Utah: Arches National Park and Capitol Reef National Park – Cross Country USA Road Trip (Part 4)

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Welcome back to Part 4 of our six week road trip across the United States! In this article, we explore two of Utah’s best natural attractions: Arches National Park and Capitol Reef National Park.

A brief recap: we set out from our home in Raleigh in early June and made it back home toward the end of July. In total we spent over six weeks (46 nights!!) on the road and drove 8,200 miles. 

Along the way, we visited 14 national parks and a ton of other interesting places. It was quite a busy trip, since we stayed in 25 different airbnbs or hotels and spent more than 100 hours traveling in the van

To cover the whole trip, I am breaking up the trip summary into thirteen separate blog posts plus a bonus article covering the trip logistics for a six week road trip for a family of five.

Here is a table of contents for our whole trip if you want to check out other parts of our journey (once those other blog posts go live!):

  1. North Carolina to Kansas via West Virginia and St. Louis
  2. Colorado: Denver, Rocky Mountain National Park, and Frisco
  3. Colorado: Black Canyon of the Gunnison and Mesa Verde National Parks plus Ouray
  4. Utah: Arches National Park and Capitol Reef National Park
  5. Utah: Bryce Canyon National Park and Zion National Park
  6. Arizona: Glen Canyon Dam, the Grand Canyon, and Hoover Dam
  7. Las Vegas, Nevada
  8. California: Los Angeles and Long Beach
  9. California: Sequoia, Kings Canyon, and Yosemite National Parks
  10. Crossing the Desert in Nevada and Utah: Hawthorne and Bonneville Salt Flats
  11. Salt Lake City, Utah and Idaho Falls, Idaho
  12. Yellowstone National Park
  13. Mount Rushmore, Badlands National Park, and National Museum of the US Air Force
  14. Road Trip Logistics

Join me for part 4 of our trip across the country as we explore two of Utah’s best natural attractions: Arches National Park and Capitol Reef National Park!


 This map shows where we started in Cortez, Colorado (point “A”) and where we ended up near Bryce Canyon, Utah (point “G”) two days later. Along the way we visited Arches National Park (“B”) and Capitol Reef National Park (“E”)

After departing Cortez, Colorado, we headed in a northwesterly direction toward Utah. Our hotel for the evening was four hours away in Green River, Utah. On the drive to Green River, we stopped at Arches National Park for the day.

We were moderately worried about the horrible wait times to get into Arches. Overcrowding at national parks is a HUGE issue at the more popular places during the summertime peak tourist season.

The Arches NP twitter page indicated that they literally shut the gates and close the park to additional cars every morning when they reach capacity. From viewing their historical tweets, I could tell they typically close the gates around 8 am each day, even weekdays. 

Then at some point in the middle of the day they reopen the gates to allow more people in during the remainder of the day. Usually they reopened around 11 am. 

Since we were a couple hours away from the Arches entrance at our Cortez hotel, we knew that getting there early wasn’t really feasible unless we woke up at 4 am and packed in the dark. Nope, no thanks to that. 

So we planned on getting there after 11 am, fully aware the mid-day temperatures would be 100-105F and bright and sunny. But we have umbrellas for shade! And an air-conditioned van!

The Drive and Getting into Arches National Park

On the way out of town, we grabbed some provisions from Walmart. We knew we wouldn’t be near any real grocery stores nor many restaurants for the next several days so we stocked our cooler well. 

After a couple of hours of driving through the Utah countryside, we arrived at Arches to a long line of cars waiting to get in the gate. At least the double line of cars was moving, even if at a snail’s pace. I picked the right hand lane, thinking the mix of longer vehicles in it would move faster than the regular sedans, SUVs, and minivans in the left lane.


After sitting in the right hand lane for at least 15 minutes and watching car after car after car pass by me in the left lane, I decided to merge into the left lane in hopes to get in the park a little faster. 

Success. We were the ones zipping by all the vehicles stuck in the right lane! After several more minutes, we were inside the park. We spent close to 30 minutes waiting in line at the gate but finally managed to get inside the park! 

Fortunately, this was the worst wait we experienced all summer at National Park entrance gates. We heard scary tales of people waiting for one to four hours to get into Yosemite in California. Fortunately we only waited about 30 seconds at that park, so I guess we got lucky overall.

The North Window Arch

Window Arches and Double Arch

Shortly after entering the park, it was lunch time. Since it was a baking hot 100F+ outside, we found a scenic overlook of the painted desert cliff faces and columns of rock that Arches is known for. Sandwiches, chips, fruit, and other snacks were consumed as the full-blast AC kept us reasonably chilled.

Fueled up and ready to go, we continued to a couple more overlooks, checking out some cool natural rock structures along the way.  The park is pretty spread out, but we certainly enjoyed the 10-15 minutes in the heavily air-conditioned car as we went from one overlook to the next.

We parked at the Window Arches and Double Arch trailhead for an afternoon of hiking. In total, we hiked about a mile and a half. Fortunately the arches themselves provide quite a bit of shade – a mild respite from the direct desert sun. A gentle breeze and our umbrellas helped keep us cool but there’s no avoiding the fact that it was HOT. At some point you get used to it.

We relaxed in the extensive shade of the Double Arch for at least a half hour before heading back to the car to continue our exploration of Arches NP. 

Double Arch from a distance (on the left)
Up close in the Double Arch. The climb up there is really steep!

Lower Delicate Arch and Sand Dune Arch

The next stop on the itinerary was the Lower Delicate Arch. It was pretty unimpressive in person. What’s funny is that it’s the iconic photo you see every time you google Arches National Park or see Arches referenced anywhere.

It’s not nearly as big or impressive as the other arches in the park. It’s gimmick is that it’s delicately (but naturally) carved out of rock and certainly looks like it’s man-made from afar. 

We didn’t hike up to it because of the heat. Better to conserve our strength for more rewarding walks later in the day! 

Continuing on, we stopped next at the Sand Dune Arch. I thought this was the neatest part of the whole Arches NP. It was late in the afternoon by this point. We enjoyed the shade cast by the monolithic fins of rock protruding from the desert floor.

The Sand Dune Arch is hidden inside a series of “fins” rising from the desert floor. Between the fins, the sand has accumulated into sand dunes.

In between the rock fins, the sand had accumulated like sand dunes at the beach. We took our shoes off and walked barefoot along the shade-cooled sand toward the arch itself. Along the way are interesting rock formations and rock crevasses to explore. 

Skyline Arch and the Drive to the Hotel in Green River

Eventually we pulled ourselves away from the comforting shade and cool sand and moved on to the Skyline Arch just a few minutes up the road. We were pretty worn out by this point late in the day. I made the trek all the way to the base of the arch along with my daughter. The rest of the family stayed back a bit and took in the arch from a distance.

Our last hike of the day to Skyline Arch

We drove a few more minutes to the end of the Aches loop road and decided to call it a day. The drive back out of the park to the main highway was about 40 minutes. After a bathroom break at the visitor’s center at the park entrance, we continued up the road.

Another 40 minute drive and we arrived at our hotel in Green River just as the sun was setting over the Utah desert. 

Originally our plan was to drive straight from Green River, Utah to our hotel near Bryce Canyon. It would have been an easy 3.25 hour drive with some nice desert scenery along the way. We would have checked into our Bryce Canyon hotel early in the afternoon and had a relaxing evening after a stretch of many days of back to back adventuring. 

But after looking at the map and digging into things to see in this part of central Utah, we found Capitol Reef National Park. To visit Capitol Reef, we only needed to detour about 40 minutes out of our way. Why not?!

The drive along Utah Route 24 to Capitol Reef
Colorful hills in the distance along Utah Route 24

So we took the scenic route to our next hotel and visited Capitol Reef National Park along the way. It would mean a rather busy day of sightseeing to tack on this national park. However we knew we had a couple days coming up where we would could relax much of the day. And our one week stay in Las Vegas wasn’t too far away either. 

Utah Route 24
Utah Route 24
Utah Route 24
Drive to Capitol Reef in Utah

Inside Capitol Reef National Park

Once we got inside the park, we drove down the main road toward the south.

Colorful cliffs in Capitol Reef National Park
The drive through Capitol Reef National Park
Capitol Reef National Park

Upon checking the weather forecast in the morning, I realized it would be another scorching hot day. High 90’s in part of the park.

And the Capitol Gorge canyon we planned to hike through was forecast to have 105F highs. I knew the canyon was narrow with steep cliff faces so I was really really hoping it would be mostly shady during our hike. 

We drove about an hour into the park. Then we turned down a fairly rough dirt road. This road tested the limits of our minivan. If the road was any rougher I think I would have needed an off-road vehicle (or at least a rental where I didn’t care about ruining the shocks!). We ended up making it to the trailhead uneventfully but we were rocking and rolling the whole time. 

The dirt road through the Capitol Gorge on the way to the trailhead

As soon as we got out of the car at the Capitol Gorge Trailhead, the wall of heat got us. It was baking hot. 

Getting Baked by the Canyon Effect

The hike was only 0.8 miles each way and the endpoint wasn’t anything horribly important. Just some carving from caravan drivers that passed through this canyon 100-150 years ago. The main attraction was the cool factor of walking along the dry riverbed through this steep walled canyon. 

We got a quarter mile or half mile into the canyon and were roasting from the heat. Some later googling revealed there is a “canyon effect” for heat. Basically the walls of the canyon heat up from the sun all day and then radiate out that heat throughout the afternoon and evening. 

So we were walking through a literal oven. Google said the canyon effect adds 10 degrees (or more), so I estimate it was an effective 115F and we felt every bit of it. There was minimal shade while walking but we took a few breaks underneath some rocky outcrops from the cliff walls. We had our umbrellas as well, so that helped too. 

Hottest hike of the trip through the Capitol Gorge

We made it to the turn around point and stopped for a few minutes to check out the carvings on the wall. Some modern day graffiti artists made their contribution as well unfortunately. At this point, we decided we had enough of the heat and headed back to the car, taking several more rest/water breaks along the way. 

Thank goodness our van’s AC works like a champ because we needed it after that hike!

It feels like all I do is complain about the heat. But we knew it was going to be hot during the summertime when we visited. At least it is a dry heat which doesn’t feel nearly as uncomfortable as our humid and hot summers in North Carolina. You sweat some in 115F weather out there but it’s not like 80-90F and dripping wet humidity in Raleigh.

Onward Journey to our Bryce Canyon Hotel

While enjoying the van’s glorious AC, we drove the hour or so back out of the Capitol Reef National Park and continued on our way to our hotel for the next two nights. It was located in the middle of nowhere about 15 minutes away from Panguitch, Utah and Bryce, Utah along the Utah Route 12 highway.

Exhausted from the day’s adventures, we called it an early night and went to sleep in our hotel rooms. The next day we would explore Bryce Canyon! 

We left Cortez, Colorado and headed to Arches National Park in Utah for the day. After a hot day hiking around the arches and cliffs in the park, we continued to our hotel in Green River, Utah. 

From Green River, we drove through the scenic Utah Route 24 on the way to the Capitol Reef National Park. Once inside Capitol Reef, we drove south through the park along the most scenic cliffs towering over the valley. 

We turned down a narrow dirt road and continued to the Capitol Gorge trailhead. From there, we hiked about a mile along a dry creek bed into the Capitol Gorge. It was ridiculously hot, but we made it back to the car safely. 

From Capitol Reef, we continued to our hotel for the night near our next destination, the Bryce Canyon National Park. 

Are we crazy to visit the desert in the middle of summer when it is hottest? What do you think?

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