Posted February 2021
Travel Date October 2020
We couldn’t spend 10 days in Moab without at least one trip to Arches National Park. Before visiting I was worried about the crowds at Arches. When visiting, I noticed the herds of people aren’t all concentrated in one area of this sprawling park but the delays and crowding can still get really annoying. We learned there are a few easy ways to avoid the crowds at Arches.
How crowded is Arches?
Over 1.5 million people visit the National Park each year and it notoriously overcrowded. On our first drive into Moab, while camping at a nearby free BLM spot, we noticed the park gate was closed midday with digital signage posting “Park Full”. We were not surprised the park was busy on the weekend but didn’t worry it would impact our mid-week trip planned a few days later.
Arches National Park Facts
Arches National Park contains the densest concentration of natural stone arches in the world. Around every corner in the park is another breathtaking example of Mother Nature’s architecture set in the red-rocks. I was intrigued when I learned there are over two thousand documented arches within the park. What makes this area so great for arch development?
Why are there so many Arches in Utah?
Millions of years ago, the area was covered in other layers of rock. These layers have since eroded revealing the infamous Entrada sandstone. Entrada sandstone is porous and composed of almost spherical grains which result in small spaces of air around each grain. These air pockets make it highly susceptible to erosion.
The 8-10″ of annual rainfall drips into the tiny space around each grain and dissolves the calcite binding the sandstone together. NPS describes this process as rotting the rock from the inside out and I can’t imagine a better description.
First, the erosion causes ripples in the surface which eventually deepen to accentuate “fins”. After many more years of erosion, some of these fin’s interior sections will wear away resulting in an arch.
Fun fact, courtesy of the Gypsy Guide app, arches are carved into stone by water from above eroding the stone but bridges are caused by water from below eroding the stone.
Additionally, the low earthquake risks in the area have allowed these delicate geological features to remain intact for millions of visitors’ enjoyment, year after year.
When will Arches reopen?
We arrived around 11 am on a weekday to find the familiar “Park Full” sign posted and were severely disappointed.
After packing lunches and supplies in preparation for the 7mi Devils Garden Hike, I wasn’t ready to give up so easily. Instead, we parked near the entrance. We took a few pics at the park sign and waited until the top of the hour.
I was hoping some of the crowds might leave the park for lunch and the gate would open long enough for us to get in. It didn’t. Rather than going home defeated, we headed to nearby Canyonlands National Park. Check back for the upcoming Canyonlands blog if you want to visit but only have a half-day.
What Does Full Really Mean?
While eating lunch in Canyonlands, we chatted with another couple having a tailgate picnic. He said during the past week, Arches had consistently closed midday (between 10:30 am and 2 pm) because the “park was full”.
Still a little sensitive over our spoiled plan to visit Arches, we wondered aloud if this was truly related to capacity since the park is over 120 square miles.
In hindsight, there is one main road through the park. Imagine if everyone entering the park were constantly bumper to bumper along the same road heading to the same destinations. Crowds in Arches would be overwhelmingly miserable if NPS didn’t restrict visitors.
When to go to Arches to avoid crowds?
Autumn and Spring are great times to visit Moab. We enjoyed the mild temperatures in October. Daytime highs ranged from 50 degrees Fahrenheit to the high 70s. Winter in Moab gets too cold for us but it would be a great time to avoid crowds if you enjoy the cold weather. Summer temperatures regularly exceed 100 degrees Fahrenheit and would limit outdoor activities.
Based on my observations in October, the Arches National Park gate is only open early morning and late afternoon. Midday the park is overcrowded and the gate is closed to new visitors.
The National Park Service recommends arriving before 9 am or after 2 pm to avoid the crowds. So we went back before sunrise later in the week prepared to spend the day in Arches.
Even after being turned away earlier in the week due to overcrowding, we hoped Arches would be worth the crowds. We were able to minimize the crowds by going early and taking a long hike at midday.
What not to miss in Arches?
I recommended Gypsy Guides to maximize your time in National Parks. Arches National Park was so much better with our Gypsy Guide app telling us stories and guiding us around the park.
The app is available for Android and iPhones. Price ranges from free to $15 depending upon the area being covered. I don’t pay for phone apps but Gypsy is the one exception.
We purchased Gypsy Guide Apps for every National Park we visited during our first year of full-time RV living. Check out our story to learn how we were able to travel full time in our 30s.
The Arches and Canyonland combo was $9.99 and worth every penny. The app uses the phone GPS (no cell reception needed) to play short audio clips as you approach new attractions.
Gypsy tells you the best places to stop for pictures, animal sightings, sunrise/sunset views, and what each hike offers. You will not miss any highlights of the park if you have the Gypsy Guide. Honestly Gypsy is priceless and makes our National Parks trips exponentially better.
One Day in Arches
At the time, we planned to spend two days in Arches. However, electrical issues with Pippi cut our Moab trip short and only allowed us this one day in Arches. Check out our Moab blog post to find other great hiking and biking trails outside the National Parks.
In hindsight, we should have stayed later to see the sunset at Delicate Arch and explore the Windows section. We were tired after hiking Devils Garden and were ready to go home. Optimists would say we saved something special for our next visit.
Arrive Early for Sunrise: A Great Way to Avoid Crowds at Arches
We arrived early to ensure we got into the park and it was a great way to miss the crowds at Arches.
As we entered the park around 7 am, the sun was rising and we were treated to many great views of the sandstone formations which make this area so popular.
We stopped at several formations to take pics before heading to the Devils Garden trailhead.
Devils Garden Hike Primitive Loop
My primary goal at Arches National Park was to hike the Devils Garden primitive loop, the longest maintained trail in the whole park. I am afraid of heights and the National Park guide warns the loop should be avoided by those uncomfortable with heights.
I spent a lot of time researching and decided to challenge myself. Overall I do not regret the decision and am very proud I completed the 7.8-mile loop.
Can I hike Devil’s Garden if I have a fear of heights?
Honestly, I had a couple of questionable moments during the hike. If you have any phobias, you probably understand questionable moments more than others.
During these moments, I had to repeatedly focus on breathing deeply while practicing positive self-talk. My competing internal voices were both proudly screaming “you can do anything because you are a badass” and mumbling under her breath “they warned you in the brochure”.
There is a Reason for Warnings
A few of the scarier sections had warnings posted. These were both nice to know but at the same time they were anxiety triggers for me.
As the trail narrowed leading to a 100-yard traverse over a slick rock fin, one of the nearby hikers slipped. Thankfully she only slid a short distance before catching herself. I was already nervous about falling while walking across the fin. Seeing someone else slide validated my fear of falling.
Other hikers stopped along the top of the fin to take pictures of the sweeping views. I kept my eyes on Kevin’s feet directly in front of me and practicing my deep breathing and positive self-talk. I couldn’t enjoy the views until I was back on solid ground, but I fought my fears and crossed that fin.
How Strenuous is the Devils Garden Trail?
The Devils’ Garden primitive loop hike wasn’t boring. We crossed over several sections of rock fins which included some minor climbing. I would rate it as moderately strenuous in mild temperatures.
I am on the short side of 5’5” and normally love being short. However, on this hike, a few extra inches would have been helpful when jumping between obstacles.
I used my arms to provide extra lift and lower myself at several points along the trail. Therefore, I wouldn’t recommend the hike to anyone with limited mobility. With determination, I think most people could do this hike.
8 Arches in a Single Hike: Devils Garden Loop
We saw eight arches on the Devils Garden loop and each one was just as exciting as the last. The first mile of the trail is a wide well-maintained gravel path that leads to the first three arches.
Avoiding Crowds at Arches: Choose Less Traveled Trails
If you don’t want to hike the full 7.8-mile primitive loop, you can visit the first three arches without even walking a mile or climbing any rocks. Landscape Arch is within this first section and definitely worth the short walk.
However, the crowds at the first three arches vastly outnumbered the total number of hikers we saw on the remaining six miles of trail. I estimate we saw a dozen people on the primitive section of the trail but hundreds of people on the first section of the trail.
A great way to avoid crowds at National Parks is to spend time on less traveled trails. Hiking a more difficult or longer trail will allow you to avoid the crowds in Arches since most people are not able or inclined to hike them.
Highlights of Arches National Park
After finishing the Devils Garden loop in the early afternoon, we were both mentally and physically tired. We decided to head home rather than exploring more of Arches.
Sadly, we didn’t explore Delicate Arch or the Windows area on this trip. We planned a second day in Arches dedicated to these park highlights but were not able to go.
How to avoid crowds at Arches?
In conclusion, we only spent one day in the park but the beauty is definitely worth the crowds. I would recommend going during off-peak times to avoid the crowds at Arches. If you are physically able, I’d also recommend finding solitude by hiking the Devil’s Garden Primitive Loop trail.