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Arches or Canyonlands?: Which Utah National Park Should You Visit?

written by Samantha Anthony December 6, 2018
Arches or Canyonlands?: Which Utah National Park Should You Visit?

Planning a trip to Utah?

Chances are you’ve heard of the Mighty 5: Utah’s Five National Parks, all located in the southern part of the state. There are the famous Zion and Arches, but also the lesser known Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and Canyonlands. Arches and Canyonlands are both very close to the town of Moab, where everyone who isn’t camping stays (so reserve in advance).

If you’re planning a trip to Moab, you might be wondering whether you should visit Arches or Canyonlands?

We visited both on a road trip with a cat on our first house sitting adventure.

Yep, you read that right. Cat road trip! 

The owner of said cat downright begged us to take his pet on a road trip to shake things up from condo living. Since cats weren’t technically allowed in the condo building, we had to smuggle him out. 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, which we then took in the elevator down to the parking garage.

Once in the car, 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.

Okay, okay. We know you came here for an Arches vs Canyonlands run down, not our pet sitting tales. To learn more about house sitting, dig into our house sitting archives.

He even got to see Dead Horse Point! Kind of...
Dead Horse State Park, Utah….with a cat.

Arches vs Canyonlands: Quick Glance

Both of these national parks offer fairly different experiences depending on what you’re looking for. If you searched “Arches vs Canyonlands” it’s likely you don’t have a ton of time and want to optimize. Here we’ll discuss our experiences visiting Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and suggest which one is best for your preferences.

Size: Arches is much smaller than Canyonlands at 119 square miles, compared to Canyonlands’ 527.  

Visitation: Arches has far more visitors than Canyonlands. In 2016, Arches saw over 1.5 million visitors, while Canyonlands had around 775,000. That’s about half!

Trails: Overall, hikes are easier at Arches, with 9 trails marked easy by the NPS and only 4 marked strenuous. A lot of these “hikes” are short, paved walks from the parking lot to an arch formation. Canyonlands trails are generally more difficult overall, with more trail mileage than Arches. Canyonlands has 7 easy trails and 14 strenuous trails.

Cost: The cost of both Canyonlands and Arches is $30 per vehicle. If you plan on visiting both parks and think you’ll visit another national park within the year, you’ll save money by getting the America the Beautiful National Parks pass. It’s only $80 and grants entry to all national parks AND day use fees at other national lands for one year. The pass admits a vehicle full. You can even purchase it in advance and get it delivered to you!

Order the America the Beautiful Pass here!

Now let’s get into the experiences of Arches vs Canyonlands! Up first, Arches.

The Fiery Furnace at Arches National Park
The Fiery Furnace.

Arches

The famed Delicate Arch at sunset.Arches is the more accessible and thus more popular park between Arches and Canyonlands. The landscapes are epic, it’s a short 5-10 minute drive from Moab, and most of the Arches hikes are short, easy, and often paved jaunts. Visitors can almost effortlessly see the many spectacular natural rock formations within just a short walk from their car. These are many viewpoints where you literally just step out of your car to take some photos.

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

Traffic can get bad as there’s only one major road going through the park, especially during the morning, evening, and weekends. Arches and Moab are considering some solutions for this, including potentially implementing a reservation system. Another proposed solution would be a shuttle system, similar but improved on the one that Zion already uses.

One option to avoid the crowds is to take a offroading tour, such as this 5 hour tour in a 4×4 in which you get to see dinosaur tracks! 

Click here to learn more about the Arches National Park 4×4 Adventure.

Arches National Park Trails

To be honest, most of the Arches National Park trails are “trails” at a stretch. Most of them are paved and take fifteen minutes at the longest. If you’re looking for some outdoor wilderness sans people, you won’t find much of it in Arches without some advance planning and permits. That being said, there is one longer hike that we highly recommend you check out, which we’ll talk about in just a second.

In just a day and a half at Arches, we had explored the majority of the accessible portion of the park. Of the parts we could not visit, one section has no trails and you need a hiking permit, while others you need four wheel drive or need to be accompanied by a ranger.

Get park maps and visitor guides here.

Easy Arches Trails

As mentioned above, most of the Arches trails are pretty easy. This is great if you’re traveling with someone who has mobility difficulties yet still wants to experience the park.

Balanced Rock: 0.3 mile loop

Award for easiest of the Arches National Park trails goes to Balanced Rock! This is a short, paved loop that goes from the parking lot around Balanced Rock. A 15 minute endeavor.

Balanced Rock in Arches National Park
Balanced Rock.

The Windows: 1 mile, out and back or loop option

Definitely don’t miss The Windows section if you’re looking to optimize your Arches experience, especially if you’re on a one day itinerary. Here you can view three epic arches in a short hike: North Window, South Window, and Turret Arch.

Double Arch: 0.5 miles, out and back

Double Arch is a really easy gravel trail that’s wheelchair accessible with assistance. It’s in the Windows section of the park, so it’s nice to combine with the hike above.

Landscape Arch: 1.6 miles out and back

Landscape Arch is the longest arch at Arches, and the fifth longest natural arch in the world! The trail out to this arch is pretty easy, but if you’d like to get away from the crowds and on a longer hike, you can keep going to the primitive trail at Devil’s Garden (see below).

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

Moderate – Strenuous Arches Trails

Delicate Arch: 3 miles round trip, out and back

Our first experience in Arches was after driving from SLC to Arches National Park (about a four hour drive). Too impatient to wait until the morning, we decided to go right for the famed Delicate Arch, the arch that is proudly displayed on Utah license plates. The trail involves following cairns, sometimes over giant stretches of rock. Just before getting to Delicate Arch, the trail narrows considerably and involves hugging the rock face next to a pretty steep drop off. If you hike during the day, you’ll be completely exposed to the sun as there is very little shade cover. These factors make this one of the moderate Arches National Park trails.

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 – for a brief moment. Then the photographers angrily yelling at people to get out of the arch so they could get their “perfect shot”. While we fully understand the frustration of unaware tourists bumbling into photos, if you’re seriously worried about that, don’t come to a popular national park, and a famous spot at that.

That being said, Delicate Arch is truly epic and worth visiting, just tailor your expectations based on the above.

Delicate Arch at Arches National Park
The famed Delicate Arch at sunset.

The Devil’s Garden Primitive Trail: 7.2 miles, loop

The Devil’s Garden section and the Primitive Trail are the perfect place to get some peace and quiet, as most people are deterred by the length and difficulty of the hike. There are several signs and notes on the trail stating that the hike “involves narrow ledges, scrambling on slick rock, and is not recommended for those uncomfortable with heights or exposure.”

Arches National Park Primitive Trail sign

We found that the hike was not at all as bad as these signs made it seem, however there are a couple of spots that might be dicey if you’re afraid of heights. 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.

Arches National Park Devill's Garden Primitive Trail
Following the trail.

The primitive trail starts at Double O arch, about 2 miles from the Devil’s Garden parking lot. So if you’re doing the primitive trail, it’s closer to 10 miles, probably over that because there are several short offshoot paths leading to other structures like Dark Angel and Private Arch.

Following the trail.

Arches National Park Trails - Devil's Garden 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. We enjoyed these 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.

If you need more help on deciding which trails are best for you, check out this awesome post on My Utah Parks – there’s even a flow chart!

One of the Arches National Park Trails - Devil's Garden Primitive Trail
Sandstone fins, looking like massive ships.

Canyonlands Hikes

While Arches is all about hopping from one amazing rock formation to the next, the best hikes in Canyonlands National Park are about getting into spaces with a scale akin to the Grand Canyon. When talking Canyonlands vs Arches, Canyonlands is much less trafficked and it’s quite 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.

One of the best times to visit Canyonlands (or Arches for that matter) is the late spring or early fall. You won’t have to contend with the sweltering heat and unrelenting sun, and there’ll be less tourists there.

Canyonlands Trails - Murphys Loop

Best Hikes in Canyonlands National Park

When deciding the best hikes in Canyonlands, it’s absolutely crucial to keep in mind that 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. If you don’t have one or are concerned about exploring this district on your own, you can always join a tour, such as the Canyonlands Needles District 4×4 tour. Click here to learn more about the tour, such as current availability and pricing.
  • 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.

One Day in Canyonlands National Park

We recommend starting early for a one day itinerary in Canyonlands. On your way into the park, make sure you don’t miss Dead Horse State Park. This is a separate park but it’s on the way into Canyonlands from the main road, and has some incredible views right from the parking lot, making this an easy stop that’s well worth it! There are some trails, but we didn’t do them in the interest of time.

Pick a bunch of shorter hikes or a long hike to fill your day, depending on which of the following Canyonlands hikes interest you.

Alternatively, if you really want to optimize, you can join a Canyonlands tour, such as the Canyonlands National Park Half-Day Tour from Moab.

Easy Island in the Sky Hikes

Island in the Sky is the easiest and most accessible, especially if you’re staying in Moab. Keep in mind that the distance from the Island in the Sky section to the other accessible section, Needles, is almost a two hour drive! If you only have one or two days, it’s not feasible to do both sections of the park. Luckily, Island in the Sky has a wide variety of hikes, from easy ones with picturesque arches, to more strenuous hikes with breathtaking views.

While we opted to tour around Island in the Sky and visit the famous arches on short hikes first and then do a longer hike, we recommend planning your one day itinerary in the opposite way, if you intend to do a longer hike but still want to see some of the famous arches. If you do a long hike first, then you can visit some of the arches on your way out of the park and tailor the rest of your day to how tired you are, and when the sunset comes. We had to cut our long hike short as we didn’t want to hike back in the dark.

Mesa Arch: 0.5 miles

This isn’t a hike as much as it is a viewpoint. There’s a .5 mile paved trail down to the famous Mesa Arch, which was a madhouse of screaming children and tourists with selfie sticks. We stayed long enough to take some photos and leave. The view is impressive though so it’s worth a stop. Be prepared for tons of people at sunrise and sunset, trying to get “that perfect shot” of the sun coming through the arch.

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

White Rim Overlook Trail: 1.8 miles

For crazy expansive views of the giant mesa below, this is a great option. The trail is pretty flat and easy. You can cover the entire White Rim Road in a full day guided tour. Click here to learn more about the Canyonlands National Park White Rim Trail by 4WD.

Grand View Point: 2 miles

Another easy trail for wide views, this one is great if you’re in the southern end of the park. Remember that this park is massive!!

Best Canyonlands Hikes:  Moderate to Strenuous Island in the Sky Hikes

These were our favorite hikes in Canyonlands!

Upheaval Dome: 1 mile

Listed as moderate by the parks service, we felt this one was pretty easy. It’s another 0.5 mile hike, over rocks marked by cairns (not a paved path). The outlook is truly magnificent, and the strange rock formations will make you feel like you’re on another planet. A beautiful quick hike and definitely one of the more populated ones.

Canyonlands Island in the Sky Hikes - Upheaval Dome

Aztec Butte: 2 miles

One of our favorite short hikes, which goes out to a Puebloan granary, where we ate a quiet lunch next to the spot where the Ancestral Pueblan people had done the same many years before.

Remember that these lands were inhabited far before they were made into national parks! This hike is a great way to remember those who came before, and were forcibly removed from their lands. For more tips on traveling responsibly in native lands, see our section below on responsible travel in these parks.

Old time refrigerator.
Old time refrigerator.

Murphy Loop: 10.8 miles

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. Still, the hike was still one of the most fantastic I’ve ever done, with expansive views unmarred by any sign of civilization.

Canyonlands Hikes - Murphy's Loop

The Murphy Loop trail is 10.8 miles round trip 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.

Be warned: 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).

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.

Best Hikes in Canyonlands National Park - Murphys Loop bottom mesas

If you have the time for it, this is an absolutely stunning hike, Even if you don’t have the recommended 5-7 hours to do the trail, you can always turn back part way through as we did. We only saw one other person in the few hours we spent on this trail, so if you’re looking for some solitude, this is one of the best Canyonlands hikes.

Canyonlands Hikes - Murphys Loop

Respectful Travel in Arches and Canyonlands

Know whose land you’re on. Long before colonists arrived, settled stole the land, and eventually created these national parks, the Ute tribe lived on this land. Today native Utes are forced to live on reservations and mainly in poverty. To learn more about respectful travel on native lands, as well as native businesses to support in exchange for traveling on their land, read this article: Things to Keep in Mind When Traveling on Native Lands.

Stay on marked trails. The eco ecosystem in both Arches and Canyonlands is very fragile. Don’t mark up rocks, climb onto the fragile arches, and of course, don’t litter!

Respect others. Don’t be like those asshole photographers at Arches. Everyone is here to enjoy the natural beauty of these parks. Don’t carry around boomboxes (we saw/hear it), be kind to others (should be a given), and recognize you’re not the only one that wants to enjoy the space.

Always hike with a buddy and use a map. Don’t make someone go rescue you. Parks are notoriously understaffed (thanks non-existent governmental parks budget), so if a ranger has to go out to find you, they’re unable to assist someone else should an unavoidable emergency come up (like if someone has a heart attack).

Bring in your own food and drink in reusable containers, ideally without using single-use plastic like water bottles. There are drinking fountains and filling stations by parking lots, and we just refilled our collapsible water bottle as we went.

Read more: Eco-Friendly Packing List

View from Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands vs Arches?

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, impressive, and full of people.

Canyonlands is more like Salt Lake City. At first glance it doesn’t seem like much. You really need some time within it to appreciate its underrated beauty.

That being said, you don’t really have to choose if you have at least a few days. 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. We preferred Canyonlands due to the longer trails and much fewer people. But if you’re looking for shorter trails and lots of arches, Arches might be your better bet.

Murphy's Loop - one of the best hikes in Canyonlands National Park
Hiking well into the fading light of the day in Canyonlands National Park.

Canyonlands and Arches in one day

If at all possible, we don’t recommend visiting Arches and Canyonlands in one day. It will be a long day and all the arches will blend together. We suggest you pick a park based on our advice above and truly enjoy it instead of running around in a blur.

If you insist on visiting Canyonlands and Arches in one day, definitely get up early in the morning. You can visit Arches and all the famous arches in the morning and Canyonlands for a spectacular sunset overlooking the wide open landscape.

Arches National Park to Canyonlands (Island in the Sky entrance) is only ten miles, so you won’t eat up a lot of time there. Keep in mind though that it’s a bit of a drive off of the main roads to the Island in the Sky entrance.

If you’re really pressed for time, consider a guided tour. Guides will show you the highlights of Arches and Canyonlands in a short amount of time, without any planning and optimizing required on your end. Click to learn more about the Best of Moab in a Day in a Jeep tour.

Arches and Canyonlands Hotels

Ideally, plan for at least three nights in Moab, though five would be a great amount to see all of Arches and a good part of Canyonlands. We stayed in a pet-friendly motel (see cat in the story above) ad always find good deals on Priceline.

Check nearby Moab hotel prices on Priceline. 

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 and the pass gives you free entrance to all 2,000 federal recreation sites for one year.

Order the America the Beautiful Pass here!

Moab Tours

Finally, if you’d like to experience the red rock desert but are concerned about striking it out on your own, there are a few Moab tours that you can join. Click on the links to learn more about each one:

Arches & Canyonlands & Moab – 5 Day Subaru Outback Rooftop Camping Tour

Moab Combo: Colorado River Rafting and Canyonlands National Park

Moab Canyoneering Adventure

So, which one will you choose – Arches or Canyonlands? And if you’ve been, what’s your take on the Canyonlands vs Arches debate?

arches or canyonlands? AlternativeTravelers.com

This article was originally published on June 30, 2016. It has been majorly updated since. Last update on December 6, 2018. 

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