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Arches National Park, Moab, Utah

Natural Stone Arches and Formations

Travel East and north on Route 24 past Goblin Valley, east on Interstate 70, and south on Route 191 and you end up in the town of Moab and the entrance to Arches National Park. Nowhere else in the world will you see a greater number of natural stone arches and imaginative stone formations. In 1929, President Herbert C. Hoover set aside Arches as a National Monument. Arches remained a National Monument until September 1969, when President Richard M. Nixon signed a bill making it a National Park.

Moab attractions: Arches National Park slider image

Creating a national monument

In the early 1920’s Alexander Ringhoffer, a prospector in southeastern Utah, traveled through the Klondike Bluffs on the Western edge of Salt Valley. He thought such wonders should be seen by many and suggested that representatives of the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railroad visit the area. The railroad men, particularly Frank Wadleigh, the D&RGW’s passenger traffic manager, were so impressed that they contacted Stephen T. Mather, the first director of the National Park Service. Mather was intrigued and pushed for the creation of a national monument. Finally in 1929, President Herbert C. Hoover set aside Arches as a National Monument. Through the years the monument’s size was modified by succeeding presidents: enlarged by Franklin Roosevelt, diminished a bit by Dwight Eisenhower, then doubled by Lyndon Johnson. At last, President Richard Nixon signed into law in 1971, an act establishing Arches as a national park.

Striking, contrasting colors

Arches contains one of the largest concentrations of natural sandstone arches in the world. The arches and numerous other extraordinary geologic features, such as spires, pinnacles, pedestals and balanced rocks, are highlighted in striking foreground and background views created by contrasting colors, landforms and textures. With the addition of the Lost Spring Canyon area, the park is 76,519 acres in size.

Arches National Park is open year round. The majority of park visitors come March through October, with lowest visitation in December and January. You can enjoy sightseeing by personal car, hiking, biking (established roads only), picnicking (3 designated picnic areas in park), and camping.

Red Cliffs Lodge Arches National Park image


Native Americans utilized the area for thousands of years. Archaic people, and later ancestral Puebloan, Fremont and Utes searched the arid desert for game animals, wild plant foods and stone for tools and weapons. They also left evidence of their passing on a few pictograph and petroglyph panels. The first white explorers came looking for wealth in the form of minerals. Ranchers found wealth in the grasses for their cattle and sheep. John Wesley Wolfe, a disabled Civil War veteran, and his son, Fred, settled here in the late 1800s. A weathered log cabin, root cellar and a corral remain as evidence of the primitive ranch they operated for more than 20 years. A visit to Wolfe Ranch is a walk into the past.

Paleo-Indians lived in the lush canyons leading to the Green and Colorado rivers from about 10,000 to 7,800 BC and might have been the earliest people to see Arches. Although there is no evidence of Paleo-Indian use in the park, their spear points and camps have been found nearby.

By 9,000 years ago, the climate here became too warm and dry for many large mammals. They and some of their Paleo-Indian hunters moved to higher habitats. Those who stayed in the canyon country depended more on gathering and traveling. This lifestyle, called Archaic, meant that the people had to live in small groups and travel extensively. Archaeologists have found a few spear points, occasional campsites, and quarries for stone needed to make tools. Barrier Canyon style rock art panels, once attributed to the more recent Fremont culture, are the best evidence of the Archaic hunter-gathers in Arches.

By A.D.1, Archaic culture gave way to prehistoric agriculturists called Ancestral Puebloans, previously know as Anasazi and Fremont.

Arches National Park was a frontier between these people. To the south, the Park preserves some of the spectacular villages of the Ancestral Puebloans at Mesa Verde, Chaco Canyon, Hovenweep and Navajo. To the north at Dinosaur National Monument and to the west at Capital Reef National Park, Fremont archaelogical sites dominate.

Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont cultures were very similar. Only subtle difference in styles of art and technological traits distinguish the two cultures. Both groups supplemented their agricultural economies with food from wild plants and animals, supported large populations in sedentary village life, and made beautiful black on white pottery.

Arches National Park was not continuously occupied by these peoples. The landscape was only marginally suitable for the floodwater farming these people practiced.

During the thirteenth century, both Ancestral Puebloan and Fremont peoples abandoned the Arches region, drifted southward and were succeeded through historic times by Utes and Paiutes. These people were primarily hunters and gatherers.

No one knows who the first European was to penetrate Arches. However in the mid 1800s frontiers were pushed back and solitary mountain men and trappers pursued big game and beaver in remote and hostile territory. Denis Julien, one of those lone explorers, might have been the first european to see Arches. He left his name and the date, June 9, 1844, inscribed on a rock fin in the park.

People from the Church of Jesus Christ of Latter-day Saints established outposts in many remote areas of Utah in the late 1800s Among these was Elk Mountain Mission. In 1855 the missionaries, under the impression that they were on friendly terms with the local Ute Indians, planted crops and constructed a stone fort. But in September of that year, Utes killed three of their settlers so they quickly abandoned the out post and returned to their home in northern Utah. It was 20 more years before another settlement was attempted in Moab Valley.

In 1888 the first family of settlers chose to settle in Arches. John Wesley Wolfe and his son Fred moved from Ohio. They selected a 150 acre tract along salt Wash for their Bar DX Ranch. Salt Wash provided the water and the surrounding land had enough grass for a few cows. John and Fred lived this solitary life for nearly 20 years. In 1907, John’s daughter Flora, her husband Ed Stanley and their two children moved to the ranch. They built a new cabin and a root cellar, those seen in the park today. John’s original cabin was swept away by a flash flood. In 1910, the Wolfe family moved back to Ohio. They sold the ranch to Tommy Larson. Larson sold it to Mary Turnbow in 1914. Emmit Elizondo bought it from Mary’s heirs in 1947. The following year he sold it to the federal government. In 1971 the site officially became known as the Wolfe Ranch.


Water and ice, extreme temperatures and underground salt movement are responsible for the sculptured rock scenery of Arches National Park. On clear days with blue skies, it is hard to imagine such violent forces, or the 100 million years of erosion that created this land that boasts the greatest density of natural arches in the world. The more than 2,000 cataloged arches range in size from a three-foot opening, the minimum considered an arch, to the longest one, Landscape Arch, which measures 306 feet from base to base. New arches are being formed and old ones are being destroyed. Erosion and weathering are relatively slow but are relentlessly creating dynamic landforms that gradually change through time. Occasionally change occurs more dramatically. In 1991 a slab of rock about 60 feet long, 11 feet wide and 4 feet thick fell from the underside of Landscape Arch, leaving behind an even thinner ribbon of rock. Delicate Arch, an isolated remnant of a bygone fin, stands on the brink of a canyon, with the dramatic La Sal Mountains for a backdrop. Towering spires, pinnacles and balanced rocks perched atop seemingly inadequate bases vie with the arches as scenic spectacles.

The park lies atop an underground salt bed, which is basically responsible for the arches and spires, balanced rocks, sandstone fins and eroded monoliths that make the area a sightseer’s mecca. Thousands of feet thick in places, this salt bed was deposited across the Colorado Plateau some 300 million years ago when a sea flowed in the region and eventually evaporated. Over millions of years, the salt bed was covered with residue from floods and winds and the oceans that came and went at intervals. Much of this debris was compressed into rock. At one time this overlying layer of rock may have been more than a mile thick.

Salt under pressure is unstable and the salt bed below Arches was no match for the weight of this thick cover of rock. Under such pressure, the salt layer shifted, buckled, liquified and repositioned itself, thrusting the rock layers upward into domes. Whole sections dropped into the cavities.

Faults deep in the Earth contributed to the instability on the surface. The result of one such 2,500-foot displacement, the Moab Fault, is seen from the visitor center. This movement also produced vertical cracks that later contributed to the development of arches. As this subsurface movement of salt shaped the Earth, surface erosion stripped away the younger rock layers. Except for isolated remnants, the major formations visible in the park today are the salmon-colored Entrada Sandstone, in which most of the arches form, and the buff-colored Navajo Sandstone. These are visible in layer cake fashion throughout most of the park. Over time water seeped into the superficial cracks, joints and folds of these layers. Ice formed in the fissures, expanding and putting pressure on surrounding rock, breaking off bits and pieces.

Winds later cleared out the loose particles. A series of free-standing fins remained. Wind and water attacked these fins until, in some, the cementing material gave way and chunks of rock tumbled out. Many damaged fins collapsed. Others, with the right degree of hardness and balance, survived despite their missing sections. These became the famous arches. Pothole arches form by chemical weathering as water collects in natural depressions and eventually cuts through to the layer below. This is the geologic story of Arches – probably. The evidence is largely circumstantial.

Cryptobiotic Crust. Its alive, so watch your step! But it won’t bite you. Once called cryptogamic soil, this dark crust covers much of the untrampled desert. Composed of cyanobacteria as well as lichen, algae and fungi, this covering protects against erosion, absorbs moisture provided nitrogen and other nutrients for plant growth. Avoid crushing these life-giving organisms. Stay on trails. Without these crusts, many of the larger plants could not survive, and if the plants go, so do the animals. The desert could lose much of the life that makes it such a magical place.

Moab Arches National Park Double Arches image

Flora and fauna

Pinyon and gnarled juniper trees add a splash of green contrast to the red sandstone terrain. When conditions are just right, wildflowers bloom in profusion from April to July. Most species of mammals are nocturnal, but you might see mule deer, kit fox, or more often, jackrabbits and cottontails, kangaroo rats and other rodents, and small reptiles. Flocks of blue pinyon jays chatter in tree tops; migratory species such as mountain bluebirds and residents such as golden eagles are seen by careful observers

Although Arches is a desert, it is a cool desert and a high one, subject to greater environmental extremes than the hot, sandy deserts further south. On an average, less than ten inches of precipitation dampens the vegetation. Much of this moisture evaporates or runs off before it soaks into the soil, so it is not actually available to animals and plants.

By far the most widespread plant community here is the pygmy forest: a woodland of pinon and juniper trees that cover more than forty percent of the park. There are more than 100 other plant species in the diverse understory of this open community of forest. Mountain mahogany and cliffrose often grow alongside the trees where their roots take advantage of the extra moisture that the pinon and juniper foots have penetrated. The Utah juniper is more drought tolerant then the pinon and so they usually out number the pinons in the woodlands.

Another common shrub in the woodland is blackbush, a low growing, prickly bush that usually looks half dead. Blackbush is a tenacious shrub. Years may pass between flowerings. Much of the year it appears lifeless, but after a wet spring, they can burst into color with tiny yellow flowers covering the spiny branches.

Several species of grasses, galleta, dropseed, and Indian ricegrass, are dominate members of the grassland that covers about 8,000 acres in the park. Snakeweed and prickly pear cactus thrived and moved into overgrazed grasslands. Cheatgrass and Russian thistle, the classic tumbleweed of western movies also found overgrazed grasslands inviting.

Sage, greasewood and yuccas are common members of many western communities. Greasewood likes moist soils with high concentrations of alkali and salt. It grows well in Salt Wash and around Wolfe Cabin. Nearly pure strands of greasewood grow in cache Valley where the soil is very salty.

Like plants, the animals must also deal with the environmental extremes of this high desert. Unlike the stationary vegetation, mobile animals can cope with heat, cold and aridity in a variety of ways. Most animals simply avoid the extremes by staying in burrows or in the shade of a tree during the day and venturing out to forage in the evening. Even the kangaroo rat, well known for its ability to tolerate desert environment, retreats underground during the day.

Some species have evolved elaborate means of coping with the arid environment. Invertebrates such as fairy and tadpole shrimp inhabit shallow ephemeral pools of water called potholes. Most of their life is spent as dedicated eggs or cysts buried in the dirt at the bottom of a dried up pothole. Summer rains fill the depression, and if temperature and chemistry are correct, the eggs hatch.Then the race is on. These creatures must grow, mature, mate, and lay eggs before the pool evaporates. With luck, a couple of weeks of activity will be enough. Then the eggs will wait, dormant, until the next time conditions are right, years or even decades later.

Frogs and toads are also tied to the potholes and Spring. They must lay their eggs in water so that the hatched tadpoles have an aquatic environment to survive through metamorphosis. Spring and summer rains rejuvenate the potholes and washes. Soon tiny nickel-sized toads hop about looking for bugs and flies to speed their growth. As adults, most of the amphibians burrow underground and wait the next round of rain.

Over 200 species of vertebrates and hundreds of species of invertebrates inhabit the park. Of the several dozen mammalian species at Arches, only a few are easy to see. The lively antelope ground squirrel scurrying with its tail arched over its back, the mule deer in Devils Garden, the desert cottontails in the campground are a few that might be seen. There is a wide variety of birds, however you will need to get up early or look very carefully to see the raucous jays and ravens, plaintive mourning doves or an occasional golden eagle.

Most commonly seen are the park’s amphibian and reptile community. Nearly two dozen species live in Arches. The side-blotched lizard and the eastern lizard are common on rocky ground and often climb the face of small cliffs. The foot long whiptailed lizard is at home on sandier ground.

At the top of the lizard food chain are two impressive predators; the collard lizard and the leopard lizard. Each of these lizards measure a foot in length. It’s bite is lethal to other lizards. They are both ambush predators as they wait or sit on a rock or under a bush for prey to wonder by, then dash out and grab their victim.

The midget faded rattlesnake is the only species of pit viper found at Arches. Few people ever see one. It is a subspecies of the western rattlesnake and prays on small animals, birds and other reptiles. Drop for drop, its venom ranks high on the toxicity scale. Fortunately this snake is rather shy and retiring.

The gopher snake, on the other hand is seen much more frequently, It grows to four feet or longer and is usually sighted on black top roads in the evening by travelers. Reptiles, unlike mammals and birds, rely on the heat from rocks or roadways to warm them up.

Other animals that inhabit the park are coyotes, gray fox, porcupine and the tiny canyon mouse. The diversity of life at Arches is great but usually not obvious. It takes time and effort to appreciate the subtleties of life here.

Information from the National Park Service

Red Cliffs Lodge night sky over Arches National Park image

Sights to see

There are a number of things to do while enjoying Arches National park. These activities include but are not limited to biking, camping, canoeing, fishing, hiking, horseback riding, photography and wildlife watching.

For a detailed list of arches, balance rocks and other scenic rock formations with their location and trails and biking, see the Hiking Page.

Join a National Park Service ranger to explore Arches’s natural and cultural history. Join a ranger on a hike or walk and learn about the forces that once shaped this landscape – and continue to do so. These are just some of the ways to discover the diversity of the scenic, natural and historic wonders that comprise Arches National Park.

Located near park entrance, the visitor center houses a museum and exhibits. A short orientation program is shown in the auditorium on the hour and half hour. Information is available and books and maps are sold by the Canyonlands Natural History Association, in the visitor center.

The 48 mile round trip paved road in the park travels through spectacular scenery and leads to major park features. Hiking trails of varying length and difficulty lead to and through arches and into the heart of the park.

Regularly scheduled walks, guided hikes and evening campfire programs by rangers, mid-March through October. Check bulletin boards in the park for details. Reservations must be made for the popular Fiery Furnace guided hike in person at the Arches Visitor Center, up to 48 hours in advance. Also, check at the visitor center for information on the Junior Ranger program for children ages six through eleven. Join a ranger March through October at a talk, walk, hike or campfire program.

The basic road tour with stops at overlooks requires several hours to a half day. Allow more time if you plan to hike or otherwise experience the park.

Scenic drives

The road system in Arches passes many outstanding natural features. As Arches’ popularity has increased, people have begun to park in areas that damage plants and sometimes endanger other visitors. Please park in established lots only. Generally, parking spaces are easier to find before 9:00 am and after 7:00 pm.

If your time at Arches will be limited, try one of the following itineraries:

If you have 1.5 hours:

Drive to the Windows Section and see some of the park’s largest arches. (Add .5 hour to stroll beneath either North Window or Double Arch.).


Drive to the Delicate Arch Viewpoint and see the world’s most famous arch, a mile distant. Stop at Wolfe Ranch on your way back and imagine what it would have been like to homestead this relatively barren area in the late 1800s.

If you have 3 hours — Do both of the above!

If you have 4.5 hours — Drive all of the paved park roads, spending ten minutes at each viewpoint, and be sure to visit the Windows Section, Wolfe Ranch and the Delicate Arch Viewpoint.

Annual Easter Sunrise Service in the park. Check bulletin boards for other special events or programs during your visit.

Nearby public lands provide a wealth of outdoor recreational opportunities. Canyonlands National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park, Slickrock Bike Trail, and the Manti-LaSal National Forest are all within 50 miles of Arches National Park.

In some Native American cultures, the naming of a person or a place is an attempt at capturing its essence. Native American descriptions — for Capitol Reef (Land of the Sleeping Rainbow) and for Bryce (Red Rocks Standing Like Men in a Bowl-shaped Recess) — illustrate this practice. People have given the wonders at Arches colorful and descriptive names: Delicate Arch, Fiery Furnace, Courthouse Towers, the Three Gossips, Devils Garden, and Parade of Elephants.

Delicate Arch is probably the best-known feature in the park. Standing at precarious attention at the edge of a slickrock bowl, it is 46 feet high, with a width of nearly 35 feet. From its lofty vantage point, the views are of mesas, canyons, the Colorado River canyon, and the La Sal Mountains.

One of the longest natural stone arches in the world is breathtaking Landscape Arch, 306 feet in length and at one point only 10 feet thick. (Another is Kolob Arch in Zion, measuring 310 feet.) A large slab of rock fell from Landscape Arch in 1991, and additional rockfalls occurred in 1995 and 1996, but the arch persists in its flirtatious relationship with gravity and the elements.

The route through Fiery Furnace, a twisting maze of fin formations and canyons, is so deceptive that you must go with a ranger. Guided hikes are offered twice daily from March to October; reservations must be made in person, no more than 48 hours in advance; fees charged. It is a strenuous two-mile hike and takes about three hours.

Courthouse Towers, the Three Gossips, Devils Garden, Parade of Elephants, Tower of Babel, and Park Avenue are all fascinating spires, fins, and monoliths, each worthy of hours, if not days, of exploration. throughout this site, look for the symbol which denotes facilities, scenic areas, and features accessible to guests with disabilities, or you can pick up a brochure at any visitor center.

The Golden Access Pass is gladly accepted. The visitor center, picnic area, and rest room facilities throughout the park are wheelchair accessible, as is one designated site at Devils Garden Campground. The visitor center orientation program is captioned for visitors with hearing impairments.

The National Park Service (NPS) needs your help to protect this vast resource and to ensure your safety. For more than three-quarters of a century, the NPS has endeavored to preserve America’s parklands for future generations. The NPS and concessioner Amfac Parks and Resorts work together as a team to ensure that your visit is a memorable one. Please help us by taking a proactive role in the preservation of the parks.


Established as a National monument in 1929, and as a National Park in 1971.

Land area

73,379 acres

Number of visitors per year

860,000 visited in 1995. Highest visitation is March – October, lowest in December and January.

Lowest and highest elevations

3981 feet at the Colorado River Bridge, to 5653 at the top of Elephant Butte.

Number of plant and animal species

357 plant, 128 bird, 20 reptile, 38 mammal, 8 amphibian, and 14 fish species.

Popular sights

Delicate Arch, Landscape Arch, Fiery Furnace, Courthouse Towers, the Three Gossips, Devils Garden, Parade of Elephants, Tower of Babel, and Park Avenue are all fascinating fins, monoliths, and spires, each worthy of hours, if not days, of exploration.

Popular activities

Hiking, photography, four-wheel-drive tours, wildlife watching, horseback riding.


Relatively non-strenuous hikes take you to most of the popular arches, including a three-mile round trip to Delicate Arch.

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