Visiting Arches National Park in Winter
Visiting Arches National Park in Winter| Written by Brian Callender | Photography by Julie Boyd
Arches National Park is famous for the approximately 2,000 arches located throughout the park, meaning you’ll be hard pressed to see them all in a single visit. A journey to Arches brings you up close and personal to these beautiful sandstone formations that have occurred naturally over millions of years and continue to do so today.
Visiting Arches National Park in Winter
As with the majority of the U.S. National Parks, you can visit Arches year-round and can expect a different experience in every season. Because summers are the hottest in the desert National Parks, we have chosen to visit each of Utah’s Mighty Five during the winter. One of the main advantages to visiting in winter is the reduced crowds, which we are always big fans of. However, winter, even in the desert, can bring snow and make hiking and driving more difficult. Keep the weather in mind any time you are visiting Arches and always check the National Park website for up-to-date information.
Getting to Arches National Park in Winter
From Salt Lake City: Arches National Park is 236 miles southeast and the airport we opted to fly into. Keep in mind that flights to Salt Lake can get pricey in the winter thanks to its proximity to ski resorts.
From Denver: 360 miles southwest of Denver, this option makes for a long drive but could be combined with visiting Rocky Mountain National Park in Colorado.
From Grand Junction: Grand Junction Colorado is only 110 miles from Arches, and is home to a smaller, regional airport. Flight options tend to be more limited and expensive, but if your budget and schedule allows, this is the shortest drive to the park.
Other Options: On our first trip to Moab at the beginning of 2019, we flew from the Bay Area to Phoenix and road-tripped across Arizona and into Utah over the course of a week. Flights into Phoenix are more affordable during the winter and it allows for side trips to places like the Grand Canyon, Monument Valley, Page, and more!
Cost to Visit Arches National Park
A private vehicle with 15 passengers or less is $30.00
We strongly recommend investing in a National Parks Pass (America the Beautiful) which allows you to access all of the parks for one year from your purchase month at a cost of $80.00. Passes can be purchased at the park or select retailers, including REI.
Where to Stay in Moab
One of the nice things about visiting Arches National Park is its close proximity to the town of Moab. At just 5.5 miles from the city center to the Visitor’s Center, Arches is one of the easiest parks to access. A town of just over 5,000 residents, there are numerous accommodation options in Moab for visitors to choose from. Most hotels and motels are two and three star, modest options for a National Park town.
When we visited, we stayed at the Springhill Suites which is the closest hotel to the Visitor’s Center at 2.5 miles. Keep in mind that visiting in winter means some accommodations and dining options may be closed for the season. Be sure to plan ahead!
Camping and backpacking is another option if you have experience doing so in colder temperatures. The Devil’s Garden Campground is the only one located within the park. In winter, sites are first-come, first-served. The National Park website has additional information regarding these options. Additionally, Discover Moab has information regarding camping outside of the park.
Where to Eat in Moab
If you plan to spend a full day in the park, note that there are no dining options within the park, including the Visitor’s Center. Be sure to pick up any food you need for a day of hiking or driving around before you enter Arches. When we visited the park, we picked up items to make sandwiches from a grocery store in town, of which there are a few options. We recommend City Market which has the most variety and reasonable prices.
Planning on dining out? We enjoyed meals at:
Antica Forma – wood fired pizza, pastas, beer and wine, great service.
Arches Thai – good Thai food in a casual environment.
What to do in Arches
Take a Scenic Drive: Driving from the park entrance to the end of the road at Devil’s Garden is a total of 18 miles, one-way. There are numerous spots to pull out and take in the sights of the park. Some of our favorites include: Park Avenue, Courthouse Towers, La Salle Mountains Viewpoint, Balanced Rock, The Windows Section, Double Arch, and the Devil’s Garden.
Go for a Hike: In winter, Arches National Park will receive snow, but hiking is still possible. Be sure to bring microspikes/traction (we won’t leave home without our Kahtoolas in winter), sturdy boots, and trekking poles.
Arches National Park Hikes: Easy
Park Avenue is a 2-mile, roundtrip hike that descends from the Park Avenue Viewpoint into a walled canyon. In winter, the steps that descend into the canyon can be icy, so use caution during your hike. The toughest part of this hike is climbing the steps back out of the canyon. To shorten the hike to 1 mile, have a car pick you up at the Courthouse Towers at the end of the canyon.
Crowd Factor: Basically non-existent when we visited. It was early afternoon, but most people just stopped at the viewpoint and we mostly had the canyon to ourselves. We were aided by having traction to help us down the steps, which many visitors did not.
Broken Arch Loop is a 2-mile hike that takes you through a desert meadow and fins to see three arches including Sand Dune Arch, Broken Arch, and Tapestry Arch.
Crowd Factor: Mild crowds between Sand Dune and Broken Arches. We saw a few people between Broken and Tapestry Arch, and we had the trail completely to ourselves as we looped back through the fins.
The Windows and Double Arch: There is a one-mile loop that takes you up close to the North and South Windows, and Turret Arch. Be sure to do the whole loop and see the windows from both sides.
While you are here, don’t miss the trail Double Arch, which begins on the other side of the parking lot. The half-mile roundtrip walk will lead you to one of the park’s most famous arches. If you are an Indiana Jones fan, you will recognize this area from beginning of The Last Crusade.
Crowd Factor: This area was insanely busy due to the close proximity of the arches to the road and accessibility of the trails. When we visited three tour buses unloaded, which definitely did not help.
Arches National Park Hikes: Moderate
Delicate Arch is the most iconic and famous of all the arches within Arches National Park. It can be seen on the license plate of vehicles throughout the state of Utah and is easily recognizable. The official trail to Delicate Arch is 3 miles roundtrip and gains just under 500 feet of elevation. My Garmin tracked us at 3.3 miles and just over 700 feet of gain. A portion of the hike goes over sandstone rock and the trail was icy for the last 0.25 miles when we hiked it.
Crowd Factor: Busy. Even in winter and with less than ideal traction in several sections, Delicate Arch is a hike you won’t expect to find yourself alone on. We can only imagine how busy this trail is during the peak season (particularly in the summer heat with no shade). When we reached Delicate Arch, we lucked into about 30 seconds with no one around. Just enough time to snap a few photos before other hikers arrived around us. Keep in mind that Delicate Arch has sheer drop-offs all around it and people have been injured trying to stand near/underneath it, particularly in winter. Exercise extreme caution if you attempt to get close to the arch in winter as the conditions can make it very slippery.
Arches National Park Hikes: Strenuous
Devil’s Garden located at the end of the 18 mile Arches National Park road, the Devil’s Garden Trail visits seven arches and can be done as a loop. Pine Tree, Tunnel, and Landscape Arch are the three easiest to access at only 2.1 miles for all three. Going beyond Landscape Arch, the trail becomes more difficult as it requires hikers to climb over sandstone rocks and traverse terrain that includes steep drop-offs. The park considers this section of the trail to be “primitive” and that “hikers should expect steep slopes, exposure to heights and drop-offs, rock scrambling, sandy conditions, and a pools of water to cross.”
During our winter visit, there were no water sources to cross, but instead snow and ice. Microspikes were essential on many parts of the trail and we alternated between having them on and off to avoid scratching the bare sandstone. We attempted to complete the whole hike as a loop, but ultimately due to poor conditions (icy, sheer drops) we made the decision to do this as an out and back. Our final distance was 10.8 miles and 1,600 feet of gain. While it was a long day, we consider this to be the best hike in Arches due to the adventurous nature of the trail!
Crowd Factor: High. Despite the winter conditions, we saw plenty of hikers going beyond Landscape Arch all the way to Double O Arch, where many then turned around. In attempting the loop hike, we only encountered a handful of other hikers. Another couple also turned back where we did due to the sketchy conditions of the trail.
One of the things we love about visiting the desert in winter is the way the contrast of red sandstone against bright blue skies is heightened under a dusting of snow. Add in the glow of the early morning or later afternoon light, and you’ll have photography conditions so spectacular that you can create beautiful images even with your iPhone. While we were not always lucky to have said bright blue skies, most days were overcast, we still enjoyed spending time taking photographs of the unique landscape in Arches.
An added bonus to winter photography in Arches National Park is the short days. Sunrise is later in the morning, and the sun sets early, which makes getting out for prime lighting conditions much easier. This resource is helpful for planning when to set your alarm.
We found the following areas had the best light in the morning: The Three Gossips, The Organ, The Great Wall, Turret Arch, and Landscape Arch. While, Park Avenue, Balanced Rock, The Garden of Eden, The Windows, Fiery Furnace, and the Fins in Devil’s Garden looked best in the afternoon.
The prime sunset location in the park is Delicate Arch. Be sure to bring a headlamp for your hike down in the dark. On other days we found that being flexible with our sunset location helped us capture the best light. The Windows is a good area because interesting compositions can be created by the rock formations or the distant La Sal Mountains. On our visit Julie was planning on shooting Turret Arch, when the sky opened up and cast a pink glow on the range.
Extending Your Trip
If you have some extra time during your visit, we recommend adding in some of these nearby destinations:
Canyonlands National Park: There isn’t as much to do here in winter as there is in Arches, but you can check out the famous Mesa Arch, a short walk from the parking lot. We found that the roads are less well maintained here than in Arches, so exercise caution when driving to the park. In addition, the visitor’s center is not open every day, so be sure to check the park’s website for their hours. When we visited in 2020 it was closed on Wednesday and Thursday. Canyonlands is 32 miles and 40 minutes from Moab.
Dead Horse Point State Park: The next door neighbor of Canyonlands, Dead Horse Point State Park has spectacular views at its namesake point. Beyond that, we didn’t find much to do there during a winter visit. Because this is a State Park, you will need to pay $10 on your visit. National Park Passes do not apply here.
Capitol Reef National Park: Perhaps the lesser known of Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks, Capitol Reef is located 2.5 hours from Moab, and 145 miles. It isn’t particularly close to anything, which likely plays a role in why it’s not as popular as the other parks. We visited Capitol Reef on our return drive to Salt Lake City (3.5 hours NW) and only spent a few hours in the park. Check out the hike to Hickman Bridge, which is just a short 2.2 miles, roundtrip, and leads to an arch you would expect to see in Arches National Park. As an added bonus, we had some of the best sunshine on the whole trip when we arrived in Capitol Reef!
Visiting Arches National Park in the winter is a great way to see the park with far less crowds. With some additional planning to counteract the temperatures, you can enjoy one of our favorite National Parks! We highly recommend making the most of your time in the park by hiking to some of the more popular arches. Enjoy the natural beauty of Arches National Park and remember to Leave No Trace!
Looking for more things to do in the American Southwest? Check out these posts!