I made a big mistake on my very first visit to Arches National Park: I visited on a sunny afternoon in August, when temperatures were pushing 105 degrees F.
Even though my sister and I made a valiant effort visiting lookouts, walking around Balanced Rock, and roaming around the Windows Section of the park, I knew that longer hikes were absolutely out of the question for me on such a hot day.
And that included the hike to see Delicate Arch.
I got a tantalizing glimpse of the famous sandstone arch at a viewpoint, but it would take me nearly 5 years before I would get to see it up close at last.
My partner, Elliot, and I were more strategic when planning our national parks trip in Utah and Arizona. We opted to go in April, when temperatures would be lower and crowds smaller.
And this time, I vowed to see Delicate Arch up close.
When to hike to Delicate Arch
Originally, I planned for us to start the 3-mile round-trip hike to Delicate Arch in the morning, when it would be cool and the park would be more empty. But while reading about the hike online, I found out that the light is best in the afternoon, when the sun shines directly on Delicate Arch.
Which is probably why hiking out to the arch at sunset is infinitely more popular than going there for sunrise.
So we changed our plan.
After grabbing some sandwiches to-go in Moab, we headed into Arches around 4 p.m. We made quick stops at some of the arches on the way to the Delicate Arch trailhead at Wolfe Ranch (since this was Elliot's first visit to Arches and Utah), but kept our eye on the time since we didn't want to start the hike too late and miss sunset.
We made it to the trailhead parking lot by 6 p.m., and were happy to find that it wasn't crowded at all. (During the summer, this parking lot often fills up, and I'd recommend getting there earlier.)
Then we hit the restrooms, made sure that we had our sandwiches and plenty of water, and headed out on the trail.
The Delicate Arch hike
The trail to Delicate Arch isn't that long – only 1.5 miles one-way. After tackling Angels Landing at Zion National Park a few days before, we deemed the trail a piece of cake. But that doesn't mean it's particularly easy.
The first portion of the trail is relatively flat and extremely well-marked. But the second section requires you to climb up a steep hill of exposed slickrock (i.e. slippery sandstone) and then find your way through some more rocks by following cairns (rock piles) set up by other hikers.
This part of the trail was actually a bit challenging – but we'll blame the 4500 feet of elevation for making us struggle.
I can't imagine doing this hike during the summer – there's really no shade at all on the trail, and it DOES require quite a bit of energy to climb the slickrock hill. If you tackle this in the summer, make sure to bring plenty of water and sun protection.
Once you get up the hill and navigate around to the other side by following the cairns, the last section of the trail is along a rock ledge. For some people, this ledge is likely to be scary since there's a pretty big dropoff on one side.
The ledge doesn't last for very long, though (maybe 200 yards), and at the end you suddenly round a corner and come to a view like this:
The hike up took us less than an hour, meaning we had more than an hour to spare before the sun would set.
Sunset at Delicate Arch
There were quite a few other people at Delicate Arch when we got there (and a few more would arrive before sunset), but it certainly wasn't crowded. People also were generally good about not getting in your shot if you wanted to get a photo of yourself in the arch (which of course you do!).
I was glad we got there early. It meant we had plenty of time to get some pre-sunset photos, and also meant we could have a leisurely picnic dinner while watching the subtle color changes of the sandstone of Delicate Arch as the sun began to sink closer to the horizon.
This view of the arch is one you may have seen before – it's become the symbol of Utah, and even appears on the state's license plates.
Other people climbed around the arch (but please don't climb ON it!) and down into the “bowl” between it and where most people were sitting waiting for sunset. Elliot and I were pretty worn out, though (my legs were still sore from Angels Landing), so we were happy to just claim a perch and watch everyone else.
What struck me is just how HUGE Delicate Arch is. It stands at about 65 feet tall, which doesn't sound all that big on paper. But when you get there and see it in person, it looks massive.
The sunset came gradually, changing the color of the arch from a normal sandstone red-brown to a fiery orange as the last rays of sunlight hit it.
A lot of people began packing up once the sun fell behind some clouds, but I insisted that we stay around until at least 5 minutes after the actual time of sunset. And I'm so glad I did.
Even though the sun was no longer shining on Delicate Arch, the clouds above the La Sal Mountains in the distance turned pretty shades of orange and pink as the sky began to darken.
We left with enough daylight/twilight to make our way back to the car before it turned pitch black. Even though we had a headlamp with us, I didn't really want to pick my way down that huge slickrock hill without being able to see completely.
All in, our Delicate Arch experience took nearly 3 hours in total (counting the hour or so we spent at the arch to watch the sun set). I'm glad we decided to go at sunset instead of earlier in the day, and appreciate that the sky cooperated a little with some sunset colors.
There's a reason that this arch is so iconic, and why this hike is the most popular at Arches – it really is worth doing!
Practical info for hiking to Delicate Arch
If you think you might want to make the hike out to Delicate Arch at sunset yourself, here are a few things you should know:
- Beware the sun. The trail is mostly exposed to the sun, so be sure to wear sunscreen and bring plenty of water. It can be hot well into the evening hours here. Fill up for free at the visitor’s center before you drive into the park – you won't find water further in. I recommend getting a daypack with at a built-in reservoir rather than carrying just one water bottle – this makes it easier to carry more water, and also makes it easier to hike with. I like the CamelBak Aurora (70 oz), the CamelBak Aventura (100 oz), and the Osprey Raven(100 oz).
- Wear good shoes. While this hike isn't as challenging as some others I've done in Utah's parks, it still helps to have proper footwear. The slickrock hill you have to climb can indeed be slippery thanks to the sand that sits on top of the sandstone, so shoes with good grip are recommended. I love my Merrell Moab hiking boots, and wore them for all the hikes I did in Utah.
- Give yourself enough time. Check on the time of sunset before you set out, and plan to arrive at Delicate Arch at least 30 minutes before that time so you can get some photos. It took us about 45 minutes to get from the trailhead to Delicate Arch, but I would allow yourself at least an hour. (Meaning you probably want to set out on the hike at least 1.5 hours before sunset.)
- Be prepared for the hike back. This means packing a headlamp with you, since if you stay at the arch for sunset, it's going to be getting dark as you make your way back down.
Have you ever done a sunset hike? Is hiking to Delicate Arch on your must-do list?
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