May 19th, 2021
In the middle of our first Colorado winter, I could think of no better place to visit than the warm red rock wilderness of southeastern Utah. With a change in scenery and weather in mind, we headed off to Moab!
The town of Moab itself sits within a small valley between red rock cliffs, fins, and other rock formations. About 5 miles from the small (but bustling) town of Moab sits the entrance road to Arches National Park. In mid-March, both Moab and Arches were brimming with people, likely taking advantage of the mild 70-degree weather of this American Southwestern travel destination. Both Moab and Arches NP are known to get congested during peak season, which runs from March through October.
Driving through Arches National Park
Arches NP has lots to offer its visitors, even if you’re not a hiker or camper. Much of the beauty of this southwestern national park can be viewed from the many pull-offs and parking lots along the one main paved road that winds up, down, and around many stunning rock features.
Since we only planned for a long weekend in Moab (3 days which included our drive across the Rocky Mountains from the Front Range area of Colorado), we took advantage of the many sights to see not far from the car. In fact, the park contains 36 miles of paved roadway, so if you visit every section of the park accessible by road and spend some time at each, you could easily spend half a day with minimal walking for sightseeing.
Hiking in Devil’s Garden
Of course, Stacia and I wanted to get a hike in during our short trip. We debated between hiking in Devil’s Garden or hiking out to the iconic Delicate Arch. Since there was only enough time to visit one (with my mother-in-law kindly hanging out with our dogs at the hotel on Saturday morning), I chose Devil’s Garden.
From what I could tell, Devil’s Garden offered more bang for your buck in terms of the concentration of arches along the trail. Since my joints were stiff and sore from the drive out to Moab the day before, a longer hike was out of the question.
Determined to visit several arches, we headed north on the trail within Devil’s Garden. After less than a mile with minimal elevation gain or loss (battling crowds as one might battle inbound waves while wading out to sea), we were standing atop small dunes of orangey-red sand looking out at Landscape Arch--the longest arch in North America. This arch, like many within the park, is a symbol of deep time as these rock formations and the arches within are 65 million years in the making. Yet at only 6 feet in diameter in some spots, Landscape Arch is fragile and has the potential to collapse at a moment’s notice.
After viewing Landscape Arch, Stacia and I headed back south toward the short spur trail that shoots off to the east. There we visited Pine Tree Arch with a bit of a smaller crowd of people, then pressed through wind tunnels along with countless unmasked people (COVID was still a threat, masks were still mandated, and plenty of people still disregarded the rules) on our way back to the car.
Overcrowding at Arches
I had read about the crowds of people at Arches prior to our park visit, but it’s certainly hard to describe unless you’ve experienced it. According to my research, it’s best to enter the park before 9 am or after 4 pm. We took that advice and drove the park road at 4:30 pm on Friday, then entered the park again around 8 am on Saturday. Neither of these entrance times involved long waits at the gate.
When we exited the park around 11 am on Saturday, we saw the flip side of that experience. At that time, park rangers had closed the entrance road, advising visitors to return in 3 hours because the park was at capacity. Out of the 8 national parks that Stacia and I have visited so far, this was the first time we’ve seen a park turn visitors away at the gate due to capacity issues, but this seems to be a common occurrence at Arches.
Additionally, you might expect crowds of people on the main park trails at any time of the day, and you should expect parking lots to be almost perpetually full. At 8:30 am on Saturday, we snagged one of the last available parking spots at Devil’s Garden. The parking lot at the Windows area of the park was completely full at 5 pm on a Friday in March.
Lastly, if you’re interested in taking some photos of some of the park’s most popular rock formations and capturing a solitary and wild landscape instead of a scene resembling spring break on the gulf coast (minus the bikinis and the ocean views), you’ll need to plan around the busiest hours. Best bet might be to visit in the winter months, during early-morning or late-night hours, or mid-week in late fall.