Arches National Park was established in 1929 as a National Monument and achieved National Park status in 1971. It is 5 miles north of Moab, Utah, covers 77,359 acres, contains more than 2,000 natural arches and hosts about 750,000 yearly visitors.
The abundance of arches, spires, balanced rocks, sandstone fins and eroded monoliths in the park appear to be the result of erosion of compressed debris deposited over millions of years on a thick salt bed evaporated from an ancient sea.
The unstable salt bed, thousands of feet thick in places, buckled, shifted, liquefied and moved in ways that lifted rock layers upwards as domes. Faults deep in the earth caused vertical cracks that eroded into fins, arches and monoliths
The major formations in the park are salmon-colored Entrada Sandstone and buff-colored Navajo Sandstone.
A well designed Visitor Center near the Entrance Station has an orientation film, numerous informative exhibits, maps, publications, etc. An audio tour is available. The visitor center is also one of the two places water is available in the park, the other being Devils Garden Campground at the end of an 18 mile paved road.
The scenic drive through Arches National Park passes many impressive formations. Other formations are accessible via short side roads or hikes of varying length and difficulty. Elevations in the park range from 4,085 to 5,653 feet above sea level.
Arches National Park pictures
Delicate Arch and Wolfe Ranch
Delicate Arch is the symbolic landform of Arches NP and Utah symbol making it the most recognized arch in the park.
The distinctively shaped arch has been known as “the Chaps,” “Bloomer’s Arch,” and “Schoolmarm’s Pants.”
Delicate Arch is 45 feet tall with a 33 foot span and stands alone at the edge of a steep drop off.
The arch can be viewed from below after an easy 100 yrd/91 m (all round-trip) hike or moderately difficult 0.5 mi/0.8 km hike.
These views are from the 3 mi/4.8 km trail, rated difficult, over open slickrock with a 480 ft/146 m altitude gain.
A short section of the trail to Delicate Arch is along this narrow shelf hugging a vertical cliff and providing the only real shade
on the trail and only
early in the day. When you reach this section the arch is just a few hundred feet ahead.
Wolfe Cabin is a 17 ft by 15 foot log cabin made from Fremont cottonwoods at the start of the Delicate Arch Trail.
Wolfe Ranch was originally settled by 68-year-old John Wesley Wolfe, a civil war veteran, and his eldest son Fred in 1898.
This cabin, a root cellar, irrigation dams and a corral were constructed when his daughter and her husband joined them in 1906.
The best known, and most easily accessible, rock art in Arches National Park is on a short side trail between Wolfe Ranch
and the start of the steepest section of the Delicate Arch Trail. The horses depicted in these petroglyphs suggests that
they were carved by Ute Native Americans rather than Anasazi or Fremont who visited this area earlier.
The Windows Section of Arches NP is the most visited area of the park because of its accessibility and variety of landforms.
This photo features Turret Arch viewed through North Window Arch—one of two arches in a single sandstone fin—at sunrise.
North Window is 51 feet high and 93 feet wide. Sunrise and sunset are when the sandstone appears redder than usual.
The photo above is from a few minutes later than the photo above it when most of the spectators had exited the arch.
Turret Arch is lit by the morning sun and partially framed by North Window.
South Window at sunrise. Although not obvious at this angle, South Window is larger than North Window
with a 105 foot span and height of 65 feet, the third largest arch in the park.
North Window at sunrise viewed from the west side.
My last photo of the North Window—shot early afternoon from near the parking area—shows both how accessible this arch is and
the impact that different time of day and direction of light have on the appearance of rock formations in Arches National Park.
Viewing Turret Arch from the west in early afternoon it is easier to see the baby arch next to the larger (64 feet high and 39 feet wide) keyhole shaped arch. This formation has also been known as “Jail Entrance,” “The Jug Handle” and “Pillar Arch.”
North of the Windows Section parking lot and a slightly more difficult hike away Double Arch looks more like the entrance to
a cave from this angle. The right end of the second arch, which joins the front arch on the left side, is visible in the opening.
The people entering the arch give you an idea of its size; 144 ft wide by 112 ft tall for the larger, 61 ft by 86 ft for the smaller.
Just left (south) of Double Arch is a formation known as Parade of Elephants—a series of arches along
a broken fin of sandstone gives the appearance of elephants marching nose to tail.
Cave of Coves Viewpoint is an easily missed turnout on the way into the Windows Section. It is not on the official park map
and only has room for about three cars. A very short trail and climb to the top of a small slickrock hill provides a view
the northeast back across the road towards Elephant Butte which has the highest elevation in the park; 5653 ft/1723 m.
It is likely that Native Americans used these caves for shelter when visiting the area.
This telephoto shot from the Cave of Coves Viewpoint of the right side of the cove (just out of the picture above it)
appears to be the back side of Double Arch. Or it could be another unnamed arch and cave. At this particular time of day,
and time of year, sunlight streaming between vertical fins lights the arches and cave with a warm glow.
Looking in the other direction from the Cave of Coves Viewpoint, southwest, the view is toward the entrance
to Arches NP and the feature known as The Great Wall.
Balanced Rock, located near the exit for the side road to The Windows Section. is visible from many areas
of Arches National Park though you may need a telephoto lens or binoculars to see it from the more distant locations.
This photo is from the Windows Section access road looking southwest early in the day.
Later in the day, when the sun is on the other side of the formation, this photo from the Balanced Rock parking lot and trailhead also includes another balancing rock atop a mound in the mid distance between Balanced Rock and Elephant Butte.
A classic example of a hoodoo—a rock spire consisting of horizontal strata of varying hardness that erode and weather at different rates—Balanced Rock is 128 ft/39 m tall with the “balanced” part 55 ft/17 m tall and weighing approximately 3,550 tons.
If you compare the size of the people in the above two photos (they are there!) you can get a feel for its size.
This telephoto shot from the Balanced Rock Trail looks southeast beyond The Windows Section—which is just out of the picture
to the left—to a heavily eroded sandstone fin and, across the Colorado River gorge, to distant mountains.
Courthouse Towers is the first section you encounter when entering Arches National Park. It has many unique formations, most of them massive, but few arches. Having covered some of the park’s more iconic formations we return to this area. The photo above, with the bridge over Courthouse Wash in the foreground is looking south as we re-enter Courthouse Towers from the north.
Park Avenue Viewpoint and Trailhead is best visited in the afternoon when it has the best light (another reason I’m coming
back to it now. It was still dark when I passed by on my way to shoot sunrise photos at The Windows Section).
A moderately difficult 1 mile/1.6 km hike from here takes you to the Courthouse Towers Viewpoint.
One of the formations in the Park Avenue Trail photo above is known as Queen Nefertiti. 20 ft thick and 300 ft above the
canyon floor it is named for its resemblance to the 14th century BC Queen of Egypt. It is also known as Unjoinded Rock.
If after viewing Delicate Arch, Balanced Rock and Queen Nefertiti you are thinking the area must be
quite geologically stable, you would be correct. One good earthquake would knock these and probably
many other formations to the ground.
Another rock formation that might not fare well in an earthquake is also visible in the Park Avenue Trail photo above.
Sausage Rock, also known as “The Popsicle,” is a 40 foot high freestanding pinnacle.
There are way too many rock formations to name every one—I couldn't find a name for this one—
and a few, named and un-named, collapse each year from the effects of the erosion that formed them.
The next pullout (heading north from Park Avenue Viewpoint) is the La Sal Mountains Viewpoint.
You'll have a panoramic view of the Courthouse Towers section, including some named formations which I will cover below,
and as far north as Balanced Rock some five miles away. Bring your binoculars!
The Three Gossips is a formation standing 400 feet high.
Fifty feet thick at the base, The Three Gossips looks quite different from the side.
Sheep Rock is a bit difficult to see in the La Sal Mountains photo above—it is just to the right and lower than the 3 Gossips.
This monolith is the remains of a collapsed fin that probably contained arches and connected to the Entrada Mesa.
The formation in the center of this photo, known as The Organ, reminded early visitors of a pipe organ.
Courthouse Towers Viewpoint is just on the other side of The Organ and was popular with easel painters
when I stopped by, probably because of the shade the 700 foot high formation provided at that time of day.
The large formation to the left of The Organ is named Tower of Babel. In the La Sal Mountains panorama above The Organ
and Tower of Babel appear to be one formation because of the perspective but there is some distance between them.
Amazingly, this is also a photo of the approximately 500 foot tall Tower of Babel formation. Pretty thin in side view.
And here is a view of the north side of The Organ from the Tower of Babel where the previous shot was taken.
The Devils Garden Trailhead and Devils Garden Campground, parking and picnic area are at the end of the
18 mile road through Arches National Park. The campground here is the only place in the park,
other than the Visitor Center at the Entrance Station, where you can get water.
There seemed to be a bit more green vegetation at this end of the park and it contrasted nicely with the red sandstone.
This arch, visible from the road near Devils Garden Trailhead, is called Skyline Arch.
A large bolder fell from the arc in 1940 essentially doubling the size of the opening.
This canyon between two fins leads to Sand Dune Arch. For a short distance it is barely wide enough for one person
so you may have to wait for visitors coming from the other direction before you proceed.
Sand Dune Arch is located deep into the canyon formed by sandstone fins.
Checking Arches National Park’s facebook page for information on another location I learned that the lighter area
of the section on the left side of the arch was caused when a 150 pound piece of sandstone fell off,
startling onlookers, the week before I took this shot.
If you are not yet suffering from ‘red rock fatigue’ check out my photo essays on Bryce Canyon NP, Grand Canyon NP or Zion NP. Links are at the top of the blue column to the right.
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Website and all photos copyright © 2001–2016 Lee W. Nelson