Balanced Rock, Arches National Park, Utah

Tips for avoiding crowds at Arches National Park

Utah destination worthy of careful planning

I don’t want to be a Jimmy Joykill, because Arches National Park in Utah and its amazing rock formations give my family boulder-sized goosebumps. Next to Yellowstone, Arches may be the most unusual and fascinating park on the planet.

Arches also headlines a short list of the most over-crowded national parks in America. Long entrance lines, jammed parking lots, turtle-paced traffic, busy hiking trails and short tempers.

I want to accomplish two things with this article: motivate active baby boomers to visit Arches National Park and help you avoid the headaches associated with overcrowding.

Park Place Arches National park
Arches National Park geologic formations are world famous.

Time transforms rocks into works of art

Arches National Park contains the densest concentration of rock arches in the world, approximately 2,000 with more constantly forming in the sandstone landscape. Combine those with rock fins, windows, domes, petrified dunes and other geologic wonders including some that are just plain weird like Balanced Rock and the Parade of Elephants, and you have a destination that thrills your senses at every turn.

Photographing Delicate Arch without people underneath is challenging.
Photographing Delicate Arch without people underneath is challenging.

Planning can minimize the crowds

Destination Delicate Arch. That’s the rallying cry of many park visitors during the late afternoon and early evening, as throngs of people begin hiking up to this incredible rock formation that’s pictured on Utah license plates. Hundreds of gazers, lots with camera tripods, gather in a confined space at dusk to watch the sun paint new colors on Delicate Arch. Some evenings, the park service stations a ranger near the arch because tempers flare when people linger underneath the arch and ruin photo opps for other shutterbugs. When my daughter and I hiked there, tourists had formed a long line and took turns snapping photos of their fellow travelers under the famous rock formation. How long? Twenty to 25 people long. Not exactly a pristine moment in nature’s solitude. Despite the feeling of being caught in a turnstile, we still enjoyed the moment. That’s the superpower of this park; its beauty blocks out the noise.

Here’s how to minimize the crowds at Arches National Park:

  • Avoid summer travel and during holidays. This region is hot and arid, so you’ll also benefit from more comfortable hiking conditions.
  • Plan your trip to arrive and explore during the week, avoiding weekends.
  • Start your day early. We entered the park every day around 6:30 a.m. We left mid-day to grab a meal and relax, then headed back into the park around dinnertime. This minimized crowds and avoided peak temps.
  • Get out and hike. Most visitors park, walk a short distance to easily accessible highlights and repeat that procedure at other scenic pullouts.
  • If you’re in a hurry, with limited time, save this park for another vacation.
The Devils Garden Trail includes Tunnel Arch
The Devils Garden Trail includes Tunnel Arch.

Trails lead right up to arches

Devil’s Garden Trail is one of my favorites in the national park system. It can be an out and back trek or a longer loop on a more challenging primitive trail. Devil’s Garden provides great close-up views of Landscape Arch with short side trails to Tunnel, Pine Tree, Navajo and Partition arches. I highly recommend hiking all the way to Double O Arch, 4.2 miles round-trip if you head back on the same trail, which takes you across a scenic rock ridge with great views of Finn Canyon. We saw collared and leopard lizards along this route, which are very cool reptiles.

Lots of visitors arrive seeking to hike in the Fiery Furnace, described as a labyrinth of narrow canyons requiring agility to explore. There are no trails in the Furnace, so visitors must accompany a ranger on a guided hike or obtain a day-use permit. My wife and I explored the Fiery Furnace with a ranger, enjoyed it, but overall felt the destination was overhyped.

My favorite short hike was through Park Avenue canyon, two miles round-trip. You’re surrounded by huge rock fin walls and views of Courthouse Towers, the Three Gossips and Tower of Babel.

The desert around Moab is home to interesting reptiles, like this collared lizard.
The desert around Moab is home to interesting reptiles, like this collared lizard.

Moab exudes “gnarly” with funky food, fun and thrills

Moab is your only convenient option for overnight accommodations and dining choices. And that’s good, not bad. We enjoyed a variety of dining, bakeries, breweries and outdoor gear shops. Yes, I actually shopped on this vacation, a rarity, although it did make me feel a little queasy.

Thrill seekers can exhaust their adrenalin in Moab and the surrounding region with four-wheeling, rafting, mountain and slick rock biking, horseback riding, canyoneering, ballooning and zip-lining. A short drive can take you to Castle Creek Winery and the Moab Museum of Film and Western Heritage – we enjoyed both as a lazy way to end a day.

We loved hiking in the Needles section of nearby Canyonlands.
We loved hiking in the Needles section of nearby Canyonlands.

Nearby destinations add excitement

Utah boasts of having more national parks than any other state. So plan 10-14 days, or multiple vacations, and visit Bryce Canyon, Zion, Capitol Reef, Lake Powell, Grand Staircase-Escalante and other great destinations.

Several other parks are close to Arches National Park and easy to include if you have enough time, including the two main regions of Canyonlands National Park. Arches visitors are closest to the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands, with convenient access to Dead Horse Point State Park and its famous sunsets. We enjoyed hiking even more in The Needles section of Canyonlands, which is about two hours from Moab.

I highly recommend traveling north to Dinosaur National Monument near Vernal, UT. It’s about a three-hour drive from Moab, but this park isn’t near other attractions and this may be the closest you’ll get. And if Jurassic fossils are not enough to entice a visit, Dinosaur also features great wildlife viewing and scenic drives, hiking, camping, pictographs, petroglyphs and ancient cultural sites.

We’ve taken nine vacations in Utah and are planning another, each time re-visiting our favorite destinations and always finding new places to explore.

Read more: 20 national parks and 20 tips to improve your experience