Delicate Arch is one of those occurrences in nature that is hard to believe exists if you have never seen it with your own eyes. It is not only an unusual arch, because of its distinctive shape standing free of any surrounding rocks, but its’ very location, perched on the edge of a cliff face defies explanation.
While this is a moderately strenuous trail, I tell everyone that this is a must do when in Arches National Park. If you’re concerned about making it up the trail, take your time and start early in the morning when it is cooler, especially if you are in the park during the summer months of June, July, or August. I highly recommend April or May as the days are cooler and there is still snow on the nearby La Sal Mountains.
- Total Distance: 3 miles
- Elevation Gain: 480′
Trailhead: Delicate Arch Trailhead and Wolfe Ranch parking lot.
Trail-finding ability for this path is not needed. The trail is easy to follow and there are cairns all along the path so if you are looking for them you won’t have any issues. Near the parking lot you can explore the old Wolfe Creek Ranch. Not much further up the trail is a short side loop that leads to a few petroglyphs. The glyphs are nice, but pale in comparison to some of the others you can find in Utah.
Once you leave the petroglyph area you will scale a small cliffside before leveling off for an undulating hike for a little more than a quarter mile. Then comes the challenging part where you scale a giant slab of slick rock. This is where you will gain the majority of the elevation and there is no cover from the sun. Watch out for thunderstorms as they can roll in quickly… I speak from experience.
Once you reach the top of this incline you will turn left and pass by some juniper trees and drop into a small wash area. You will follow the wash for about another quarter mile or so before arriving at another slightly elevated path that hugs a small cliff wall.
The path gets pretty narrow through here, but it is relatively short and as you round the corner of the wall on your right you will be rewarded by the Delicate Arch seemingly appearing out of no where.
You can walk right up to the 60′ stone arch and stand in the 40′ tall opening if you so choose, although you should be aware that you may be shunned a bit by all the photographers who flock to this location from around the world. I personally see nothing wrong with enjoying the moment… just don’t drop your hiking pack right next to the arch and walk away! This happened on one of my visits to the arch and I was very tempted to throw this individual’s pack over the cliff behind the arch.
Some might suggest that if the 3-mile trail concerns you, that you could simply view the arch from the Lower Delicate Arch Viewpoint. This is a good way to at least view the arch. It is however, so far away that you might as well just look at photos as I think they give you a better sense of the wonder of this formation.
The upper viewpoint is better than the lower viewpoint, both of which are accessed from the Delicate Arch Viewpoint parking area, but the upper trail is almost as strenuous as the 3 mile trail via Wolfe Ranch and it isn’t anywhere near as good.
When to go
The best time to see the arch in its best light is just before sunset. The late afternoon can be a bit cooler than mid-day, but if you doubt your physical ability than consider a very early morning start. If it’s going to be a clear night, another great alternative is to dress warmly and hang out until the stars fill the heavens… this is what I want to do next time I am there. If you are out after night, people say to watch for rattlesnakes as they are nocturnal.
- Take plenty of water. How much you need will depend on your ability and the weather, but too much is better than not enough. I typically travel with about 2-3 liters any time I am in a desert environment and plan to be out more than a few hours.
- Take a headlamp or other flashlight. I always try to travel with my headlamp if I think there is even a slight chance that I might be out after the sun sets.
- Dress in or pack layers. Even if it is a warm day, as soon as the sun goes down in these dry arid environments it will get cold fast.