Mesa Arch, in the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park is one of the most famous and most photographed landmarks in the National Park System. It is also one of the best and easiest hikes you can do in a park with such a great payoff.
About Mesa Arch
Mesa Arch is a beautiful pothole arch on the eastern edge of the Island in the Sky Mesa. The Island in the Sky Mesa rests on sandstones that rise over 1,000 feet above the valley below. This leads to the spectacular views around the Island in the Sky district. The pothole arch of Mesa Arch was formed by former water that flowed in this area weathering away the sandstone (as opposed to other arches from wind and weather (freezing/warming)). The view through the arch gives you sweeping views of the canyon, La Sal Mountains, and Monster Tower, Washer Woman Arch, Airport Tower a bit closer to the side.
Why you Should Visit Mesa Arch
So maybe you’ve never heard of Mesa Arch. Well even, you may have seen a photo of it before. And if it’s your first time, hopefully it’s enticing enough for you to want to visit. And, the reality is even better than photos can make it seem! The expansiveness of the canyon is one to behold.
And you should, even if you are in Canyonlands for a day or a week, a visit to Mesa Arch is easy and one of the most stunning vistas you’ll find anywhere.
The Hike is Super Easy, with an amazing pay off, so if you are hesitating to visit it. You Shouldn’t! If you are in the area, you’ll do yourself a disserve by not going. And everyone else will wonder why you missed it!
Best Time to Visit
The Trail is generally open all day and every day of the year. Weather may close roads for driving occasionally however.
Winters in the park can be very cold and sometimes get snow. Although given the ease of this hike, that may just add to the ambiance. You may even get to see snow on the arch as well which tend to make great photos. Also winters tend to be the quietest season in the park, particularly December to February.
Summer can be very hot everywhere in the park. What makes this trail good even in the summer is that the hike is very easy, relatively flat (there is some elevation change but not much), and very short. Therefore, you won’t be hiking a lot to get there. The area is very exposed to the sun so be sure to have sunblock (regardless of the time of year).
Spring and Autumn by far have the best weather (and some of the greatest crowds). You’ll unlikely have the place to yourself but early or late Autumn you may still get good weather with slightly less crowds.
Hiking the Mesa Arch Trail for Sunrise is the best time of day to go. You’ll get sun rising from through the arch and watching the sun peak out as you area begins to illuminate.
Sunset can be great as well. You’ll get some great illumination on the arch from behind which will give you good light of the arch and area. But you won’t get as much of the cool sunsetting color as if it was behind the arch.
The Mesa Arch Hike
Length: 0.5 miles Elevation Gain: 90 feet Difficulty: Easy Type: Out & Back Avg. Time: 30 mins.
The Mesa Arch Trail is one of the best and Easiest Hikes in Canyonlands National Park. It takes about 15 minutes each way to do the hike to the viewpoint. There are actually few other places you walk in the area to get a few different views of Buck Canyon and some of the area. The trail is pretty well marked and since its so short its pretty difficult to get lost on the way to the arch. There’s some sand, dirt, scrub brush, and some slick rocks you’ll need to navigate to the viewpoint.
Visiting Mesa Arch Hike requires entrance to Canyonlands National Park. There is a fee for enteri$30 per vehicle (or included with a National Park Pass).
You can go up to the arch, Get very close to the arch, etc. But Climbing on any part of the arch or affecting it in anyway is prohibited. And honestly a shitty thing to do. These arches are fragile and you could easily damage the arch, commit a crime, ruin it for other people etc. All of these arches may one day fall unfortunately but we won’t want to hurry it along.
Hiking the Mesa Arch at Sunrise
For sure the Best time to Go to Mesa Arch is for Sunrise. If you are planning to go for sunrise be sure to check what time sunrise is so you can plan your time accordingly. At a minimum you should leave the trail head at least 30 minutes before sunrise to be sure you catch the light entering the canyon. But really I would recommend more time.
In reality I would say at least an hour before sunrise at the parking lot is a safe bet to get a parking spot and get to the arch in time and hopefully a decent spot to stand. If you are hoping to bring a tripod and get that extra choice photograph, you may want to consider getting there even earlier.
Mesa Arch Hike parking lot is about an hour from Moab, which is the closest town with hotels to Island of the Sky. Otherwise for closer options in the park you’ll need to get a spot at a camp ground in Canyonlands. The Island in the Sky Campground is First-Come First-Serve and spots fill up quickly.
If you are traveling from Moab to Mesa Arch, expect to leave at least 1.5 – 2 hrs.+. before sunrise to get to the Mesa Arch to get a good spot for the sunrise. I would lean towards 2+hrs before if it’s high season due to parking and crowds.
Sunrise is my favorite time at Mesa Arch. The light is just incredible as it enters the arch and canyon. It’s also my favorite time at most places as crowds tend to be lower. You can have places almost to yourself like Delicate Arch at Sunrise in Arches National Park. However, even though Arches NP is busier, Delicate Arch is a more difficult trail which keeps people away, Mesa Arch, being much easier tends to draw a larger crowd at sunrise.
Mesa Arch Hike at Sunset
Sunset is also a great time to visit Mesa Arch. You’ll get quite a lot of visitors as well as it’s also just a popular hike. The Sun will illuminate the back of the arch as it sets behind you. You’ll generally still get great light, and honestly you’ll get much better light than if you hiked during mid-day (mid-day is the worst for landscape photography generally).
You won’t get as much of the cool colors. You’ll get some, but much of it will be behind you. However, the setting sun illuminating the arch is still magical and it’ll darken without causing some level of silhouetting.
You can often have better luck with parking near sunset, as people are trying to get back to the city for dinner. You’ll have to factor that in if you are planning to get back to Moab for dinner and sunset is very late.
In my opinion, sunrise is better for visiting. However, Sunset is the second best and better than other times of day. Mid-day also tends to be the busiest, with more people just out and about, and a lot more people heading back to town before nightfall.
- If you are planning to go for Sunrise try to get to the parking lot early. You’ll need time to get a good spot for seeing sunrise.
- People tend to be pretty happy to allow you to get a photo if you get there a bit later. Try to grab a photo and move to allow others to get photos too.
- Sunset can be a great alternative if you miss sunrise. It’s still got great light and crowds can often be lower as many people try to get back to Moab by nightfall
- Even if the trail is super short, you should still prepare and carry water, sunscreen, and be careful of the heat/weather. Canyonlands can be very hot depending on the season.
- Leave no Trace. It is important to pack in everything you pack out. Don’t try to climb things you shouldn’t or if there are signs saying do not enter. Don’t climb on the arch. These areas are sensitive and we need to do the best to protect them.