Arches National Park Utah
The past year, prompted by the COVID pandemic, we switched from international travel to domestic road tripping, and we gravitated to the National Parks. So far in 2020 and 2021 we’ve made 17 visits to eight US National Parks in Utah, Arizona, Nevada, California and Colorado. An $80 Annual Pass for the National Parks pays for itself very quickly!
Our favorite park is Arches National Park. I visited three times with kids and once solo and, going into our first visit, knew nothing about the park other than that it was supposed to be beautiful. What we discovered was that it was easy and absolutely perfect for kids of any age, as many of the best arches are very short walks from parking areas. There are moderate and long hikes for adventurous families, but it’s also great for families with toddlers and young kids, with rocks to play on everywhere. Here’s where we stayed, what we did and what we recommend for families at Arches National Park Utah.
When to Visit Arches National Park
Arches National Park Utah is open 365 days a year, 24 hours a day. As with most of the world’s tourist sites, spring and fall are optimal times to visit – you have generally good weather and fewer people around. Having said that, Arches is less than four hours from Salt Lake City and the weekends in the spring and fall can still be crowded. What you’ll find:
Arches NP is cold in the winter and they get snow periodically. Temperatures are in the 20s, 30s and 40s. The upside: you’ll have some arches to yourself, and room rates are far more affordable. And weekends aren’t bad at all, so it’s safe to visit any day of the week and head into the park any time of day.
Spring and Fall
Lows will be in the 30s and 40s and highs can be anywhere from the 50s to the 80s. Obviously May and October are warmer than April and November. There’s not much precipitation any time of year. But as I mentioned above, weekends can get crowded. If you do visit on a weekend, try to avoid heading into the park in the middle of the day, when there can be delays at the entrance booths and you’ll find more people at every arch.
Summer at Arches National Park is hot. High temps can be over 100 degrees, with lows in the 50s and 60s. You can still have a good visit, but I highly recommend heading to the park before sunrise, hiking early, and then leaving the park by 10am and returning after 5pm to hike more and enjoy sunset. You’ll avoid most of the people, and the highest temperatures, that way.
Where to Stay at Arches National Park
As opposed to several other parks, there are no lodges within Arches National Park. But the park entrance is less than 10 minutes from Moab so you don’t need to be on-site. We stayed at four different places in and around Moab:
Moab Springs Ranch was our favorite place to stay. It’s between Moab and the Arches entrance gate so the drive to the park is a few minutes shorter, and all of the cabins are distanced from each other so during a pandemic it felt nicely safe. It was also the only place we stayed last year that had completely contactless check-in and check-out protocols. Parking was only a few steps from our door. The downside: you’re not in town, so it’s a drive, albeit a short one, for meals. We found parking in Moab to generally be easy.
The Best Western Canyonlands Inn is in the middle of Moab and we loved the pool, the laundry (one of our only road trip hotels in two years that has a laundry room for guests), the included breakfast and the free coffee all day in the lobby. It was an easy walk to get lunch and dinner in town.
Hoodoo Moab (a Hilton property) is in town and is a standard, albeit nice, hotel. We were able to park and walk to many restaurants, although it still made sense to drive/park if we were picking up from places more than two or three blocks away.
Inca Inn is an inexpensive motel if you want to save money – not quite walkable to town and a little farther from Arches than Moab Springs Ranch, but if you’re not going to spend much time in your room it’s a good option. Knowing I was going to leave before breakfast, the front desk person gave me a large bag of fruit and snacks the night before – a nice touch.
We also want to try Under Canvas Moab (glamping) at some point, since we’ve had great stays at other Under Canvas properties. They’re closed in winter.
What to Do in Arches National Park Utah
As I said above, Arches is easy. There’s one entrance and just one main road through the park, with a few side roads leading to different arches. You can see the highlights in a day or you can spend several days exploring. Just don’t go in the middle of the day in the summer or on a fall/spring weekend! It’s far more enjoyable early in the day and in the evening without crowds.
I’ll list the main sites here in order of our favorite to least-favorite along with how long we spent at each one. If you only have one day you can pick and choose which of these you want to do.
Eye of the Whale Arch
It’s a little unfair listing Eye of the Whale Arch first. It was definitely our favorite arch, and it’s close to the rest of the park, but it’s not easily accessible without a 4WD vehicle with high clearance.
To get to Eye of the Whale Arch, head into the park to Balanced Rock and turn left onto the Willow Flats road. The road is fine for 3/4 of a mile, but then you need to turn right onto a very rough 4×4 road for the remaining two miles. You can also hike or ride a mountain bike.
The arch itself is moderately interesting, but the area around it is a huge playground. We spent two hours just walking, running and sliding around. The kids had a great time! And even in the middle of summer, we saw no one else there during those two hours.
Sand Dune Arch
Sand Dune Arch is roughly a half-hour drive from the Visitor’s Center / Entrance Gate. Drive past the two main side roads of the park (the roads to The Windows and to Delicate Arch) and several miles farther on the parking lot for Sand Dune Arch will be on your right and nicely marked. Park and walk just a few minutes along the trail to a narrow canyon which leads to the arch. The sand is thick once you enter the canyon, so I highly recommend taking off your shoes, depending on how much scrambling you’re going to do.
Our kids had a great time playing in and around the arch for half an hour, and arriving in the late afternoon we saw virtually no one else there on either of our visits. You can walk a little bit further than the arch, but it gets challenging quickly.
Just past Balanced Rock, take a right and the road will end after a few minutes at the Windows trailhead. Take the trail/sidewalk and you’ll quickly get to the North Window Arch and South Window Arch on your left, or Turret Arch on your right. There’s an option to hike a slightly longer trail (the Primitive Loop) but really you can just stay on the paved trails and see the main arches.
We’ve visited at sunrise and sunset. Both are beautiful, although I thought sunrise was a little nicer from a light perspective. If you’re feeling more adventurous you can climb through the North Window and rock hop a little to get to a point where you can see Turret Arch through the North Window Arch. It was pretty at sunset, and even better at sunrise.
We spent 30-45 minutes here each visit. And a note: there’s virtually no cell service in Arches National Park, but we were able to get a decent signal at The Windows.
The parking lot for Double Arch is maybe 30 seconds past the lot for The Windows, so visit both areas while you’re there. It only takes five minutes or so to reach Double Arch from the parking area, on a flat path, and then you can simply enjoy it or you can climb around. Plan for maybe half an hour at Double Arch.
Other lists start with Delicate Arch as a must-see. It’s the iconic arch in the park, and it’s even on Utah’s license plates. But the hike is moderate and takes 45 minutes to an hour from the parking area (a few minutes down Delicate Arch road from Arches Scenic Drive). I first hiked to Delicate Arch at sunrise with two 10-year-olds. We left Moab at 5am, arrived at the Delicate Arch parking lot at 5:30, started walking in the dark with headlamps, and arrived at the arch at 6:15, roughly 20 minutes before sunrise. We spent an hour at the arch and then hiked back down which was a little faster. Overall it’s a commitment of 2.5 hours. It works well for sunrise, but I wouldn’t hike it with kids in the middle of a hot summer day – there’s virtually no shade.
Another trip, at the end of September, I hiked up to Delicate Arch at sunset. I left Moab at 5pm and arrived at the parking lot at 5:30pm. The lot was already full and I managed to squeeze into a space across the road at the RV parking area. Even that lot filled up minutes later. If you want to hike to the arch at sunset during the summer or on a spring/fall weekend, get there early!
I arrived at Delicate Arch at 6:20pm and it was crowded – far more so than at sunrise. There were probably 200-250 people. I didn’t want to be around that many people (hello COVID), so I hiked back out and around to the alternate viewpoint, figuring out a route as I went. Highly recommended! I arrived at a great spot overlooking the arch and was joined a few minutes later by four others and we watched the sunset together (7:07pm) and then hiked back down together before it was too dark to see the path.
At the very end of Arches Scenic Drive is the Devil’s Garden Trailhead. We hiked the very easy, mostly-flat path to Landscape Arch, stopping to see Tunnel Arch and Pine Tree Arch along the way. Overall I didn’t think this was a highlight, given that you can’t get very close to Landscape Arch, but it’s a good walk for families. And there’s a much longer hiking trail past Landscape Arch if you’re adventurous.
When you’re driving into Arches National Park, the first parking lot you reach is for Park Avenue. This is great overlook just a short distance from the road and is worth a quick stop. We didn’t hike the trail from there.
Likewise, Balanced Rock is worth a quick stop. You’ll drive past it numerous times in the park so you may as well park and walk up close once.
Other Things to do in Moab
Moab isn’t that interesting, but my kids loved the Colorado River. Highly recommend getting wet! The two ways we did this:
Driving up Highway 128 (a much prettier road than Highway 191 between I-70 and Moab), you’ll follow the Colorado River. There are numerous places to pull over where you can walk to the river and swim. Our favorite was right at mile marker 10 – it’s a decently easy path to the river, and the river itself is wide and very calm there. We swam for almost an hour.
Our second trip to Arches we booked a half-day private rafting expedition with Mild to Wild Rafting. We got an early lunch in town and then met up with friends at the rafting HQ near town at noon. We hopped into a private shuttle bus and drove up Highway 128 to the Castle Valley section, getting a safety briefing along the way, and then got on our raft.
This were NOT high-adrenaline rapids! The rapids along the Colorado River near Moab are Class I and Class II. We didn’t need helmets, and several times we jumped in the river and floated alongside the raft. If you’re wanting serious rafting, this isn’t a trip for you. But it’s perfect for families and there was nothing scary for young kids. We went when the high was 100+ but the raft, even though we were in the sun, felt a lot cooler. Take water and sunscreen and enjoy the float!
A One-Day Arches National Park Itinerary
It’s hard to come up with one perfect itinerary, since people visit at different times of the year, with different weather, and with kids of different ages.
For a family with kids over maybe 7 or 8 visiting during a more crowded time, and when the weather is hot, this is what I’d recommend:
- Leave Moab roughly an hour and a half before sunrise and drive to the Delicate Arch trailhead.
- Hike to Delicate Arch for sunrise.
- Drive over to Balanced Rock for a quick photo.
- Drive to Double Arch and climb/explore.
- Head back to Moab for a late breakfast and coffee. We like the Jailhouse Cafe for breakfast.
- Relax a little and then head up Highway 128 and go for a swim in the river, or if you can fit in a half-day of rafting (depending on daylight), go for it!
- In the late afternoon drive to Sand Dune Arch and play.
- Drive over to The Windows for sunset.
- Head back to Moab for dinner. Antica Forma has great pizza.
We never wanted to be in the park in the middle of the day because of crowds and heat. If those weren’t concerns, and if we had food with us, there’s not the same incentive to head into town after a sunrise hike.
Quick Tips for Arches National Park Utah
- Bring a lot of water with you. I saw people hiking up to Delicate Arch when it was 95 degrees and they had nothing with them. Dumb.
- You can get a cell signal near The Windows, but virtually nowhere else.
- Because there’s no cell coverage, you can’t stream. SiriusXM was our soundtrack along with anything we had downloaded from Spotify.
- Climbing on the arches themselves is prohibited, but you can walk through many of them.
- There’s a lesser-known bathroom down Willow Flats road a little from Balanced Rock.
- There’s a lot of really good National Park content (and other travel as well) on GoTraveler. Worth checking out before you visit Arches and other parks.
Your Advice for Arches National Park
What did we miss? Well, we missed the Fiery Furnace hike, but we couldn’t get a hiking pass this summer. But what else did we miss? What were your favorite things to do with kids at Arches National Park? What’s your favorite arch?