What is the most popular, most photographed natural arch in the country? What arch adorns the license plates and welcome signs of Utah? Delicate Arch.
Delicate Arch is a thin fin of Entrada Sandstone overlooking a natural bowl of slickrock on one side, and Winter Camp Wash on the other. Over the course of thousands, maybe even a million or so years, wind and the natural freeze-thaw cycle have worked away at the fin, creating a massive aperture that looks across the slickrock deserts north of Moab all the way out to the La Sal Mountains. It is a beautiful arch in a beautiful setting.
This trail can be quite busy, especially in between April and September. Please be courteous to those who may not know as much about trail etiquette.
The trail starts at the Wolfe Ranch/Turnbow Cabin, alongside Salt Wash. These cabins were built by some of the first pioneers in the Moab area. Perhaps they left the area after realizing the water they built next to was salty? Who can say now. The cabins are neat, especially for those interested in the pioneer history of the area. From the cabins, the trail crosses Salt Wash. In the hotter months the gnats and horseflies can be very bad around the wash, so be aware.
The trail then snakes its way across Morrison Formation badlands, late Jurassic sediment that was laid down when animals like Allosaurus
roamed the lands. Northwest, across the San Rafael Swell in the Morrison Formation, a huge collection of Allosaurus
fossils were found, possibly killed in a La Brea Tar Pits-esq death trap. Here in Arches, however, there are no such concentrations of bones. This formation was also targeted by the Uranium miners in the 1950's and 60's. There are deposits of Uranium in the Morrison; in fact, some of the fossil bones have absorbed so much Uranium that they can be detected on a Geiger counter!
The trail leaves the undulated hills of the Morrison and begins climbing up a steep section of older Entrada Sandstone. The entire Cache Valley, where the cabins are located, is a giant syncline, where the crust of the earth has buckled downward. Near the parking area, you probably noticed a ridge of dark stone, sticking out of the ground heading generally east-west. This hogback is at the top of the Morrison, and was originally laid down flat. You can see just how much the ground has tipped down. Now as you begin climbing the slickrock, following the well-worn path and the cairns, you are going deeper back in time, even though you are gaining elevation. Also look to the cliffs to the north - some hanging gardens can be seen there, where some minuscule amount of water has managed to seep out.
At the top of the slickrock, you cross a section of sand and bushes, in between two fins of towering red sandstone. The trail then begins to hug the fin on the right, and soon is a narrow path on slickrock overlooking a small draw and mounds of red sandstone disappearing to the north. The fin on your right has one small keyhole arch in it, and from this keyhole you can look across the slickrock bowl towards Delicate Arch. This is a great view, even if there are usually swarms of people moving too and fro across the bowl. Continue around the end of the fin, cross the upper end of the bowl, and you can stand directly underneath Delicate Arch, the most famous arch in the world. When you are done oohing and aahing, return to your vehicle the same way you came.
Please note that there is no shade and no water on this trail. Furthermore the slickrock can be quite slippery when wet. Make sure your water bottles are filled at the ranger station, campground, or back in Moab before hiking this trail.