National Parks of Utah: Arches or Canyonlands?

This post was sparked by a question a traveling friend asked me a couple months ago. Utah is home to five national parks, all of them clustered in the southern half of the state: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands. The latter two are located in the southeastern portion of the state, close to the town of Moab, where everyone who isn’t camping stays (so reserve in advance). So which one is it, Arches or Canyonlands?

Last time we were out west, everyone kept raving about Moab, and the raving only continued at louder volume when we returned to housesit for three months in downtown Salt Lake City. So, one long weekend in April, we headed down to southeastern Utah to see what all the fuss was about. It took a little more finagling than a normal road trip, as we were cat-sitting at the time. The owner of said cat downright begged us to take his pet on a road trip, saying, “The poor thing gets so bored in the condo. He’s used to road trips, he’ll love it.” So, we did. Problem was, cats aren’t technically allowed in the fancy condo building, so we had to smuggle him out, as per the directions told to us by his owner, who does this biannually when traveling to his summer home eight hours away. As directed, we placed him in his zebra print carrier along with a can of cat food to keep him from meowing, and hid him in a shopping cart under some pillows. After a fingers-crossed (against other passengers), fifteen-floor ride down in the elevator, we safely stowed our furry friend in the backseat of the car, and once we surfaced out of the parking garage, we let him out to immediately poke his head all over, inspecting his new surroundings. That done, he settled down and slept peacefully on Veren’s lap for the rest of the four-hour trip, getting up only once to politely vomit in his travel litter box.

He even got to see Dead Horse Point! Kind of...
He even got to see Dead Horse Point! Kind of…

Before we descend into cute kitty picture land (this is the Internet, after all), let’s move on.

Arches and Canyonlands are both near Moab, but offer fairly different experiences depending on what you’re looking for.

Arches

The famed Delicate Arch at sunset.
The famed Delicate Arch at sunset.

Arches is the more accessible, and thus, more populated park – it got about 1.4 million visitors in 2015, and it’s easy to see why. The landscapes are epic, it’s a short 5-10 minute drive from Moab, and most of the hikes are short, easy, and often paved jaunts. Visitors can almost effortlessly see the many spectacular natural rock formations with just a short walk or hike from their car. These include over 2,000 sandstone arches, which are formed by the unique geology and wind passing through the area.

Epicness at little effort: no wonder it’s swarming with RVs.

Balanced Rock.
Balanced Rock.

Arches is also much smaller than Canyonlands at 119 square miles, compared to Canyonlands’ 527. In just a day and a half at Arches, we had explored the majority of the accessible portion of the park (one section has no trails and you need a hiking permit, others you need four wheel drive), including completing the longest hike, the 7.2 mile Primitive Trail, located in the Devil’s Garden section.

Landscape Arch, the longest arch in the park and the 5th longest in the world.
Landscape Arch, the longest arch in the park and the 5th longest in the world.

On our first night into Moab, we decided to go right for the famed Delicate Arch, the arch that is proudly displayed on Utah license plates. At sunset on a Saturday night, it was pretty crowded, with a wall of photographers set up with their tripods. A group of women with bottles of wine and an entire dinner spread out before them sat tucked into a rock formation next to us. The diminishing sunlight hit the arch just right, lighting up the sandstone with a golden glow. It was magical. Unfortunately, the moment was a little marred by the photographers angrily yelling at people to get out of the arch in time for the special moment to occur. I understand the frustration of unaware tourists bumbling into photos, but if you’re seriously worried about that, don’t come to a national park.

The area is also known as Red Rock Desert, for obvious reasons.
The area is also known as Red Rock Desert, for obvious reasons.

Our second day in Arches, we decided to tackle the Devil’s Garden section and the Primitive Trail, hoping to get away from people that would be deterred by the length and difficulty of the hike. I was a little nervous, after a slightly nerve-wracking heights experience in Canyonlands the day before (see below), as the signs and notes for the hike said that the hike “involves narrow ledges, scrambling on slick rock, and is not recommended for those uncomfortable with heights or exposure.” But I wanted to face my fear and try – which I’m glad of, as the hike was not at all as bad as the trail guide made it seem. The only spot involving heights was traversing a sandstone fin, and that came before the turn off from the main trail to the Primitive Trail.

Following the trail.
Following the trail.
Sandstone fins, looking like massive ships.
Sandstone fins, looking like massive ships.

Arches Primitive Trail_

The Primitive Trail, marked by cairns.

The hike was well worth it, as we only saw one other group on the entire trail, and enjoyed beautiful views all to ourselves, not to mention countless arches and formations we passed along the way. If you’re looking for a more detailed guide of the hike, Modern Hiker describes the hike in its entirety.

Canyonlands

Canyonlands still has arches, and this is the most famous - Mesa Arch.
Canyonlands still has arches, and this is the most famous – Mesa Arch.

While Arches is all about hopping from one amazing rock formation to the next, Canyonlands is about getting into a space with a scale akin to the Grand Canyon. It’s also much less trafficked. With less than 635,000 visitors in 2015, Canyonlands gets much less traffic, and it’s possible that you’ll pass no one on the trail. We hiked on a Sunday afternoon in April, and only came across a couple of solo hikers. The park is divided into three main sections:

  • Island in the Sky: If you’re staying in Moab, you’ll probably head here, as it’s the closest and most accessible, with a variety of easy to strenuous trails.
  • The Needles: More primitive than Island in the Sky. The Needles district is 75 miles from Moab, and the majority of the hikes here are labeled as strenuous. Only a small section of paved roads, most are unpaved, and many you will need a 4WD vehicle to pass.
  • The Maze: Least accessible section. People mostly camp here. You must bring all your own supplies, including water and a toilet system. Only 4WD vehicles, and campsites can be up to a six hour drive on backcountry roads from the ranger station.

We spent the day at Island in the Sky, first driving around to all the famous points of interest, some of which were more enjoyable than others. The famous Mesa Arch was a madhouse of screaming children and tourists with selfie sticks, but Aztec Butte had a magical Puebloan granary, where we ate a quiet lunch next to the spot where the Ancestral Pueblan people had done the same many years before.

Old time refrigerator.
Old time refrigerator.

After all the driving and stopping and getting out and hiking and taking pictures and getting back in the car to do it all over again, it was already late afternoon before we started our long hike of the day. We felt a little rushed, as we were worried about getting back before sunset, but the hike was still one of the most fantastic I’ve ever done, with expansive views unmarred by any sign of civilization. The Murphy Loop trail is 10.8 miles round trip (though we had to turn back a little before that), and descends into a canyon by way of an ancient rockslide, losing 1,400 feet of elevation rapidly. We scrambled down, taking in the uninhabited, prehistoric landscape that was spread out before us, shrouded in the golden light of the late afternoon sun. I don’t normally describe myself as having a fear of heights, but some sections definitely had me inching along on my butt (like the five foot wide wooden platform “bridge” with no handles that hugged the rock face on one side and dropped off hundreds of feet on the other).

Canyonlands Murphys Loop greg running down

Once we reached the bottom, we were treated to views that made me want to pitch a tent and just stay there, staring up at the stars that were soon to appear in that vast, open sky.

arches or canyonlands?

So, which one is it? Depends on what you’re looking for and how much time you have.

To compare the parks to recent cities we’ve visited, Arches is a little like Las Vegas: it’s all right there in front of you, big and full of people. Canyonlands is more like Salt Lake City. You really need some time to appreciate it. That being said, you can still visit the short (and gorgeous) hikes in Canyonlands if you don’t have time or don’t want to do a more difficult/longer day hike. Plan for at least three nights in Moab, but I think five would be a great amount to see all of Arches and a good part of Canyonlands. If you are going to visit both parks and plan to visit at least two other national parks, forests, monuments or other national lands during the year, it’s worth it to get the $80 National Parks Pass (entrance to each park is $25 alone), which gives you free entrance to all 2,000 federal recreation sites for one year.

View from Mesa Arch.

Anyone else been or would like to go to Moab? What are your favorite hikes or spots there?

arches or canyonlands?  AlternativeTravelers.com

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Samantha Anthony

Sam is a nomadic writer and photographer that freelances as an editor and proofreader, which may make her insufferable if you make any grammar mistakes in her presence. She has done stints as an archaeologist and tech writer in NYC and an English teacher in Madrid. She enjoys eating and photographing all the vegan food that Veren cooks.
  • Southern Utah’s five national parks have long been on my bucket list, but your write-ups and photos of the stunning scenery make me long to visit them even more!

    • Samantha Anthony

      Thanks so much!! Utah has absolutely incredible scenery, unlike anything I’ve ever seen before. I took sooo many photos – it was really hard to narrow down to just a few for this post. Definitely recommend if you have the chance, I just wouldn’t go June – August as it’s usually 100+ degrees and there’s very little tree cover!

  • Wow! Incredible pictures <3
    Anni & Toby

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