Photo: Kait Thomas/NPS

The Best Hikes in Arches and Canyonlands

Here’s how to experience the best trails of these neighboring Southeast Utah icons.

Arches and Canyonlands national parks are just like those boots from the Patsy Cline classic: made for walking. Bring your hiking shoes as both of these popular and iconic southeast Utah locations offer some of the best, most-scenic desert hiking in the world. Take your pick from trails that lead to everything from towering red sandstone spires and maze-like slot canyons to “how’d it get there?” arches and “how’d it get so deep?” rim-top vistas. Here are a few top hikes from each national park that you can pair for a memorable visit to the neighbors (only separated by a 30-minute drive) that lie just outside the adventure hub that is Moab.   

Arches National Park

Considered one of America’s true scenic wonders, Arches National Park preserves 76,679 acres of high desert on the Colorado Plateau, highlighted by red sandstone canyons, fins, spires, impossibly balanced rocks and more than 2,000 gravity-defying arches, the highest concentration in the country. With elevations ranging from 4,085 to 5,653 feet above sea level and bordered by the Colorado River, expect a landscape of contrasting colors and textures—especially at sunset—backdropped against the towering, snow-capped La Sal Mountains. Note: With nearly 1.7 million annual visitors, the park implemented a temporary timed entry system running from April 3 to October 3, 2022, to help manage traffic. To enter, visitors will need a timed entry ticket (available in advance online at recreation.gov), photo ID and park entrance fee or valid park pass. More info: nps.gov/arch

Delicate Arch Trail

Here’s a moderate, 3.2-mile out-and-back with a twist. Most of this popular trail is on slickrock, the same sedimentary sandstone layer forming the park’s arches. Stroll ramps, ledges and wide-open bowls, making your way 629 feet up to the fragile rainbow of rock at the end of the line. The trail starts out easy, with most of the climbing coming once you hit the slickrock ramp in its second half. At the top of the slickrock section, take a careful glance south to take in the snow-capped La Sal mountains. But pay attention; the trail narrows here to just 3 feet wide, with a sheer drop to your left and a cliff rising on your right. And don’t second-guess if you’re on the correct trail; you won’t see the arch until rounding the corner at the very end. Note: If you try it in winter, beware of ice on the last section.  

Devils Garden

Located at the end of the park road (18 miles and about a 45-minute drive north of the Visitor Center), Devils Garden is one of the park’s premier hikes. You’ll find a maze of arches, spires, and narrow rock walls called fins, the predecessor to arches. Plan a full day for the whole 7.9-mile loop; it might not sound like much, but it’s filled with side-journeys and stops to take in the spectacular landscape. One is Landscape Arch, the longest arch in North America at 306 feet (and only 6 feet in diameter in places after portions collapsed 20 years ago). Other worthy detours include short spurs to Pine Tree and Tunnel arches, the Double O Arch, Navajo and Partition arches, and Dark Angel. Hit them all and you’re in for a nearly 8-mile trek. Note: The “primitive” trail on the return portion has a couple spots requiring some delicate down-climbing and side-edging of your shoe soles, so be prepared in hiking shoes with good traction (not flip-flops). If you want to camp, reserve a spot at the Devils Garden Campground ahead of time from March through October (first-come, first-served in winter). 

Fiery Furnace

Located near the center of the park (14 miles from the Visitor Center), Fiery Furnace is one of the park’s crown jewel hikes, a natural labyrinth of narrow passages winding between towering sandstone walls, fins and arches. Viewed from above, it looks like a literal maze. While this section of the park harbors several hundred arches (play a game to see how many you can find), the most popular and easy-to-spot ones include Walk Through, Crawl Through, Skull, Kissing Turtles and Surprise arches. While the trail is only 2 miles long, you’ll need a few hours to scale its ramps and stairways and explore its myriad side-passages. You’ll be on slickrock most of the time. But don’t expect a smooth bike path; you’ll encounter uneven terrain, narrow ledges above drop-offs, loose sand and thin slots to squeeze your way through (pass on dessert the night before). Wear good hiking shoes with gripping soles (no sandals or high heels allowed). Each person must also carry at least one quart of water, stowed in a backpack so your hands are free to help navigate the terrain. Note: Due to its difficult nature, children under age 5 are not allowed, with an adult required to accompany children aged 12 and under. While pre-COVID, the park offered ranger-guided tours, in 2022 it only offers self-guided hikes, requiring a permit purchased in advance at recreation.gov and watching an orientation video describing the area and how to minimize your impact. Not up for the hike? The Fiery Furnace overlook is accessible to all; hit it at sunset to see the colorful red sandstone bathed in alpenglow. 

Canyonlands National Park 

Divided into four districts—Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, plus the Rivers (Green and Colorado) that separate them—Canyonlands National Park encompasses 337,598 acres of canyons, mesas, buttes, fins, arches, and spires in the heart of Utah's desert country. Carved by the Colorado and Green rivers and their many, winding tributaries, each district looks close on a map, but it’s convoluted canyon country without roads directly linking them; visiting each requires a five-hour drive. Island in the Sky is the most accessible, with scenic drives and hikes; the Needles is more backcountry-oriented, requiring hiking or four-wheel driving; and the Maze is even more remote. Want to see the region from the force that carved it? Try a flatwater float trip on the Green or Colorado. Start with these three sure-bet hikes in the Island in the Sky District, plus one in the Needles if you have time to visit farther south. More info: nps.gov/cany

Mesa Arch Trail

Short but sweet sums up this iconic hike. While it’s only a half-mile-long roundtrip, Mesa Arch is worth a hike 20 times that far for its view of the canyon below. As such, the trail is perfect for families and small children, and a great warmup hike for when you arrive and are adjusting to the altitude and easing into longer hikes later in your trip. Hint: Get up early and hit it for sunrise, watching the light slowly cast its warm glow over the surrounding canyon country. 

White Rim Overlook Trail

For a magnificent panorama of the park, hit this trail for one of the most expansive views in all of Canyonlands. Leading off from the main road at the Gooseberry Trailhead, the 1.8-mile hike is relatively easy and perfect for families, with little elevation gain. While the trail starts out as a gravel path, it gets more primitive as you go, so follow the cairns (small stacks of rocks) to get to the peninsula and its grandiose overlook. Don’t worry: You’ll know when you’re at trail’s end; all that will be left is a gaping view of the serpentine canyons carved by the Green and Colorado rivers far below. One of the highlights is the geologic layer of sandstone, or “White Rim,” lining the canyons below, paralleling both rivers. Hint: Look for four-wheel-drive Jeeps and mountain bikers traversing the 100-mile-long White Rim Trail.  

Upheaval Dome Trail

To borrow a quote from Winston Churchill, Upheaval Dome is “a riddle wrapped in a mystery, inside an enigma.” It’s also one of the most interesting hikes in Canyonlands. The 2-mile round-trip, with just 300 feet of elevation gain, leads to a massive upheaval, which confounds geologists to this day. (The leading “Impact Crater” theory holds that a 60-million-year-old, now-eroded meteorite created a crater that collapsed, with the rocks below heaving upwards to fill the impact area). Regardless, the 3-mile-wide, white monolith sticks out in stark contrast to the surrounding red canyonlands, with its mystery making it more ominous. Hint: Go the extra mile to the second viewpoint for an even better view to unleash your inner Sherlock Holmes.  

Needles District - Lost Canyon

This aptly named canyon makes a spectacular day-hike or overnight backpack through some of the best scenery in the Needles District. At 8.6 miles, it’s a lollipop loop without much shade, so bring plenty of water and look for cairns marking the route. To get there, drive 2.7 miles west from the Needles entrance station and turn left into Squaw Flat Campground and the Squaw Flat Trailhead. Head out on the trail’s stem, traversing beautiful sandstone formations before reaching lush Lost Canyon, where a stream flows in spring. Lined by green foliage contrasting the red canyon walls, the canyon starts out broad before slowly narrowing. After a couple miles, look for a turn where the trail leaves and follows an unnamed north-south canyon. Follow this for a half-mile before climbing a steep chute (with a ladder) to a slickrock ledge and a small ridge. From here, follow cairns over slickrock for a half-mile until dropping back into Squaw Canyon and the Peekaboo Trail again, where you’ll retrace your steps home. Note: Lost Canyon has three designated campsites if you want to stay overnight (backcountry permits available at recreation.gov).  

Safety reminder

To stay safe and protect the environment, don’t walk or climb on any arches, or stand too close to any cliffs. Also avoid hiking in midday summer heat, plus always carry and drink plenty of water. 

Eco aware

Biological soil crust (also known as cryptobiotic soil) is a living groundcover that forms the foundation of high desert plant life in Arches and other desert environments. This knobby-looking, black crust includes lichen, mosses, microfungi, bacteria and cyanobacteria, also called green-blue algae, one of the oldest known lifeforms. The crust binds sand and rock particles together and provides moisture and nutrients, allowing plants to establish roots and grow. Help preserve these fragile life-forms by staying on established trails.

All articles are for general informational purposes.  Each individual’s needs, preferences, goals and abilities may vary.  Be sure to obtain all appropriate training, expert supervision and/or medical advice before engaging in strenuous or potentially hazardous activity.