Canyonlands & Arches National Parks: An October weekend in Moab

After the previous year’s enjoyable fall escape to Zion, we decided to escape the onset of Seattle’s rainy fall with a trip Moab, Utah. Moab offered the chance to explore Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and could be reached by an easy, direct flight to Salt Lake City followed by a four hour drive.

Our visit included two days of hiking in Canyonlands — one in the Island in the Sky and one in the Needles District — and two days exploring Arches, including the Fiery Furnace, Devil’s Garden, Delicate Arch and Windows Arch. We also enjoyed three breathtaking sunrises at Mesa Arch, Delicate Arch, and the Windows.

Visiting in the fall meant that we got to see the most popular spots without the high-season crowds. We also got to do some hikes that the Park Service and others recommend against doing in the hot summer, including Druid Arch and Syncline Loop.

Our flight arrived after 11pm on Thursday night. We didn’t want to get stuck in Salt Lake City or Provo traffic in the morning, but we also did not want to push our energy by driving all the way to Moab that night. We split the difference by driving to Springville and spending the night at Holiday Inn Express South Provo (Booking.com).

Day 1: Devil's Garden and assorted Arches Arches National Park

On Friday, we drove the rest of the way to Moab. We first stopped at the Arches National Park visitor center to get permits to hike the Fiery Furnace on Monday.

From there, we continued up the main road, stopping at the top of Park Avenue for our first view in the park. With a busy agenda, we returned to the car and drove around to the lower end of Park Avenue. We walked a ways back up, enjoying views of the Three Gossips, Sheep Rock, and The Organ.

Another short drive brought us to the roadside trailhead to Sand Dune Arch. A 0.3 mile walk up a fin canyon brought us to this lovely small arch. After spending some time at the arch, we returned to the car. Just a bit further up the road, we stopped for a 0.4 mile walk to Skyline Arch. This large arch is set high in a rock wall, towering above us as we approached.

Devil’s Garden

From these short stops, we drove to our main hike for the day, the Devil’s Garden Loop (~9 miles with all of the spur trails). This “lollipop” trail leads from a large parking lot at the end of the road to several arches, some accessible via spur trails. Along the stem of the lollipop, we quickly reached spur trails leading to Tunnel Arch and to Pine Tree Arch.

Returning to the main trail, we continued to the base of the stem and the start of the loop, at 0.8 miles in. From this junction, half of the loop is on a more developed trail, while the other half follows a primitive trail. We started toward Landscape Arch along the more developed trail.

From the viewpoint, Landscape Arch is an impossibly thin spindle of rock stretched before you. At 290 feet, it’s about the fifth longest known natural arch in the world. That’s just one ahead of Kolob Arch, which we had seen on our Zion visit the previous year. A trail used to lead under the arch, but rockfall has has made it too dangerous and that trail is now closed.

We gawked at the arch for a good while before walking up a rock fin to continue our hike. The top of the fin offered views back down to Landscape Arch and to Partition Arch.  From here, we followed a side trail to check out Navajo Arch. After passing some curiously weathered sandstone, this trail rounds a bend and ends at a tree framed by Navajo Arch. We passed through the tunnel-like arch into another room, filled with puddles and trees and open to the sky above.

On the way back to the main trail, we followed another short side trail to Partition Arch. This double arch looks out on the area of the Landscape Arch viewpoint, from above. The far side of the arch makes for a pleasant spot to sit for a break, though watch kids in this steep spot.

We rejoined the main trail and continued toward Double O arch — a double-decker arch. We passed through the lower arch and up onto a rock shelf for a snack and views. Our next detour led to the Dark Angel monolith. From there, we returned to the main trail to begin the primitive part of the loop.

This portion of the trail winds its way across and between several fins. It includes a detour to Private Arch, one of my favorite spots on the loop. We enjoyed great views of the arch and to nearby fin canyons. From its junction with the Private Arch spur, the primitive trail crosses some more fins and then turns sharply around a fin, descending. This is probably the most likely place to lose the trail. Once down, it’s a quick walk through a wash and then around the north side of the garden to get back to the stem of the lollipop.

Windows Area

Golden hour had started to arrive by the time we completed our hike of Devil’s Garden, so we decided to drive to the Windows Section for sunset. We first visited the epic Double Arch, spending probably 20 minutes under it and looking at it from various angles. We then returned through the parking area to the Windows, taking a counter-clockwise walk around these arches. Clouds muted the sunset, but we got glimpses of bright red on the horizon and enjoyed the company of some rabbits.

The sun having set, we drove to our hotel (Hampton Inn Moab Booking.com | Hotels.com) and checked in. Before getting too relaxed, we went in search of dinner, settling on filling burritos at Miguel’s Baja Grill. If we had been a couple of weeks later, our options would have been more limited: Miguel’s closes seasonally from sometime in November through Valentine’s day.

Day 2: Island in the Sky and Upheaval Dome Canyonlands National Park

For our second day in Moab, we explored the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park. Our day started early, waking up two hours before sunrise to head to one of Moab’s most famous sunrise spots: Mesa Arch.

Mesa Arch

We arrived at the end of the short, quarter mile trail with probably 30 minutes to spare. The area in front of the arch was already crowded with photographers. As more people gathered on this chilly morning, photographers shifted tripods to make room for newcomers. People were friendly and swapping tips about their favorite destinations.

As the sun started to appear over the horizon, stories and tips gave way to exclamations of “here it comes” and then small gasps. At Mesa Arch, the sun first appears on the horizon. It soon illuminates the underside of the arch, turning it a vibrant orange. As the sun climbs higher, shadows develop in the canyons below, and they too take on a glow. It’s a spectacular sunrise, and well worth the early morning and crowds.

After sunrise, we returned to the car and drove to the Green River Overlook. Here, we made just a quick stop, but a worthwhile one to take in the views with morning light.

Syncline Loop / Upheaval Dome

After our stop at Green River, we drove north to the trailhead for Syncline Loop / Upheaval Dome. From the car, we first walked to the Upheaval Dome overlook. We stared down at this crater. Signs presented two theories for its origin, one that it was an eroded salt dome and the other that it is an eroded impact crater. More recent research more strongly supports the impact crater theory.

From the viewpoint, we set out clockwise. This got a small climb and the steepest descent done with early. The trail passes over some slick rock before descending from the mesa on several switchbacks. At  the bottom, the trail reaches a wash. The wash also gets progressively deeper, exposing new rock layers as you continue. The trail then emerges in an open area near the junction with the Upheaval Dome trail, a backcountry campsite, and another trail leading to the Green River.

We followed the mostly flat trail up the wash into Upheaval Dome. I strongly recommend this side trip to see the jumble of rocks near the center. Without the detour, your only views of the dome are from the overlook at the start of the trail. When we reached a split in the wash near the center, we went right (counter-clockwise) a couple hundred yards to a good spot for lunch.

After lunch, we returned to the junction and continued around the loop. The trail passes more backcountry sites before reaching a narrow box canyon. At this time of the year, the area had many trees that glowed yellow. The trail climbs the canyon on the right (south) side, before crossing and continuing on boulders, following cairns. The climb here is steep, though only about a quarter of a mile.

At the top, we reached a grove with small waterfalls and pools. While they tempted us to stop, the largest pool already had a good size crowd, and we wanted to have time for further explorations. We continued upward, reaching another meadow of creosote bushes and grasses. As we passed a boulder, a bighorn sheep greeted us. The sheep glanced up only briefly before returning to munching.

The next stage brought us to a narrow passage between two tall cliffs: the “breach.” One side had an erosion pattern that bore a striking resemblance to a bird’s head. We paused at the top to look back at our route. Continuing on, the trail passed through trees and a gently rolling landscape before bringing us back to the parking lot after another mile and a half.

The loop itself is about 8.5 miles, while the spur trail into Upheaval Dome adds another 1-1.5 miles round trip. Total elevation gain is about 1400′, though various guides differ. The National Park Service recommends against doing this hike in July or August, and notes that the temperature at the trailhead is often much cooler than the temperature below in the canyons.

Afternoon Stops

For the rest of our afternoon, we continued to explore Island in the Sky, stopping at several viewpoints. There are lots of pretty spots to stop along the road, with short trails to overlooks off the mesa; we could have spent hours at any and we did spent at least an hour at one. Our wandering culminated at Grand View Point near sunset. This made for a great dusk walk, though we didn’t quite make it out to the end of the trail.

After driving back to Moab, we got dinner at Spoke on Center, and returned to the hotel to get some sleep.

Day 3: Druid Arch and the Needles District, Canyonlands National Park

For the second day in a row, we woke up early for sunrise. We drove to the Delicate Arch trailhead, setting out in the dark for the 1.5 mile hike to the arch.

By the time we arrived, the sky had started to brighten. There were probably another 15 people already there, mostly in groups of three to five. We wandered the bowl around the arch before selecting a spot to settle down and watch sunrise.

We had read that sunrise at Delicate Arch is less spectacular than sunset. That may be true, but we still found sunrise to be wonderfully beautiful. I particularly enjoyed seeing the arch cast its shadow across the bowl. Sunrise also draws fewer crowds than at sunset, so we felt like we could take our time in this spot.

We stayed until about 45 minutes after sunrise, watching the light change. Then it was time to reluctantly leave to get on with our other activities for the day.

The Needles District

A two and a half hour drive, first south, then west, brought us to Canyonlands National Park’s Needles District. Along the way, we stopped at Newspaper Rock, a large collection of petroglyphs dating back 2,000 years.

Once in the Needles District, we skipped most of the viewpoint. Instead, we headed directly for our trailhead, the Elephant Hill parking area. From here, we would hike the 10.4 mile out and back to Druid Arch. The writeup on Hiking and Walking, along with a Salt Lake Tribune article that called the hike the “most underrated hike in the National Park System.” had persuaded us to add the hike to our list.

The trail quickly climbs away from the parking area on stairs. It then winds around various canyons and through openings. Once through the openings, the view of the needles and all of their knobs and fins is fantastic.

Shortly after, the trail reaches a junction with a trail that leads off to Squaw Flats campground. Continuing on toward Chesler Park, the trail passed through a narrow slot before reaching a second junction at about 2.1 miles from the trailhead. The Chesler Park trail continues straight; our trail up Elephant Canyon to Druid Arch turns left.

From here, the trail grows fainter, but occasional cairns mark the way. We still lost the trail in one spot, where we followed a spur up to one of the back country campsites rather than the main trail. 0.8 miles from the junction to Chesler Park, another trail diverges to the left, toward Squaw Canyon and  Flat. Another 0.5 miles leads to another junction. This time, the trail to Druid Arch leads to the left, while the trail to the right leads to Chesler Park.

From this junction, it was a fairly straightforward two mile hike to the base of Druid Arch. Shortly before the arch, the trail ascends a ledge on a ladder and then presents you with an obstacle course around various boulders. Watch for a the trail to diverge to the right, ascending the bench.

Once up, Druid Arch is right there before you. From the photos, you can see how its slab-like appearance resembles Stonehenge and earns the arch its name. We stopped here for lunch, basking in the views of both the arch and upper Elephant Canyon’s needles. After lunch, we followed a boot path along the bench to a closer view of the arch, before descending back into the canyon. Before leaving, we turned left and headed a bit further up Elephant Canyon for a view of the other side of the arch.

We returned the same way we came. It’s possible to build in a loop to Chesler Park. The idea appealed to us, but limited daylight meant that was not a workable option for us. As it was, we returned to the car only about 10 minutes before sunset. And what sunset it was — as we drove out of the parking area, the sky turned a fiery orange behind us. We will pulled over at the top of a hill and watched the sky turn orange, red, and purple before the light faded.

Once the sun had set, we continued our drive back to Moab. We stopped for a quick dinner on the way to the hotel, getting burgers and shakes at Milt’s.

Day 4: Windows Sunrise and Fiery Furnace, Arches National Park

We originally had planned on a normal wakeup Monday, unless clouds one of the earlier days made us use it as a backup for sunrise at Delicate or Mesa Arch. After two incredible sunrises, though, we decided that we really should get up early once more.

So, we again found ourselves arising early and grabbing the hotel’s breakfast and making coffee to go. We drove back into Arches, this time to the Windows area where we had enjoyed sunset our first night.

At the Windows, we picked a spot on the back side to watch sunrise. The sun illuminated the rock around the “Spectacle” arches bright orange. We then wandered back around to the other side, for the views from under the North Window and back to Turret Arch.

Fiery Furnace

Then it was time to head off to our hike for the day: the Fiery Furnace. The Fiery Furnace is a trail-less  maze of fin canyons. GPS is unreliable in these narrow canyons. The Park Service recommends taking one of their guided hikes as a first-time visitor, or hiring a guide in Moab. With our shoulder season visit, though, the guided walks were not running, and guides were prohibitively expensive.

We evaluated our skills and decided that we felt comfortable doing this on our own. Each of the nights before the the hike, we spent about an hour studying photos and maps of key turns on the way to and from the most popular spots in the furnace. We stored multiple GPS traces, as well as photos of key turns, on each of our phones. We knew we could not count on them, but if we hoped they would help make sense of some key waypoints. Finally, we budgeted about twice as much time as recommended.

With this knowledge and preparation, we set out. Our key stops included an alcove with a small, high arch and a crawl through passage, Skull Arch, and Surprise Arch. The combination of narrow canyons, no signs, and no defined route made for a great experience. Despite having studied the photos, each turn brought a new surprise: an arch, a green alcove, or a dead end. Being prepared meant that the furnace presented us with just enough challenge: we could make small wrong turns or explore a different branch and then repeat.

We were pleasantly surprised to find that even the GPS in our phones worked pretty well. There were only two places where we lost our intended route. We could return to our last known good landmark or coordinate, verify from the GPS if it was an open alcove (helpful for reassurance but fortunately unnecessary), and try again.

Even if we return, though, we would not count on the GPS and would still plan our route on maps and study photos. If we explored off the common routes — something I’d love to do — I’d want to go with someone more knowledgeable of the terrain. Reports from Utah Outdoor Fun and Climb Utah, along with GPS traces people had posted from ranger-led hikes, helped us plan. Evaluate your own skills, though. If you aren’t comfortable with map skills in this type of terrain and route finding, go with a guide or someone who has been there.

After the Fiery Furnace, it was time to bid Arches and Moab goodbye and drive back to Salt Lake City. Close to Salt Lake, we ran across bad traffic and an aggressive driver who caused an accident. We still made it to the airport with ample time, and so we stopped at Zillas for a cheap and filling lunch/dinner before returning the car.

View my complete photoset for our trip to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks on Flickr.

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