MOAB, Utah – When I first rolled into Moab, Edward Abbey was alive, the streets were dirt, and it was off-season all year. Today, the quiet period is reduced to a mere sliver of annular time, and we’re in it now. Winter is a fantastic time to visit Arches National Park.
Arches is 160 miles from Durango; it is about a three-hour drive. The sublime road trip epitomizes the American West. Pick up a park map at the entrance station. Water-up at the Visitor Center. A 24-hour, year-round outdoor water spigot is located steps from the parking lot on the north side of the building. Drinking faucets at trailheads are nonexistent or seasonal.
Arches National Park has the largest concentration of natural stone arches in the world, 2,000 and counting. It is a landscape of continuous astonishment, best seen on foot. Arches will swallow as much time as you can deliver. What follows is a two-day plan. Strong, desert-savvy hikers can cover most of this territory in one day. But why rush? Spend the night in the campground or in town while winter rates are in effect.
Day 1: Landscape, Double O, Primitive Trail
Devils Garden Trailhead is at the end of the park road, 17.4 miles from the entrance station. The parking lot is generous. Still, it fills regularly so arrive early or visit in winter.
The short walk from Devils Garden Trailhead to sublime Landscape Arch accommodates people of all ages and abilities. The highly manicured trail is barrier-free, suitable for wheelchairs. A more natural treadway continues to Double O Arch primarily on sandstone. The Primitive Loop lures the hiker into cracks, under arches, and on top of fins. Visit seven named arches and a solitary earth pillar on the longest hiking trail in the park.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 1.8 miles roundtrip to Landscape Arch; 4.2 miles roundtrip to Double O Arch; 5.2 miles for the Primitive Trail stem and loop; 8 miles with the aggregate spur trails. Elevation gain is approximately 1,000 feet for the 8-mile option.
Roundtrip Time: 1½ hours for Landscape Arch; 5 hours for the Primitive Trail and spurs.
Maps: Park brochure; Trails Illustrated: Arches National Park No. 211.
Route: The beauty of this stem and loop is that any portion may be undertaken separately or in combination. The majority of people turn around at Landscape Arch. For those unsure of their desert backcountry prowess, go to Double O Arch before committing to the Primitive Trail. Do not venture on the Primitive Trail if rock is snow or ice covered. This is an excellent hike for children with proven hiking ability.
From the trailhead, elevation 5,155 feet, enter a corridor of Entrada sandstone. Fins provide a sense of intimacy and enclosure.
At 0.9 mile, Landscape Arch, while it fills the visual frame, sneaks up on the unaware. It is an improbably thin ribbon of stone below the horizon. A few more steps and the merest strip of Utah blue emerges, giving the arch away. It is the longest natural rock span in the world, 306 feet. We are hold-your-breath lucky to be living simultaneously with this fragile aperture.
This earth arc is with us for a whisper of geologic time. I once lay gazing at the span directly overhead. In 1991, a sizable chunk sheared off and now the arch is off-limits. From the main trail a short spur affords the best photographs.
At 1.7 miles the route traverses the length of a wide, flat fin. While most people will relish the view of Book Cliffs north of Interstate 70 and “Finlandia” directly below, those with a fear of heights may need encouragement.
Double O Arch is at 2.1 miles on the left. It is named for the two circular openings stacked on top of each other. The lower arch is quite small yet it carries its hefty companion. Clamber up and through it on a juniper log. The best view of the pair is from the other side. The obelisk Dark Angel is 0.5 miles to the north.
Return through the arch and locate the signed trail junction. If you’ve had enough adventuring, return to the trailhead as you came. For those excited for more, the Primitive Trail awaits.
There is a crazy abundance of off-trail play in this area. Go into the squeeze and scale cracks. Travel over fin spines. Some are nearly flat; others will test the stickiness of your boot soles. The rules are simple: stay on the rock and off the top of arches and cryptobiotic soil.
The route follows the dictates of the landscape in this maze of stone, so keep a sharp eye out for cairns. If you do find yourself no longer in the company of the rock piles, follow the time-honored practice of promptly returning to the last one you were sure of. There will be some short friction climbs up steep slabs. Provided the rock is dry, it is easy enough.
The Primitive Trail loop completes at Landscape Arch. From here, it is a quick 0.9 mile walk back to the trailhead.
Day 2: Delicate Arch and The Windows
To reach the Delicate Arch trailhead, drive up the park road, turn right at 11.4 miles and go 1.2 miles to a large parking lot which typically fills in peak season. Because overflow parking is not allowed, get there early or come in the winter. Sun angle for photographers is best in the afternoon.
Not often is visiting one of Earth’s great treasures so easily achieved. We are supremely fortunate to be alive at a time when this fantastical ring of stone remains tenuously grounded upon the rim of its sandstone bowl. While solitude is unlikely at the arch, sharing amazement and elation with an eclectic, international group is probable.
Distance and Elevation Gain: 3.0 miles round-trip, 500 feet of climbing.
Roundtrip Time: 1¾ hours to 3 hours.
Route: On a well-trampled trail, pass the Wolfe Ranch homestead, a one-room cabin and corral settled in 1888. The footpath crosses Salt Wash and a sage/rabbitbrush flat with excellent views of The Windows section. Find the open window!
Mount a block staircase onto the expansive sandstone slab and begin the consistently gentle ascent. Enjoy the playfulness of unconstricted terrain, keeping cairns in sight.
The passage necks down to a stone ledge just prior to reaching the arch. Frame Arch is on the right. Standing beneath this arch is enchanting. Leave the trail and do a 20-foot friction climb with decent holds. Spoiler alert. If you have not been to Delicate Arch, this vantage point affords a first glimpse.
Back on the trail, marvel at the blasted-out pathway and feel the exhilaration that comes while walking along a safe ledge.
Despite many visits to Delicate, upon rounding the corner and seeing the freestanding arch, I am inevitably awestruck. To stand beneath the arch, walk on the sloping side of the Entrada sandstone bowl. This is not for everyone but for those who make the short journey, the reward is deeply felt. The skystone soars 65 feet overhead.
There are endless opportunities for scampering on stone in this neighborhood before returning to the trailhead.
The Windows section
The turnoff for The Windows section is 9.0 miles from the entrance station. Turn right and go 2.3 miles to the parking lot.
It is 0.5 mile roundtrip to mind-boggling Double Arch. The larger of the two arches is 112 feet tall, the highest in the park. It is a fun scamper with good holds to the base of the smaller arch. Walk the 1.0 mile loop trail to Turret Arch and North and South Windows.
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