Hiking the Delicate Arch Trail is challenging - and totally worth the effort! Here's what you need to know to check this amazing hike off your bucket list; including preparation and hike essentials, and tips for what to look for when you hit the trail.
Iconic to Utah, Delicate Arch is the most famous – and most photographed – natural arch in the world. Mr B and I recently braved the three-mile desert hike to get up close and personal with Delicate Arch, and Wow! The payoff was totally worth the effort!
The term "Delicate" first appeared in a January 1934 article about the Arches National Monument Scientific Expedition, which described it as "the most delicately chiseled arch in the entire area.National Park Service
Hiking the Delicate Arch Trail
- Distance: 3.2 miles (4.8 km) roundtrip
- Elevation Gain: 480 feet (146m)
- Difficulty: Moderate, but may be strenuous on a hot summer day (or a cold winter one)
- Trail: Well-maintained, mostly slick rock
- Maps: USGS Arches National Park; Trails Illustrated Arches National Park
Delicate Arch stands about 60 feet tall at its apex. The light opening beneath the arch is 46 feet high and 32 feet wide, making it the largest free-standing arch in Arches National Park. Historically, this arch has been given many names, including a couple of my personal favorites: "Cowboy's Chaps" and "Old Maid's Bloomers.”
It is critical to consider weather conditions no matter what time of year you plan to hike the Delicate Arch Trail. Take into consideration summer heat, winter ice, and your own health and fitness before embarking on this hike. Rangers frequently rescue people who underestimated the trail's difficulty.National Park Service
Delicate Arch Hike Difficulty
You may be asking, "Can I survive this hike?"
I'm not gonna lie: the Delicate Arch Trail can be challenging. It was for me. However, if you are hesitant about whether or not to go, let me offer this by way of encouragement: As Peter Pan’s Wendy so delicately puts it, I am “ever so much more than twenty,” and I carry significantly more weight than I should. And...
I made it! Totally worth it!
It helped immensely that I had an awesome cheering section to keep me motivated and hydrated. (Thanks, Livy, Ben & Em!) However, if you are in good health and can walk three miles without issue, this is a hike you should definitely put in your back pocket.
Take water. Lots of water. More water than you think you will need.
It should come as no surprise that hiking in the desert is entirely different from hiking through a forest. After just minutes on the sandstone trail, I found myself already feeling parched as the dry Utah air sucked all the moisture from my body.
Water is not available anywhere on the trail, so be sure to bring plenty or fill up at the Visitors Center before you set out. Even when temperatures are moderate, the park recommends taking 2-3 quarts of water per person.
I feel as though I need to emphasize this point more zealously, because I know we see warnings like this all the time, but sometimes we take them for granted. As in, oh sure, of course I’ll bring plenty of water. What kind of a trail-donkey do you take me for?!
Well folks, I’ve been camping and hiking since before I could walk, so taking an ample supply of water on the trail is second nature. However, this was my first real desert hike in the summer, and less than halfway into the hike it was apparent that I did not bring enough water.
The truth is, if it hadn’t been for my traveling companions, I might have had some serious trouble. Under the circumstances, the experience was merely humbling and instructive: had I been alone on the trail, it could have been disastrous.
Tip: The NPS suggests taking 2-3 quarts of water per person on this hike, and one gallon of water per day in the park, even when temperatures are cooler.
This is not a “flip-flop” hike. The trail is wide and flat, and we found the sandstone surprisingly “grippy": walking on it was a bit like walking on a path made of medium-grain sandpaper. Nevertheless, it is crucial to wear solid, supportive shoes with good traction.
That being said, I am well-known in our family for my ability to trip over invisible cracks in the sidewalk, and I did just fine in my tennis shoes. I did, however, use my daughter's camera monopod as a walking stick much of the time, which was especially useful as we were crossing the vast, flat sandstone slab. If I were to do this hike again, I would definitely bring a walking stick or trekking poles with me.
Note that the NPS recommends traction devices (i.e., ice cleats) during the winter months, as the final 70 yards of trail are often ice-covered.
Desert. Sun. No Shade.
The sun on the Delicate Arch Trail trail can be blistering and unrelenting. Shady spots are few and far between.
No matter what time of year you hike the Delicate Arch Trail, it is critical to protect any exposed skin with sunblock and wear a brimmed hat to keep the sun off your face and prevent your head from burning.
Hiking Delicate Arch
When to Hike
We recommend going at sunrise to avoid the crowds.
Sunrise is just as beautiful as sunset, much cooler, and always less busy. You might find several hundred people at Delicate Arch for sunset, but just a handful for sunrise. Try to enter the park before 7 am. Get an early start and beat the crowds.National Park Service
According the the National Park Service, the best months to visit Arch National Park are April, May, September, and October. We visited Arches mid-summer, which isn't optimal: it's a little on the scorching hot side that time of year.
We set out from the Park Visitors Center and arrived at the trailhead just before 8:00am (about an hour later than we had hoped). The Delicate Arch hike took about an hour and twenty minutes, going slow and steady. I'm sure younger, more sure-footed hikers could make it in far less time.
By the time we reached Delicate Arch at about 9:30am, the heat was already quite uncomfortable, and the crowds were starting to get heavy.
If you want to photograph Delicate Arch in all its glory, with the sun hitting all those amazing bands of red and rust just right, you’ll have to brave the crowds at sunset, which I’m told can be ridiculously huge.
Delicate Arch Trailhead
To get to the Delicate Arch Trailhead from the Arches National Park Visitor Center, drive 12.3 miles up Park Avenue and turn right. Continue an additional 1.2 miles and turn left into the parking area for Delicate Arch Trail.
- Trailhead address: Arches National Park, Moab, UT 84532
- Trailhead coordinates: 38.73565, -109.5206 (38° 44′ 08.35″N 109° 31′ 14.13″W)
Hit the Trail
The Wolfe Ranch marks the beginning of the Delicate Arch Trail. This homestead was built and used by Civil War veteran John Wesley Wolfe and his family of five from 1898 to 1910, when they packed up and returned to their home in Ohio.
Just beyond the Wolfe homestead, a bridge takes you across the Salt Wash and onto the main trail.
At one point, the trail becomes a huge flat slab of sandstone, and you will have to follow the cairns (or the crowds) to find your way.
As you make your way across this wide, shadeless span, the heat can become almost unbearable by midday.
See that big flat rock face in top third of the image above? See those teeny-tiny dots on it going from the bottom to the top? Those are People! TONS of People!
Follow the Cairns
Along the Delicate Arch Trail, you will notice a number of strategically placed piles of rocks. These “cairns” have been placed there by National Park rangers to mark the way to go. If you are unsure of where to go on the trail, just look for the next cairn and go in that direction.
Under no circumstances should you build your own cairn or knock an existing one down.
We thought these looked like elephant toes.
The Giant's Grin
A little more than three-quarters of the way up the Delicate Arch Trail, you will find what I am calling Giant's Grin. (Totally made that up: I have no idea what it is really called.) I couldn't find this listed in any of the Arches National Park literature I could find, but it it one of the coolest places we saw at the park.
Once you arrive here, you can breath a sigh of relief, because your destination is just around the corner! Before you continue though, take a minute to enjoy this mammoth formation and the stunning photo op it offers.
Just beyond the Giant's Grin, the trails begins to narrow and hug a towering vertical ridge. The views as you make your way around the ridge are stunning.
Then you round the last curve, and just like that, Delicate Arch is in front of you.
The Delicate Arch
You know that sensation you get when you take a cold drink on a hot day and the liquid flows down your throat and splashes into your empty stomach, and for just a second, the cool washing through you is pure bliss?
Rounding that ridge and seeing Delicate Arch right there in front of us was a lot like that.
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