Arches and Canyonlands In the Fall: Rock Architecture and Dwindling Crowds

Arches National Park offers some of the most unusual geology in the world, such as these spires near the Fiery Furnace. Kurt Repanshek photo.

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.


Couldn't agree with you more Kurt. Ed Abbey knew what he was talking about when he said, "This is the most beautiful place on Earth."

Another high-end option outside Moab is the Red Cliffs Lodge, about 14 miles up the Colorado River. Rooms/cabins right on the Colorado, and they have their own winery on site as well.

Klondike Bluffs is a little visited but stunningly beautiful section of Arches. The hike to Tower Arch is worth all of the trudging one must do through the soft orange Jurassic sand. Climb a fin and take in the view of the La Sals off in the distance looking like the shimmering mirage that it is.

I'm glad to see you give these parks their due Kurt. By far, two of the most beautiful and least crowded of the national parks by any standard. Though neither is readily accessible without a bit of effort, this is, neither is near a "major" transportion hub, both parks reward the visitor with the quintessential NPS experience.....visual splendor, solitude, and unspoiled, unaltered glimpses into the history of the region, both geologically and anthropologically. While the hiking experiences at Arches are limited to say the least, the rewards greatly justify the minimal effort it takes even in the summer heat for the opportunity to view such awe-inspiring sites as Tower Arch, Double Arch, Fiery Furnace and the rest. The backcountry at Canyonlands is maybe the most remote, physically and mentally challenging region of the NPS umbrella, but the unique character of each section of the park may be the most rewarding experience one could have, provided you both enjoy and prepare for total isolation. While the Needles and Island in the Sky are indeed spectacular, the real challenge lies in negotiating the Maze district. The physical demands in this park are many, they needn't be as dangerous as a certain hiker, made famous by exploits printed in Reader's Digest and others, made them be by stretching one's limitations and eventually having to sever part of an arm to be freed from his foolishly man-made prison. To most thoroughly enjoy these areas is to leave the car behind and load up the pack, avoiding the temptation to make basecamp in "Sedona North" otherwise known as Moab, and make preparations for an extended outdoors stay, as most of the more worthwhile and pristine destinations aren't exactly a day-trip from the comfort of your B&B. But as with most things in life, the extra effort is greatly rewarded, knowing that few have ventured into this harsh environment even when temperatures allow for relative ease of off-season exploration.
Almost exactly one year ago, I was fortunately enough to venture into these "barren" lands, and save for the handful of backpackers I encountered during the week, the feeling of having one of the most visually intimidating and desolate regions of the country almost to yourself was something you have to experience to appreciate. These are the true gems of the Utah national parks, though 2.5 million visitors annually to Zion would argue the point. While anything but lush, the east- central high desert retains a stark beauty and character all it's own. And the abundance of native influences found in the pre-Basketmaker relics, Anasazi era petroglyphs, ruins and readily accessible artifacts (don't even THINK about it) are in one of their highest undisturbed concentrations in the area, if you make the extra effort to look for them.

There are 10 BLM campgrounds along Highway 128, the Colorado River Road, just north of Moab. We stayed at Goose Island just over a year ago and really like the quiet. And it was a very short drive to Arches. There was no water available, but then I wasn't paying the price for a luxury lodge!

You are absolutely right in praising Arches and Canyonlands NP. They are spectacular places. And you are so right in recommending a tour to the fiery furnace in Arches NP. I was there some years ago and told everyone who traveled the region not to miss either the parks nor this specific area.

Unfortunately you did not mention, that these ranger led tours now come for a fee of $10 per adult. And even if you walk into the fiery furnace area without a guide on a short or day hike they want a special backcountry fee.

And regarding the season: Fall probably is a wonderful time of the year, but I can really recommend mid May for the same region. The temperatures are moderate and the scenery is a bit greener. Last not least, the La Sal Mountains are still snow capped and the contrast between the bizarre stone formations and the desert in the foreground against the white peaked mountains in the background looks great in any pictures made in eastern direction.

I see you can do a lot of thinks in this beautiful place. To bad it's so far away from my country.

Just unreal cosmic place