The hike to Delicate Arch is one of the most popular ones in Arches National Park; not surprisingly, as Delicate Arch is one of the most famous arch formations in the country. The arch is the symbol of Utah, and appears on Utah license plates. So it’s not surprising that the large carpark is almost full – and there are many people setting off along the track – as we (my son and I) start the hike about an hour before sunset.
After a few hundred yards (0.2km) there’s a turn-off to Wolfe Ranch, a very short detour worth taking. The historic cabin near Salt Wash was the home of Civil War Veteran John Wesley Wolfe and his son in 1888. They were joined by Wolfe’s daughter and her family in 1906, before they sold the ranch and returned to Ohio in 1910. (The site was referred to as the Turnbow Cabin for some time after J. Marvin Turnbow, a later owner and the first custodian of Arches National Monument, before the National Park Service reverted to the original Wolfe Ranch.)
A little further along ia another short detour, which goes to a well-preserved panel of Ute rock art.
The side-track then rejons the paved main track, which crosses a small ridge as it heads towards a large expanse of slickrock.
The first half of the walk is not at all steep – but there’s almost no shade along the entire trail. The trail ascends fairly gently toward the slickrock.
The trail gets a bit steeper as it climbs the slickrock clab; rock cairns mark the way… or you can just follow the line of people! Beyond the vast expanse of slick rock, the La Sal Mountains are now visible (they are snow-capped for much of the year).
At the top of the slickrock, the trail traverses a small grove of Juniper trees and a narrow wash, before reaching the base of a steep cliff. The trail becomes much more distinct as it continues along a rock ledge along the cliff.
Just above the ledge is the Twisted Doughnut Arch; an easy scramble up from the ledge brings you to to this small arch, just above the trail. The Twisted Doughnut Arch nicely frames the Delicate Arch – and allows you to have a break away from the crowds.
We continue along the ledge, which looks more dramatic in the photos than it really is… there is a steep drop-off on one side of the trail, but the ledge is at least three feet (one metre) wide.
Finally we reach the end of the cliff-line, when Delicate Arch is suddenly revealed. The opening beneath the arch is 46 feet (18m) high and 32 feet (10.5m) wide, making this the largest free-standing arch in Arches National Park. The large arch has had a few different names over time; its current name of “Delicate Arch” was first used in a January 1934 article about the Arches National Monument Scientific Expedition, which described it as “the most delicately chiseled arch in the entire area.”
You can walk up to the base of the arch, or admire it from a distance… but there are too many people here to really enjoy the landscape so we retreat to the Twisted Doughnut Arch. Here we enjoy the solitude as we watch the crowds of people in the distance, and wait for the sun to set.
It’s also an interesting vantage point for a different perspective of Delicate Arch.
Once the sun has set, we brave the (thinning) crowds to have one last look at Delicate Arch from the traditional vantage point.
We retrace our steps back, reaching the carpark again before it gets dark. Delicate Arch is an impressive site, even with the crowds of people. Late afternoon (or sunset) is also the best light, although if you really wanted to avoid people, sunrise would be the alternative time to go (but the light for photography is not as good).
Getting to Delicate Arch trail
There is a large parking area at the Delicate Arch trailhead, which is on Delicate Arch Road (off the main Arches National Park Road) about 13 miles (21km) or a 25min drive from the Arches National Park entrance station. Arches National Park is accessed via the gateway town of Moab in eastern Utah, which is 235mi / 380km from Salt Lake City (Utah).
When to visit Delicate Arch?
You can undertake the Delicate Arch hike year round – but in the hot, summer months you should avoid the middle of the day and visit early morning or late afternoon. The best of time of year for hiking is spring and autumn/fall; winter can also be a great time but the trail (especially the slickrock section) may be icy. Regardless of the season, late afternoon and sunset has the best lighting conditions.