After arriving in Moab after a longish drive from Salt Lake City, we checked into our hotel and decided to brave the afternoon heat – something not recommended by almost everyone – and head to Arches National Park to get our bearings.
Arches National Park
A few basic bits of information about Arches National Park:
- It is located in the high desert on the Colorado Plateau
- The highest elevation is 5,653 ft / 1,714 m; just slightly higher than Denver (“the only state people live in”)
- The popular areas of the park are at an elevation between 5,100 and 5,300 ft (the exception is Delicate Arch which sits in a “valley”)
- Temperatures regularly soar above 100° F
- The ground is covered in red sand (it’s a desert after all!)
- With 2,000 arches, it is home to the highest density of arches in the world
- It spans an area of 120 square miles (about a tenth of the size of Rhode Island)
- It is open 365 days a year
- The park has one entrance and thus one main road that goes deep into the park; there’s one way in and one way out (read: traffic)
We thought that visiting in early June would mean the temperatures would be somewhat bearable but they hit 97° F every day we were in the park. Given the desert climate, it was a dry heat but still very hot in the middle of the day while we were hiking around, climbing on rocks and admiring the beauty.
First impressions for me were that the landscape reminded me of Wadi Rum in Jordan. The main difference being that Wadi Rum was more sand and less rock and Arches is more rock and less sand. Both locations have the same red “Mars” look-and-feel with Wadi Rum being more Martian-y.
We arrived at the park after around 4pm and started driving the steep switchbacks up the stone wall. The roads in Arches were freshly paved and there are many turnouts from the main road where cars can stop and take photos. The landscape is relatively flat with short stubby bushes and gigantic blocks of stone (“monoliths”) that seem to be randomly placed. Some blocks are tall and thin “fins” while others are tall and wide stubs.
The first stop off of the main road is “Park Avenue” where the most popular monoliths can be seen. I knew photography was going to be challenging as soon as we drove by the Park Avenue trailhead because of the immense shadows cast by the tall stones on one side of the canyon. It would take a full week of studying sun positions, stones and shadows at different times of the day in order to understand where – and at what time – to be to capture the stones in their best orange glory.
Note: The photos in this post were taken over the course of two days.
On the surface, the photo below is not a great photo but after further study, it shows how the position of the sun and clarity of the sky greatly affects the color of the stone.
The stones on the right of the above photo are a great example of a thin “fin”. Off in the distance where the two sides of the canyon converge is The Tower of Babel, a thin fin protruding from the landscape. I was bewildered by the size of The Tower of Babel and had many questions: How it got there, why it’s still standing, how much it erodes every year, etc.
When driving further into the park from the Park Avenue trailhead, you’ll pass The Organ on your right before passing the Tower of Babel. The Organ is a huge stubby stone formation.
From the parking lot of The Organ, you can see Three Gossips.
You can also see what is believed to be the remnants of a fallen arch. Arches start as small holes in the rock face and grow as they erode, eventually collapsing.
The next major stop on the main road is Balanced Rock. Unlike many of the other stones in the park, Balanced Rock is easy to spot from almost every angle.
During our stop at Balanced Rock, I noticed a group of people staring off in the distance so I slithered over to see what they were looking at and immediately saw two people rock climbing. It was a team of one guy and two girls. In the photo below, the guy is near the top of the stone, one of the girls is midway up the stone and the other girl was spotting on the ground.
The guy kept yelling, “You got this girl!”. This string of encouraging words became the theme of our trip even though it was I who should have been yelling, “You got this boy!” at Peter and not the other way around.
As I stood there mesmerized watching the duo climb the rock, I couldn’t help but wonder if what they were doing was legal. I later read that rock climbing is legal (and free!) in designated areas but a permit is required. You can find more details here.
From Balanced Rock, it’s a short three-mile drive to The Windows Section (“The Windows”). This is where Double Arch, Parade of Elephants, Turret Arch, and North Window are located. This was our first major stop on our tour and I was worried about parking but we had no issues with parking during any of our “shifts” in the park. I found that people tend to move along quickly and parking lot turnover is relatively high.
Protip: There is no shuttle service in Arches National Park. The main road stretches 18 miles from the Visitors Center (off Highway 191) to the Devil’s Garden trailhead. Biking and driving are your only two options for getting around the park.
The Windows Section
There are two trails that depart from The Windows car park. The longer of the two is one-mile round trip and goes to North Window, South Window and Turret Arch. The trail is flat and young kids can handle the hike with ease.
The North and South Windows are visible a few steps down the trail.
Of the two windows, North Window is more accessible to climb into the arch which also means there will be many people in the arch.
Peter tried to climb into South Window but it proved to be much higher and require much more effort than he was willing to put into the adventure.
Turret Arch is one of the most photographed arches in the park. I call it the “OK” arch because it looks like a hand making an “OK” sign with the index and thumb fingertips pressed together and the remaining fingers vertical. Its name is derived by the tall structure to the left of the arch which resembles a small tower on top of a larger tower, the mere definition of a turret.
I waited for 15 minutes for the crowds to clear from this arch to get a photo and as soon as the last person was walking down from the arch, a family of four with their plastic carrier bags filled with their picnic lunch walked up the arch and sat down right in the middle of my intended shot and ruined everything. Why are plastic bags still legal?
The second trail is a half-mile round trip and goes past Parade of Elephants and Double Arch. It’s another winner for the youngsters. I regret not knowing about the parade of elephants when we visited. The only photo I have of “the parade” is the one below. In the middle of the photo is a stone formation that looks like you are staring an elephant straight on – not the best angle but not too terrible for an accidental photo.
Double Arch is the tallest and second longest arch in the park. There is a lot of bang for your buck with Double Arch because it is located 20 minutes from the visitor center + five minutes from The Windows car park.
I visited Double Arch twice because it was crawling with people during our first visit. There’s something about extremely bright athletic wear that detracts from the natural beauty which was the main issue during our first visit (at roughly 4pm).
Protip: Wear sunglasses while in the park because the wind has a way of whipping up tiny grains of sand and distributing them in your eyeballs when your eyes are not protected.
I was able to get photos of the arches without people during my second visit but there are times when objects such as humans add perspective to a photograph as was the case with Double Arch.
The position of the sun in the sky shot rays of light through the lower arch and brightly lit the “back wall” of the stone. Due to this, it was a terrible time of day to take photos of the Double Arch (at roughly 6pm) because of the brightness of the lower arch opening.
The Windows Section is a great first official stop in Arches National Park. The two hikes are short and flat, you get to see a lot of arches in close proximity to one another, children can scurry about and scare the shit out of their parents climbing up the rocks, and exploring and photographing the entire section only requires 60-90 minutes.