Hiking Distance (round-trip): 3 miles
Difficulty: Moderately strenuous
Cautions: Steep drop-offs on final approach to arch
The iconic Delicate Arch is usually at the top of the must-see list for Moab visitors. But during the busy summer and fall seasons, it can mean lots of people on the trail and long waits for parking spaces. Winter is my favorite time to hike to Delicate Arch—the crowds are gone, and the sun’s lower angle provides dramatic light for photographs.
At 45 feet high with a horizontal span of about 33 feet, Delicate Arch is arguably one of—if not THE—most photographed arch in the world. Part of what makes it so dramatic is that it is completely free standing, unlike most arches that are still supported on one or both sides by sandstone fins.
Delicate Arch’s base and lower sections were carved from the ancient wind-blown sands of the Entrada Sandstone, the formation from which most of the arches in Arches National Park eroded. The top of the arch (the “bridge”) is capped with the harder, more resistant rock of the Curtis Formation. As erosion chipped away at the sandstone on each side, this cap of resistant rock protected the arch. Like all arches, though, Delicate Arch will eventually succumb to erosion and collapse.
Getting an up-close look at Delicate Arch requires 1.5 miles (one way) of moderately strenuous hiking. You’ll have to trek up a long stretch of bare slickrock surface with no shade, but once you get your first glimpse of the arch, you’ll forget all the effort it took to get there.
The trail begins with a gradual climb on a gravel path for about .75 miles until you reach the long stretch of slickrock. Once you get to the top of this rock slope, the hardest part is behind you and the rest of the trail is fairly level. For the final half mile or so, you’ll follow cairns through pinyon pines, juniper, and sandstone domes, eventually reaching the narrow sandstone ledge that leads you to the arch.
I have hiked to Delicate Arch at least 10 times, and I can honestly say that each time I round that final corner and see the arch, it still takes my breath away. It is one of the most surreal scenes in the American West. You’ll be equally spellbound by the dizzying sandstone bowl that slopes down from the arch. It’s actually easier than it looks to skirt the top of this bowl and walk to the base of the arch, but use caution as fatal falls have occurred here.
If time doesn’t permit hiking all the way to the arch, you can also get a distant view from the Delicate Arch Viewpoint. Continue driving past the main parking area for another mile or so, where you can walk about 50 yards to a viewpoint.
A short distance from the main trailhead are the remains of Wolfe Ranch. In the late 1800s, John Wesley Wolfe moved to Utah from Ohio hoping that the western dry climate would help his leg, which he had injured in the Civil War. His oldest son Fred went with him, but his wife Lydia had no desire to live in the Wild West, so she stayed behind in Ohio with their other three children. John and Fred settled along Salt Wash because it offered water and grassland to support cattle, and they built a simple cabin with a bare ground floor.
In 1906 John’s daughter Flora came to live at the ranch with her husband Ed Stanley and their two children, Esther and Ferol. Flora and her family remained at the ranch for two years, but in 1908 they moved to Moab so the children could get proper schooling. During their two years at the ranch, Esther and Ferol spent lots of time riding around on their pet burro named Jenny, including at least one trip to Delicate Arch. A picture of the two children standing beneath Delicate Arch, probably taken between 1906 and 1908, is believed to be one of the first photos of the arch. You can see the photo in A Story of Life at Wolfe Ranch, a book sold in the park’s visitor center.
Wolfe Ranch was listed on the National Register of Historic Places in 1975. To visit the cabin and root cellar, take the short spur trail just before the bridge over Salt Wash. This path loops around to re-join the main trail and also takes you past a panel of petroglyphs on the rock face, carved by the Ute Indians after the Spanish introduced horses to the American Southwest.
From Moab, Utah: From the Arches National Park entrance, drive 11 miles and turn right at the sign for Wolfe Ranch and Delicate Arch. Proceed to the first parking area to access the main trail to Delicate Arch. To reach the shorter Delicate Arch Viewpoint trail, continue another mile beyond the main parking area.7.