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Moon Arches & Canyonlands National Parks
Hiking, Biking, Scenic Drives
By Judy Jewell
By W. C. McRae
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- ebook $12.99 $16.99 CAD
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- Flexible Itineraries: Unique and adventure-packed ideas for day trips to each park, road trips, and more
- The Best Hikes in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks: Detailed trail descriptions, mileage and elevation gains, and backpacking options
- Experience the Outdoors: Climb dramatic stone bridges and slickrock bluffs to Delicate Arch, and find the perfect spot for a red rock photo-op. Join a ranger-led hike through Arches' Fiery Furnace, or a half-day rafting tour down the Colorado River. Hike to mesa-top vistas, mountain bike through high-desert canyons, and explore countless backcountry trails. Visit the Ancestral Puebloan preservation at Hovenweep National Monument, and enjoy a couple microbrews with mountain biking locals in Moab
- How to Get There: Up-to-date information on gateway towns, park entrances, park fees, and tours
- Where to Stay: Spend a night in a riverfront lodge, or sleep under the stars with campgrounds, resorts, and more both inside and outside the park
- Planning Tips: When to go, what to pack, safety information, and how to avoid the crowds, with full-color photos and easy-to-use maps throughout
- Expertise and know-how from seasoned explorers W.C. McRae and Judy Jewell
Exploring more of Utah's natural wonders? Try Moon Zion & Bryce. For full coverage of America's national parks, check out Moon USA National Parks: The Complete Guide to All 62 National Parks.
About Moon Travel Guides: Moon was founded in 1973 to empower independent, active, and conscious travel. We prioritize local businesses, outdoor recreation, and traveling strategically and sustainably. Moon Travel Guides are written by local, expert authors with great stories to tell—and they can't wait to share their favorite places with you.
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DISCOVER Arches & Canyonlands
6 TOP EXPERIENCES
Planning Your Trip
IF YOU’RE LOOKING FOR . . .
AVOID THE CROWDS
The Best of Arches and Canyonlands
SEVEN DAYS IN THE PARKS
BEST DAY HIKES
BEST BIKE RIDES
THE LEGACY OF ANCIENT ROCK ART
Southeastern Utah is so filled with staggering beauty, drama, and power that it seems like a place of myth. Two national parks, several national monuments and recreation areas, and multiple state parks are all within a day’s drive of each other. The colorful canyons, arches, and mesas found within this high, dry area are surprisingly diverse, and each park has its own characteristic landscape.
Nor are the riches here restricted to natural beauty: These rugged landscapes hold the remains of ancient indigenous cultures, while the haunting beauty of their rock art is on display at hundreds of locations. The area’s modern hub, and one of Utah’s most vibrant communities, is Moab, a recreational mecca known for its mountain biking and comfortable, even sophisticated, dining and lodging.
The beauty of Arches National Park, where delicate rock arches provide vast windows into the solid rock, is awe-inspiring and nearly mystical. Short trails draw hikers into a dramatic landscape of slickrock promontories and stone bridges.
In Canyonlands National Park, the Colorado River carves through deep red sandstone. From the Island in the Sky unit, expansive vistas take in hundreds of miles of canyon country, while rafting the Colorado’s Cataract Canyon is the wet and thrilling climax of many a vacation.
Beyond the national park boundaries, much of the land is publicly owned. In many cases it vies with the national parks in terms of beauty and grandeur. No trip to Island in the Sky should neglect a side trip to Dead Horse Point State Park, with its astonishing views into the Colorado River Canyon. Hikers looking for their own patch of wildlands should check out Fisher Towers, a Bureau of Land Management recreation area upriver from Moab. A bit off the beaten path, Hovenweep National Monument preserves a wondrous series of Ancestral Puebloan villages perched on the edge of a cliff.
Although many people first visit southeastern Utah as part of a grand tour of the Southwest, they often return here to further explore a smaller and distinctive corner of this vast landscape. Best of all, you can still find special places that you will have all to yourself.
6 TOP EXPERIENCES
1 Take in the Views: This is a landscape that invites you to stare. Above it are some of the most gorgeous skies you’ll ever see, whether painted with fiery sunsets or glowing with countless stars.
2 Stare at Picture Perfect Arches: Delicate Arch, Mesa Arch, and the Windows Section are just some of the stunning rock formations that are endlessly photographed by visitors.
3 Admire Ancient Rock Art: The Colorado Plateau contains a rich tapestry of pictographs and petroglyphs.
4 Go Off-Road Biking: When it comes to mountain biking, Moab’s Slickrock Trail may get all the love but Southern Utah offers an abundance of off-road adventures.
5 Take a Hike: Wander through epic canyons, arches, and needles of sandstone.
6 Explore Ancestral Puebloan Villages: Wander amid the stone structures built around 900 years ago at Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum and Hovenweep National Monument.
Planning Your Trip
Where to Go
Arches National Park
Just up the road from Moab is Arches National Park, with its famous natural bridges. Arches is a great family park: It’s not too large and there are lots of accessible hikes to explore. Unlike other Utah national parks, there’s plenty to see even if you can’t get out of the car and hike. Be sure to hike the Windows Section, a series of arches and rock fins at the center of the park, and to Delicate Arch, overlooking the Colorado River.
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park is made up of four sections: the River District, containing the canyons of the Colorado and Green Rivers; the Needles District, with hiking trails and backcountry roads through a standing-rock desert; the Maze District, a remote area filled with geologic curiosities and labyrinthine canyons; and the Island in the Sky District, a flat-topped mesa that overlooks the rest. A separate area, the Horseshoe Canyon Unit, lies to the west and contains a significant cache of prehistoric rock art.
At the heart of Utah’s slickrock country, Moab is the recreation capital of southeastern Utah. Although mountain biking put Moab on the map, old mining roads make four-wheel-driving an increasingly popular alternative. Arches National Park is just minutes from downtown, and Canyonlands’ districts are an easy drive from Moab. But Moab is a destination in itself: a youthful, high-energy town that offers good restaurants and brewpubs.
The Southeastern Corner
Although Arches and Canyonlands National Parks get most of the attention from first-time visitors, veterans of the area know that southeastern Utah has abundant other wonders in national recreation areas, national monuments, and state parks. After you have explored the national parks, take time to visit such fascinating destinations as Natural Bridges and Hovenweep National Monuments, and the lovely alpine glades of Manti-La Sal National Forest.
Know Before You Go
The parks are all open year-round, although spring (Apr.-early June) and early fall (Sept.-Oct.) are the most pleasant times to visit. They are also the busiest seasons, and travelers may find that popular campgrounds and hotels are booked well in advance.
Spring rain can dampen trails, and late winter-early spring storms can play havoc with backcountry roads. Thunderstorms are also fairly common in summer (late July-early Sept.) and bring the threat of flash flooding, especially in slot canyons. In Canyonlands, Arches, and Moab, summer temperatures can exceed 100°F.
Winter days tend to be bright and sunny, but nighttime temperatures can dip into the teens or lower. However, The lack of crowds and brilliant sunshine can make this a wonderful time to visit, if you don’t mind layering your outer wear.
Park Fees and Passes
Entrance fees to both Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park are $30 per vehicle. If you’re planning on visiting more than two parks over the course of the year, buy an America the Beautiful—National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass (valid for one year, $80) at your first stop to cover entrance to all national parks. Senior passes (lifetime pass $80) and free passes for residents with permanent disabilities are also available. Paid fees are good for seven days.
Many national parks now offer reserved campsites. If you want to camp in a park, reserve ahead, especially at Arches—or plan to arrive early in the day to get an unreserved site. Reservations at Devils Garden Campground (www.recreation.gov) must be made no less than 4 days and no more than 240 days in advance.
In Canyonlands, all campgrounds are open year-round. Reservations can be made at the Needles Campground (Mar. 15-June 30 and Sept. 1-Oct. 31) in the Needles District. If Needles Campground is full, head east to the first-come, first-served campgrounds, either at the private Needles Outpost or at Bureau of Land Management sites along Lockhart Basin Road, east of the park entrance.
Wherever you plan to camp, it’s a good idea to arrive early in the day to get an unreserved site. If you don’t have a reservation, Moab offers lodgings and campsites, from primitive sites along the Colorado River to shady comfort in town at the private tents-only Up the Creek campground.
What to Pack
Unless you want to return from Utah looking like a leather handbag, remember to use lots of sunscreen. Prepare for wide variations in temperature; nights in the desert can be very chilly even when summer highs soar above 100°F. There’s no need to pack dressy clothes. Casual clothes are acceptable nearly everywhere, even in what passes for a classy restaurant. Bring your cell phone, but don’t count on reception in the canyons of southern Utah.
The Arches Visitor Center (8am-5pm daily Mar.-Oct., 9am-4pm daily Nov.-mid-Mar.) is just past the park entrance booth.
In Canyonlands, there are visitors centers at the entrances to the Island in the Sky District 435/259-4712, 8am-6pm daily late Apr.-late-Sept., 8am-5pm early spring and fall, closed late Dec.-early Mar.) and the Needles District (435/259-4711, 8am-6pm daily spring and fall, 8am-5pm daily July-Aug.).
The Hans Flat Ranger Station (435/259-2652, 8am-4:30pm daily year-round) is on a remote plateau above the even more isolated canyons of the Maze District and the Horseshoe Canyon Unit.
The National Park Service Office (2282 SW Resource Blvd., Moab, 435/719-2313, 8am-4pm Mon.-Fri.) covers the River District, but can generally handle inquiries for all districts of the park.
For backcountry information, or to make backcountry reservations, call 435/259-4351.
The Moab Information Center (8am-4pm daily) can handle inquiries about the town and the nearby parks, Arches and Canyonlands.
The rugged topography can make driving challenging. Unpaved back roads can serve as shortcuts if you have a high-clearance vehicle, but check locally before setting out to determine current conditions. Rainstorms and snowmelt can render these roads impassable.
The Best of Arches and Canyonlands
If you’re a hiker or biker, it’s easy to spend a week exploring Southeast Utah—and if you’re a fan of the backcountry, you could easily spend another week investigating such remote and otherworldly destinations as the Maze District and the Green River canyon.
Moab is an excellent hub for visiting Arches and Canyonlands, as it affords comfortable lodgings and very good dining in addition to a lively nightlife scene. But each of the parks also offers campgrounds, and the region also has a selection of guest ranches and B&Bs. In the southern part of the region, the tiny town of Bluff is a handsome destination with good hotels and restaurants and is a good center for visits to Hovenweep and Cedar Mesa.
Seven Days in the Parks
Drive into Moab and claim your hotel room (or head to your campsite at Arches National Park). Take the rest of the day to explore this hip and youthful town with its obsessive regard for mountain biking and microbrews. It’s not hard to find good food and convivial company, all with the splendid backdrop of red rock canyons.
Explore Arches National Park, with a drive around the ring parkway and frequent stops for short hikes. Be sure to hike to the dramatic Windows section and stand below these massive stone bridges. Save some time and energy to climb up the slickrock bluff to Delicate Arch, perhaps the park’s most famed beauty spot.
Get an early start on the day by joining a ranger-led hike of Arches’ Fiery Furnace area (you’ll need advance reservations for these popular and moderately strenuous tours), and then return to Moab to join a half-day raft trip that explores the canyons of the Colorado River.
Check out the mesa-top vistas from Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky District. On the way to the mother of all belvederes at Grand View Point, be sure to stop by Dead Horse Point State Park and take the short hike to cliff’s edge or bike the park’s Intrepid Trail System.
Drive south from Moab to the Needles District of Canyonlands. On the way into the park, be sure to stop at Newspaper Rock, one of Utah’s top caches of ancient Native American rock art. Plan to explore some of the Needles backcountry on hiking trails before driving south to Bluff to spend the night.
From Bluff, drive east to Hovenweep National Monument, a well-preserved series of Ancestral Puebloan stone-built villages at the edge of high-desert canyons. In the afternoon, return to Bluff and explore some of the many rock art panels in the area.
From Bluff, drive back north to Highway 95, stopping to view the Ancestral Puebloan ruins at Butler Wash, and detour into the wonder of Natural Bridges National Monument. Then, if you’re visiting during summer, take Highway 276 south and cross the Colorado River’s Lake Powell on the Halls Crossing and Bullfrog ferry. Outside the ferry’s season, you can continue on Highway 95 to cross the Colorado on the Hite Bridge, with no loss of scenic value. Once on the west side of the river, follow paved roads north to Hanksville for the night and dream of more Utah adventures.
Best Bike Rides
Moab is the center for some of the most noteworthy mountain bike trails in the West. However, most of the trails here aren’t for novices—you need to be proficient on your bike and ready for extreme weather before heading out on your two-wheeled steed. If you’d rather explore these backcountry routes with a guide, simply contact one of the many bike shops in Moab, and they can set you up with a tour.
Slickrock Bike Trail
This is the trail that started the mountain-bike craze in Moab, and it’s a challenge even to strong riders. The aptly named trail traverses steep, exposed slickrock faces over 10.5 mi (16.9 km), passing a succession of canyon and mountain viewpoints.
Gemini Bridges Trail
You’ll find dramatic scenery along this trail (14 mi, 22.5 km one-way) that drops though the rock fins and arches of the Wingate Formation. The trick is getting to the trailhead, which is 12.5 mi uphill from Moab. The best answer is to hire a shuttle bus as transportation—from that point onward, this is one of the more moderate biking trails in the Moab area.
- On Sale
- Nov 2, 2021
- Page Count
- 200 pages
- Moon Travel