Spring in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks: The Logistics

Arches, top photo, and Canyonlands national parks are otherworldly destinations perfect for Spring trips. NPT file photos by Kurt Repanshek.

Arches and Canyonlands national parks are colorful siblings that are great to visit any time of year, but to spare yourself the high heat of summer one of the best seasons to visit is Spring. Here are some keys to accomplishing such a trip.

* Getting There

Located in southeastern Utah, these neighboring parks require just a little extra effort to reach, but you won't be disappointed you made that effort. The closest substantial airport is 120 miles away at Walker Field in Grand Junction, Colorado. At last check you could fly from Denver direct to Canyonlands Field, which is 16 miles north of Moab on U.S. 191. via Great Lakes Airlines. If you fly into Salt Lake International and rent a rig, it's about a four-and-a-half-hour drive (240 miles) to Moab. Or you could take a ride on the shuttle provided by Bighorn Express.

* Where Will You Stay?

You'll find is no lodging in either park, but there are more than ample options in and around Moab. From high-end, luxurious casitas at the Sorrel River Ranch, which is cupped in a red-rock-rimmed bend of the Colorado River just about 17 miles northeast of Moab, to name-brand motels such as Best Western and Super 8 and charming B&Bs, Moab has options for all budgets and tastes.

Sorrel River arguably is at the top of the list, both price-wise and in terms of accommodations. The casitas are large and comfortable with gorgeous Southwestern furnishings and expansive red-rock views in all directions. All are a short walk to the Colorado River...and to the resort's swimming pool, spa, and restaurant, the River Grill. But you'll pay for this pampering, upwards of $700 a night in mid-May for a suite large enough for two adults and two children.

Prefer B&Bs? Sunflower Hill is a venerable inn in this river town. Gorgeous gardens that always seem to be in bloom are great backdrops after a day in the parks, and there's even a BBQ you can borrow to whip up dinner. Rooms are furnished with handsome furniture and come with shower/tub combos or jetted tubs. And yes, there's Wi-Fi and even laundry facilities. Nightly rates in Spring run from $175-$245

Across town stands Cali Cochitta, a B&B that offers not only rooms in the main Victorian house but also cottages large enough to handle families. Breakfasts in the main house are served family style in a comfortable country-inn-influenced dining room. You'll find space to stash your bikes at day's end, Wi-Fi, and a hot tub for easing any aches that arise. Rates run from $125-$145 during the high season, which runs March through October.

For more options, check out the Moab Area Travel Council's lodging directory.

Inside the parks there are a small handful of campgrounds. Though the only one in Arches is the Devil's Garden Campground, which offers 50 sites and is located just beyond the Fiery Furnace, many swear this is one of the most gorgeous campgrounds in the park system. Located 18 miles beyond the entrance station, the campground is rimmed by stunning rock outcrops. If you're planning a Spring visit you definitely should lock up a site in advance if that's where you want to stay. Indeed, park officials say it's not uncommon for all of the sites to be claimed by 7:30 a.m. from March through October. There is running water in the campground, and bathrooms, though no shower facilities, no hookups, and no dump station. There are picnic tables and grills at each site.

Canyonlands has two campgrounds -- the 26-site Squaw Flat Campground in the Needles District, and the 12-site Willow Flat Campground on the Island in the Sky District. Just as spectacular, if not more so, than the Devil's Garden Campground is in Arches, the Squaw Flat setting situates you amid sandstone outcrops that help with site solitude and within hiking distance of the colorful minarets that gave the Needles District its name.

Both campgrounds in Canyonlands are on a first-come, first-served basis, which can make it difficult to secure a spot during the high seasons of Spring and Fall unless you're traveling mid-week -- and even then it can be tricky -- or can reach either one early in the morning to make your claim. It's not unusual for some folks to show up around 6 a.m. to begin looking for a site. While Squaw Flat has water available year-round and bathrooms (but no showers), you'll have to bring your own water to Willow Flat and resort to vault toilets. One option if you can't find a site at Squaw Flat is the Needles Outpost, a small operation just outside the entrance to the Needles District. There's a campground here, showers, small grocery, gas, and cafe.

* Getting Around the Parks

These parks are almost like Jekyll and Hyde when it comes to negotiating them in a vehicle. Arches is small, not quite 80,000 acres, with one main paved road winding through it past most of the major geologic attractions. Canyonlands, by contrast, is a sprawling 337,598-acre park cleaved into three districts -- Island in the Sky, Needles, and the Maze, (four if you consider the Green and Colorado river corridors) -- that are somewhat far-flung and require a bit of windshield time to visit if you're traveling from one to another. None of this windshield time is boring, though, as the landscape you drive through is almost as stunning as that that lies within the parks' borders.

In Arches, once you pass through the entrance station off U.S. 191 the road quickly climbs uphill and leads you past an overlook that offers a great view of the Moab Fault that is a ready reminder of some of the geologic machinations that helped create these two parks. The road continues on, past the Park Avenue Trailhead, a viewpoint of the LaSal Mountains to the southeast, a collection of outcrops known as the Courthouse Towers, the Three Gossips, the Tower of Babel, the Organ and Sheep Rock. Next up is the Petrified Dunes viewpoint, a great spot to see sand dunes turned to stone by time; Balanced Rock; the turnoff to the Windows Section, and; then, following a nice downhill that offers you views of the Fiery Furnace to the north, the right-hand turnoff to the Delicate Arch Trailhead and, straight ahead, the Fiery Furnace itself and just beyond it the Devils Garden Campground and the trailhead that leads to Landscape Arch, Navajo Arch, Double O Arch, and some other great formations.

There is another road in the park, the unpaved route that leads through the Salt Valley to the Klondike Bluffs area with its Tower Arch and Marching Men formation. To reach another intriguing section of the park, the 3,140-acre Lost Spring Canyon area that was added in 1998, you need to head north on U.S. 191 to Interstate 70, and then backtrack down a dirt road. It ain't easy, but if you've got the time you'll see a side of Arches not terribly many others see. The only other way you can reach the area is by hiking down a wash in the park reached by heading toward the Broken Arch Trailhead. For directions for these two options, see the attachment.

Getting around Canyonlands is a whole 'nother story. From Moab you can reach the Island in the Sky District by going north six miles on U.S. 191 to Utah 313, and then 21 miles west to the district. Once you reach the Island in the Sky's visitor center, there are 17 miles of paved road in front of you, leading to such places as the iconic Mesa Arch, Whale Rock (a great place for kids) with its view into Upheaval Dome, and Grandview Point Overlook.

To reach the Needles District, 76 miles from downtown Moab, head south on U.S. 191 and then west on Utah 211. The payoff? That would be a 10-mile stretch of road that leads you to some incredible formations, the nice Squaw Flat Campground, and trailheads that offer deeper explorations into the park.

The Maze District most often is visited by river trips, but if you can manage the 101-mile one-way trip (via I-70 and Utah 24), the hike down into Horseshoe Canyon is well worth it.

* What Can You Do in Spring?

Spring-time activities run the gamut in these two parks. Certainly, hiking is the main attraction with endless miles of trails between the two. Some of the more popular hikes in Arches lead to Delicate Arch, Landscape Arch, Park Avenue, and the Windows Section. In Canyonlands, exploring the Island in the Sky with its trails to Whale Rock and ancient granaries on Aztec Butte can fill up half a day, while longer treks in the Needles District can fill several days and more. Traveling to the Maze District is more involved, as noted above, but if you have the time a hike down to the Great Gallery is certainly worth the effort.

Spring also is a time of renewal, and you can see this in the blooming flowers. For some details on Canyonlands' flowers, check out this site. To learn what's blooming in Arches, this site has the answers.

Of course, there's also mountain biking along the White Rim in Canyonlands and at the fabled Slickrock Bike Trail just east of Moab. And, some of the country's best rivers for paddling are found here.

For those interesting in backpacking, there's limited availability in Arches, but endless opportunities in Canyonlands.

In order to backpack in Arches, you must obtain a free backcountry permit at the visitor center. The maximum group size is twelve, but smaller groups are strongly recommended to reduce impacts. Permits may not be reserved in advance. Backpackers should know how to navigate with a topographic map, recognize safety hazards and practice low-impact camping specific to the high desert. Primary safety considerations include steep terrain, loose rock, lightning, flash floods, and dehydration.

Much of Canyonlands is managed as undeveloped land, and the park has become an increasingly popular destination for backcountry travel. Permits are required for all overnight trips in the backcountry. During the spring and fall, demand for permits frequently exceeds the number available. If you plan to visit Canyonlands during peak season, it is recommended that you make reservations well in advance.

For more details on backpacking in Canyonlands, check out this page.

* What Do You Need to Pack?

Spring in the parks? Odds are great that the weather will be warm -- typical daytime highs in the parks are in the low 80s, nighttime lows in the 50s -- and sunny, so you'll definitely want shorts, T-shirts, a broad-brimmed hat, and sunscreen. Beyond that, hiking gear from boots to daypacks, water bottles or hydration systems and hiking sticks, perhaps some nice casual outfits for dining in Moab, and a shell jacket to deal with any rain or cool days that might arise.

* Helpful Websites

Arches National Park: www.nps.gov/arch

Canyonlands National Park: www.nps.gov/cany

Cali Cochitta Bed and Breakfast: www.moabdreaminn.com

Moab Area Travel Council: www.discovermoab.com

Sorrel River Ranch: www.sorrelriver.com

Sunflower Hill Bed and Breakfast: www.sunflowerhill.com

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Comments

I actually have a trip planned for this spring (late in April). I have referred numerous times to some of your previously posted Traveler's Checklists (loved them and found them so helpful)! I was wondering if you (or any other commenter) would care to comment on the ranger-led hike through Fiery Furnace. My traveling companion and I can best be described as over-weight desk jockeys wih a good attitude (moderately in-shape). We'd like to go but don't want to be a burden to the group or ruin the rest of our trip. Any advice?

Janet,

Watch for updates to our checklists for both Canyonlands and Arches. As for the Fiery Furnace tour, if you're in moderately good shape it shouldn't be a problem. Greatest problem you might have is acclimating to the altitude -- 3,900 feet and higher -- and dealing with the dry air. If you have any lingering doubts when you reach the park, since you have to sign up for the trip you can always ask the ranger at the desk about tackling this wonderful trip.

Have a great time!

There are other camping options available. BLM has campgrounds located along the Colorado River both upstream and downstream from Moab. My favorite for tent camping is Moonflower, ~3 miles downstream from Moab on Kane Creek Rd. You need to bring water, and the vault toilet is out by the parking lot, but the canyon is gorgeous and the sites are spread out. Most of the campgrounds on the river are pretty bare right now from the Tamarisk eradication/reduction, but should be nice in a few years. Sand Flats also has several county/BLM campgrounds: the ones nearest Moab are full of ATV & mountain bikers and thus can be lively and friendly; others further toward the La Sal mountains can be quieter. There's also a BLM campground (Indian Creek) near the Needles district entrance to Canyonlands if you get there and Squaw Flat is full (Squaw Flat is the definite first choice).

In late spring and summer I recommend the forest service campgrounds in both units of Manti-La Sal NF (the La Sal mountains are above Moab, the division by Monticello has campgrounds that are great for access to Canyonlands Needles District). They're all higher up and thus cooler, although even in July or August a couple of the sites at Squaw Flat.

What's the current status of Needles Outpost? My understanding is that it's changing hands.

I took the ranger lead trip 2 years ago. It was the highlight of the trip, a must do activity. There was a large cross section of people: old and young, fit and "an over-weight desk jockey" (myself). The pace was very deliberate with many rest stops that included talks by the ranger. I would highly recommend it. See my video and take the walk yourself. Also enjoy the sights from Arches and Canyonlands.
http://www.youtube.com/user/nealgriffin

Neal - great video! Thanks for sharing it on youtube. I appreciate efforts like this as it is helpful when trying to determine if I am up for a given hike. Thanks again!

@Neal - Thanks so much for the link. Liked the video a bunch and feel like a got a good perspective on what the hike is really like. Will have to make sure my traveling companion watches it too so that we can accurately evaluate the hike.

The NPS has just released a Fiery Furnace video as well: http://www.nps.gov/arch/planyourvisit/fieryfurnacevideo.htm - and you can finally make reservations on-line for Fiery Furnace tours at http://www.recreation.gov/tourParkSearchResult.do?topTabIndex=FindTour

Good overview of all the wonderful hikes to try out in Canyonlands and Arches. I finally made it Utah a few years back after decades of looking at pictures. It was spectacular from every angle. The only problem was the dry air in summertime. My son's lips shriveled up and cracked and we had no ice to cool him down. Then an alert Ranger spotted a visitor with a soda and asked for some ice and we managed to soothe his burning lips. We live in the tropics and all the moisture was just sucked out of our skin. So remember the dryness factor too.

I just made a trip to Arches and Canyonlands and despite the HEAT the parks were so beautiful. I'm so glad I hiked to Delicate Arch at sunset. Everyone should visit these parks. I found some really easy to follow trail instructions (and nice photos) on this website, http://www.hikespeak.com/usa/ut/arches-national-park/ that was really helpful to me (along with this site) when I planned my trip. I love our national parks!