Delicate Arch Madness: Iconic symbol of Utah offers memorable hike, breathtaking views

Jon Mitchell
The Delicate Arch inside of Arches National Park north of Moab
Jon Mitchell / Post Indepedent |

Delicate Arch Hiking trail

Where: Arches National Park, Wolf Ranch parking area

When: Year-round, all day

Length: 3 miles round trip

Terrain: Uphill and dry. Those who are going up on the trail are encouraged to bring a lot of water with them since there is limited to no shade from start to finish.

Elevation climb: 480 feet from the bottom to the top.

Parking: as of now, parking is extremely limited since construction crews are currently working on expanding the Wolf Ranch Parking area at the beginning of the trail. About a half mile east on Delicate Arch Road is the much-shorter Upper Delicate Arch Viewpoint Trail, which provides a unique view from across a small sandstone canyon.


ARCHES NATIONAL PARK, Utah — There’s a particular license plate from our bordering state that always seems to catch the attention of people in Colorado.

Well, to be frank, it at least always catches my attention.

It’s not because I have some kind of affinity for Utah. Actually, I have a fascination for the Delicate Arch, that iconic sandstone arch at Arches National Park that serves as the proverbial poster child for Utah’s license plate and, along with the Maroon Bells just south of us next to Aspen, is one of the most photographed monuments in the United States.

There are trails that lead to multiple viewpoints of the arch, which is made of Entrada Sandstone. According to Encyclopedia Britannica, a salt bed that was deposited some 300 million years ago underlies the present landscape of the park. Sand and other sediments covered the salt bed and, eventually, were compressed into rock. The weight of this overlying rock caused the unstable salt bed to shift and buckle, and layers of rock were moved upward to form domes while, elsewhere in the region, cavities developed.

When a salt dome collapsed, the rocks on its flanks cracked. Wind and water erosion formed fins of sandstone out of the cracked rock, and further weathering (particularly of the sides of the fins) created all of the rock arches. All total, more than 2,000 arches have been cataloged in the park.

The most famous one is the Delicate Arch, which is accessible 24 hours per day on the Delicate Arch Trail, and the flashlights and headlamps of late-night hikers can be seen at the arch all the way over at the end of the Delicate Arch Viewpoint trail. There have been much-more publicized ascents up the trail to the arch, though: The Olympic Torch passed through the arch on its way to Salt Lake City for the 2002 Winter Olympics.

Geologists say that wind and the natural course of erosion will make the arch eventually collapse, but it likely won’t happen in our lifetime.


It’s about a three-mile, round-trip hike to the arch, but it’s not an easy hike for anyone who is out of shape. Lengthening that walk now is the construction taking place at the Wolfe Ranch parking area at the base of the Delicate Arch trailhead, which is expanding the current parking area. Until the construction is completed, hikers are encouraged to get there during non-peak hours if they want to snag good parking spot.

From the trailhead, there are the remains of the John Wesley Wolfe Ranch, which was abandoned in the early part of the 20th century but serves as the namesake of the parking area. Just past that homestead you will cross Salt Wash on a suspension bridge and, to the left, there’s a Ute petroglyph panel.

The first part of the trail is wide and well-marked with gradual inclines. Past there is a long sandstone hill — also known as slickrock. Cairns, the term for stacks of rocks, mark the trail to the arch on a steady incline.

It’s not until the final two thirds of a mile during the ascent that some significant pockets of shade come around. On the homestretch, there’s close to a 150- to 200-yard stretch along a steep sandstone incline that includes the Frame Arch, which, following a short climb, looks over not only the Delicate Arch, but also the La Sal Mountains in the distance. In all, hikers make close to a 500-foot ascent.

Once at the top, in sight will be a giant sandstone amphitheater that the Delicate Arch towers over. Also in sight will likely be plenty of people jonesing for photo ops, which leaves limited amounts of time to get the arch in a picture on its own.

In the event a hike to the arch itself doesn’t seem likely, the viewpoint trail not far from the trailhead is about a 30-minute round trip from start to finish, even for the out-of-shape hikers.


• Water. And water. And more water. Each hiker should plan on bringing at least one to two liters with them, and maybe more now that temperatures commonly reach into the high 80s and, eventually, the 100s in the summertime.

• Patience. Many families, including small children, make the ascent to the Delicate Arch. Many of those families, however, are unprepared for how taxing the hike can be. Patience, in this case, can refer to the time it takes some to reach the arch and some of the ability to deal with dialogue that can be heard from young and old hikers during their ascent.

• Good shoes. Unless someone is in very good shape, hiking up the trail in Tevas or flip flops is just a bad idea.

• A camera. Granted, it’s unlikely someone will be like me and carry more than $3,000 worth of Nikon camera gear to the top. A decent point-and-shoot camera, however, can do the trick when it comes to taking home a memory.

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