Arches National Park
Washington National Parks

National Parks

Arches, Canyonlands and Natural Bridges

Arches National Park

The Needles in Sputhern Utah © John Crossley
The Needles area to the southeast is lower in elevation and has shallower canyons but with a greater variety of rock formations.

Famous for its red sandstone arches

Arches National Park is of course famous for the red sandstone arches that occur there in great profusion. The visitor centre sells a map showing the location of over 1000 of them, ranging in size from Landscape Arch (with an 89-metre span) to small openings one metre across. However, there are also many other striking rock formations scattered over the Park's 73,000 acres, and to see the whole area would take several days.

The Park entrance is on US191, 20 miles south of I-70 and just north of Moab, which is the biggest town in southeast Utah and seems to be mainly full of motels and mountain-bike shops. This town, which was originally a centre for the uranium-mining industry, is close to several National Parks, including Canyonlands NP and the Colorado NM as well as Arches. It is a starting point for many boat trips down the Colorado River.

Features can be seen from the road or on short hikes

The park road climbs up a steep cliff with several sharp switchbacks and then winds for 25 miles through the sculptured red rocks passing close to many of the major features. The road passes Park Avenue and Courthouse Towers, monolithic spires and ridges of rock standing isolated in largely flat desert terrain. These have been featured in several cinema films, most recently Thelma and Louise. The Windows Section contains a major concentration of arches and other formations, which have self-explanatory names such as Double Arch, Cove Arch and Balanced Rock. Everything in this area can be seen either from the road or along short hikes.

From Wolfe Ranch, a 1.5-mile foot trail crosses the creek via a small, swaying suspension bridge and leads across smooth exposed slickrock to the especially scenic Delicate Arch. This is the most famous arch in the park and has been adopted as the state symbol, appearing on Utah Centennial vehicle registration plates.

Some areas are accessible only with 4WD vehicles

Because of deep sand and steep grades, a 4WD vehicle is required to visit other areas, which include Klondike Buffs, a scenic concentration of arches and fins towards the northwest of the park. As with most other areas in south Utah, summer temperatures in Arches Park can reach 110 F, which can restrict hiking. The winter weather is not severe, although snowfall is possible.

Canyonlands National Park

Rock formation in Canyonlands National Park Utah © John Crossley
The 530 square miles of the park contain countless canyons, arches, spires, buttes and a myriad of other spectacular rock formations.

Located at the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers

Canyonlands National Park covers a vast area of wilderness in southeast Utah, centred around the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. Over millions of years, the rivers and their small tributaries have carved the flat sandstone rock layers into many amazing forms with a great variety of colours. The 530 square miles of the park contain countless canyons, arches, spires, buttes and a myriad of other spectacular rock formations. The Grand Canyon may be deeper and more dramatic, but Canyonlands has more variety, both in the geological formations and the possibilities to explore them. It certainly offers much greater solitude and isolation.

The Canyonlands area was only designated a National Park in 1964. Before that, most of the terrain was unvisited, and also largely inaccessible. Much of it is still largely inaccessible; although there are now some paved roads. The best way to see most of the park is by 4WD vehicle, but most roads are very rough, and huge areas have no roads at all. Far fewer tourists come to this park than to others in Utah.

The sheer unbridgeable canyons of the Green and Colorado rivers divide the park into three distinct sections - Island in the Sky, The Needles and The Maze. Travel between them is necessarily difficult, requiring several hours driving.

Island in the Sky

To the north, the Island in the Sky region is a wide high plateau with commanding views across many miles of deep canyons in all directions. There are some hiking trails, including a path to Upheaval Dome, a very colourful volcano-like crater.

The Needles

The Needles area to the southeast is lower in elevation and has shallower canyons but with a greater variety of rock formations. There are many opportunities for exploring and camping, and the area is relatively free of tourists.

The Maze

The Maze section, west of the rivers, is the wildest and remotest section of the park. It can be reached only by driving 50 miles along dusty unpaved roads. The Maze is a jumble of six steep inhospitable canyons. Around this are other remote areas of rock with yet more canyons and fins, buttes and domes.

Natural Bridges National Monument

Few tourists visit Natural Bridges

Natural Bridges National Monument covers a relatively small area in southeast Utah. It is rather remote and not close to other parks, so it is not heavily visited. Natural Bridges are formed by running water and hence are much rarer than arches, which result from a variety of other erosional forces. Natural bridges tend to be found within canyons, sometimes quite hidden, whereas arches are usually high and exposed, as they are often the last remnants of rock cliffs and ridges.

Attractions: Unlike Arches National Park, with over 2000 classified arches, there are only three bridges here. The area also has some scattered Indian cliff dwellings, pictographs and scenic white sandstone canyons. A more modern attraction is the Photovoltaic Array, one of the largest solar power generators in the world. It is reached by a short trail starting near the visitor center.

The Bridges: A 9 mile one-way loop road has several overlooks of the three bridges, currently known as Sipapu, Kachina and Owachomu after their names were changed to reflect the Hopi Indian history of the area. The last is probably the most spectacular, and also the easiest reach. The path into the canyon underneath the bridge is only a few hundred metres. It is the oldest bridge in the park, and rock falls have reduced the thickness to only 9 feet, so it may not be here much longer. Needless to say, walking on top of the bridges is not allowed.

Written by: John Crossley
Top Photo Credit: © Guy Cazalet
Photo Description: Arches National Park