Delicate Arch is by far the most recognized and photographed arch in Arches National Park, a park with over 2,000 arches. It’s one of the most famous geologic features in the world.
Distance: 3.2 miles
Elevation Gain: 480 ft
Difficulty: Easy to Moderate (can be rough midday during the summer)
To avoid the crowds, we decided to hike in for sunrise. The tricky part about sunrise is that you have to hike in the dark to beat the sun. The trail is well marked and easy to follow during the day, but at night, there are portions that can be confusing. We were warned that people have died while hiking in the dark, so it’s better to hike it once during the day first. Since Jacob was fairly confident in his navigation skills, and we didn’t have the time to do the hike twice, we decided why not try it and turn back if we need to. As expected, halfway through the hike we got lost. We argued for about 15 minutes about which direction to go and then eventually found the trail again. Luckily, our little detour didn’t keep us from being able to enjoy sunrise at Delicate Arch.
If you’re hiking at any other time of day, you’ll pass by these petroglyphs shortly after the trailhead. Since we were hiking in the dark before sunrise, we ended up checking them out on our way out.
The arch can’t be seen from any of the paved roads in the park. If you don’t have time to do the hike to Delicate Arch, below is the view of it from the Upper Delicate Arch viewpoint (with a long lens). It’s a much shorter hike, but not as satisfying. It’s even farther from the lower viewpoint.
The Best Times to Photograph Delicate Arch
The best times to photograph the arch is during dawn, dusk, and sunset. Most people photograph the arch around sunset, since you have the most time to hike in and also photograph the arch. The hike will keep some of the tourists away, but since people travel from all over the world just to see this arch, it still gets ridiculously crowded. The first evening we just went to the viewpoint, and you could see a line of people waiting their turn to take a photo at the arch.
We enjoyed taking photos at dawn, but unfortunately, once the sun actually comes over the horizon, you only have 30 or so minutes before you start getting mixed lighting on the arch. So if you are there for photos, get your photos in first before enjoying the rest of the time there. While we were there, we saw 8-10 people come in and out at most, but as soon as we started heading back, there were hundreds of people on the trail including tour buses.
How to Navigate the Delicate Arch Trail
If you’re unsure of your navigation skills, do not hike in the dark.
We started our hike an hour before sunrise that day. The first third of the hike is relatively easy to follow, and trail is clearly marked. Eventually, you reach a point where the trail becomes a flat rock and you have to follow cairns and signs to find your way around. During a portion of the hike, you’ll be hiking up the edge of a giant rock slab. Before reaching the end, you’ll make a sharp turn to the left to continue following the cairns. The trail isn’t dangerous as long as you follow it carefully, but you do run into a few spots that have cliffs and drop offs.
You won’t have great service on the trail, but I recommend leaving Google Maps open. We opened it before entering the park. The trail is marked on Google Maps and the GPS should still work and track where you are in respect to the trail.
The trail was the path of least resistance, so if you feel at any point that it suddenly becomes more scrambling than hiking, backtrack until you find the trail. Just before you get to Delicate Arch, the trail goes along a rock ledge for about 200 yards. It’s wide enough to fit a couple of people, but if you are afraid of heights, it can be intimidating. I’m deathly afraid of heights, but the rock ledge felt fine as long as I leaned into the rock. Now, walking along the bowl to get to the arch… petrifying!
Where We Got Lost
We simply missed one of the cairns while hiking along the rocks. We kept walking straight and found ourselves hopping from ridge to ridge trying to find the way. The GPS was a life saver and was how we eventually found the trail again. By the time we found the trail again, it was blue hour and there was enough light to see.
Pro Tips For Your Delicate Arch Hike
- Wear sturdy shoes with good grip. The rock can be slick, especially when wet.
- Bring plenty of water with you. Once the sun comes up, it will get hot.
- Bring layers. When the sun is down, it can get really chilly!
- It can help to do the hike during the day before hiking it again in the dark.
- Leave Google Maps open while you have service so you can track your location.
- If you plan on spending some time at the arch, bring some snacks with you! Say no to hanger!
We definitely want to visit again and hike out during the night so we can shoot the milky way. Hopefully, we won’t get lost a second time!
Have you done any night hikes? Where is the best place you’ve been for sunrise?