Arches National Park is one of my all-time favorite national parks. I love it for sentimental reasons — it’s the first national park my then-boyfriend/now-husband took me to when we were “just friends” 13 years ago. And I love it for its otherworldly, natural sandstone formations. The geological arches, spires and monoliths here are utterly amazing — there’s nothing like this landscape anywhere else in the world. Oh, and I also love Arches National Park because it’s two miles from downtown Moab, a favorite spring and fall destination for all its awesome camping, biking and hiking opportunities.
But some of Moab’s best and most popular hiking trails are actually found inside Arches National Park, home to more than 2,000 cataloged arches that range from a 3-foot opening (the smallest a proper “arch” can be) to 300-foot-long Landscape Arch. The marked trails run the gamut from easy nature walks that bring you up close and personal with picturesque rock formations to maze-like labyrinths that require hiking permits. Here are my favorite hikes for kids:
Delicate Arch: Moderately Strenuous Hike for School-age Kids (3 miles round trip)
On our most recent family trip to Moab last weekend, we took the kids on the Delicate Arch trail to see the arch made famous on Utah’s license plates. The last time my husband and I tackled this hike was in 1997; I was thrilled to introduce my 8- and 10-year-olds to this quintessential Arches trail. It’s three miles long round trip, and it took our family 70 minutes on the way up to the arch, and 45 minutes back down.
The trail is quite busy — or at least it was mid-day on a Friday in early May. We had to hover in the car in the Wolfe Ranch parking area for about 5 minutes before someone pulled out to give us a spot to park. We felt comfortable hiking around noon because it wasn’t too hot a day at all; in late spring, summer and early fall, I definitely recommend hiking early morning to avoid the blasted desert heat. Bring plenty of water along on your hike.
The beginning of the Delicate Arch trail is well marked, with a few switchbacks to start. Then it opens up to slickrock, and you have to follow the cairns (stacked rocks) and/or the other people ahead of you. Views along the way are fabulous, particularly of the snow-capped La Sal mountains in the distance. We also spotted lots of cactus, colorful desert flowers and lizards scooting about.
About 200 yards from your destination, Delicate Arch, you’ll need to traverse a rock ledge (not too scary at all); you’ll also spot a small arch on your right, and if you scramble up to it, you can see Delicate Arch in the distance. It’s worth this little side view, as it’s a cool spot to snap some photos (see below).
Guidebooks say to hike to Delicate Arch at sunset; that’s what my husband did 13 years ago, and we found that dozens and dozens of (mostly Japanese) tourists had read the same guidebooks. It was packed up there at the main viewing and picture-taking spot as the sun set. I recommend taking the kids first thing in the morning in an attempt to avoid crowds, even if the light is prettier in the early evening.
Don’t miss the nifty petroglyphs at the base of the Delicate Arch trail; we walked the short distance to view them after we’d already hiked to the arch, but you might consider doing this first if you think your kids will be tuckered out afterwards. These are very cool, well preserved examples of rock art, even if they aren’t “ancient”; they are believed to have been carved into the sandstone in between 1650 and 1850 A.D.
Devil’s Garden with Primitive Loop: Long Hike for Tweens and Teens (7.2 miles)
This is another hike my husband and I did way before we had kids; I don’t think my children could handle it yet, but it’s on our agenda for when they both reach middle- or high school. It’s the longest of the maintained trails in Arches National Park, and it takes a few hours to navigate the loop. What’s cool is that you come across eight different arches along the way — sights that you can’t view unless you embark on the hike. So, it’s rewarding. There’s some scrambling and rocky ledges, so it’s not for the un-sure-footed; but it’s definitely worth the time and energy. I felt proud of myself when I completed the hike, so your tweens and teens should, too!
Balanced Rock: Easy Trail for Preschoolers and even Toddlers (.3 mile)
You can see Balanced Rock, seemingly precariously perched on top of a sandstone formation, from the pull-out parking lot and even from the (great) picnic area across the road. But if you want to check out the nifty geological wonder up close, take the short wheelchair-accessible loop trail around its base. This is a nice place for even the littlest hikers to stretch their legs and appreciate the outdoors.
Delicate Arch Viewpoints: Easy Hike (100 yards) for Preschoolers or Moderate Hike (.5 mile) for School-Age Kids
If your kids aren’t quite old or skilled enough to make the three-mile round-trip hike to Delicate Arch I describe above, you still can view the famous arch by hiking one of two short trails. The Lower Delicate Arch Viewpoint trail is paved and wheel-chair accessible; the Upper Delicate Arch Viewpoint trail involves a rocky climb to the top of a nearby ridge. We did the latter with our kids two years ago — when they were 6 and 8 — and they got sweaty (and complained mildly) on the way up. But the incline is short, so there is instant gratification.
There are loads of other family-friendly hikes in Arches National Park. You’ll receive a map and visitor guide when you enter the park ($10/vehicle for 7 days), with many details. You can also ask for suggestions on the best hike for your family in the fabulous visitor center. The rangers here know the park like the backs of their hands, and they are chock full of knowledge to help you plan your time in Arches National Park.
Be sure to ask about the parks’ Junior Ranger Program — my daughter loves working on the activity books and earning a certificate and badge at every national park or national monument we visit. It’s a great way for kids to learn about the geology and history, flora and fauna in the parks — and have fun doing it!
Here are some more favorite photos from our hike to Delicate Arch last week: