If you dream of warm air, bright colors, and some of the most unique hiking in the country, then look no further than Arches National Park. The park features the highest concentration of natural sandstone arches in the world (over 2,000), as well as irreplaceable petroglyphs and Native American relics.
A whopping 1.6 million people make the trip to this Eastern Utah park each year, yet only 1% of these visitor’s venture into the park’s backcountry. Looking to join this exclusive club? Although the backcountry is shockingly beautiful, the landscape is harsh and unforgiving. This is not easy or simple backpacking—limited water, extreme summer temperatures, and a lack of established trails require hikers to be experienced and plan ahead. Despite this, planning a backpacking trip through Arches is a surreal experience. Hikers will be given the chance to explore bright sandstone arches, dark caves, and hidden tunnels without a soul for miles, and will experience one of the most unique backpacking trips the US has to offer.
Arches National Park At-A-Glance
Location: Moab, Utah
Size: 119.8 square miles
Annual Visitors: 1.6 million
Climate: High desert
Terrain: Rugged, yet fragile, sandstone rock and open desert
To gain access to this unique desert experience, you will need to obtain a backcountry permit, which can be purchased in-person at the visitor’s center for $7. Permits are first come, first serve, but can be purchased up to 7 days before the start of your trip. Each permit covers 7 hikers for a maximum of 7 nights in the backcountry (3 nights per campsite). It helps to just remember the number seven: $7 permit, 7 days ahead of time, 7 people, 7 nights.
Pets, firearms, and wood fires are prohibited in the backcountry, so plan accordingly before the start of your trip.
Plan To Carry Extra Water Weight
Any sort of water is a rarity in the park, and hikers should plan to pack all the water they will need for drinking and cooking during the length of their trip. In the summer months, air temperatures can climb well over 100°F, making strenuous exercise (like hiking) incredibly difficult. If you do opt to hike in the summer months, it is recommended by the NPS to drink at least one gallon of water per day. This means depending on your trip length, you will be carrying 4+ liters (almost 10 pounds minimum) of water in your pack. It is more important now than ever to break out the ultralight gear and save room for more water than you think you’ll need.
image via the National Park Service
Choose Your Campsite Wisely
As of the 2017 season, hikers are only permitted to camp at designated spots in an effort to eliminate overuse to sensitive backcountry locations. These new restrictions allow for a richer backcountry experience that provides solitude to hikers, as well as protects wildlife, vegetation, and culture resources (such as petroglyphs). If you are looking to hike to some of the park’s more sensitive backcountry areas on your trip, then it is recommended by the NPS to use your campsite as a base camp, and day-hike to the location of your choice.
There are now four designated backcountry sites in the park, which makes obtaining a permit competitive. Regardless of where you camp, ensure that you are following all backcountry camping regulations such as camping at least 1 mile from all roads, 1/2 mile from all trails, and 300 feet from both archaeological sites and water sources. It is also required that all camps are set up prior to sunset, and that the area is cleared by 10am the morning of your departure.
Bring Proper Food Storage
Although there are no trees suitable for bear bagging in the park, it is still important to store your food away from animals. A bear canister is recommended while camping as most desert animals are active, and hungry, at night. Mule deer, coyotes, porcupines, and jackrabbits are just some of the animals that may try to sniff out your food, and nothing ruins a trip more than unpleasant animals encounters.
Pack Out All Waste
You will be hiking over vast areas of slick rock and hard desert sands, so it’s not surprising that digging a proper cat hole is near impossible. In order to preserve the park’s unique landscape, backpackers are required to pack out all human waste during their trip. This includes food scraps, toilet paper, and poop. Toilet bag systems, such as a Wag Bag or Restop, are recommended, and there are marked containers to dispose of your waste at the Devil’s Garden Campground. Please do not dispose of toilet bags in privies.
Research and Plan for the Weather
In addition to planning for the extreme heat, it is important to research and plan ahead for things like flash floods and lightning. Most of the backcountry is completely exposed, which makes lighting a serious concern during pop-up thunderstorms. Rock overhangs and the shallow caves that litter the park are not considered adequate safety in the event of the storm – if you are close enough to your car, the safest option recommended by the NPS is to seek shelter in your vehicle. If you are well into your backcountry hike, then stay alert: if your hair begins to stand on end, immediately remove all large metal objects from your body (like an internal frame backpack). Squat down as low as you can, and cover your ears with your hands until the storm passes.
Backpackers should also stay aware of flash floods as many routes through the backcountry utilize dry washes that become active water drainages in the event of a storm. These washes have unpredictable flow patterns and can go from dry to raging in a matter of minutes. Take caution and research the weather to the best of your ability before camping in a dry wash. It is also advised to never try to cross a wash during flooded conditions.
Pack The Right Gear
Bringing the right gear on any backpacking trip is crucial to having an enjoyable time, but this is especially true when it comes to hiking in the desert.
- A sun hat, sunscreen, and a light colored synthetic long sleeve t-shirt will help prevent extreme cases of sunburn and sun poisoning
- Freestanding tents will give you the option to camp even on long stretches of rock and hard sand
- Extra layers may sound like wasted space when day time temperatures are nearing triple digits, but the desert gets surprisingly cool at night
- Additional stuff sacks or plastic bags can help keep sand out of sensitive electronics. Trust me when I say that you will be finding sand in your gear for weeks after returning home.
Choose Your Route Carefully
Many backcountry routes within the park consist of unmarked and unmaintained trails, which require hikers to carefully plan their trip ahead of time. When mapping out your itinerary, consider the terrain and features you will be hiking through. Avoid climbing down large stretches of slick rock, as these areas are often much easier to climb up than to climb down. Remember that sandstone all but falls apart when wet or icy – avoid climbing in these areas after a storm both to keep yourself safe and preserve the natural beauty of the park. Use common sense, and don’t take any major risks as phone serve is nonexistent and help can be hours or days away. It is also wise to bring a map and compass, as well as adequate knowledge of how to use it.
Unique Wildlife Threats
Although you won’t need to carry bear spray, you should still be aware of the numerous wildlife threats that are unique to this part of Utah. Scorpions, rattlesnakes, black widow spiders, and cone-nosed kissing bugs all make their homes within the park. Stay aware. Place hands and feet carefully when climbing up rocks (particularly in dark or damp nooks and crannies). It is recommended to check clothing and gear for unwanted guests before throwing everything into your tent at night. These animals have the right of way within the park – please do not kill or injure any potentially dangerous animal you see. If you don’t bother them, they generally won’t bother you.
With only 1% of visitors to Arches National Park venturing into the backcountry, backpackers will experience solitude among the arches and towering rocks that make up the Eastern Utah desert. Planning a backpacking trip through the park is an incredible experience, but one that requires prior knowledge and planning to keep the trip safe. Do your research, be smart, and take the time to truly enjoy the unique landscape you will experience on your trip.