The Green and Colorado rivers have carved a labyrinth of canyons throughout Canyonlands National Park. // © 2016 iStock
Feature image (above): Arches National Park is home to the largest concentration of sandstone arches. // © 2016 iStock
Deep in the heart of red rock country are two of Utah’s “Mighty Five:” Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park. Only 26 miles from each other, the national parks give clients plenty of opportunity to sample the riches of both during a single visit.
However, despite being close geographically, Arches and Canyonlands’ geologies are vastly different. Arches is home to the world’s largest concentration of sandstone arches, with 2,000 of these natural wonders scattered throughout the park’s 76,679 acres. After Arches National Monument’s borders were expanded several times, former president Richard Nixon established the area as a national park on November 12, 1971. Arches is much smaller than Canyonlands, its mighty neighbor to the south, but is still extremely popular — more than 1.3 million tourists visited the park in 2015 alone.
Just a 30-minute drive from Arches lies the entrance to Canyonlands, the state’s largest national park. Established in 1964, Canyonlands’ 337,598 acres have been divided into four districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze and the river district. Despite Canyonlands’ larger size, it is significantly less frequented by tourists, attracting only 634,607 visitors last year, according to Moab Area Travel Council.
Like Arches, Canyonlands features a fair amount of red rock, but owes much of its breathtaking scenery to the Green and the Colorado rivers. The waterways have carved out a labyrinth of canyon mazes, mesas, pinnacles, cliffs and sandstone pillars, providing the perfect playground for outdoor enthusiasts and adrenaline junkies alike.
Approximately 70 tour operators and outfitters are based in nearby Moab, Utah, and many specialize in tours of both parks.
Guided or self-guided auto tours around Arches’ 18-mile scenic road are quite popular, but camping and hiking are also common. Shorter trails provide an easier, approximately 20-minute hike while longer and further challenging routes may take up to five hours.
Some tour operators, such as Adrift Adventures, NAVTEC Expeditions and OARS, are authorized by the National Park Service for four-wheel driving tours of Arches, and several other outfitters offer half-day, full-day and multiday hikes around the park. One of most popular attractions is The Windows section of Arches, which is 11 miles from the park’s entrance and provides a large concentration of natural arches and windows, along with stunning views of La Sal Mountains.
In nearby Canyonlands, the presence of the Colorado and Green rivers offers tour options that are a bit more diverse, including whitewater rafting, mountain biking, 4x4 tours, skydiving and canyoneering.
Moab-based Tag-A-Long Expeditions presents more than 60 tours and tour combinations that incorporate both national parks, according to Sarah Sidwell, a sales director and guide for Tag-A-Long.
“Most people know they can go into Arches on their own, although it is nice to have a guide telling you what’s what,” Sidwell said. “Canyonlands has a reputation for being more remote and inaccessible. A lot of our full and multiday tours, both land and river-based, are only accessible to those willing to leave the comfort of paved access behind.”
Sidwell notes that while it is possible to tour the parks without a guide, a guided tour is sure to enhance the experience for clients.
“In order to be a concessionaire of the National Park Service, we have to give our guides extensive training,” she said. “All of our guides have been trained to take care of accidents and to watch for signs of distress. We believe that in order to make a tour great, you don’t take people to a pretty viewpoint and wait until they finish snapping their photos. We are there to tell you exactly what is so fascinating about that spot.”
There are also opportunities to see the parks from a less conventional vantage point.
Redtail Air Adventures offers private and group air tours over both parks with its fleet of single-engine high-wing airplanes. One popular tour is an 80-minute Canyonlands and Arches loop, starting at $246 per person for a minimum of two passengers.
“The parks are so large that if you tried to hike it, you would never see it from the ground,” said Jennifer Jensen, reservations manager for Redtail. “With an air tour, you see the parks from a God’s-eye view. You learn about distinct areas of geography in addition to the history and geology on how they were formed. It’s a wonderful experience.”
But, if clients do decide to keep their feet firmly on the ground, Sidwell recommends that they arrive early to avoid crowds — especially during the scorching summer months — and that they bring plenty of food and at least one liter of water into the parks.
Neither Arches nor Canyonlands offers lodging within the park (with the exception of campsites), so visitors who don’t want to rough it can stay in the nearby community of Moab. The town itself has a modest population — only some 5,130 residents call it home — but is an increasingly popular destination, due in part to its proximity to Canyonlands, Arches and Dead Horse Point State Park. Each year, visitors flock to the area’s 2,000 hotel rooms, 57 bed and breakfasts and 435 condos available for overnight rentals and long-term stays, according to Elaine Gizler, executive director of Moab Area Travel Council.
And Moab is preparing to host more guests in the coming years, says Gizler, with two new hotels in the works. The 96-room Homewood Suites by Hilton will begin accepting guests in the fall of 2016, and Marriott’s SpringHill Suites is currently under construction and will open in 2017. In addition, Canyonlands Field Airport is expanding its runway and gearing up to begin air service to Denver and Salt Lake City.
“Moab’s unique combination of beautiful red rock scenery, along with the cool waters of the Colorado River, has made it one of the most sought-after destinations in the southwest,” Gizler said. “A trip that includes Moab, Arches and Canyonlands is a once-in-a-lifetime experience. The landscape, the ancient history and the town of Moab have so much to offer guests.”