Moab, UT

Arches National Park Seeing Record-Breaking Attendance

Rene Cizio
Arches National ParkRene Cizio

When I showed up at Arches National Park in Utah at 8:30 a.m. on Memorial Day, the park was already full and closed to further visitors. I joined the massive line of people turning around to find something else to do. When I returned that evening, I entered after waiting in line for about 20 minutes with many other hopefuls. You might expect the park to be packed on a holiday weekend, but it has been packed for weeks before and since in nearly equal measure.

Arches National Park receives more than 1.5 million visitors each year. By comparison, Yellowstone had 3.8 million visitors in 2020 and Zion had 3.6 million and that was a low year due to COVID. All the rangers I spoke with say they’re already seeing record numbers of visitors in 2021.

I was so excited to see Arches. It was a large part of me driving an extra four hours out of my way, but the sight of the crowds dimmed my enthusiasm. To me, nature isn’t a crowded place. It’s a place to be alone and commune with rocks, plant life and animals. But I could see that wouldn’t be happening on this visit.

The drive was slow as I joined the long line of cars on the road heading up and into the park. The road curves back and forth up a red rock mountainside and takes you back into an expanse you can’t see from the road or entrance.

Once on the other side of the mountain, and you look around the other drivers and people in the parking lots, you begin to see glorious red-orange formations. With more than 2,000 natural sandstone arches, the park contains the highest density of natural arches in the world.

You can get up close and personal with many formations since they each have a nearby parking lot for gawking. If you’re so inclined, you can also get out of your vehicle and make a short hike to get a closer look at most of them.

They say the park is great for auto touring, hiking, bicycling, camping, canyoneering, and rock climbing, but I only saw the auto touring part. True, the crowds put me off, so I was less enthusiastic than I could have been to explore this park, but finding a place to park so I could explore made it hard. And I didn’t plan as well as I usually do.

Still, I drove by petrified dunes and balanced rock, which they say is the size of three school busses balanced on top of a thin pedestal. It looks like it’s near toppling.

After driving in circles and waiting for other vehicles to vacate parking spots, I walked the mini hikes near Delicate Arch, Double Arch and the Windows. It is fascinating to see up close these massive red sandstone structures that seem to defy gravity and nature itself.
Arches National ParkRene Cizio

If you’re brave, the park is open 24 hours and it’s known as an International Dark Sky Park, though that may be in jeopardy from increasing light pollution coming from nearby Moab. I say brave because driving along those steep mountain passes in the dark would take more courage than I have.

If you plan to visit Arches this year or anytime soon, I suggest planning a route and starting with Delicate Arch since that will be the busiest. Go very early in the morning – like 5 a.m. – or very late in the evening – after 7 p.m. – to avoid the worst of the crowds and enjoy this beautiful place as intended.

For my part, I found a Bureau of Land Management site 5 miles further away from Moab and Arches. I enjoyed the night sky in solitude on a mesa top I shared with only a few other quiet revelers, which was much better than the Disneyland atmosphere I found at Arches.

Arches National Park is usually open year-round, 24 hours a day. Find it north of Moab, Utah. From Interstate 70 (Crescent Junction), drive south on US 191 for 22 miles.

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