Thomas Dowson is the founder of Archaeology Travel, a website for those seeking adventures in archaeology and history. As a professional archaeologist Thomas enjoys visiting archaeological and historical sites around the world. And sharing these experiences so that others can explore the world’s pasts more deeply.
One of my favourite parts of the world is the American Southwest. A huge area that includes places such as the Grand Canyon and the Great Basin Desert. But it is the Four Corners area that I keep going back to; where the states of Arizona, Colorado, New Mexico and Utah meet. The only place in the US where four states meet at one point.
Why this area? Quite simply because the incredible landscapes have some of the most impressive archaeology. From the ruins of ancient cliff dwellers to art painted onto rocks. And one of the best places to visit here is the Arches National Park.
Covering over 300 square kilometres near the town of Moab in the state of Utah, the red rock landscapes of Arches National Park are truly magnificent. You have surely seen a photograph of Delicate Arch, an iconic symbol not only for this area but also Utah. There are, however, over 2,000 natural stone arches in the park. As well as hundreds more rock formations, such as pinnacles, massive rock fins and giant balanced rocks. Each with their own name.
Not only are these rock features a dream area for photographers and artists, the park attracts adventure seekers. Auto touring and mountain biking, hiking and backpacking, canyoneering and rock climbing, are some of the more active ways visitors spend their day.
And when the sun goes down, with dark skies and minimal light pollution, star gazing and night photography are popular activities too. With much to see and do, you could easily spend more than a day here.
Explore the park
The best way to begin is with an Arches National Park self-guided driving tour. Download the app to your phone, start at the visitor center and then head out to explore the best features at your own pace.
Art old and new
One of the stops on the self-guided tour is a rock art site near Wolfe Ranch. On this engraved panel you will see images of humans on horseback surrounded by bighorn sheep and a dog. Depictions of horseback riders could only have been made after the introduction of horses to North America in the mid 1600s.
So these are not the oldest petroglyphs in the area. There are other rock art sites in the park and nearby. Most are tricky to find, but check out my guide to rock art sites near Moab.
During the summer the park has a community artist in residence. If painting is your passion, you can join the artist at different popular and inspiring points around the park. Whether you like to just watch someone paint or you want to get stuck in and create your own, the programme is free and details are on the Arches park website.
An auto tour of Arches
For those visitors who want to get deeper into the park you will need a 4×4 vehicle. And know where you are going, or at least be able to read a map.
Or you could sit back and let an experienced guide do all the work. One option is a half day Arches National Park 4×4 Driving Tour. On this tour you will see parts of the park few people see, simply because of the accessibility. An experienced driver who knows the geology and the history of the area will explore the backroad trails with you. Ending up on an old cowboy trail where you will see dinosaur tracks.
As the park is also known for great hiking opportunities, you could combine your 4×4 off road experience with a short hike. The Arches National Park 4×4 drive and hiking tour is the same as the driving tour above, with a hike and a picnic included. You still get to see the dinosaur tracks!
And if half a day is not enough, there are all-day drive tours. The full day Canyonlands and Arches drive tour shows you the best of two of Utah’s big five national parks. In the morning see incredible views of the Colorado River in deep, winding canyons in Canyonlands National Park. During the afternoon its the arches. On this tour you get to see both ancient Native American rock art as well as dinosaur tracks.
Get your feet off the ground
Seeing the huge rock formations that have made Arches famous from the ground is in itself an unforgettable experience. Rock pinnacles and sheer cliff faces tower above you, making you feel quite small. There is another way to experience this impressive landscape – from the air.
On a backcountry helicopter tour you get to soar above these canyons and arches. Look down as 4×4 jeeps make their way along the off road trails. And see a different view of the mighty Colorado River as it snakes its way through the canyons.
End your day with a sunset
They say that in Moab you can start your day with an inspiring sunrise in Canyonlands National Park. And then end your day with an equally memorable sunset in Arches National Park.
Everyone will tell you that the best place to catch the setting sun in Arches is at Delicate Arch. Even if it is partly cloudy, the light being cast on the red sandstone formations is unlike any other sunset I have seen.
Many people and photographers head to Delicate Arch for sunset. There are other points in the park which are just as breathtaking. These include the Windows, Courthouse Towers and Tower Arch. All of these you will find marked on a map, if you have not already visited them during the day.
One other location that is just as magical is Balanced Rock. The rock, thought to be 3,500 tonnes, is only a half mile hike from where you leave your car. At the right time of year, late winter/spring, the snow capped La Sal mountains provide a perfect background. If that is not enough, stay a few hours longer. The black skies and bright stars will astound you.
For more suggestions and recommendations visiting Arches National Park, see my list of things to do in Moab.