Arches and Canyonlands In the Fall: Rock Architecture and Dwindling Crowds
Arches is one of the world's, not just one of the United States', most incredible national parks. Its rock architecture -- windows cut from stone, spindly arches longer than a football field, balancing rocks -- and desertscape are otherworldly.
And fall is perhaps the best time to visit. I'm not just saying that to fill web space in late September. While summer is the busiest season in the park, temperatures can be dangerously hot, making treks across the sandstone simply unreasonable, if not almost unbearable.
But fall brings cooler temps. True, this week highs in Moab are forecast to be in the mid-80s, but that's a lot more comfortable than the low 100s. Plus, things only get better for the next five or six weeks. With these cooler temperatures the hike out to Landscape Arch and beyond to Double O Arch and even the Dark Angel makes for a nice morning or afternoon outing. And the mild evening temperatures make it tempting to make an evening hike to Delicate Arch on September 26th, when the moon will be full.
Now there will be some folks who view Arches as a one-day park, as the paved road that winds through the park covers fewer than 25 miles and practically takes you by the hand to the best vistas: Balanced Rock, the Windows Section, the Delicate Arch Viewpoint, and the Fiery Furnace Viewpoint. But if you only stay in your car you're missing the essence of Arches.
Touring the Fiery Furnace with a ranger is a great time spent, and getting out of your car at the Windows to hike up to, into, and around North and South Window and Turret Arch really puts this park into perspective. And of course the hike out to Landscape Arch, on a mostly flat, easy trail, is not to be ignored.
And if you plan a trip all the way to Arches, you need to set aside time to visit its next-door neighbor, Canyonlands. Within Canyonlands lies some of the most rugged backcountry in the national park system. Fortunately, you don't necessarily need to climb down into it to experience it. You can drive out to the Island in the Sky District just west of Arches and gaze down through Mesa Arch onto the White Rim with its collection of canyons (Little Bridge, Lathrop, Buck and Gooseberry), or go to the tip of the island at Grand View Point and look upon the rugged, inhospitable heart of the park.
The Island in the Sky also offers Whale Rock, a ponderous mass of sandstone onto which you can hike for a great view down onto Upheaval Dome. Or you can hike up Aztec Butte to check out some Anasazi cliff ruins.
A longer drive south, perhaps 90 minutes, leads to the Needles District with its bizarre geology of spires, minarets and hoodoos. While you won't want to try to drive your car up Elephant Hill, parking there and hiking into Chesler Park is well-worth the effort.
And if you do hit some unseasonably hot weather during a fall visit to the parks, sign on with one of the many outfitters for a rafting trip down the Colorado River.
If you're into car camping, you've got just one option in Arches -- the Devil's Garden Campground -- and two designated campgrounds in Canyonlands -- Willow Flat, on the Island in the Sky District, and Squaw Flat in the Needles District. Another excellent option, though, can be found at Utah's Dead Horse Point State Park, which you'll find on the way to the Island in the Sky District.
Of all these options, my favorite is Squaw Flat -- the individual sites are nicely laid out with trees and rock outcrops to provide some privacy, and the Needles District is simply fascinating. You'll also experience some of the darkest night skies this side of Natural Bridges National Monument here.
If camping isn't your forte, there are plenty of lodging options in Moab. And if price isn't an object, check into the Sorrel River Ranch, which lies 17 miles east of Moab along a bend of the Colorado River.
Arches and Canyonlands in the fall. They're a great combination.