Delicate Arch is the most iconic rock structure in Utah. Located just outside the city of Moab, Delicate Arch is a golden sandstone bridge that towers alone on the tip of a deep bowl of orange striped rock that drops off steeply on both sides of the arch. It stands in solitude like the Statue of Liberty, the Eiffel Tower or the Colosseum. Delicate Arch is the MOST recognizable formation in the state. They use it on their state license plate, Chamber of Commerce ads and even headlines their Mighty 5 National Park commercials. It might be the most photographed in the country – though I know Yellowstone has some pretty cool geysers too! Join us as we share our experience hiking the trail to Delicate Arch with our two kids.
How was Delicate Arch formed?
For more than 65 million years, water and rain have had the greatest impact on shaping this spectacular structure, eroding the rock and washing away sediment. Through the freezing and thawing cycles Arches experiences, water infiltrates cracks in the rock, freezing and expanding, creating new fractures that will eventually lead to the demise of Delicate Arch. As the rock narrows and thins, it becomes more and more delicate, but hopefully not for a VERY long time!
The hiking trail
When hiking the Delicate Arch trail with kids, it’s worth noting that the trail offers four different types of terrain on the way up to the big spectacle. Arches NP has rated the trail as difficult, but we have done the hike twice with our kids; the first time when our son was 4 years old and our daughter just one year old. Our son hiked the entire 3.2 mile round trip trail on his own two feet. Our daughter had an easier go of it, she was on my back, snuggled up in the baby carrier. The second time, our son was 6 and our daughter was 3 years old, both strong, young hikers at this point. Incredibly, they BOTH hiked out and back to Delicate Arch on their own without difficulty. Please note there definitely was some bribery with “energy snacks” aka fruit snacks on the trail and maybe even promises of ice cream at the end!
As you depart from the Wolfe Ranch parking lot, make sure you have plenty of water and snacks to sustain you and your kiddos. You start on a dirt trail that passes the historic building, Wolfe Ranch, which dates back to the late 1800’s. Just behind the building, you’ll see Ute petroglyphs – totally worth stopping to see, but I would recommend going back after the hike to explore these. Keep the excitement and momentum you have to start the hike!
Views for miles
After crossing a fun little bridge, you begin climbing with a few steep, rocky, dirt switchbacks. Soon you quickly find yourself into the next terrain, a wide open slick rock with panoramic views for miles! Our daughter really enjoyed pretending she was an animal on all four “legs” climbing up the rock, whatever makes keeps them moving! Here many of the hikers spread out along the rock and it can feel like you are hiking alone. Climb up a bit, then sit down and look back where you just hiked from. The views are SPECTACULAR! You can look back to see the parking lot and play “find my car”. Consider sitting down for that game, so you don’t lose your footing, it’s a little dizzying to see this view! This was a great place for our first “refuelling stop”, giving the kids’ little legs a short rest. Trail mix filled with good healthy nuts, raisins and of course CHOCOLATE CHIPS are a favorite. Though it seems there are only the nuts left over when I get the bag back – hmmm…
The next section brings hikers back together through a fun channel area that passes a shelf where many hikers have left their own cairns. DID YOU KNOW that creating a cairn is actually considered vandalism? While it may seem fun and innocent play, it can cause great confusion to fellow hikers who may actually get lost and rely on these to find the correct route. Please leave these for only park rangers and staff to make and maintain. Make sure your kids know this when hiking the Delicate Arch trail.
You now find yourself back in an open slick rock area as you’re nearing the last part of the trail. It’s a wide open space with lots of room to explore. Our kids loved climbing the ledges and into holes carved out by the sweeping winds that run through here. We’ve done this hike twice, three years apart and in the month of March. Both times, blue skies with wispy clouds and extremely comfortable temperatures made for a very nice hike!
The last stretch
This is the last dash before getting to Delicate Arch! This beautiful open space painted in orange-gold shades of beige and brown has nooks and crannies to discover, explore, climb and hide in, a true child’s playground! Do not stop here – do it on the way back because you are SO close! Just past this comes the VERY narrow ledge hugging the side of the mountain – so hold your little hikers CLOSE! We highly recommend you stay single file for those coming back down because the drop off is really steep.
The NARROW ledge is less than six feet wide – you can see how dangerous this part of the hike can be, especially if you have little ones! Keep them on the inside and HOLD ON! This is right before witnessing the awe of Delicate Arch. After a short scramble, you’ll have access to one of the most spectacular views in all of Arches National Park.
Initially you have no idea what’s around the curve while you’re walking the narrow ledge that wraps around the sandstone mountain. You scramble up and over a wall into the “bowl” and BOOM! There’s Delicate Arch! It’s surreal! It’s jaw dropping! It’s spectacular! Standing like a giant perched on the sandstone bowl – it was an amazing journey!
We made it!
Crazy parent mode turns on and you grip their little hands tighter than ever before, yet the area is fairly safe if you take care. We crawled to a somewhat flat spot that allowed us catch our breath, and my blood pressure to drop! We took a LOT of photos with the full arch in the background and then my husband had what seemed at the time, the insane idea of walking down to stand UNDER THE ARCH! WHAT?!?! WHY would you want to do something so silly?? After watching many people, novice and advanced, and families with kids of all ages successfully navigate the path down, I supported the idea of going with our 3 year old and I stayed back holding the baby. With my heart beating, I watched as they walked out towards Delicate Arch. A bit nervous, I managed to get shaky video of the experience. THEY MADE IT! I captured such a fun photo of them standing with the massive arch towering over them!
Upon their return, I was asked if I wanted to go. Thinking this might be my only chance, I sheepishly responded, “Yes”. As I got closer to the landing underneath the arch, I noticed that it’s actually quite a bit wider than I originally thought it was! Whew! It still has a steep drop off and you want to make sure you’re holding your little ones tight, but not as scary as I made it out to be in my head! I laid down, gazing up at the blue skies just past the arch and enjoyed a peaceful moment, until the next person “coughed” to let me know they were ready for their turn.
We sat for a while longer, snacking and reenergizing for the hike back down. It’s ALWAYS faster going DOWN than up but because parts of this trail are rocky, you have to watch your footing, otherwise, too much speed will make you tumble!
A fun new game
As we got back to the steep switchbacks we initially encountered at the start of the trail, our kids invented a really fun new sport that we have dubbed the SHOE LUGE! With your kiddo facing forward, you hold them under their armpits and they keep their feet flat – almost planking between you and their feet. Then, just like you would push snow with a shovel, you push them downhill! The steep decline and rocks make what feels like wheels under their feet, so be careful, you can build up speed pretty quickly!
At this point, you have nearly completed the 3.2 mile trek to and from the infamous arch, take the time to check out the petroglyphs you passed at the start of the hike. It might add an additional ten minutes to your hike, but they are truly worth seeing! The petroglyphs are speculated to have been sketched sometime between 1650 – 1850 by the local Ute tribal Indians. They depict a horse and rider surrounded by big-horned sheep, a common sight in the Utah mountains. We love exploring these types of artifacts which allow us to have a great dialogue with our kids, helping them to understand how Native Americans lived, ate, hunted and survived these terrains. Having these discussions with our kids is an incredibly important aspect for us when traveling. We believe it helps them to broaden their views and encourages empathy and compassion for others. We love that beyond all the natural beauty that our National Parks offer, there is so much rich history and culture to discover!
We hope this inspires you to consider hiking the Delicate Arch trail with your kids! Be safe and have fun!
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To read about our other hiking adventures with kids, click here.