The ultimate guide how to get to Rattlesnake Canyon Arches, hiking distances, maps, and how to find each of the arches
Rattlesnake Canyon’s claim to fame is that it has the 2nd highest concentration of arches in the country, behind only Arches National Park in Utah. But that’s where the similarities end as Rattlesnake Canyon is more isolated and more difficult to get to. To see its 35 arches, you won’t have any crowds or traffic jams to fight through, nor any timed entry tickets to juggle.
Now with that said, let’s disclose some reality, Rattlesnake Canyon’s 35 arches is a very distant second to Arches National Park’s 2000 documented arches. Also, there are really 8 major arches out of the 35, the rest are small, or tucked in and hard to get a good look at.
Still, that is a lot of arches in one place, and Rattlesnake Canyon might be one of Colorado’s best-kept secrets because getting there means either a rough, bumpy 13-mile drive or a 15-mile round-trip hike from a trailhead near Fruita. The Rattlesnake Arches are off the beaten path, but those willing to make the journey will be rewarded with a unique experience.
How were the arches formed?
175 million years ago there was an ancient sea over the entire area, on the coastline were sand dunes, these sand dunes petrified under more layers of sediment that eventually eroded away as the sea disappeared, sculpting alcoves in the clifts, wind and water thinned the alcoves until holes appeared, more water ran through the holes over the millenniums leaving the arches you see today.
Rattlesnake Canyon is open daily from sunrise to sunset, however, the road to drive there is not open from February 14th – April 15th.
During the time the road is closed you can only access it via the 15-mile round-trip hike from the Pollack Bench Trailhead near Fruita
Since you have to get there through the Colorado National Monument you can make it a long day and see the Colorado National Monument and then head out to Rattlesnake Canyon afterward
Official names for the major arches weren’t adopted until 1972, so many of them are known by multiple names.
The arches are all on the west side of the ridge facing west.
The Upper Rim Trail takes you to Rainbow Arch, Centennial Arch and Bridge Arch where you can see and access each of these arches from behind them as they face the setting sun.
Plan for the sun’s direction. From the bench below the arches, the sunrise comes up behind the arches, and the sun’s setting light is on their faces.
Combine The Colorado National Monument and Rattlesnake Canyon. You have to drive through The Colorado Monument to get to Rattlesnake Canyon. Shoot the sunrise and early light in The Colorado Monument then shoot the late light and sunset at Rattlesnake Canyon.
What you need to know
The road can be impassable if wet
The trailhead at Rattlesnake Canyon is called “Upper Trailhead”
There are three options to get to Rattlesnake Canyon, the first is to drive all the way (with an appropriate vehicle), another is to drive most of the way (as far as your vehicle will allow) and walk or bike the last 2 miles, and the third is to hike overland 7.5 miles one way from the Pollock Bench Trailhead close to Fruita.
The road splits on the way there, there is an upper and lower road, the BLM alternates which one is open, the upper road is open from April 15th – August 14th, the lower road is open from August 15 – February 14th.
Both roads are closed from February 14th – April 15th.
Getting to Rattlesnake Canyon
Option 1 Drive all the way to the Upper Trailhead (Requires a high clearance 4×4)
Drive time is about 1.5 hours
From Grand Junction go to the Colorado National Monument, you can enter the park from either the east entrance or the west entrance (where you will exit the park is about the same distance from either entrance). Drive on the Rim Rock Road 11.4 miles from the east entrance station or 10.8 miles from the west entrance station.
Turn onto the Glade Park turn–off at 16.5 Road at ( 39.055189, -108.741395 )
Continue 0.2 miles and turn right onto the Black Ridge Road (there is a cattle guard and a kiosk and signage for McInnis Canyons National Conservation Area).
Continue 2.2 miles to the T at ( 39.060907, -108.761246 )
Here you will either turn right onto the Lower Road or turn left onto the Upper Road (they alternate the opening and closing of these two roads)
Continue about 13 miles to the Upper Trailhead.
The last 2 miles of the road require a 4WD with high clearance due to its steepness and poor condition
Option 2 Drive as far as you can and walk or bike the final 2 miles
If you don’t have a high clearance 4×4 you can drive to where the road gets too steep and rough and park there. Then the last 2 miles can be walked or some people will mountain bike it to the trailhead.
Option 3 Hiking from the Pollock Bench trailhead ( 39.155745, -108.779040 ) near Fruita
From I-70 take the Fruita exit, head south for 1.3 miles cross the Colorado River and turn right onto Kingsview Road.
Continue for 3.3 miles to the trailhead.
The trail 7.5 miles one way and is strenuous but rewarding. It winds its way over slickrock, through canyons, past hoodoos and spires along the way.
Parking ( 39.136998, -108.833467 )
A large unpaved parking area
3.0 miles – Hiking just the Upper Rim Trail out and back
5.3 miles – Hiking just the Lower Trail out & back (deduct 1.7 miles if you take the shortcut climbing through Rainbow Arch instead of doing the Lower Trail as an out & back)
7.6 miles – Hiking the Upper Rim Trail first, then hiking the Lower Trail out & back. (deduct 1.7 miles if you take the shortcut climbing through Rainbow Arch instead of doing the Lower Trail as an out & back)
Add 1 mile if you hike the Pollack Bench Trail to Window Rock Tower Arch
The lay of the land
The trailhead is on a mesa top, there is a bench one level down from the mesa top, the arches are all on the west side of the mesa, rising from the bench back to the top of the mesa in the Entrada sandstone. If you walk the lower trail you will be down on the bench looking up at the arches. If you walk the upper trail you will be above the arches with a few that you can see through from above.
From the trailhead, you walk 0.5 miles to a fork at ( 39.140833, -108.837381 ).
Left at the fork takes you on the UpperRim trail that dead ends in 1.1 miles. The signpost says “First Arch”. The upper trail keeps you on the mesa top on the west side and overlooks at least three arches, the first one you will come to is Rainbow Arch, (some people will downclimb through Rainbow arch as a shortcut to the lower trail) then Centennial Arch and the trail ends above Bridge Arch where you will turn around.
The top, backside of Centennial Arch from the upper trail – Bob Wick, BLM
If you take the right at the fork this takes you on the lower trail, which loops around on the bench below the mesa top from the east side to the west side where the arches are located and dead ends at the bottom of Rainbow Arch in 2.2 miles. From there you either retrace your steps 2.2 miles back to the fork or athletic and brave people will shortcut up through the inside of Rainbow arch back up to the mesa top. There are foot and handholds cut into the sandstone at the base of the arch.
Heading down the switchbacks of the lower trail from the mesa top takes you to the bench. The trail meets the 7.5-mile Pollack Bench Trail that comes in from near Fruita. Continuing for 1.0 mile takes you to the northernmost point on the bench, you round the point and start hiking the west side where the arches are.
Bridge Arch (Aka Hole in the Bridge Arch) ( 39.146496, -108.852000 )
The first arch you come to is interesting due to the hole in the span created by a pothole on top. This hole will probably be the death of this arch in the distant future sometime as it keeps enlarging.
Walking along the trail in about 350 feet you will come to Twin Arch.
The next arch is about 1/4 mile further. It is called EyeArch ( 39.144952, -108.849000 ) based on its shape loosely resembling an eye. When you are approaching Eye Arch, you should see Centennial arch in the distance to the right.
Centennial Arch ( Aka Rattlesnake Arch, Aka East Rim Arch)
This arch is the most spectacular arch in the canyon due to its height and width, plus that long span looks pretty thin from the right angle. The span is 65 feet long and is 120 feet above you.
Next is the small and unimpressive Overhang Arch ( 39.140924, -108.845000 )
In a small side canyon, you will find Trap Arch ( 39.140556, -108.844000 ). The arch is at the top of a natural rock amphitheater. It is possible to friction walk up into the amphitheater to get a closer look at the arch.
Rainbow Arch (Aka Cedar Tree Arch, First Arch) ( 39.140539, -108.842427 )
At 2.2 miles the lower trail comes to and ends at the base of Rainbow Arch. This is the longest arch in the canyon, with a span of 76 feet and a vertical opening of 43 feet.
The Lower Trail ends here, so you either retrace your steps and head back the way you came or you can climb up through this arch’s opening as a shortcut back to the upper trail, however, it is not an easy climb. There are some foot and handholds cut in the sandstone at the base to get you started.
If you double back on the lower trail the way you came you can take a left onto the Pollock Bench Trail for a 0.5-mile (one way) detour to Window Rock Tower Arch. You might see some resemblance to the famous Delicate Arch in Arches National Park and feature on Utah’s license plates.