Arches National Park Wildlife: Desert Animals You’ll Encounter & When to See Them

by Jon D. B.
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The most common wildlife you’ll see visiting Arches National Park, birds and reptiles dominate this fascinating desert landscape.

We don’t often think of deserts as teeming with wildlife. But Arches National Park is a strong example of how even the driest parts of America are still teeming with life. Countless birds, lizards, and mammals compete for resources beneath the park’s 2,000 natural sandstone arches.

Successful wildlife watching in Utah’s Arches, however, greatly depends on the weather, time of day, and season you visit. For this reason, we’re focusing on the diurnal wildlife of Arches National Park (the species active during the day), as you’re far less likely to spot the nocturnal species cloaked by night.

During daytime in Arches, you’re most likely to spot:

  • Reptiles: diverse, colorful lizard species (like the western collared lizard) alongside a few snakes
  • Mammals: Kangaroo rats, rock squirrels, antelope squirrels, chipmunks, and mule deer are common
  • Birds: various impressive birds of prey, like hawks, falcons, and eagles
    • Desert songbirds and fishers also inhabit riparian areas with access to running water

Keep in mind, many desert animals have a temperature range in which they are active. If it’s an intensely hot, sunny day, you’re unlikely to see much of anything scurrying out into the open.

Seasons to Spot Arches Wildlife

In Arches National Park, reptiles are most active during the day during the late spring and early fall. In the heat of summer, they become crepuscular (active at dawn and dusk). Many remain out basking in the sun, however, and a summer visit to Arches pretty much guarantees plenty of colorful lizard sightings.

In turn, you won’t see reptiles during the winter. In cooler months, these cold-blooded reptiles go into an inactive state of torpor to conserve heat and energy, all but disappearing from visitors.

But if you’re around during the peak visitation seasons, the fascinating species below should make up your list of “must-sees.”

Arches’ Striking Western Collared Lizard

A true star of Arches National Park, the western collared lizard sports a bold, beautiful pattern of colors that pop right out of the amber desert. The males have especially vibrant scales:

Collared lizards can be found basking throughout the park. If you’re lucky, you’ll see one of these foot-long lizards hunting insects and smaller reptiles.

Fascinatingly, they’re one of the only lizard species that can run using just their hind legs. They’re also incredibly fast; with a stride up to three times their body length.

Common Lizards of Arches National Park

The reptiles of Arches are the most active animals once daytime temperatures reach 90 degrees and higher. Keep your eyes peeled for them sunbathing on rocks or chasing insects as they scurry about.

Other species to look out for include the northern whiptail lizard, the desert spiny lizard, and the ornate tree lizard (above).

In addition, you may spot the plateau fence lizard – an all-female species with every egg hatching into a clone of the mother – and the common side-blotched lizard on warm days in Arches. These species, however, are smaller and of muted color, making them harder to spot.

Snakes & Snake Safety in Arches

Good news for visitors: “Most of the snakes found in Arches are harmless and nocturnal,” the park cites. “All will escape from human confrontations given the opportunity.”

The most common snake amongst Arches National Park’s wildlife is the non-venomous, slow-moving gopher snake (above). The species can grow up to 96 inches, or 8-feet long, but are typically 4-6 feet in length. Spot them by their brown to reddish blotches on their back.

As far as snakes to avoid, there are midget-faded rattlesnakes – a species with extremely toxic venom – in Arches National Park.

Western Rattlesnake. (NPS, Grand Canyon-Parashant National Monument, U.S. National Park Service)

A small subspecies of the western rattlesnake, the miget-faded rattlesnake typically stick to their burrows and rock crevices and are mostly active at night. Always be on the lookout for rattlesnakes in their habitats. While bites are rare, they can occur, and full venom injections occur in 1/3 of bites.

For all reptiles, Arches National Park asks: “If you see a reptile or any other animal at Arches, give it space and do not touch it. The desert can be a difficult environment to survive in and human interactions can be a stressor to these animals. Instead, observe from afar.”

Raptors You May Spot in Arches National Park

As for birds, raptors make up an important chunk of Arches National Park wildlife. Species you’re likely to see are the Peregrine falcon, American kestrel, red-tailed hawk, and cooper’s hawk.

If you’re lucky, you may also see a bald eagle while in Arches. The unique burrowing owl (below) also calls the park home. As with any birds, however, flight makes it hard to pin down exactly where or when you could see these species. Regardless, a raptor sighting is always remarkable.

Keep your eyes peeled for the small, long-legged burrowing owls found throughout Arches’ lowlands. They prefer open, dry area with low vegetation. These unique raptors nest and roost inside burrows, not trees, such as those excavated by prairie dogs.

Riparian Birding: Birds Are the Most Visible Wildlife in Arches

As Arches National Park’s nature page cite, birds are the most visible animals in the park for visitors. The desert-laden park may not be considered a bird watching hot spot like Acadia National Park, but nearly 200 species have been seen in Arches regardless.

On even the hottest of summer days, you’ll see turkey vulturesravens, and white-throated swifts circle over rock formations.

White-crowned sparrow perched on a branch in brush. (Photo by: Education Images/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

In the wintertime, the smaller juncos and white-crowned sparrows (above) forage near foliage.

To spot birds in Arches, head towards riparian corridors (ecosystems with access to moving water like rivers or streams). This means seeking out the Courthouse Wash area or Colorado River’s southern border of the park. In spring and summer, blue grosbeaks, yellow-breasted chats, spotted towhees, and canyon wrens flock to these areas.

You may also encounter great blue herons fishing the shallows alongside other herons.

Commonly Seen Mammals in Arches

From the tiny kangaroo rats to impressive mule deer, mammals are all over Arches, and these two species specifically are a common sight for visitors. Desert cottontails are also a common sight for visitors.

“One animal uniquely adapted to life in the desert is the kangaroo rat. This rat lives its entire life consuming nothing but plant matter. Its body produces water by metabolizing the food it eats. However, even the kangaroo rat is prone to spending the hottest daylight hours sleeping in a cool underground burrow and may even plug the opening with dirt or debris for insulation.”

Arches National Park

In total, just under 50 species of mammals inhabit the park’s ecosystems. The majority of mammals are inactive during the daytime, however, so Arches National Park isn’t a premiere destination when it comes to mammalian wildlife watching.

Arches’ hot, dry climate does favor small mammals, though, and they are abundant. Their size allows for easier sheltering and less food and water to survive. There are eleven species of mice and rats found in Arches as a result.

Rare Wildlife Roaming Arches National Park

Despite visitors rarely spotting them, larger mammalian predators do exist in Arches. Mountain lions call the park home, with 80% of their diet comprising of mule deer across Utah. These big cats will migrate to nearby mountains during summertime, and are less populous during peak season. Sightings are incredibly rare, but visitors should always be aware that they are in mountain lion habitat.

If you see a mountain lion, take these additional precautions:

  • Do not run
  • Shout in a low voice and wave your arms or hold open your coat to look large and threatening
  • Maintain eye contact and do not crouch down
  • Throw sticks or rocks
  • If an attack occurs, fight back

Smaller cats, like bobcats (below), also hunt prey in the park. Coyotes and foxes also call Arches National Park home.

Desert bighorn sheep also live year-round in Arches, but are rarely sighted. Your best bet to spot one is along Highway 191 south of the visitor center. These impressive mammals also roam the talus slopes and side canyons near the Colorado River.

Once in danger of becoming extinct, the desert bighorn is making a comeback thanks to the healthy herds in nearby Canyonlands National Park.

And believe it or not, black bears will sometimes wander down from the La Sal Mountains into Arches in late August and September.

For more on bear safety in any park, please see our National Parks Journal: How to Be BearWise with Great Smoky Mountains’ Lead Wildlife Biologist next.

Happy trails, Outsiders!

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