One of the best parts about running a travel blog is that we get to help others with travel plans. That includes helping others learn from our mistakes. It’s not that we find ourselves in lots of sticky situations–but there’s always one or two things that crop up on a trip we’d rather not do again. Those are always the things we think are worth sharing with others. During our April 2021 visit to Arches National Park in Utah, there were a few more than we’d planned. Let’s just say, before we even left Moab, we’d already started a list of “Things We Wish We Knew Before Visiting Arches” to post here.
So here it is. Our tips and things that we learned on our trip that will hopefully help at least one fellow #parkchaser plan a successful trip.
If you notice there’s things we missed or if you’ve got Arches travel wisdom to share, drop us a note in the comments section.
9 Things We Wish We Knew Before Visiting Arches National Park
1. Expect and plan for BIG crowds and parking issues.
We knew Arches was busy. Everything we read in our pre-trip research shared that the park gets crowded regardless of the time of year. Given we’re in the business of national parks, we generally don’t mind sharing the parks with others and are happy to see fellow #parkchasers out and enjoying their public lands. We’ve experienced crowded shuttles in Zion and parking delays in Grand Canyon.
But the crowds and parking issues in Arches were at a whole other level of busy. Several days we were in the park in April they closed the gates because the park was already full. This was well before the busiest travel months in Moab.
Can you imagine driving thousands of miles with a car full of kids excited to see the park only to be turned away? We run a pretty tight itinerary on our road trips and sometimes have a narrow window to see the sights on our list. It would be devastating for us to miss that chance because of overcrowding.
The National Park Service is working on options to address the issues in Arches. We expect that a reservations system like Acadia or a shuttle system like Zion is on the way. In the meantime though, you’ll want to prepare yourself that even in the early morning and evening, Arches will be crowded.
2. It's best to book camping in the park (and reserve well ahead of your trip.)
With all of the unknowns from the pandemic influencing travel in Spring 2021, our trip to Arches came about pretty suddenly. We snagged vaccines and hit the road within a matter of just a few weeks. But that meant we also didn’t plan camping reservations out as far as we usually do in advance.
Note to self (and to you!): The best place to stay in Arches is Devil’s Garden Campground. You’ll have first dibs to all the parking lots in the park. You’ll avoid the rush into the park in the morning. Night skies in the campground are stunning. AND, a standard campsite comes in at $25 per night–a steal for accommodations near Moab.
That being said, the reservations here book up to 6 months in advance through Recreation.gov. If you already know your travel dates, book early and stay in the park.
3. There are more hiking options than Delicate Arch and the Windows.
Getting off the ‘Instagram Itinerary’ and checking out some of the lesser known spots like Broken Arch and Park Avenue Canyon made Arches way more enjoyable. We wish we’d done a bit more homework on the other hiking options and dedicated more time there.
4. Sunrise and sunset are the best times in the park.
In hindsight, the way we structured our Arches itinerary could have been better suited to seeing the park at different times. Rather than planning two long days in the park and followed by two full days in Canyonlands and the Moab area, in hindsight mixing up the two may have been a better option.
Arches is definitely best in the very early morning and sunset into the late evening. The temps are better for hiking (instead of slogging through the full sun in mid-afternoon), and the trails are less crowded. You may spend a bit more time driving in and out of the park, but if you have the option to structure your day to see the park at sunrise and sunset times you’ll be catching the park at it’s peak.
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5. It's worth it to pack night photography gear.
I, (Amy) should know better than to leave my tripod and shutter remote control at home. Especially in an International Dark Sky Park. For whatever reason, we just didn’t structure our trip plans around shooting night sky photos this trip. But having done some stargazing in the park, our night photography gear was the one thing we regretted not having along.
And even if you’re not a night photography expert, you DON’T want to miss the night skies in Arches. Choose a night in your trip, stay up late, and marvel at the Milky Way. So, so, so good.
6. There's lots to see and do in the Moab area.
Again, not sure how we missed the word on Moab, Utah but wow were we impressed. It checked off all the boxes for what we love about gateway towns:
A great local vibe. A yummy ice cream shop after a long day of hiking. Public art. And A LOT of extra things to see and do outside of the park.
We’re planning to share some of our favorites in Moab in the next couple of weeks–but we’ll be planning a return trip here sometime soon!
7. Have a plan for extra water.
Maybe it was a product of traveling during the pandemic? Maybe it’s how critically low water resources are along the Colorado River right now? Maybe it was just our lack of planning? For whatever reason, we were caught off guard in our visit to Arches and Canyonlands on how difficult it was to find water.
If you’ve met Greg, you know that’d he’d rather have a root canal than purchase plastic bottled water. We’ve gotten accustomed to having a public access place to fill up our water bottles pretty much wherever we go. Fill up in the morning before leaving the campground or hotel and then just fill as you need throughout the day.
Not the case in Moab. Many of the local Bureau of Land Management campgrounds don’t have water and there’s only a handful of places to find water in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Pair that with how much more water we needed in hot desert hiking and there were a few times we found ourselves with less water than we needed and with limited options for refills.
8. Expect to "live gritty" - the dust and sand is a real thing here.
Wind is sort of a catch-22 in Arches. The powerful wind conditions are in part what shapes and sculpts the arches millions of people travel to the park for. But that same powerful wind creates a steady state of “gritty” on everything while you’re in the park.
Again, not terrible. Not something that ruined our experience in the park. Just something to plan for.
We were grateful to be hiking with masks on a lot of the crowded trails–not necessarily for social distancing–but to keep the sand out of our nose and mouth. Check the weather when you arrive in Moab. If you’re expecting anything more than 5 or 10 mph windspeed, you’ll want to have a face covering and sunglasses.
9. Don't underestimate Arches nearest neighbor Canyonlands National Park.
Last but not least, don’t pass up the opportunity to see Arches closest national park neighbor Canyonlands. Just south of Moab, Canyonlands protects the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. As our trip recaps show, we budgeted more time in Arches but ended up ditching some of those plans for extra time in Canyonlands. The park is a bit more remote, but quickly became one of our favorites in the entire National Park Service.