A Tale of Two Parks: Arches and Canyonlands

A Tale of Two Parks: Arches and Canyonlands

There are no designated backcountry trails in two of America’s most celebrated and out-of-the-way national parks: Arches and Canyonlands. Backpacking enthusiasts like me have to make do with the assortment of trail networks ranging from easy to difficult meandering from scorching parking lots that take tourists to the many different sites. But the scenery and unique landscape make hopping in and out of the hot car worth it.

My friend and I began one of our hikes at Arches’ most recognizable feature, Delicate Arch. You cannot see Delicate Arch from any road, so hiking up to it is the only way to experience it. We chose our trip on Father’s Day (it was 101 F that day). Prime climbing season was over, and most of the tourists were gone. Still, hundreds of hikers of many differing abilities and physical shapes set out with us on the unsteady, 500-foot climb.

delicate arch

While resting on a small overlook I turned to see the snake of humanity huffing and puffing behind us, regardless of conditioning. The 1.5-mile trail from the parking lot has seen so many feet the sandstone rocks leading to it have been worn into a slippery and wide “bowling alley.” Many hikers leaned against rock walls to take advantage of the scant shade. The end result, however, was worth the sweat. About an hour and many water breaks, energy Clif Blocks, and slips and trips later, we arrived to behold one of the most iconic structures of the natural world.

trail to Delicate Arch
A stream of people trekking to Delicate Arch on a 101 F day.

We rested on a vacant spot and, along with the other winded hikers, gazed at Delicate Arch. The late morning sun cast perfect shadows, highlighting the arches’ height and delicate structure. “It’s gotta fall sometime,” I uttered, as I’m sure countless others have since the park’s opening in 1929. I didn’t want it to crumble. Its demise would mark an end of an era. As I soaked in the arches’ thinning keystone, the apex of an arch that holds it together, I was not ready for that.

delicate arch 2

Falcons that make the arch part of their nesting grounds circled above. Like the arch, they too had become accustomed to people and seemed undaunted by our presence as they swooped in closer and closer. The viewpoint provides awesome vistas of the Colorado Plateau too. Stretching a full 360-degrees, the endless sandstone and metamorphic rocks seem to reach past Utah to the ends of the earth.

A few hours later we reached the trailhead where we toured Wolfe’s Ranch, the ruins of an old family homestead before the area became federal land. Only the heartiest individuals could survive life on the edge of the desert in the early 19th century. But then again, the teeming modern parking lot, ablaze with sweltering cars of a magnitude of colors, seemed not exactly inviting either. Yet we climbed into our greenhouse-on-wheels and headed for the next trailhead.

Arches is full of assessable formations within a short hike from the parking lots. Only a few are viewable from the park road. We hiked through the Parade of Elephants, trekked to the Double Arch and Balanced Arch. I felt the romantic cowboy lure as we hiked among the many canyons that once gave cowboys a place to hide out. I recalled Zane Grey novels of the wild west in which the heroes flee to the canyons of the southwest to escape from the law or a woman.

doube arch arches
Double Arch at Arches National Park


canyonlands trail
My friend Paul hiking the Devils Garden Trail to Dark Angel, Arches National Park.
me in arches
Me hiking at Arches National Park.

The end of the park road takes you to Devils Garden. The undeveloped circuit hike to Dark Angel begins here. Sand and slippery stone and cliffs and canyons formed the 4-mile roundtrip trek. The hike was probably more difficult than the one to Delicate Arch, and the farther in we got the fewer people we came across. The 150-foot sandstone feature, Dark Angel, like a finger sticking up out of the earth, looks like a monolithic obelisk, something out of 2001: A Space Odyssey.

Dark Angle Arches
Dark Angel at Arches National Park

By the afternoon we were eager to escape the crowds for good. An interior dirt road passable only with a reliable high-clearance vehicle took us eight miles across Salt Valley to Tower Arch trailhead where, thankfully, only two other vehicles were parked. Tired at this point, we struggled against the sun burning our eyes from the west as we willed ourselves to make the 2.5-mile hike to the arch hidden behind the Klondike Bluffs. We passed only a few people on the secluded trail, some who were turning back before reaching the top. We were happy to make the 600-foot climb. The view from Tower Arch was worth the effort.

arches arches
Up close at the isolated Tower Arch, Arches National Park.

Arches’ Devils Garden Campground was under major renovations and was closed, so we camped on BLM land at Horse Thief Campground. It was large and provided an amazing view of the spreading desert along with brilliant sunsets. Some of our fellow campers partied a bit too loudly, but we had some privacy and the desert winds lulled us to sleep inside our tents.

Sunset over the Colorado Desert at Horse Thief Campground, Utah.

Next day we explored the lesser visited Canyonlands a few miles down the road from our camp. Arches’ sister park is accessible from two separate points about 50 miles apart. For most visitors Island in the Sky is the easiest to reach. That’s where my friend and I spent the day. We hiked along the Upheaval Canyon Trail and enjoyed awesome views into the basin on both sides of the “fin.”

canyonlands basin
Looking over the Colorado Plateau from the Upheaval Canyon Trail, Canyonlands National Park.

In just under 2 miles, we reached an overlook of the Colorado River and La Sal Mountains. There was something relaxing being out the among sheer silence, surrounded by a hundred miles of desert terrain. This would be our only hike in Island in the Sky. There is lots to explore, but we accomplished quite a bit for a short weekend. My first trip to the famous “twin” parks did not disappoint.

finger rocks arches



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