Arches National Park is one of Utah's most iconic places, so much so that it's featured on the state's license plate. I've been to the park several times and still have yet to explore all the incredible things to see in this park. On more than one occasion, people have asked me if they only had one day to explore the park, what are the things they must see.
While my first response is to tell people to plan on at least two days in Arches, I've come to accept the fact that the greater Moab area has so much to explore including Canyonlands National Park, Dead Horse Point, Castle Valley, endless mountain bike and jeep trails, the Colorado River etc., that this is all to common a problem. So, to help you get the most out of your single day in Arches, I recommend the following agenda in the order I would travel.
To make your one day the best day in Arches start by planning a few months in advance and reserving tickets for the Fiery Furnace tour. This is my all time favorite hike in Arches, and maybe all of Eastern Utah, and even with limited time, this should be at the top of your list. It is about 2.5 hours out of your day, but gives you the complete Arches experience with unique rock formations, several arches, slick rock, cryptobiotic soil and some ancient Bristlecone Pines. I prefer the early afternoon hike in Spring and Fall since the Fiery Furnace is located in the middle of the park giving you the morning to explore other areas on your way to the Fiery Furnace. You can find a more in depth description of the Fiery Furnace hike here.
On the actual day of your visit, after entering the park and stopping quickly at the visitor center to fill up water bottles for your walks and hikes, your first stop should be the Park Avenue viewpoint and trailhead. While I would recommend the trail down this wash for a multi day excursion, the view here, made famous by Indiana Jones and the Last Crusade, is well worth the stop. From this viewpoint you will also see Courthouse Towers, the 3 fates and Nefertiti Rock on the opposite side of the canyon wall. This is a great first stop and prelude of what you'll see in Arches National Park.
You'll know it when you see it, Balanced Rock is right off the road and about 10 minutes from the Park Avenue view point. Balanced Rock is a huge sandstone boulder, balancing precariously on a sandstone pedestal. It appears that at almost any moment it could fall, even though it has likely been in its precarious state for hundreds or even thousands of years. A small trail will let you take a walk all the way around balanced rock and only takes about 15-20 minutes to complete. I recommend taking the walk if the weather is good, but if you are battling summer time heat, it's better to save your strength for some of the better hikes ahead.
The Windows Section
From Balanced Rock continue on the main road and take a right on the Windows Road. It's a 5 minute drive through a beautiful area of the park called the Garden of Eden before you arrive at the Windows parking area and trailhead. This area is home to several large and very accessible arches including the North and South Window Arches, Turret Arch and Double Arch. The distance to each of these arches from the parking area is just a few hundred yards and well worth the walk. The Windows is an area where you can spend 30 mins, or an hour and a half, depending on how closely you want to explore the arches and if you choose to explore the primitive loop trail that takes you past the arches before winding its way back to the parking lot. It's the best place where people who don't want to hike very far from their car, can enjoy an up close view of some of the parks well known arches.
You can't go to Arches without stopping at the iconic Delicate Arch. From the Windows section of the park return to the main road and then take a right on Delicate Arch Road. It is about a 5 minute drive down this road before reaching the trailhead at Wolf Ranch to hike to Delicate Arch. The hike to Delicate Arch is a bit strenuous, especially if you attempt it in the heat of the day, but the pay off is well worth it. I still remember the feeling the first time I rounded the last corner of the hike and saw Delicate Arch - it was truly a memorable experience. You can read more specific details about the hike to Delicate Arch here.
For those that don't have the time or the ability to make the hike to Delicate Arch, you can drive past the parking area to a view point where you can view it from below. If this is your plan, I recommend bringing binoculars, as the view of Delicate Arch is from quite a distance.
The Fiery Furnace
From Delicate Arch head back to the main road and continue on to the Fiery Furnace. If you planned ahead and were able to get a ticket for the tour, make sure to show up on time and bring snacks and water for the 2 hour hike. If you weren't able to get tickets, it is still worth stopping at the view point. The Fiery Furnace gets its name from the sun hitting the rocks in the fall at sunset and making them glow, almost as if they were in a "fiery furnace", so you should definitely stop if you happen to be here in the fall close to sunset, it is quite the sight.
The Devils Garden and Landscape Arch
Last but not least on your one day tour should be an area known as the Devils Garden located at the end of the road. It's about a 10 minute drive from the Fiery Furnace and is the gateway to a lot of great backcountry hiking in the park. With just one day you likely won't have time to complete the primitive loop trail and see all the Devils Garden has to offer like double O arch and Dark Angel, but you can read more about those adventures here.
You should have time to hike to Landscape Arch, which is the longest natural arch in the world, and with how thin it is looking these days, may not be around much longer. In the early '90s several tons of rock fell from the arch, causing the park service to restrict travel beneath the arch and now Landscape Arch is only enjoyed from a viewing area set back a ways from Arch.
The Devils Garden is the last stop before turning around and heading back out of the park the way you came. If it is nearing sunset, the Fiery Furnace or Park Avenue view points are great spots to get some pictures as the light here tends to be better in the evening than in the morning for photography.
After many, many trips to Arches National Park, those are my recommendations for a single day itinerary. If you have other suggestions, I'd love to hear your feedback so please share them in the comments section below. If you do find yourself with additional days in Arches I recommend exploring the Devils Garden and doing the full Primitive Loop trail, taking the dirt road out to Eye of the Whale and exploring U-Turn Canyon or Elephant Back if you enjoy canyoneering.
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