Last updated on August 4th, 2022
Over 1.5 million visitors head to Arches National Park every year to witness stunning desert scenery resembling distant planets. It’s one of the Southwest’s most impressive, family-friendly, and manageable national parks. In this two days in Arches National Park itinerary, we’ll visit its major highlights but also get away from the crowds and go off the grid.
I visited Southern Utah on a recent extensive road trip in the American Southwest and spent five days in Moab exploring the national parks. This 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.
The following sections make up this two days in Arches National Park itinerary.
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.
Hotels: the small city of Moab is just five miles from the park entrance and is your best option for accommodation near Arches National Park. Despite the wealth of choice, 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.
Camping: the campground at Devils Garden is the only 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.
The first of our two days in Arches National Park focuses on exploring two of its three main sections: Devils Garden and Delicate Arch. Tomorrow, we’ll explore the Windows Section, the third piece of the puzzle, as it will be too much to try and squeeze it today (though possible).
Even though you pre-booked your entry (see if this requirement is still in effect), park officials likely still keep a tab on the number of cars inside the park at any given time. Therefore, queues might still form outside the gate, and if you wish to avoid waiting, get an early start and aim to enter Arches NP between 8-9 am.
If you’re an early riser, aim for one of the park’s top spots for watching the sunrise. Our first stop at the arches of Devils Garden is optimal, but the sandstone monoliths seen from La Sal Mountains Viewpoint are closer to the entry gate.
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.
An 18-mile scenic road extends from the visitor center to Devils Garden, with two paved turn-offs to the Windows Section and Delicate Arch. Along the way, scenic viewpoints and short hiking trails break the drive and turn it into an experience on its own.
It’s tempting to make frequent stops on the drive to Devils Garden, but I recommend driving straight to our first stop, except perhaps for brief photo opportunities. To optimize your visit, this itinerary covers the most interesting stops and hikes but not in chronological order.
Devils Garden lies at the tip of the scenic drive and boasts a large parking area and a water-filling station. You won’t find a groomed collection of plants or trees in this garden but rather the park’s highest concentration of natural arches. It’s best to start your day in Devils Garden due to optimal natural lighting and the ease of finding parking.
The Devil’s Garden Trail is a 7.8-mile loop trail (12.6 km) split into three sections. The first goes from the trailhead to Landscape Arch (the biggest arch in the park), the second section continues to the Double O Arch, and the last leg returns to the trailhead via the Primitive Trail.
Depending on your level of fitness and the amount of time you wish to spend hiking on the longest trail in Arches NP, choose which section(s) suits you the most and plan your hike accordingly. The complete loop is considered a challenging hike as some sections require hikers to climb the rockface.
This is a beautiful section of the scenic drive. On one side lies a vast desert plane interrupted by sandstone cliffs and the La Sal Mountains further out, and on the opposite side are rocky fins (narrow rock walls) and needles bordering the paved road.
On the way to Fiery Furnace, check out Skyline Arch from the small parking area or hike the short trail to see it from up close. The arch you see today results from a large boulder detaching from the cliffside in 1940.
Another worthwhile stop is at Sand Dune Arch. Pick up the short and easy trail and enter this shaded oasis secluded from the outside world by a narrow canyon. Then, if you have more time, continue the hike to Broken Arch.
Hiking in Fiery Furnace requires a special permit or joining a ranger-led walk, but visitors can still get a sense of this vast maze of shaded sandstone canyons and gullies from the Fiery Furnace Viewpoint. Take a slight detour on a paved road heading east from the scenic drive to get here.
Back on the park’s main road, the view at Salt Valley Overlook provides a broader angle than what you’ve seen at Fiery Furnace. A thick layer of salt is buried beneath the desert valley floor, rising under the pressure of the soil in a process that takes millions of years. The result is the sandstone shapes we see throughout the park.
Continue past the turnoff to Delicate Arch and stop for a picnic lunch at Panorama Point. Of course, you can also come here after the hike to Delicate Arch. While resting before the day’s most exciting stop, enjoy views of Fiery Furnace, Balanced Rock, and the La Sal Mountain.
Begin the afternoon at Delicate Arch, Arches National Park’s top highlight and the state’s icon. Despite better chances of finding parking in the morning, Delicate Arch is best viewed in the afternoon. If the trailhead parking is full, you’ll be directed one mile further to Delicate Arch Viewpoint. If you’ve found yourself here, you might as well see Delicate Arch from the lower viewing area or, even better, from Upper Delicate Arch Viewpoint.
Unfortunately, there is no way to reach the trail to Delicate Arch from here, so if parking at the trailhead is impossible, you’ll need to add an extra two miles to the hike. Delicate Arch is only a three-mile round trip hike, but it is rated moderately difficult as there is one steep section to overcome.
The Delicate Arch Trail 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.
I recommend hiking to Delicate Arch on the first day in Arches National Park. In case of bad weather, you’ll get a second chance tomorrow.
Back on the scenic drive, enjoy the Balanced Rock from the small parking area, or take the short loop trail around this 128-foot bizarre pinnacle. Its 3,600-ton “head” is still attached to the “body” but will eventually succumb to the forces of nature.
Making our way out of the park, the last major highlight on this day does not involve arches but rather sandstone monoliths beautifully shaped by the forces of nature. They are synonymous with Southern Utah and even appeared in the Oscar-winning film, Thelma and Louise. You’ve driven through here in the morning, but this special area is best experienced in the afternoon sun.
The Courthouse Towers Viewpoint is the first stop, home to a cluster of giant spires rising 4,800 feet from the desert floor.
Drive to the Park Avenue Viewpoint from the Courthouse Towers or hike there via the Park Avenue Trail. Skyscraper-like cliffs dominate both sides of the trail, so the feeling is like walking down Manhattan’s Park Avenue.
Stop at the La Sal Mountains Viewpoint to catch a distant glimpse of the often snow-capped mountain range and cars snaking their way through the Courthouse Towers. From this viewpoint, you can also enjoy a 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, created between 140-240 million years ago.
For Dinner, 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 something special, head to the Red Cliffs Lodge outside of Moab and dine with a view at The Cowboy Grill.
If it’s the weekend in Moab, make advanced reservations if you have your heart set on a particular restaurant.