Park. . April 16, 2002.
GORP - Arches National Park Index, Utah, adventure, travel, recreational activities, trips and tours. . April 16, 2002.

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