If you’re going to Southern Utah, check out these ideas for fun, family-friendly things to do while traveling with kids in the Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.
I love to travel. I have long dreamed of taking off on a grand European tour, I think going on an African Safari sounds like an awesome adventure, and I could stare for hours at pictures of far-off, exotic places. However, with two little boys taking up much of my time and energy these days, some of those dreams are not going to be fulfilled in my immediate future (although I am going to Europe this summer, sans kiddos!…more on that later).
When we got married, my husband and I agreed that we still wanted to be able to travel, even once kids were in the picture. And we have. We’ve gone to Seattle, San Francisco, the Florida Keys, and New England…all with little kids in tow. It’s been more challenging to travel with kids, but we’ve loved every trip.
Last year, however, we started talking one night about how often people dream of going to far off places (Florence…I will visit you someday), but we tend to ignore the amazing places right in our own backyard.
I live in Utah, home of FIVE national parks, not to mention all the national monuments and state parks that dot the state as well. Sadly, In 15 years of living here, I had hardly visited any of them. So we decided to change that. We made a Utah bucket list and set a goal to visit as many parks as possible in the coming years. Last fall, we took a long weekend to visit Zion National Park and Bryce Canyon–it was fabulous!
This last weekend, we checked off three more parks…Arches National Park, Canyonlands, and Dead Horse Point. They’re all close to each other (near Moab, Utah), so it was doable to pack them all into one trip.
Whether you are a Utah Native who wants an inexpensive getaway with your young family, or you’re traveling across the world to see the beauty of Southern Utah (1.5 million people visit Arches each year!), here are some tips for traveling to Arches & Canyonlands with kids.
The Junior Ranger Program
My biggest tip: If you’re traveling to a national or state park with kids, find out if they have a “Junior Ranger Program” (most do). Your child can get an activity book from the visitor center, complete it as you explore the park, and then return to the visitor center at the end of your visit to be awarded an official Junior Ranger badge from a park ranger. The activities are typically designed for kids 4 and older, but Little Man got Little Brother SO excited about the idea of earning badges that we asked if he could do them, too. The rangers had no problem with that, even though he’s only 2, and he surprised us with how much he learned and wanted to participate.
Little Man has collected five of these now, and he’s SO proud of them. It’s really motivating for him to have something to work toward as we hike and explore, and it’s a great way to encourage your kids to actually learn about the place you’re visiting.
Canyonlands also allows families to borrow “Explorer Packs”. These packs contain binoculars, a hand lens, a naturalist guide, and more. Before you set out for the day, stop by the visitor center and check one out. We didn’t do this (I forgot), but I think my boys would LOVE it!
Okay, on to kid-friendly activities in the parks themselves…
Arches National Park
Delicate Arch (semi-friendly) – 3 miles roundtrip
The first hike we did was Delicate Arch. My husband really wanted to do this one…it’s pretty iconic…but I questioned the wisdom of taking our little boys on a 3 mile hike. However, I was surprised with how well the boys did. Little Man (4) hiked the entire way up and back by himself…fueled by crackers and a giant gourmet lollipop. Little Brother (2) hiked almost the entire way up, too (until we got to the dangerous part where you walk along a cliff’s edge and we put him in the hiking backpack). They weren’t the fastest hikers (I think we went about 1 mile per hour), but they did it! The view of Delicate Arch at the top really was amazing, and Little Man loves telling people that he hiked to the place on the license plate.
The top has some pretty significant drop-offs, so if you are taking small kids, plan to keep a hand on them at all times. We just kept Little Brother in the hiking backpack so we didn’t have to worry about it.
Don’t miss the petroglyphs at the base of the Delicate Arch trail. It’s a super short detour to see them, and it was really interesting to see and show the kids. Definitely worth the 3 extra minutes it took.
Note: If you aren’t feeling as ambitious as we were, you can do the shorter hike to one of the Delicate Arch overlooks. The lower one is only about 100 yards, and the upper is 0.5 miles round trip.
Sand Dune Arch (very friendly) – 0.3 mile roundtrip
Sand Dune Arch was a perfect hike for kids. It’s a short walk to the arch through a cool little slot canyon. Once you get there, kids can play freely in the massive amounts of sand surrounding the arch. My boys happily spent close to an hour digging holes, burying themselves in the sand, and running/rolling down the sand dune. It was pretty much like being at the beach, but without the ocean. There is another hike nearby, Broken Arch, which starts from the same trail head that is supposed to be relatively flat and easy, but it’s 1.8 miles round trip…so we skipped it.
Double Arch (very friendly) – 0.5 mile roundtrip
We spent so much time playing at Sand Dune Arch, that the day got away from us and we only had time for one more hike…Double Arch. It’s another really short trail (0.5 miles round trip). You can actually see it from the parking lot, but it’s worth the short walk out to the arch where you can scramble up the rocks to get right underneath the arch. This was visually the most spectacular arch of the day in my opinion (and my husband independently made the same comment).
Balanced Rock (very friendly) – 0.3 mile roundtrip
We just looked at Balanced Rock from the road…it’s impossible to miss…but you can walk around it if you want to get out of the car. It’s a super short (0.3 mile) loop that lets you get a closer look at a gigantic rock precariously perched atop a stone pillar. My boys were really concerned that the rock was going to fall off any moment. It was really funny.
What we want to do next time:
There were several other family-friendly hikes in Arches that we didn’t have time to do…now we’ll just have an excuse to go back!
I really wanted to explore the windows section of the park more, which is right by Double Arch. You can hike the North and South Windows as well as the Turret Arch trail all in one loop (0.5-2 miles, depending on how much of it you want to see).
I also would like to go to Devil’s Garden again. I hiked in this area several years ago (before kids), but it was in the blazing heat after getting about three hours of sleep and then spending the morning hiking in the Fiery Furnace. Needless to say, I’d like a redo. Landscape Arch is about 2 miles round trip, or you can expand the hike to 2.5 miles to add two more smaller arches onto your trip (Tunnel Arch and Pine Tree Arch. Landscape Arch is particularly interesting because it’s a really old arch. Much of it has already eroded away, leaving a really narrow–but wide–bridge of rock.
At the end of all that, we were ready to head back for some dinner and a nice swim in the hotel pool before the next day’s adventure in Canyonlands!
Canyonlands National Park
We spent about a half day in Canyonlands in the Island in the Sky (there are 2 other major sections of park that are not accessible from the main entrance…Needles and The Maze). We easily could have spent more time, but it was already day 3 of our trip and we were all a bit tired. We also had a four-hour drive home ahead of us, so we bowed out of the park around 3:00 in the afternoon.
Here are our highlights:
Mesa Arch (very friendly) – 0.5 mile roundtrip
This short hike completely blew us away. It’s an easy walk with slight ups and downs over dirt and slickrock that were totally manageable for our kiddos. We got to the trail head right after a huge tour bus, but we hiked slow enough with our kids that they were leaving right as we got to the arch–hooray! The arch is beautiful and it creates an amazing picture window through which you can view the canyons beyond. Keep a hand on the kiddos around the arch…it’s a steep drop off on the other side.
Upheaval Dome (very friendly) – 1 mile roundtrip
Upheaval dome is a scientific mystery–a huge crater with giant salt pillars poking up out of it. Scientists aren’t sure how it was formed, but the most likely theory (currently) is that it’s the result of a giant meteor that hit the earth a LONG time ago. It was a pretty short hike as well, but near the beginning is a steep section of stairs. Still, the boys handled it fine, and we enjoyed our picnic lunch on top. The boys really liked this one because we found a squirrel on top who wanted to eat our picnic with us (we didn’t feed him though…we know better). As with most hikes in the area, keep a close hand on little kids–more drop-offs. There is also a second viewpoint if you want to add another mile to your hike. We didn’t do this, but it didn’t look like a strenuous hike.
Grand View Overlook (very friendly) – 100 yards roundtrip
We considered doing another hike, but we were all getting tired, so we just drove down to the Grand View Overlook and enjoyed the spectacular scenery there. There is a trail you can hike there, but we didn’t. We just found a good spot to sit and finished up our Junior Ranger packets before heading back to the visitor center.
What we want to do next time:
I really wanted to hike Aztec Butte (1.3-1.8 miles roundtrip), but we just decided we’d regret pushing the boys too hard. You can do a shorter hike to the ancient granaries, or a longer hike up to the top of the butte where you get some great views.
I also would like to hike Whale Rock (1 mile roundtrip), which is a slickrock trail that follows the back of the “whale” (giant oblong rock) and gives views of the Upheaval Dome crater (although the ranger told me you can’t really see inside the dome from that distance).
For more information on hiking in Canyonlands, click here.
Dead Horse Point State Park
We explored Dead Horse Point the first afternoon we arrived in the Moab area. Most of the hiking available is just along the rim of the cliffs, which means they are relatively flat. Yay! We just did the Visitor Center Nature Trail (1/8 mile) and the first little bit of the East Rim Trail (the whole East Rim Trail is about 1.5 miles each way). It was really pretty and we saw eight lizards (our record for all the hikes we went on), which the boys thought was awesome.
Then we drove down to the Dead Horse Point Overlook Trail (200 feet) and took in the gorgeous views of the winding Colorado river below.
I don’t know that I would go out of my way to spend a lot of time at this park, but it isn’t far out of the way if you’re already in Canyonlands, and it is definitely beautiful.
For more information on hiking in Dead Horse Point, click here.
A few general tips…
- Where to stay…I was shocked at how expensive it was to stay in Moab compared with other national parks we had visited. Now, part of this may have been the time of year we were there, but from what I can tell, you’d be hard pressed to find any hotel in Moab under $150 most of the time. Ouch!We managed to get a last-minute deal on Thursday night at the Moab Valley Inn for $140, but the second night would have been more expensive so we opted to stay at the Comfort Inn in Green River (about 45 minutes north) our second night. Moab is certainly convenient, but Green River is way more affordable and I was really impressed with the Comfort Inn’s rooms, pool, and breakfast. (Note: this isn’t a sponsored post…I just like to give shout outs to companies I like.)
- Bring lots of water! Our trip was in mid April, so the temperatures weren’t extreme, but in the summertime it can easily get into the 90s and even higher during the day. Make sure you are prepared for the weather with hats, sunscreen, and lots of water.
- Plan to go SLOW. I always think we are going to have time to do more than we actually can accomplish. Hiking with kids can be fun, but it tends to be much slower. If you’ve got preschoolers or younger with you, plan to double (or triple) whatever amount of time the park brochure says a hike will take. Just remember that neither you nor the kids are going to have fun if you’re constantly nagging them to hurry up. Take your time, enjoy the views, bribe them to keep going with snacks, and you’ll be fine.
Did I get you antsy to get out hiking this summer yet? Looking at all the pictures from our trip makes me excited to get out the door again on another adventure…as soon as I finish the laundry…ugh.
Interested in other places to travel with kids?
- Traveling with Kids: Dinosaur National Monument
- Traveling with Kids: Tampa, Florida
- Traveling with Kids: Florida Keys & The Everglades
What are your favorite family-friendly travel destinations to visit with kids?