Spotting rock formations and making memories in desert Utah
“Can you see it? Over there on the right. That’s its trunk and ears,” I say, pointing at a jumble of massive sandstone rocks.
I’m standing on a flat, sandy trail with my two children, then ages 8 and 10, in Utah’s Arches National Park, known for more than 2,000 arches carved by wind and water erosion over millions of years, as well as some funky-shaped rock formations with names like Parade of Elephants, Sheep Rock, The Organ, and Three Gossips.
“I see it! And another one! There’s another elephant right behind the front one, and those two look like they’re kissing,” says big sister, claiming spotting superiority over little brother.
“I just see an elephant BUTT,” says little brother, convulsing in laughter. (Earlier I’d pointed out Elephant Butte rising from the rocky terrain, and my son insisted on dubbing it Elephant Butt. Funny child.)
It’s not unusual for our vacation adventures to involve into some sort of potty humor, and our trip to Arches National Park, a 3.5-hour drive from Salt Lake City and 10 minutes from the outdoor-adventure mecca of Moab, is no different. But I don’t scold. I really don’t care. I’m just thrilled to be introducing Arches to my kids under bright blue skies, with picnicking and hiking plans on the agenda.
Viewfinder Tip: Late spring and early fall are ideal times to visit the Moab area; midsummer daytime temperatures often soar to 100 degrees.
Another of our plans: Arch-identifying. We make an “I Spy” game of it—who can spot the arch first?!—and play as my husband drives the sometimes-windy roads through the easily navigable park. Dozens of arches are viewable from the paved roads, and it’s easy to get up close and personal with some of the named formations—such as Balanced Rock and Double Arch—via short, flat trails that are totally manageable for young school-age children.
But we have a loftier goal for my kids’ first trip to Arches National Park: Hiking the 3-mile round-trip to iconic Delicate Arch, the rock formation pictured on Utah license plates. It’s not an easy trek; the official park visitor guide (you’ll get one when you pay your entry fee) labels it “strenuous” with very little shade. But we’re armed with plenty of water, energizing snacks, and healthy senses of humor.
We find the hike full of surprises, especially since it had been 13 years since my husband and I had done it. Along the way, we see cacti in spring bloom, little lizards scurrying into cool hiding places, and, once we reach open slickrock, piles of rocks we explain to the kids are cairns to help mark the trail. That becomes a game, too: Who can spot the cairns first?
I’d forgotten that at the end of the trail, just before we reach freestanding Delicate Arch, we’d need to traverse a rock ledge. But the kids handle the narrow path just fine, better than I (who am the most afraid-of-heights in our family).
Images carved into stone
After high fives all around for reaching the impressive finale, the hike back down (480 feet in elevation) feels like a piece of cake. Plus, there’s another reward I’d been saving: A short side trail at the main trailhead leads to primitive petroglyphs carved sometime between 1650 and 1850.
A little history lesson, plenty of vigorous outdoor exercise, an appreciation of nature, and lots of laughs round out our time in Arches National Park. And that’s just one day in the Moab area. The small resort town surrounded by red-rock landscapes and snow-covered peaks is filled with many kid-friendly trails for hiking and biking. Other local activities include jeep tours, river rafting, hot-air ballooning, and horseback riding. (Moab Adventure Center is a good place to start perusing some fun options.) Moab even is a great place just to relax; we visited Moab when my children were preschoolers, and we found fun simply throwing rocks in the Colorado River and playing the oversized outdoor musical instruments in Rotary Park.
Today, now that my kids are teens, however, we’re due for another trip to Moab to tackle the 7.2-mile round-trip trek to Devil’s Garden, the longest of the maintained trails in Arches National Park. I won’t be surprised if we encounter some buttes—and butts—along the way.
What’s your favorite National Park to explore with kids?
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