I’ll say what the guide books won’t: from Moab, it is possible to do both Canyonlands and Arches National Parks in one day.
The guide books don’t recommend it (because you’ll need to forgo entire areas of one or both parks), but I do. If you can wake up at 7, wash, feed, clothe and sufficiently caffeinate your body before hitting the road before 8, it’s easily doable (I’ve done it twice). Emerging from town and finding that you’re two sunny miles from Arches and not a whole lot farther from Canyonlands, you begin to think it doesn’t seem fair that one town should have two national parks — and very fine ones at that — right on its doorstep. But it couldn’t have happened to a nicer place than Moab. Not many towns in the USA can boast the same laid-back, outdoorsy feel, almost like they managed to keep all the good stuff from the 50s while slowly granting permission for the new millennium to settle in gently all around it. It’s a great town. Nearby two amazing national parks. Which is why I’m not advocating staying for only one day — but if you do happen to be there for just one (full) day, it is quite possible to explore both national parks satisfactorily.
Arizona to Utah
First, a brief note on the approach to Utah from Arizona. It’s been a well-kept secret (until right now) that the views around Grand Canyon National Park are very nearly just as spectacular as the Canyon itself. The drive is mesmerizing. The landscape is mystically flat, endlessly vast, scrubby and dry, and every so often a stupendous wound opens up in the surface, a deep and wondrous tear where rivers have spent eons carving their way downward.
Canyonlands National Park
We drove the 35 miles or so out to the Canyonlands entrance first, visiting the Island in the Sky district. We’d come to see what everyone comes to this region to see, and for good reason: Mesa Arch is worth all the hype. For now (until someone defaces the rock or plunges from it) you can get right up to, even walk on top of, Mesa Arch. Behind the arch is a sheer drop, hundreds of feet straight down into the lowlands below.
Not far from Mesa Arch, Upheaval Dome deserves hype, but gets none. The best thing about Upheaval Dome, besides its name of course, is what it overlooks. Standing atop the dome, you’re gazing down over a crater whose walls are a layered kaleidoscope of greens, silvers, reds, browns, and oranges set in Navajo Sandstone — a crater that owes its existence to the devastating impact of a meteor a long, long time ago.
Canyonlands – Parting Shot
Arches National Park
Back towards Moab, just a few minutes outside the city limits through the Moab Fault is the endlessly photogenic Arches National Park. The great thing about this park is that the scenery all around Arches National Park is every bit as jaw-dropping as the famous arches themselves.
All of it is spectacular. In a one-day trip (bearing in mind we had already conquered a sliver of Canyonlands earlier), there were only a few small parts of the park we needed to sacrifice in order to see all these sights.
Perhaps the greatest thing about Arches is its uniqueness. Stop anywhere here and look around you. Where else in the world could you possibly be?
Arches – Parting Shot
One of the most recognizable sights in the park, Landscape Arch — the world’s longest — is a living testament to the fragility of these structures, and the forces of nature that act upon them. Within the past 25 years alone, at least 3 large pieces of this arch — one of them measuring 70 feet across — have cracked off and fallen to the earth.
See it while you can.