Arches vs Canyonlands: Which National Park to Visit?


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Located less than 30 miles from each other near the confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers, Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park are home to some of the most awe-inspiring natural landscapes in the American Southwest. Travelers who are pressed for time might face a tough choice when weighing Arches vs Canyonlands and trying to decide where to spend their visit when passing through Utah’s Moab area.

Both of these national parks are immense, though Canyonlands is more than quadruple the size of Arches (Canyonlands covers an area of 520 square miles whereas Arches spans about 120 square miles). Considering this, one might be a better choice than the other for travelers with only a day to spend in the Moab area who aren’t planning on venturing too far from the car.

Time and accessibility might be the two biggest factors to consider when choosing to spend time in Canyonlands or Arches, though there are many others you’ll want to think about as well.

Read on for more information that will help you decide which of these fascinating desert ecosystems is most appropriate for a visit as you travel through the red-stained rock landscapes of Utah.

Arches National Park

Arches National Park is renowned for being home to the largest concentration of natural sandstone arches on Earth, along with a slew of other impressive geologic formations, scenic viewpoints, and hiking trails.

And for travelers who aren’t looking to camp or venture too far out into the backcountry, Arches is ideal in terms of its accessibility to paved roads and parking areas, along with ample opportunities for car and RV camping (AKA “glamping”).

Devils Garden in Arches National Park
Devils Garden in Arches National Park

Accessibility

Generally speaking, navigating Arches National Park is easy for any vehicle—including RVs and four-door sedans that don’t have good clearance and/or four-wheel drive—thanks to an excellent network of well-maintained, paved roads.

The bigger roadblock nowadays in terms of access to Arches tends to be traffic and crowds, as the lines of cars and hordes of tourists flocking to the Moab area during peak vacation season can be intense.

Some strategies to help you avoid the traffic if you’re visiting during the spring and fall (things slow down a bit in winter and the hottest parts of the summer) include arriving early in the morning and visiting on weekdays if possible.

Once you’re parked and out of the car in Arches, accessing the trails and lookouts in the national park can be as strenuous or as mild as you want to make it.

There are more challenging hikes like striking out for the Fiery Furnace area, but milder hikes and loops in zones like the Devil’s Garden and Windows Road offer plenty of chances at sightseeing, photography, and experiencing wide-ranging scenic views without having to range too far away from parking areas.

Finally, the park’s visitor center tends to always be open with varying hours except for on major holidays, so this is a great point of retreat during a day’s visit for lunch or to restock supplies and get information.

Driving through Arches National Park
Driving through Arches National Park

Affordability

Travelers weighing a visit to Arches National Park vs Canyonlands won’t find a whole lot of difference when it comes to affordability, as main expenses to plan for include the price of a private vehicle entry fee ($30 is the standard for a 7-day non-commercial vehicle pass), any additional fees if camping in the park, and personal supplies like food and water.

Assuming you aren’t camping within Arches National Park, the nearby town of Moab has a lot to offer when it comes to affordable lodgings.

Other options to consider that might add to your expenses when visiting Arches could be commercially guided tour services like guided day hikes, still photography instruction, and off-road 4×4 driving tours.

Prices for these kinds of guided services can range from just over $100 per person to $400 per group, depending on group size and duration (many of the local outfitter businesses out of Moab offer tours ranging from multi-day backpacking excursions down to shorter two or three-hour sessions). You can pre-book some tours here if you prefer to organise things in advance.

Turret Arch at The Windows Section in Arches national Park
Turret Arch

Things to do in Arches

Arches National Park really stands out when it comes to the sheer number of incredible natural sandstone rock formations you can experience in a given day.

One of the most popular pastimes for visitors to Arches tends to be touring among the marquee arches and geologic features—such as the Delicate Arch, Turret Arch, North Window Arch, Balanced Rock, and many more—while enjoying some hiking and photography. An iconic image captured by many tourists is the Turret Arch as seen looking back through the North Window Arch.

For anyone who is keen on photography but also wants to work in some light hiking, family-friendly routes like the Windows Trail let you get off the road for a roughly one-mile loop that will take you past features including the two Windows, the Double Arch, and the Parade of Elephants.

Balanced Rock in Arches
Balanced Rock in Arches

Other relatively mild hikes in Arches include the short walk and climb to a colorful panel of ancient rock art called the Courthouse Wash Pictograph Panel, the two-mile Broken Arch loop trail, and the Landscape Arch trail, among others.

If you have a bit more time and/or the budget to consider something that requires a little more planning and equipment, look into activities like horseback riding, mountain biking, river rafting, or off-roading.

Arches has some excellent Jeep trails that allow a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle to really get to some lesser-visited areas, and this national park’s immediate proximity to the Colorado River means raft outings can be booked from a short half-day to multiple days.

No matter how you spend your time in Arches National Park, you’re guaranteed to see double-digit numbers of America’s most amazing natural rock formations.

The Windows in Arches National Park
The Windows in Arches National Park

Canyonlands National Park

A vast expanse of desert wilderness that’s known for the colossal red- and white-banded rock pinnacles that give the iconic “Needles” area its name, Canyonlands National Park lies just to the southwest of the Arches National Park and Moab area.

This national park is an outdoor enthusiast’s dream thanks to its immense size and diverse topography. Like Arches, it is also known to have some of the best “dark sky” conditions for stargazing in the U.S.

Accessibility

Comparing Canyonlands National Parks vs Arches in terms of accessibility will generally lead you to the conclusion that both are similar when it comes to the availability of paved roads, well-marked trailheads, and well-staffed visitor centers, but the two differ somewhat in layout and size.

Whereas Arches National Park has a single, well-defined entry point, Canyonlands has three main areas and two main vehicle entry points. The zones of Island in the Sky and The Needles are both reached by taking US 191 either north or south out of Moab, respectively, before you branch off to the entry points at either the Island in the Sky or Needles visitor centers.

Once you’re in the park, main roads are all paved and well-maintained, and even lower-clearance sedans, minivans, and RV-type vehicles should have no concerns about getting around. For day-trippers with a limited amount of time to spend in Canyonlands, the Island in the Sky area may be a better choice than The Needles because of the greater number of sightseeing stops located near or on the main road.

Backpackers and more serious hikers might consider visiting The Needles or The Maze if planning to strike out for backcountry destinations like the Druid Arch or Chimney Rock.

If you need to rent a car for your visit to Arches or Canyonlands, you can browse Rentalcars.com for great deals across major suppliers.

The Needles in Canyonlands
The Needles in Canyonlands

Affordability

The baseline cost for entry into Canyonlands National Park, like Arches, is $30 for a standard 7-day pass for a non-commercial vehicle and all occupants (up to 15 passengers). Visitors can also explore other lifetime and annual passes, which are well worth purchasing if you plan on returning to the park in the same year.

Additional costs like camping fees are also practically identical to those of Arches National Park, with nightly camping fees falling right around a standard of $15 to $20, depending on the area, for groups of under 10 people.

Another similarity when comparing the affordability of Canyonlands National Park vs Arches is the fact that much of your expense outside of basic entry ad travel fees will come down to additional personal supplies.

For anyone hiking and sightseeing in Canyonlands without going beyond comfortable walking distance from their vehicle, some essentials include a good pair of comfortable hiking or walking shoes, seasonally appropriate clothing and extra layers to combat cold weather or wind, sunscreen, a good camera or smartphone with a camera, and plenty of extra water.

Odds are you’ll be stopping through Moab before heading to Canyonlands, so take the opportunity to purchase any gear or items you might need since the park’s visitor centers won’t always have every single thing on your list.

Mesa Arch at sunrise in Canyonlands
Mesa Arch at sunrise

Things to do in Canyonlands

Canyonlands may not be able to boast quite the same sheer quantity of natural arch formations as Arches National Park (though it does have quite a few), but it makes up for this with its oftentimes sparser crowds, sweeping wilderness expanses, and iconic backpacking and hiking trails.

In fact, the “less crowded” feeling one gets at Canyonlands vs Arches could be partially due to the fact that Canyonlands has two main areas that are easily drivable in comparison to the layout of Arches that’s based around a single main artery.

In light of this, one of the best ways to spend a day or two in Canyonlands is to pick between The Needles or Island In The Sky entrances and select one or two trailheads to visit and explore while enjoying short stops at overlooks and viewpoints.

The towering, snow-capped peaks of the La Sal Mountains form a beautiful backdrop for many photos in Canyonlands, so this national park, like Arches, is definitely a big draw for photographers.

As mentioned already, Canyonlands also stands out in its many opportunities for backpackers and longer-distance day hikers. A little bit of map studying and planning ahead of time is all it takes to chart out a good backpacking loop, and visiting tucked-away landmarks like Druid Arch can be done as a fairly short one-night trip.

Or you could look at a trailhead like Squaw Flat and choose to do a route that’s more doable as a round trip in a single day, such as hiking out to Peekaboo Spring and back.

A couple of other available activities in Canyonlands National Park are mountain biking and off-roading with 4×4 vehicles in parts of the park like the Shafer Canyon Road or the Potash Road. This can get you into some areas that are difficult to reach for anyone who is limited to their own two feet and a standard vehicle.

Canyonlands is also well-staffed with rangers who are very knowledgeable and passionate about the natural ecosystems of southeastern Utah, so consider making it to a ranger-led tour or a geology talk at Grandview Point in spring through fall.

Shafer Trail Road
Shafer Trail Road

Arches vs Canyonlands: Which is Better to Visit?

If you’re asking yourself “Which is better: Arches or Canyonlands?” and planning on traveling to one or the other, then prepare for a difficult decision, as both national parks rank among the most beautiful in the country.

The better thing to do when planning a visit to Arches National Park vs Canyonlands, or vice-versa, is to consider your specific goals and limitations or parameters.

If being able to stay within convenient distance of your car and see as many striking natural geologic formations as possible in a short amount of time is the priority, then Arches National Park is likely going to be the better option.

In terms of its layout, Arches is also a bit more condensed and viewing sites tend to be a little more concentrated right around the natural attractions, so it’s a great option for families and travelers who want to pack a lot of sightseeing into a single day.

For travelers who are more focused on exploring, getting away from the car, and experiencing a good mix of up-close views of geologic formations and expansive views of the La Sal Mountains and the sagebrush-dotted desert landscape, making a visit to Canyonlands National Park may be the best option in the Moab area.

However, Canyonlands is also rich in fascinating geologic features like the Island In The Sky area’s mysterious Upheaval Dome that can be appreciated without having to venture far off-trail, so Canyonlands may also be a good choice for return visitors to the Moab area who have already been to Arches and have multiple days to spend.

This way, there’s plenty of opportunity to spend a day exploring The Needles and then head to the northern Island In The Sky area the next day.

Driving to the Needles
Driving to the Needles in Canyonlands

Where to Stay in Moab

If you’re wondering where to stay whether you choose to visit Canyonlands or Arches National Park, the answer is simple: Moab. This town is an excellent jumping-off point to visit both parks and there are plenty of facilities and great accommodation options. If you’re wondering where to stay, check out these suggestions:

Comfort Suites Moab — If you are travelling to Canyonlands or Arches on a bit of a higher budget, this hotel is a wonderful choice for you. They have a number of great amenities, including a heated swimming pool, and countless clean and comfortable rooms available. Click here to see their availability

Adventure Inn Moab — A great place to stay in Moab for those on a mid-range budget, this boutique motel is a fantastic option. They have a number of comfortable and clean rooms on offer, self-service laundry facilities available if you need to do a wash on your trip, and free parking on site. Click here to see their availability

Private Rental – If you’d rather have your own private home when visiting Moab than stay in a hotel there are a number of fantastic options available to you. For instance, this beautiful home with panoramic desert views is located within easy reach of both Moab and Arches National Park. Click here to browse more Moab private rentals

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Moab hotels!

Fiery Furnace Formation
Fiery Furnace Formation in Arches

However you look at it when choosing between a visit to Arches or Canyonlands National Park, be sure to weigh how much time you have on your hands, what you plan to do for overnight accommodations, and how you want to space out your activities.

Even though it can probably be said that a visit to Arches is most appropriate for first-timers to the Moab area, anyone with only a single day to spend in southeastern Utah, or those who want to conveniently sightsee and take photos from the road as much as possible; even casual tourists and first-time visitors are sure to enjoy a visit to Canyonlands as well.

Are you wondering whether to visit Arches or Canyonlands? Have any questions on which to visit? Let us know in the comments!

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Duncan is a writer for The World Was Here First. He lives in Colorado and also works as a fly fishing guide and instructor when not editing or writing. He has spent time in Costa Rica and has made numerous trips exploring the Western states of the Rocky Mountains. If he could teleport to anywhere on the planet, it would be the mountains of Patagonia in Chile.

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