Hiking Distance (round-trip): 1/2 mile (loop hike)
Cautions: High temperatures during summer; steep
Mesa Arch certainly isn’t an “undiscovered” site, but you still shouldn’t miss it during your visit to the Moab area. Located in the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands National Park, about 40 miles from Moab, the now-famous arch has graced the cover of countless magazines and books.
Canyonlands National Park is divided into three sections: Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the Maze. In terms of travel time, Island in the Sky is the easiest to reach from Moab. While you’ll have no shortage of stunning vistas from the mesa rim here, most of the trails in this section of the park involve fairly long hikes that require descending down from the rim and climbing back up. There are a few exceptions, however, and Mesa Arch takes the prize for offering one of the most spectacular views for a minimal amount of physical effort.
An Arch with a View
From the parking area, Mesa Arch is an easy half-mile loop walk to an arch perched on the edge of a 500-foot vertical cliff. Although the arch spans only 50 feet, its dramatic suspension above an abrupt drop-off to the expansive white rim canyons makes it a premiere “ooh aah” site in southern Utah.
Part of what makes the view so spectacular is Washer Woman Arch, which is so perfectly positioned through the opening of Mesa Arch that it looks like the geology gods purposely placed it there for your viewing and photography pleasure. Named for its resemblance to a woman reaching down into a washtub, Washer Woman is both an arch and a classic sandstone tower. If you gaze long enough at the rock structure, you may start to feel like you’re actually looking at a woman out there. Feel sorry for her because she’s stuck doing laundry in this beautiful landscape.
If you really want to have an out-of-body experience, trek out to see Mesa Arch at sunrise. I use the word “trek” not because it’s a difficult walk, but because of how early you’ll have to get up. If you’re not a morning person it will require some discipline, as you’ll need to leave Moab about an hour and a half before sunrise. Allow about an hour for the drive and 15 minutes for the walk out to the arch.
You only have a small window of time when the sunrise turns the underside of the arch into an intense red glow, so don’t cut your timing too close. (The only thing worse than getting up that early is getting up that early and missing it by five minutes.) Take a flashlight or headlamp with you, as it will probably still be dark when you’re walking out to the arch.
It used to be that only locals and canyon country regulars knew about this sunrise secret, but in the last 10 to 15 years—as the spectacular photos have circulated around the globe—the word has gotten out. These days, don’t be surprised if you get to the arch and find 20 people, each with 50 pounds of camera equipment and all jockeying for position.
For the most part, folks are courteous about sharing the space, but you need to understand that photographers take their Mesa Arch sunrise shots very seriously. I wouldn’t advise jumping in front of everyone with your phone camera just to get that “one quick shot,” or you may find yourself being pummeled by an army of tripods.
Don’t be too disappointed if you can’t make the sunrise trip; Mesa Arch and its panoramic view of the White Rim Basin are spectacular at any time of day. By the way, in case you’re tempted to walk across the arch, that’s a very bad idea. If you don’t believe me, step up to the opening of the arch and look down at the abyss below. It’s also against park regulations to walk on the arch, despite what you may see in photos.
From Moab, Utah:
Head north on Hwy 191 (Main Street in Moab) for 11 miles. Turn left onto State Route 313 and drive 21.5 miles to the park visitor center. (After about 15 miles you’ll reach the left turn to Dead Horse Point State Park; be sure and continue straight to Canyonlands National Park.) From the visitor center, continue on the main park road (Grandview Point Road) for 6 miles. The signed parking area for Mesa Arch is on the left side of the road. There is a $25 entrance fee to Canyonlands National Park.