Arches National Park (with kids!) in a Day — plus a glimpse of Canyonlands National Park

We recently took an epic, 4500+ mile road trip in a loop around some of the western United States, attempting to hit a number of requested stops on our way to and from a family reunion in Wyoming. Since our time was limited, we often managed only one day (generally 4-6 hours, to accommodate travel to and from each location) at each of our stops along the way. Despite the fact that ‘Love’s idea of a vacation is a three-hour drive to the cottage followed by a week of sedentary relaxation, I think we managed pretty well on our whirlwind trip. In case you have a similar time crunch and are wondering how to spend your precious hours at some of these same stops, here was our experience.

**Read about our stop at the Grand Canyon here.**

Since we were trekking up through Utah, ‘Love and I were determined to stop at one of the lovely national parks there.  After some research and agonization, we settled on Arches National Park (with a glimpse of nearby Canyonlands National Park).

We arrived in Moab, Utah in late afternoon, having driven from Flagstaff, Arizona with stops at Four Corners and Newspaper Rock–both of which were interesting, but rather brief and out-of-the-way.  Since we were not ready to lounge around the hotel that early in the day, we thought we’d take a jaunt over to Canyonlands National Park, since we just had a few short hikes we planned to do there.

Though we thought that the entrance to Canyonlands was right across from Arches, we were wrong.  While Arches is mere minutes from Moab and Canyonlands appears across the road from it on a map, the entrance to the Island in the Sky portion of Canyonlands is a a bit more than a half-hour drive.  Even once you enter the park, there’s a lot of driving from point to point.

We stopped at the Visitor Center to watch the movie (for our Jr. Ranger badges!).  Canyonlands definitely doesn’t have the budget of either Grand Canyon or Arches; its theater held about a dozen wooden benches in two rows facing a school-style TV-on-a-cart.  The rangers, again, were very pleasant and helpful, and they made sure to emphasize the special nature of the soil crust on the ground and to point out their “Don’t Bust the Crust!” display.

For what it’s worth, both Canyonlands and Arches Jr. Ranger guidebooks can be downloaded and printed from their websites, and some of the activities can be completed before you begin your visit.  (Though Arches, at least, was just rolling out a new book–not yet updated online when we took our trip–so this might be changing.)  These were great car activities to build anticipation!

On the top of our to-do list here was the hike at Mesa Arch, where we heard you could actually walk over the arch.  As soon as we drove into the (rather small–and crowded when we were there) parking lot by the Mesa Arch trailhead, that bubble was burst.  Signs clearly indicated that visitors were NOT to climb on the arch.  When we reached it, we saw why–it was on the brink of a precipice and thus was not a particularly safe place to be clambering about on a rock bridge.  That didn’t stop a few folks from doing it anyhow, but my kids were disappointed to be disallowed.


This is Mesa Arch with its associated precipice.  It’s not a place you’d want to fall.

The Mesa Arch hike was an easy, half-mile hike–though it was mostly climbing and descending an gentle hill by way of large, low steps, so not ideal for those with mobility issues.  The view at the end was breathtaking, so we were glad to have hiked this even if we couldn’t actually climb on the arch.

Since it had taken so much longer than anticipated both to reach the park and to get around once inside, we ended up leaving the park after enjoying only this one hike.  My other to-dos (Grand View Point Overlook/Trail and Whale Rock) happened to be at the ends of the two roads in the park (while Mesa Arch was at the junction of the two, smack in the middle of the park–about 15 minutes from the Visitor Center), so my ideal itinerary was not feasible in one evening unless we pushed bedtime back by quite a bit.


A drive through Canyonlands National Park’s Island in the Sky area yields beautiful views like this one.

While I would have loved to hike more (and would have wanted to even moreso had we not just been at the Grand Canyon, which has some similar scenery), we did enjoy the glorious views as we drove around.  As it was, it took nearly three hours to get to the park, view the video at the Visitor Center, drive out to Mesa Arch trailhead, hike, and return to Moab.

The following morning we got out the door bright and early to get to Arches National Park, arriving right around 7 am local time with only a couple other cars in sight.  It was a drizzly day, so that may have helped keep the lines down.  (This area of Utah gets only nine inches of rain per year, but we were told that late July is monsoon season!)  By the time we left the park at lunchtime, the sun had come out and there were dozens of cars waiting to get into the park.  (On the other hand, my sister arrived at the park after supper the same day–weird coincidence, that–and said that the lines weren’t bad at all.)

This page by the National Park Service was incredibly helpful in planning our hikes at Arches National Park, since it gave us an idea of each hike’s length, difficulty, and duration.  If only it had told us the drive time from point to point, it would have been perfect!

Unfortunately, the ongoing construction projects prevented us from being able to check out the Delicate Arch overlook, and time constraints and stamina concerns led us to decide this wasn’t the right time to do the actual Delicate Arch hike.  Despite missing this iconic arch, we found plenty of arches to love!


See those dots?  Those are the kids climbing in the arch!

We started our day by hiking the Windows Area.  The kids loved this, since they could clamber right into a couple of the big arches.  (You may leave the trail as long as you walk on solid rock, and there’s a lot of solid rock to be had here!)  The trails are easy and obvious (crushed gravel), though there is some up-and-down after the first portion.  If you hike the whole trail, you’ll go for a mile.  There were pit toilets near the ample parking at the trailhead.

A long, winding drive (by now we had noticed a theme in our national parks travels: lots of driving time between sights) brought us to the Devil’s Garden area, where we hiked the trail up to Landscape Arch.  It’s about three-quarters of a mile each way.  The trail was mildly hilly and made of crushed gravel again–though beyond Landscape Arch it turns primitive.  By this time both ends of the spectrum were waning: Grandma’s hips were getting sore, and the five-year-old was beginning to drag.  We were quite grateful for the overcast weather at this point, since the brief snatches of sunlight left us instantly baking as we walked back along the trail.  We stopped at the pit toilets before heading back to the now-open Visitor Center.


Can you find Landscape Arch against the background?

About a half-hour of driving on nearly-empty roads brought us back to the Visitor Center, now a hubbub of activity.  We enjoyed yet another brief national park video, though by this time the content was getting pretty predictable.  (“Welcome to our amazing park.  Here’s some information about erosion and how things formed.  Lots of people like to come here!”)  Yet another pleasant park ranger talked with my kids about their favorite arches and their geological questions and swore them in as Jr. Rangers, giving them gloriously burnt-wood-scented badges.

We headed out of the park around lunchtime, happy to have avoided crowds, and were easily able to make it to Salt Lake City in time to check into our hotel and go out for an early supper.


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