When we decided we’d be heading to Moab, Utah for our family rafting trip, we knew we wanted to tack on a few days afterwards for the National Parks.
The National Parks have been on our “want to explore” list for sometime and given we’d be right near some of the greats, Arches and Canyonland (read about our one day at Canyonland here), we knew we had to make it happen. In an ideal world, we’d have weeks to explore both, but in reality we ended up having a day at each to make the most out of it.
While I still look forward to returning one day for more exploration, I can confidently say we rocked our single day at Arches National Park!
Sunrise at Delicate Arch
The parks are slammed during the summer months and getting there early is advised. Arches’ gates were closed each morning we were there by 8:30 AM due to hitting capacity.
I had been wanting to do a sunrise hike anyway, so coupling these two reasons together had us setting our alarms at 4:30 AM to throw on clothes and head to the lobby. Hailey, Kaitlyn, Mema, David, and I put on our beanie hats and headed out.
I picked a friend’s brain who knew the park well before we went and asked what we must make sure to see. Delicate Arch was at the top of the list and it sounded like a beautiful spot for sunrise! She warned me that the trail got a little dicey at the end, but we probably could handle it. And with that, we set off!
There were cars in the lot when we arrived, about 15 or so, and we headed out on the trail. The trail, which is about 3 miles round trip, begins as an easy walk on gravel, then turns to rock. As you continue, the elevation begins to increase.
It was beautiful in the early morning hours. It was dim, but we didn’t need our headlamps, and we even saw a deer!
The path is marked with signs every so often, but once we got on the rocky surface, they were harder to come by. We trekked onward until we finally saw the arch in the distance! It was exciting and we confirmed we must be heading in the right direction.
As we moved towards the arch, we came upon a big bowl with steep sides of rock. My eyes widened, but I remembered my friend telling me the trail got a little scary at the end. We took deep breaths and continued on, laughing at first.
Once we had gone about half way across the side of the bowl, I went silent to concentrate. I had Kaitlyn on my back and just couldn’t see where else to put my feet. Mema was behind me and helped guide me. I slowly made my way, holding onto the side of the rock with one hand, and holding Kaitlyn on my back with the other. Unfortunately there are no pictures of this part because we were all focused too much on not falling to our deaths to snap a photo, but hopefully these will give you an idea of the situation…
When it finally felt as though I wasn’t rock climbing, my heart beat slowed and we realized we had made it! We made it just as the sun was beginning to peek above the horizon and the views were phenomenal.
Shaking a little from our adventure, I tried to pull it together because looking around, at least 30 other people had clearly taken the same path and they were all fine.
At that point, a man sitting not far from us looked over and said “wow, you guys are quite the adventurers. What made you choose to go that way?”
He must have seen the confusion in our eyes because he then pointed out the clearly marked trail on the backside of the mountain, opposite of how we had come in. Our jaws dropped and he started laughing. We had scaled the edge of the steep, giant bowl unnecessarily!
Once he had broken this ice, others around us began chiming in, equally applauding us in admiration and laughing heartily with us at our mistake!
It was an unforgettable moment as we stood there looking back at the feat we had overcome, laughing at ourselves, and having our breath taken away as the sun lit up the landscape.
Mema sat with the girls, who were content with the view, while David and I made our way over to the arch itself. I knew it would be impressive but the magnitude of it still took my by surprise.
About three other people were ahead of us in a formed line and we all took turns handing over our phones and snapping pictures of each other.
It felt other worldly and I knew at that point we’d been bitten by the National Park bug.
There were more people than I expected at sunrise, maybe 30, including some influencers in high heeled boots and flowing dresses trying to get the money shot.
However, people begin pouring in at a steady pace so after an hour or so, we took the *correct* trail and headed back down. I was blown away at how slammed the trail was in contrast to how we had mostly been by ourselves only two hours earlier.
On the way down we heard a man shout out to us- “There they are; the Indian Jones family!” He came over to hear the tale of our wrong way adventure and we all laughed again. From there, we snapped a picture at the place we made our wrong turn and officially adopted the new nickname, The Indian Jones Family, wearing it with pride! What an adventure!
Tips for Visiting Delicate Arch at Sunrise
- We left the hotel at 5:00 AM, but between the ride into the park and the trail length, I’d recommend leaving 30 minutes earlier. We had to keep a steady pace to make it to the arch by sunrise.
- Pack a headlamp. We didn’t need ours, but if you go a little earlier like recommended, it will be helpful to have.
- Wear layers and a beanie hat. The girls were cold in shorts, long sleeve t-shirts, and hats, but once the sun is up, it heats up quickly.
- Bring a snack and water. It’s a three mile trail, roundtrip, but it takes 2-3 hours to hike, enjoy, and hike back.
We returned from the trail to an overflowing parking lot. The lot we parked in was slammed and people were walking in from other parking lots down the road. We were super grateful for our less crowded experience.
From there we headed out of the park to grab a hearty breakfast in Moab. We arrived at Jailhouse Cafe midmorning and got right in. The food was great and the history of the place was super cool. From being an old jailhouse to hosting Stephen Hawking, it was a really neat spot to learn about.
After breakfast we wandered in and out of shops in Moab for a bit, buying souvenir stickers, ornaments, t-shirts, and rocks before heading back to the hotel for some down time. We planned to take it easy during the heat of the day and return in the afternoon to Arches.
It worked out well for all of us; the girls took naps and we rested. Then around 3:00 PM we were ready for our next adventure- taking a back entrance into the park for an off-roading adventure!
At the Arches National Park visitor center, David had spoken with a ranger that filled him in on a backroad entrance to the park that never closes (even when the park shuts down at capacity). She said if your vehicle can handle it, it’s a fun adventure, but to be aware that tow trucks to the area start at about $2,000.
Well, that’s all David needed to hear to get a sparkle in his eye and the rest of us agreed we were up for it, so off we went!
Off-roading through the desert won’t get you anywhere fast, but it sure was fun. We took our time and bounced through the uneven terrain. Oftentimes Grandpa would get out and walk ahead to help navigate the path. David was in his element and now is set on needing a truck.
Along the way we stopped to check out dinosaur prints that were embedded in rock. Pretty cool, I must admit.
And then we saw it- Balanced Rock in the distance and the entrance to the park! We pulled over just inside the fence to use the cleanest restrooms of anywhere we had experienced and took in the view. It felt like we had the park to ourselves.
From there we headed to The Windows Section, considered by many to be the heart of Arches National Park.
The area contains a large concentration of arches and we got out to hike around. The girls loved scrambling up and down rocks and we loved soaking in the vast views.
We spent more time than intended at The Windows section, not wanting to rush the experience. We finished up there as the sun began to set.
We made two more stops, first at The Fiery Furnace Overlook, then at Balanced Rock, before saying good night to the park and heading back to Moab for a late dinner.
Did we see everything? Not even close! But were we satisfied with our one day at Arches National Park? More than I ever could have predicted!
We will be back, no doubt, but this day at Arches is undoubtedly one of my favorite memories of my life. Thank you, Arches, for the incredible memories! Until we meet again…
Sounds like a fantastic day! You did well with the planning and getting in before sunrise then using the back roads entrance. Those types of experiences are what really make national park visits memorable! Arches was one of my first national parks visit out west, in 2010, and since then I’ve visited 22 in all, not including all the national monuments, most since moving to Colorado and having kids, when national park road trips took over as our main mode of travel (yearly flights to Europe all of a sudden weren’t so feasible for us). I am usually pretty good about planning off the beaten track adventures, but a few times I’ve missed the mark and had some pretty miserable experiences, most notably, Zion in march 2017. I’ve described our visit as “Disney Land” (this is not a complement 🙂 as we waited in line after line most of the day. First we sat in traffic for an hour approaching the entrance (and probably passed some amazing and empty hikes on the way), then realizing parking was full we had to leave to park in town and wait in line to take a shuttle back to the entrance, then we had to wait in a long line to take a shuttle to a trailhead where we climbed a trail with a literal herd of people (it wasn’t just one big group, it was an actual line of people that extended the entire hike). I’d never seen anything like it and it was a prime example of how to not visit a national park. I’m sure Zion is amazing but I my next visit will have to be the off season! I learned a lot from that experience and more than ever seek out locations and experiences that are lesser known and visited. At some point, we’d seen enough to where we’re not willing to battle out crowds of people to see amazing sites, as there are so many places to visit in the southwest that are void of people. I’m so glad you guys did things right in Arches because I’m sure someone could have a very different experience in high season considering how popular it has become! Canyonlands was always recommended for an Arches experience without the crowds, although it sounds like the Island in the Sky district is getting a lot of the traffic turned away from Arches. I’ve got the Needles district on my radar though for sure! Anyhow, I love our national parks and we always have an up to date annual pass on hand. I am equally fascinated and concerned with the increase in popularity since Covid (although even in 2010 I thought Moab/ Arches felt crowded) and hope that an increase in funding can help manage a better experience for all. I really hope the days of government shut downs are over, as that brought lots of messes for the parks. Two recommendations prior to your next adventure: National Parks Adventure (documentary narrated by Robert Redford) and Trekking the National Parks board game!
Thank you so much for this recap! I don’t have kids myself, but I love seeing your adventures and dreaming of what trips I might be able to take in the future!
Brittany Dixon says
I’m glad you enjoy reading it; we’ve been waiting for these big adventures and are excited to start making them happen!