Once Past The Crowds, Another World Opens Up.

Landscape arch in the Devils Garden Trail in Arches National Park. Credit: John Nelson
Landscape arch in the Devils Garden Trail in Arches National Park.
Credit: John Nelson

Looking out the window of a car just can’t capture the otherworldly beauty of Arches National Park in Utah.

In this stark and dramatic landscape of towering spires, delicate arches and balanced rocks, I chose to bike and hike on my pathway to discovery.

John Nelson along the Fiery Furnace Trail. Credit: John Nelson
John Nelson along the Fiery Furnace Trail.
Credit: John Nelson

I visited Arches in Fall 2015. I pulled into the nearby town of Moab in the evening and found that things were hopping among a diverse crowd of cyclists, hikers, river-runners, ORV enthusiasts and vacationers, all with plans to recreate in the rugged region.

I decided to start early the next morning to get a jump-start on the crowd.

So much for solitude. My outdoors-loving brethren had the same idea, and we all got stuck in a long backup at the Arches entrance gate. Arches National Park is a popular place with nearly 1.4 million people visiting last year.

Once through the entrance, I parked a couple of miles from the visitor center, climbed aboard my bike, and happily left my car behind. The roads were initially busy, but after a few miles, things calmed down and traffic dispersed, leaving me to pedal among the wide-open vistas.

What I saw over the next few hours was mind-blowing.

The National Park lies atop an underground salt bed. Over millions of years, the salt bed became unstable, eroded and shifted, leaving dramatic rock features carved by wind and weather that remain today.

My ride along the main road passed some of the very best sights in the park to its end at Devils Garden 18.5 miles from the entrance gate. Some side roads take visitors to other arch locations, but I wanted to go as far as I could inside the park and return later to see the other attractions.

The ride to Devils Garden takes place on rolling terrain between elevations of 4,500 and 5,500 feet. Once at Devils Garden, I slipped on hiking shoes to visit some of the park’s most famous arches along a 7.2-mile loop trail.

After a picnic lunch, I climbed back on my bike to head back. In some ways, the return ride was even better than the ride out. The light had changed, giving me a different view of these amazing formations.

Back at the car, I was exhausted from the ride and hike—and utterly satisfied. I had seen the park in way that author Edward Abbey, a former park ranger at Arches, would certainly appreciate.

“A (traveler) on foot, on horseback or on a bicycle will see more, feel more, enjoy more in one mile than the motorized tourists can in a hundred miles,” Abbey wrote in Desert Solitaire.

If you go:

Where to start the ride: Don’t park at the visitor center, which is usually swarming with tourists. Instead, drive 2.5 miles inside the park to the La Sal Mountains Viewpoint parking lot. By doing so, you’ll get out of the high-traffic area, and you’ll also avoid a 1,000 vertical foot climb.

When to visit: Spring and Fall, with more moderate temperatures, are the best times to see Arches. Summer temperatures can soar above 100 degrees.

Fitness concerns: At about 30 miles, the ride is difficult, but has only a couple of climbs. Much of the terrain is rolling and pleasant. Carry ample water, and you can refill at Devils Garden.

Safety: Even with traffic, I never felt unsafe riding at Arches. The roadways have good shoulders, and I found that drivers were mostly courteous and careful.

Food: Arches has no food concession, so pack along anything you want to eat. Moab has a wide array of restaurants and markets where you can stock up.

Highlights: Almost too many to count. The Courthouse Towers Viewpoint, The Great Wall, Balanced Rock, Panorama Point and Fiery Furnace all are along the road. If you have the energy, consider a hike around Devils Garden to see some of the park’s best sights.

Accommodations: Moab is the place. You’ll find a wide selection of condos, motels, resorts and bed and breakfasts.

Camping: The Devils Garden Campground inside the national park has 52 spaces, but these fill up very quickly. Don’t arrive thinking you’ll get lucky. Reserve a spot ahead by clicking here or by calling (877) 444-6777. Outside of Arches, there are several other options, including Willow Flat Campground in Canyonlands National Park and Dead Horse State Park, as well as primitive BLM campsites along the Colorado River. Click here for details.

Click here for maps of the area.

Tower of Babel watches over Arches National Park, UT. Credit: John Nelson
Tower of Babel watches over Arches National Park, UT.
Credit: John Nelson

Leave a Reply

Your email address will not be published. Required fields are marked *