Last updated on August 4th, 2022
Arches National Park is where familiar flashes from Western films or Hollywood blockbusters blend with a stunning desert landscape seen in NASA images from the red planet. If you’re a desert-lover or looking for a time machine back to the Wild West, this itinerary covers how to spend a memorable one day in Arches National Park.
I visited Southern Utah on a recent extensive road trip in the American Southwest, exploring the state’s national parks and driving up and down its scenic roads. This one day in Arches National Park itinerary is based on extensive research and my experience.
With over 2,000 arches, imposing sandstone cliffs, and balanced rocks perched atop impossible-looking bases, Arches NP boasts some of the most dramatic desert scenery in the U.S.
With an 18-mile scenic drive, a couple of detours, and mostly short hikes, see the park’s top highlights in a single day and stick around a while longer to experience all of its gems.
It’s no surprise that Arches’ eye-catching desert landscape is a top choice for Hollywood film directors. Thelma and Louise, the Hulk, and Indiana Jones are some of the blockbusters filmed at Arches.
Check out additional Arches NP resources and combine your visit with other members of Utah’s “Mighty Five” using in-depth Southern Utah travel guides.
Find the places mentioned in this itinerary on the following companion map. Simply click on the image to open it in Google Maps.
If you’re not camping, the best place to stay when visiting Arches National Park is Moab. This small city benefits from its proximity to Arches and Canyonlands NP, so it has many hotels, restaurants, shops, and other useful services. However, accommodation rates in Moab are a bit pricey and fluctuate depending on the time of the year. Visit the Arches National Park travel guide for specific hotel and motel recommendations.
The campground at Devils Garden is the only accommodation option inside Arches NP, but it is challenging to reserve a spot in peak months. If you’re out of luck at Devils Garden, look for other camping options in BLM campgrounds along State Route 128.
A limit on the number of cars inside Arches National Park has been in effect for several years, sometimes causing long queues to form at the only entry gate into the park. Recently, a pilot for timed entry reservations was introduced, essentially requiring visitors to pre-book their visit. See if advanced reservations are still needed at Arches before your visit.
Considering optimal natural lighting and to “beat the crowds,” we’ll spend the morning in this one day in Arches National Park itinerary by first driving to the park’s extreme, later exploring the beautiful Windows Section.
This itinerary intentionally “skips” a few scenic stops that might appear to make chronological sense for stopping. Don’t worry; we’ll stop there later when they’re better lit and appreciated.
Even though you pre-booked your entry (see if this requirement is still in effect), getting an early start on your one-day visit to Arches National Park is essential. Only a set number of cars can be inside the park at any given time, so you don’t want to have to wait for cars to exit before you’re allowed entry.
If you really wish to make the most of the day, consider rising extra early and heading to one of the best spots for watching the sunrise at Arches. If you’re not too fussy about having an arch in your frame, the La Sal Mountains Viewpoint is an optimal location, as it’s near the entry gate to the national park. From this spot, the sun illuminates the prominent sandstone cliffs known as the “Towers”.
Check the weather forecast before heading out, as early mornings at Arches are only impressive on a clear day when the sun’s rays paint the landscape in orange and red.
Rising from the park’s entry gate in the Moab Fault, the Arches National Park Road is an 18-mile scenic drive that ends at Devils Garden. There are dozens of scenic viewpoints and short hiking trails along the way. Two paved roads head further east, one to Delicate Arch and the other to the Windows Section. A third road leads to the Klondike Cliffs, the remotest section of the park. Even though it is unpaved, the road is passable with a regular 2WD in dry weather.
Devils Garden marks the end of the scenic drive. Best visited in the morning, this large area is home to the highest concentration of arches in the national park. A large parking lot next to the park’s only campground serves hikers, and there’s also a water filling station in case you’re low on H2O.
The 7.8-mile (12.6 km) Devil’s Garden Trail is the longest maintained trail in the park. It’s a great hiking opportunity if you have more time, but considering we only have one day in Arches NP, hike part of the trail to Landscape Arch (1.9-mile roundtrip).
Spanning 306 feet (93m) from base to base, Landscape Arch is the biggest in Arches National Park. The hike to this arch is easy, and on the way, you’ll pass through a wall of interesting mid-size rocky fins (narrow rock walls) that the elements have smoothened.
In 1991, a 60-foot-long rock slab broke away from Landscape Arch, shaving 180 tons from its weight. This incident is a reminder that the forces of nature, primarily erosion, are still at work, and that’s why a safe distance must be kept from this impressively-thin arch.
(1) On the way back to the trailhead, short detours to Pine Tree Arch and Tunnel Arch are optional. (2) Thinking about hiking the length of the Devils Garden trail? Check out this two days in Arches NP itinerary for more information.
Viewed from the roadside or up close via a short trail, Skyline Arch was a small opening in the sandstone until a large boulder suddenly fell in 1940, creating the arch we see today.
Sort of a “secret spot,” Sand Dune Arch is concealed between two sandstone cliffs and provides excellent shade on a hot day. The arch is reached via a short and easy trail, and the experience can be extended with a hike to neighboring Broken Arch.
This short section of the scenic drive is one of its most inspiring, with white and reddish sandstone forming real-life shapes. Let your imagination do the work, as there’s no right or wrong answer here.
Fiery Furnace is one of the most interesting sections in the park. Within a small area, clusters of sandstone fins and needles create a maze of shaded canyons and gullies. Fiery Furnace gets its name from the warm glow seen during the late hours of the day. You can hike in Fiery Furnace if you’ve secured a permit, but it’s wise to join a ranger-led walk since getting lost in the maze is easy, even if you’re using a digital map.
The view from Salt Valley Overlook is similar to the previous stop but with a broader angle. Beneath the valley lies a thick layer of salt that rises under the pressure of the sandstone to form the shapes you see throughout the park. This process takes millions of years to occur.
Enjoy sweeping views of Fiery Furnace, Balanced Rock, and the La Sal Mountains at Panorama Point. Then, enjoy a picnic lunch under the shade or a brief rest before heading to the Windows Section.
Turn left off the scenic drive and head towards the impressive Windows Section of Arches National Park. Windows are essentially robust arches, unlike what you’ve seen at Landscape Arch.
The first viewpoint en route to the North and South Windows is one of the finest in the park. If we’ve mostly seen arches and medium-height pinnacles (known as “fins”) so far, the Garden of Eden Viewpoint provides a vista to the Parade of Elephants, an impressive series of mighty sandstone pinnacles that resemble something you’ve seen in a NASA mission to Mars.
The paved road ends at a parking lot, where trailheads to the North and South Windows and the Double Arch begin. Start with the Windows Loop Trail and explore the mighty North and South Windows. Don’t forget to look back and savor the distant views of Double Arch from the high ground.
The North and South Windows are among the most impressive arches in the park. To extend your experience, continue walking to Turret Arch. For a longer tour, return to the parking lot via the Primitive Trail, which basically takes the “back road” behind the North and South Windows and offers a different look.
Back in the parking lot, pick up the short trail to Double Arch. This is the third largest arch in the park, with an opening of 144 feet (49m). Height-wise, the Double Arch is the tallest in Arches NP, at 112 feet (33m). The Double Arch was originally a “pothole arch” created by water accumulation on the cliff face. The weight of the water deepened the pothole, and erosion did the rest.
We’ll spend the afternoon on this one day in Arches National Park itinerary, experiencing Utah’s iconic vista, later making our way out of the park accompanied by flashes of Thelma and Louise.
Delicate Arch Viewpoint lies at the end of the paved road heading east from the main scenic drive. The parking lot is about one mile from the Delicate Arch trailhead and serves as an overfill lot when the trailhead parking lot is full (and it often is).
From the parking lot, it’s a short stroll to Lower Delicate Arch Viewpoint, where you can climb slightly further to Upper Delicate Arch Viewpoint for excellent distant views of Delicate Arch.
(1) The best time to visit this viewpoint is in the late morning when the sun shines directly on the arch (and on the face of the hikers who reached it). (2) Connecting with the Delicate Arch Trail from here is impossible.
Delicate Arch is the symbol of Utah, currently posing on the state’s license plate. It’s also one of America’s icons and Arches NP’s top highlight. So it’s no surprise that the trail to Delicate Arch is the busiest in the park, not to mention that finding a parking spot at the trailhead requires a bit of luck.
The Delicate Arch Trail is not long, but it is moderately difficult as its middle section involves a steep climb on the rockface. The hike begins with a visit to the Wolfe Ranch, where the one-bedroom cabin built by early settler John Wesley Wolfe still stands. Behind the cabin are Native American petroglyphs depicting men on horseback.
The next stretch of the trail is the most challenging as it involves a gradual but steep climb directly on the sandstone. Finally, the last leg is the most thrilling; a tightrope acts on the edge of the cliff with not much room for error. As you round the blind corner, Delicate Arch marks the end of the trail and likely a long pause before heading back.
Delicate Arch is best experienced in the afternoon, when the sun shines directly on the arch but from behind your position. Delicate Arch is also a prime sunset viewing spot in Arches NP.
This fragile and picturesque rock formation won’t be around forever. Admire the Balanced Rock from the parking area or take the short loop trail around this 128-foot pinnacle. The 3,600-ton “head” is still attached to the “body” but will eventually succumb to the forces of nature.
Heading out of the park, we still have a lot to see. It’s now time to swap the arches with skyscrapers or the Mars-like landscape with scenes from the Wild West. You’ve seen these giant monoliths when entering the park, but by late afternoon they are perfectly lit and best enjoyed. If this scene looks familiar, you’ve probably seen it in popular culture, most famously in Thelma and Louise.
At the Courthouse Towers Viewpoint, stop for a panoramic look at the area and pick up the Park Avenue Trail to walk between the giants via a dry riverbed. Though you couldn’t be further away from the madness of Manhattan, it’s easy to see how this place got its name.
The Park Avenue trail ends at the Park Avenue Viewpoint, so you can drive here from the previous stop without hiking here and back.
Despite the likely fatigue, stop at the La Sal Mountains Viewpoint to not only catch a distant glimpse of the often snow-capped mountain range in the far distance or cars snaking their way through the Courthouse Towers but also for the panoramic view of the entire national park.
It’s time for a final scenic lookout before exiting the park. The Moab Fault Viewpoint is positioned directly above the entry gate into Arches National Park. The highway you see below runs through part of the Moab Fault, which was created between 140-240 million years ago.
After a long but (hopefully) rewarding one day in Arches National Park, it’s time to relax in Moab. Go for a stroll along Main Street, buy some original souvenirs at Lema’s Kokopelli Gallery, or try a few cowboy shirts at Cowboys and Indians Trading Co.
For Dinner, Moab boasts a wide range of options (advanced reservations are recommended on weekends). Head to the Blu Pig for some barbecue in their sports bar or adjacent restaurant, Miguel’s Baja Grill for top-notch Mexican cuisine, or Singha Thai Cuisine for a surprisingly authentic taste of Southeast Asia in the heart of the American Southwest. For a special dinner, see if there’s space at The Cowboy Grill. Located in the Red Cliffs Lodge, dine here before sunset to enjoy the unique views.
We’ve made the most of our time on this one day in Arches National Park itinerary, covering the major highlights and timing our visit to best experience these sites. Be sure to explore additional Arches NP resources and check out additional travel guides to the region if you’re visiting other parts of Southern Utah.
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