Hike to Utah's Delicate Arch
Delicate Arch is arguably the most stunning geological feature inside Arches National Park. The largest free-standing, naturally formed arch in the park measures 46 feet tall and 32 feet wide at its opening, and is one of the most photographed and iconic landmarks in America. It's so popular in its home state that it's even featured on Utahns' license plates. The 65-million year old Entrada sandstone arch draws visitors from all over the world thanks to its unique shape and striking coloration, and is easily one of the best hikes in Arches National Park. If there's one can't miss hike in the park, this is it.
Trailhead Elevation 4,304'
Don't Miss Ute petroglyphs & Twisted Doughnut Arch
Hiking to Delicate Arch
The parking area for the Delicate Arch Trail can be found roughly twenty minutes from the park's visitor center, has bathrooms, and rarely fills to capacity. Near the start of the 3 mile round trip hike you'll encounter Wolfe Ranch, a one-room cottonwood log cabin once occupied by Ohio native and Civil War veteran John Wesley Wolfe in the late 1890s. The story of Wolfe and his settlement is pretty interesting.
In 1898, a lingering leg injury sustained during the war prompted Wolfe and his oldest son to leave Ohio in search of a drier climate. They'd eventually settle a 100- acre tract of land near Salt Wash where they lived and worked, grazing cattle on land once grass covered. The two built a rudimentary cabin that provided shelter to the elements, but not much more. Appalled by learning of her father and brother's living conditions during a 1906 visit from Ohio, John's daughter, Flora, demanded they build a new cabin with a wooden floor and real windows. And so they did. Today, the tiny 17' x 15' cabin that housed John, son Fred, daughter Flora, her husband Ed Stanley, and their two children is what you'll find at Wolfe Ranch.
Interestingly enough, Flora is credited with capturing the first permanent image of Delicate Arch, in 1907.
Just past the ranch, the trail crosses over Salt Wash on a short boardwalk and to the left you'll find a panel of Ute petroglyphs depicting human figures on horseback. The petroglyphs were created sometime after the mid-1600s when the natives of the area first acquired horses. The panel is signed and fairly easy to spot.
From here the well-marked trail heads northeast taking hikers through some of the most stunning landscapes in Arches National Park, including sandstone fins, spires, and canyons. The views to the east and south are excellent. At roughly 0.75 miles you'll begin a third of a mile ascent up a large slickrock formation, the most challenging segment of the hike. Most of the 500' in elevation gain for the hike is tackled in this section. At the top of the formation, keep your eyes peeled for a brown trail marker directing you left. After veering left, you'll pass through a sandy area with twisted junipers before encountering the sandstone ledge in the photo below.
The ledge is brief, but those with a severe fear of heights might have trouble hiking along it. Roughly half way along the ledge you'll find a small arch known as Twisted Doughnut Arch above and to your right. A lot of people pass right by it not knowing that it's there, but it's worth stopping at. Scrambling up to the arch will give you a great first view of Delicate Arch and its sandstone bowl from a distance. If you're hiking to Delicate Arch for sunrise, the view from Twisted Doughnut Arch right after the sun breaks the horizon is gorgeous.
At this point you're only a few hundred feet from Delicate Arch itself. As you round the ledge's corner you'll find the arch perched on the edge of a cliff above a sandstone bowl. The view up close is spectacular. The arch, which appears to be narrowly supported on one side, is backdropped by Winter Camp Wash, the La Sal Mountains, and to a trained eye, Balanced Rock. The area is particularly stunning at sunset, when the light casts a warm golden glow across the landscape.
Use caution when walking near the backside of the arch. There's little room behind it and a fall here means your dishes are done.
Sunset is the most popular time to visit and photograph Delicate Arch, but don't slouch on sunrise. While the colors aren't as spectacular during sunrise, it's still a great time to visit and comes with far, far fewer crowds. A great spot to watch sunrise is up on the cliffs to the left of Delicate Arch. Here you'll have a stunning view of the sun lighting up the nearby canyon walls and surrounding landscape.
Those unable to hike up to the arch can still get a view by walking the half mile round trip Delicate Arch Viewpoint Trail located a few minutes east of the Delicate Arch Trail on Delicate Arch Rd. The view isn't nearly as spectacular, but you can at least get a glimpse from a distance.
It's worth mentioning that these two trailheads are often closed when sustained heavy rains are forecasted due to the possibility of flooding along Delicate Arch Rd.
Formation and History of Delicate Arch
The formation of Delicate Arch began millions of years ago, during the Jurassic period, when the area that is now Arches National Park was covered by oceans. Over time, layers of sedimentary rock were deposited, and the pressure and weight of the overlying layers caused the underlying rock to buckle and rise. The movement of the Earth's tectonic plates also contributed to the formation of the arch, as the rock was pushed upward and exposed to the forces of erosion.
The arch itself was created by the slow and steady process of erosion, as water and wind wore away the softer layers of sandstone around a harder, more durable layer. Over millions of years, the forces of nature sculpted the arch into its current shape, and even today continues to evolve as the elements take their toll. The image below gives a good representation of how Delicate Arch was gradually formed.
Millions of years after its creation, local cowboys and ranchers of the late 1800s referred to the arch as "Cowboy's Chaps" and "Schoolman's Bloomers", and later it was given other names, including "Salt Wash Arch.", "Bloomers Arch", Mary's Bloomers", "Old Maid's Bloomers", "Pants Crotch", and more. The term "Delicate" didn't appear until a 1934 article about the Arches National Monument Scientific Expedition led by Frank Asahel Beckwith, which described it as "the most delicately chiseled arch in the entire area."
Prior to the Beckwith Exploration, Delicate Arch was little known so it's no surprise that when the original 4,500-acre Arches National Monument was established under President Herbert Hoover in 1929, Delicate Arch was left outside of the monument's boundary. Arches National Monument visitation in 1929 was 500.
The two maps below are Arches National Monument Proposed Development, No 1 & No. 2, created in 1934 after the Beckwith Expedition. As you can see, the area we know today as Devil's Garden had yet to be developed. The same can be said for the Windows Section, which is labelled on these maps as "Arches". The area labelled Yellow Cat refers to what would later become a uranium mine. Today the area is known as Yellow Cat Flat Poison Strip and contains historic mine ruins and rusted out vehicles left behind from the 1940s and 50s. We've added the red dots to signify where the Delicate Arch is located, and as you can see there was no proposed development of the area or mention of the arch itself at the time.
It wasn't until 1938, when President Franklin Roosevelt expanded the monument to almost 34,000 acres that Delicate Arch was finally brought into its boundaries. The expansion also provided space to construct a visitor center and scenic drive within the monument. Arches National Monument visitation in 1939 was 1,448.
In 1947, landscape architect, Carl W Alleman, began designing the first formal trail to Delicate Arch and a decade later, in 1957, it was officially completed. Arches National Monument visitation in 1947 was 5,028.
In 1971, President Richard Nixon changed the status of Arches from Monument to National Park, and today features more than 2,000 naturally formed arches, the highest density of natural arches in the world, over more than 76,000 acres. Arches National Park visitation in 1971 was 202,100.
Significance of Delicate Arch to Native Americans
The significance of Delicate Arch to Native Americans is rooted in their history and culture, as it is believed to have been a sacred site and a place of spiritual importance to several Native American tribes in the region, including the Ute, Paiute, Navajo, and Hopi.
For the Ute and Paiute tribes, Delicate Arch is believed to have been a place of spiritual connection with the natural world. According to their oral traditions, the arch represents a gateway to the spirit world and is a powerful symbol of the connection between the earth and the heavens. According to Ute mythology, the creator god Coyote traveled through the arch to create the world. As a result of their beliefs, the Ute tribe held ceremonies and gatherings near Delicate Arch. They would leave offerings at the site and perform dances and other rituals to honor the spirits and seek their guidance.
The Navajo, on the other hand, have a different perspective on the significance of Delicate Arch. They believe that the arch is the result of a great battle between two powerful spirits, with the winner being transformed into the arch as a symbol of his victory. The Navajo also believe that the arch is a place of healing, and that it has the power to help people connect with their inner selves and find inner peace.
For the Hopi, Delicate Arch is known as "Wahboos," which means "the painted window." The significance of Delicate Arch to the Hopi is linked to their creation story, which tells of the Hopi ancestors emerging from the earth through a sipapu (a small hole in the ground) at the beginning of time. According to Hopi tradition, the sipapu is located in the Grand Canyon, but the Hopi also believe that there are other places where the spirits of their ancestors can enter and exit the earth, such as Delicate Arch. The Hopi also believe that Delicate Arch serves as a portal to the spirit world and is a place where they can communicate with their ancestors and other spirits. They have performed ceremonies at the site for generations, including prayer offerings and purification rituals. The Hopi also believe that Delicate Arch is a symbol of their connection to the earth and the sky, and that it represents the harmony and balance that they strive to maintain in their lives.
Hikes Near Delicate Arch
Most of the popular hikes in the park, including Double Arch, The Windows & Turret Arch, Devil's Garden (including Landscape Arch), and more are within 5-15 minutes from Delicate Arch.
Fiery Furnace, one of the best hikes in Arches National Park, is a stone's throw from the Delicate Arch Trail and since the park restricts the number of people who can hike it each day, it often comes with little to no crowds. A permit is required and can be purchased ahead of time. Skull Arch is one of the highlights of the trail and an incredibly photogenic arch.
If you're interested in a really fun arch hike outside of the national park, don't pass up Corona Arch. It's one of the largest arches in Utah, often has far fewer crowds, and since it's outside of the national park there's no entry fee, permit, or waiting in long lines. It's also a fantastic sunrise or sunset hike.
Have a blast and enjoy your time in Moab!