Arches National Park, Utah
Delicate Arch, the quintessential formation of Arches National Park, is a spectacular natural arch, and one of the most photographed natural wonders of the world. The arch—once known as “Cowboy Chaps,” thanks to its resemblance to the leather leg coverings worn by many a rancher—teeters on the rim of a sandstone bowl with the scenic La Sal Mountains as a backdrop. This icon of the American Southwest remains as one of the most rewarding hikes in the national park system, due in part to the reward of seeing the massive span glow a fiery red in the alpenglow of sunset.
To reach Delicate Arch, set out for the Wolfe Ranch parking lot—locate the trailhead and then pass by the Wolfe Cabin, cross a footbridge over Salt Wash, and head for the slickrock—the route gains 480 feet in 1.5 miles (3 miles roundtrip). As mentioned before, a highlight of a visit to Delicate Arch is seeing it at sunset, so begin your hike in the late afternoon—we began our hike at 3:13 pm, in order to take advantage of what we hoped would be perfect lighting.
The beginning of the trail is over a rocky path that leads to a few switchbacks, then once you are at the top of the switchbacks it isn't far to the slickrock portion of the hike—hiking on slickrock might sound difficult, but it is actually very easy. The sandstone has a very "grippy" surface unless, of course, it has rained, in which case you will most likely figure out pretty quickly how the surface got its name.
Following the trail is a snap, thanks to the park service workers who have placed— in an effort to assure you that you are hiking in the right direction—rock cairns every so often. In addition, the views along this hike are wonderful—sweeping vistas of red rock and the views of the La Sal Mountains, which are snow covered at certain times of the year, make for a memorable outing.
The last section of the hike is the most stunning, but it may prove rather scary for those who are afraid of heights. The trail skirts the edge of a rock cliff with some exposure—having been blasted out from the side of the cliff, the path, at times, appears to lead straight up to the sky. It is this cliff that hides any view of the arch until your last steps on the trail, and it is the impact of that final view that make this trail a spectacular hike.
Just past the exposure section of the hike, you will see an opening in the cliff—a window of sorts—above you on the right side of the trail—this is Frame Arch. It is possible to climb the slickrock to this arch to get excellent views of Delicate Arch "framed" within the outline of this window—Pick and I waited to do this on our return hike, so that we didn't ruin the thrill of seeing Delicate Arch in its full glory.
As you climb the trail a little further past Frame Arch, the high rock wall on your right drops away, revealing a most incredible scene. The scene—a fantastic view of Delicate Arch perched on the rim of a sandstone bowl—the arch seems as though it could just fall right of the edge of the cliff at any moment. It truly does almost take your breath away when you see it for the first time, but the immense size of Delicate Arch is not immediately noticeable, it only becomes apparent when someone walks closer to the formation—once you have a person to give scale to the scene you instantly recognize the grandness of this icon.
Delicate Arch is an isolated remnant of what is known as a sandstone fin—the center of the fin has been eroded away over eons of time leaving a perfect 46-foot arch, an arch that stands vigil on the edge of the canyon to this day. Adding even more majesty to the scene are the distant La Sal Mountains, which create a perfect backdrop for photographs of the arch.
The other thing that we immediately noticed after rounding the wall was the wind—it was pretty strong that day, and if you sat still for very long you chilled down quite quickly. In order to keep warm, and to get a better appreciation for the size of the arch, we decided to walk over closer. A few people were starting to gather for sunset pictures so we thought it would be best to get up close now, and then return to our vantage point as soon as possible—we didn't want to "ruin" anyone's photo with our presence. We arrived at the base of the arch at 3:50 pm, stood below the towering rock where it was possible to look up at the huge arch and down to the canyon below, which gave us a dizzying experience and it turned out to be a highlight of the hike.
After our expedition to the base of the arch, we hiked back to the other side of the bowl and set up our camera in order to wait for the sun to set. As the sun sank lower in the sky the color of the rock took on a warm orange glow, changing its appearance with every second—we sat there mesmerized for about 3 hours, just taking in the view. While we sat there admiring the view, we also enjoyed listening to other hikers as they came around the corner and enjoyed their first view of the arch—the expressions of awe were never ending, and people would literally gasp when they saw the arch for the first time.
The elevation at the arch is 4,829 feet and it starts to get cold rather quickly once the sun disappears, so we decided to head back to the car at around 7:00 pm.
We enjoyed hiking this short trail and recommend it to everyone who visits Arches National Park—a word of warning though, don't confuse this hike with the shorter Delicate Arch Viewpoint Trail—from that trail you can only see the arch from across the canyon. If you want up close views of the arch then choose Delicate Arch Trail, where you get the benefit of standing right under the massive arch—truly, the only way to appreciate its grandeur.