Text & Instagram Photos:
Julie Schwietert Collazo
A very pregnant mom, a dad carrying three cameras and a tripod, a 4.5 year old who has a love (“Oooh! I see a monarch butterfly near the cottonwood tree!”)-hate (“Heeelllppp! I see ants! Aaahhh! They’re going to bite me!”) relationship with nature, and a very heavy 10-month old, plus two grandparents (probably the fittest among us) and their 10-year old grandson who is in that phase where he is embarrassed by everyone and everything, get together to hike in Utah’s Arches National Park… in June.
It all sounds like the makings of a good joke or a disastrous vacation, but fortunately, it was neither. In fact, we had a perfectly pleasant visit, one that struck that rare family travel note of satisfying everyone simultaneously.
Here are a few tips for visiting Arches National Park with kids during the summer:
1. Start early, leave early, and come back late.
Everyone tells you this, but when the alarm goes off at 5:30 or 6:00, it’s understandably tempting to hit “Snooze,” especially since you’re on vacation. But trust me when I tell you that you will avoid literal and metaphorical meltdowns by getting an early start; even 20 minutes can make a big difference with respect to temperature in the southwest. Groan your way through the wake-up call if you must, but roll out early.
We were at the park by 7:00 AM and it was cool and overcast– perfect for hiking, especially for families, who are inevitably carrying more than they need. The other benefit of hitting the trails early was avoiding the crowds. By the time we had reached our destination and taken all the photos we wanted, we were on our way back down the trail and headed to lunch just as other families and hikers were starting out under a sky that had cleared and was now blazing with the noon-day sun.
While they sweated their way up the trail and back, we headed back to our hotel for lunch, a nap, and a swim in the pool. When our batteries were recharged, we headed back up to the park to enjoy the light and colors of what photographers refer to as “golden hour,” which is particularly spectacular in red rock desert.
2. Pack light, but pack smart.
Since temperatures on the days preceding our visit had been in the high-90s, I dressed the kids and myself in what I often refer to as “aspirational” clothing (as in: I’m aspiring to comfortable weather that doesn’t involve me wearing or carrying multiple layers of clothes for multiple people). It was cool as we set off on the trail, too cool for 10-month old Orion, really, especially when we were caught in a brief rain shower.
Fortunately, the more experienced hikers and outdoorsfolk among us (the grandparents) were prepared with a lightweight space blanket, which my dad wrapped around Orion as we waited out the drizzle under a tree. We had apples, a granola bar, and water, and charged up what remained of the trail.
Pack canteens of water, of course, and those snacks, but otherwise, travel light. If you take one of the trails recommended below, you won’t even really need to take sunscreen or bug repellent (as long as you apply both before you set off on your hike).
3. Take a kid-friendly trail.
Though the 10-year old would have appreciated something more challenging (he was in Utah, in part, to take a rock climbing class, which he aced), a hike categorized as “easy” was more reasonable for myself and the younger kids. Too many families make the mistake of pushing themselves to achieve something they’re not physically prepared for, and national parks are rarely the best place to do a test run of physical endurance or familial patience.
In Arches, the trail to Landscape Arch is family-friendly, and what waits at the end is no less impressive than the rewards of more strenuous hikes; in fact, the park believes that this arch is the longest natural sandstone arch in the world. The Landscape Arch trail is gravel most of the way, with a shorter section consisting of red sand. You’ll need to leave strollers in the car and don a baby backpack or do as we did and press a grandparent into shoulder-carrying service.
If this trail hike proves too much, take to the car and enjoy some of the scenic overlooks. One of the best is Balanced Rock, which is impressive from the car or looking up at it from the parking lot (it also has a loop trail around the base). If your kids are interested in pioneer history, then stop by the extremely humble cabin of settler John Wesley Wolfe, which is accessible by a very short trail. You can read more about the history of the Wolfe family and the cabin on the NPS
4. Apply bug repellent and sunscreen before heading out.
Most summer days at Arches would be unbearable without bug repellent; there are mosquitoes and pesky no-see-ums. I swear by Badger Balm’s Anti-Bug Balm to ward off both pests. The same company also makes baby and kid-friendly sunscreen. Whatever brand you choose, bug repellent and sunscreen are musts if you’re in Arches during the summer.
5. Process what you’ve seen.
We always talk about what we’ve seen, compare it to other places we’ve been, and make a list of questions that we each have about the animals, geology, and other features we’ve seen. We get those questions answered by talking with rangers or other locals, checking our field guides, or getting online in our hotel room and searching for the answers. What was that flower we saw at the trailhead? What kinds of animals live in Arches? Did dinosaurs live in the area?
We also encourage our oldest to record her experiences by drawing in her journal. It’s interesting for us to see how she interprets what she has seen and her explanations give us a chance to ask her questions about her experience of our visit.
Have you been to Arches? Do you have any advice? Feel free to share it in the comments.