Ask Me: The Must-Do Dayhikes in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks
My wife and I are heading to Moab at the end of April for a week of hiking in Canyonlands and Arches. We’re excited about the trip; it’s our first to that area. We are dayhikers, but we’re not afraid of mileage. (The Highline Trail from Logan Pass down to Swiftcurrent Pass in Glacier National Park was one the most enjoyable days we’ve had in the national park system.)
I’ve been weighing our many options for hikes and I have a question: What are the must-do dayhikes in Arches and Canyonlands?
I’ve read varying accounts of the Syncline Loop Trail. Some say it’s straightforward, others say it has some difficult scrambling. What’s your take? Others on my list are making the trek to the Horseshoe Canyon to see the Great Gallery; hiking to the confluence overlook; Druid Arch; maybe the Peekaboo Trail.
Thanks for your input!
Thanks for writing and following The Big Outside. For starters, I highly recommend all of the hikes described in The Itinerary section near the bottom of my story about backpacking and hiking in Canyonlands and Arches. Even the popular hikes are really worth doing, and you can avoid the heaviest crowds on some trails by going early in the morning or late afternoon/evening. Given your attraction to longer hikes, you might dayhike the 20-mile route through Chesler Park and Elephant Canyon in the Needles District of Canyonlands that I describe in that story as an “alternative Needles backpacking trip” (an alternative to what I did with my family); to shorten it, you could skip the four-mile, out-and-back to Druid Arch, but I recommend you visit The Joint Trail, and perhaps even hike the full loop around Chesler Park. Sounds like you’d also have no problem dayhiking Big Spring, Squaw, and Lost canyons and the Peekaboo Trail in one day, too. The Big Spring-Squaw Pass is a highlight of the Needles District.
I have mountain biked out to the Confluence Overlook, a really nice spot, even though the trail out to it (as I recall, it was some years ago) is atop the plateau and not terribly interesting for most of the distance to the overlook.
Try to schedule a ranger-guided hike in the Fiery Furnace in Arches ahead of your trip; it’s popular and gets booked well in advance. I tried hiking it unguided some years ago and we had to backtrack to the start because we could not figure out the route through that fascinating maze of narrow canyons.
Devils Garden in Arches is popular, especially the first section of trail as far as Landscape Arch, and it can be difficult to park at the trailhead. But it’s worth hiking out to see all of the named arches along the trail’s various segments, and you lose much of the crowds once beyond Landscape Arch. Just get there early. See my photos from Arches in this story (same as I linked above); even some of the arches reached on short hikes from the road, like Skyline Arch, are very pretty; in the side canyon just below Skyline Arch, you can scramble up onto some ledges for a different perspective of Skyline.
I have not hiked the Syncline Loop Trail in the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands, though I’ve wanted to and I’m sure I’ll get there eventually. I’ve read that there are steep sections with loose talus and one short traverse above a cliff. The answer to your question really depends on how any individual person defines “difficult scrambling.” My experience is that most hiking trails in national parks, even those described as having some exposure or difficult scrambling, are not beyond the abilities of experienced hikers who are comfortable with some scrambling that involves using your hands at times, and are comfortable with some exposure. Hikers who don’t like that sort of trail might want to avoid the Syncline Loop Trail. But I don’t think you’d face any level of scrambling or exposure where you’re in great, imminent danger, as long as you exercise reasonable caution. Plus, you can always turn around and backtrack if you encounter an uncomfortable situation.
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If you’re up for a big, fantastic loop (with a short walk on pavement to connect the trailheads) that I’ve seen described as 18 miles, combine the Syncline Loop Trail with the trail down Upheaval Canyon, a short stretch of the White Rim Trail, and the dirt road up Taylor Canyon to the Alcove Spring Trail. You’ll go from the mesa top of the Island down into spectacular Stillwater Canyon on the Green River, see the tall, slender spires called Zeus and Moses, then climb back up to the Island—a grand tour. I’ve seen parts of that loop while mountain biking the White Rim Trail and floating the Green River through Stillwater Canyon. As with any hike in these parks, you’ll have long, hot, shadeless stretches, so be prepared for that. (I like a wide-brim hat for hot sun.)
And visit Dead Horse Point State Park—ideally for sunset—and drive to the end of the road for the very short walk to the overlook above the Colorado River Canyon, for a view that will blow your socks off.
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As you may know, the districts of Canyonlands are geographically closer to one another—as the crow flies—than they are convenient to reach by car. The entrance to the Needles District is a 90-minute drive south of Moab; the Island in the Sky entrance is about a 30-minute drive north of Moab. Horseshoe Canyon is more than three hours from Moab, and reaching it requires a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle. The Maze District is the least-accessible area of Canyonlands; its ranger station is more than a three-hour drive from Moab, and from that station it’s at least three hours of driving on high-clearance, 4WD roads to get into The Maze. For that reason, most visitors don’t try to get to all of the districts of Canyonlands on the same trip. But if you have more than a week and this is a big trip for you, then you can try to hit them all.
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Thanks again for sending a good question.
Have a great trip.
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Thanks so much for you excellent and thorough reply!! You’ve given me a lot to consider as we plan things out.
The long driving distances are something that I’m aware of and have been wrestling with. For instance, I’d really love to see the Great Gallery, since I’m a big fan of pictographs. But seven hours of round-trip driving, much of it through questionable terrain, makes me really stop and think. On the other hand, I won’t likely get another chance, so we may burn a long day just doing that!
I’ll let you know when we get back what we decided and how it all turned out!
You’re certainly welcome. It’s a tough decision between more time in the car versus not seeing a place you’re excited to see. I try to spend a much higher percentage of my time on trails or engaged in enjoyable activity than driving, so I tend to focus my objectives in a destination, as opposed to ranging far and wide. But I live in the West and can access these parks more easily than you can, so your priorities may be different.
There may also be alternative areas you could visit that would provide an experience similar to the Great Gallery without driving as far, if you do a little more digging. There’s a lot to see in that part of the country. I backpacked in Grand Gulch, on Cedar Mesa in southeastern Utah, some years ago, a canyon system with fascinating and largely intact Ancestral Puebloan cliff ruins and rock art. If you’re going to Canyonlands Needles District, Grand Gulch is several hours closer than Horseshoe Canyon. This N.Y. Times story made me think about returning there again.
But then, if it’s really important to you to see the Great Gallery, then the driving probably won’t matter to you.
The other consideration is that you would need to rent a vehicle built for those roads to Horseshoe Canyon and The Maze, and to make sure the rental contract allows you to drive roads like that. I was with a group of friends that rented a big, 4X4, for the White Rim Trail (everyone mountain biked and took turns driving the one vehicle, which carried camping gear and food), so I believe you can find those rentals in Moab.
I’d love to hear how it turns out. Whatever you do, you won’t be disappointed. Good luck.
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Well, we had an absolutely fantastic trip to Utah. What a beautiful part of the world!
As we expected, everything is pretty far apart. But we did end up making the drive out to Horseshoe Canyon. It was well worth it! I would recommend it to anyone, as long as you can get there. The hike isn’t bad, except for the climb up out of the canyon. It was only in the low 80s the day we were there, and I can’t imagine one of those upper-90s days making that climb.
Thanks again for all of your input!
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