Round Trip Distance: 24 - 28 miles
MTB Skill level:
Elevation: 4920 - 5794 feet
Cellphone: 0 bars
Time: 7+ hrs.
Trailhead: Arch Canyon
Attractions: Cliff dwellings, arches
Arch Canyon is located near Comb Wash in the Cedar Mesa Area west of Blanding, Utah. The 15 mile long canyon has 3 natural arches as well as several Anasazi cliff dwellings and other archaeological sites. The trail begins at the mouth of the canyon where it connects to Comb Wash. The first 8 miles or so of the canyon is accessible by mountain bikes, ATV's and 4x4's. Once the trail reaches the boundary of the Manti-La Sal National Forest it becomes a hiking only trail. There are 3 natural arches, Cathedral, Angel and Keystone, that can be found along the hiking only section of the trail. Several Anasazi cliff dwellings and other archeological sites are scattered along the rest of the canyon with the best of them all being at the Comb Wash end.
To get to the trailhead drive about 4 miles south from Blanding on Highway 191 and turn right on Highway 95 toward Natural Bridges National Monument. Follow Highway 95 for 14.3 miles and turn right into Comb Wash onto County Road 229. (A signpost is marked with 205. The turnoff is just past a road on the left that leads to a campground and lower Comb Wash.) Follow the dirt road for about 2.3 miles. There are a few primitive campsites on public land near the highway and some near the trailhead. Most everything else is private property on both sides of the dirt road.
Before heading into the canyon it might be interesting to know that a pueblo once stood on the southwest hill above the mouth of the canyon. It is only a rubble pile now but at one time it had several rooms that would have been visible from below. There is another pueblo that was much larger on the hillside above the Comb Wash campground.
Visitors to Arch Canyon should know that the trail makes numerous stream crossings. While the stream isn't very big there are a couple of crossings like this one that are wallowed out and hold enough water that they can be more than boot deep. This one is easily bypassed on the right.
The Arch Canyon Ruin sits in a shallow south facing alcove less than a half mile into the canyon. The site has a significant number of petroglyphs as well as a few pictographs. In the walls of the cliff you can see a few sharpening grooves and holes that would have held roof beams.
Images of buffalo are among some of the pictographs at the site.
There are a couple more sets of ruins around the cliff from the Arch Canyon Ruin. To get there you can either fight your way through the brush at the base of the cliff just to the west of the Arch Canyon Ruin or you can walk all the way around and approach them were the sagebrush and such isn't quite as thick.
The next 7 miles of the canyon continues in similar fashion with one stream crossing after another. As the trail progresses the canyon walls become higher and much more scenic. There are a few more archaeological sites but they are minor in comparison to those near the mouth of the canyon and are best seen with a pair of binoculars or a good zoom lens. On our trip for this post we scared up several small groups of deer as well as a nice looking trophy buck.
By the time the road reaches the Forest Service boundary there are tall ponderosa pines that are mixing in with the cottonwood trees. Off to the left there is a primitive campsite with a picnic table. There were a few other primitive sites along the road up to this point that would be suitable for backpackers. At the forest boundary the hiking only trail begins. The route to the arches is the trail on the right at this point.
Cathedral Arch comes into view almost immediately upon venturing up the hiking only portion of the Arch Canyon trail. The arch opening is actually pretty big. It is dwarfed by the massive cliffs around it.
Angel Arch comes into view about another quarter mile or so up the trail.
For this post we continued up the trail a short distance past the mouth of Butts Canyon before turning around. Keystone Arch is another mile and a half and that would have added at least 3 more miles to our already long single day outing. It is suggested for backpackers to plan on spending 2-3 days in the canyon and exploring the side canyons while they are at it. When choosing a campsite try to find one that has been used in the past while taking care that it is above the flash flood line.
Even without the natural arches and archaeological sites Arch Canyon would still be worth visiting just to experience its high scenic cliffs and monoliths from the ambiance of the pine trees where the stream trickles by.