Canyons carved over eons. Sheer breathtaking drop-offs. Extra-wide footpaths leading to parts less traveled. To explore Canyonlands National Park is to explore living on the edge.
The next time you’re planning a trip to Utah, dare to look past the majestic Arches National Park and the mighty Zion and set your sights on Canyonlands. Often overlooked in favor of the more famous National Parks in Utah, Canyonlands holds the distinction of being the largest National Park in the state. It’s also a reason why this is the best Utah National Park for off-the-beaten-path exploration.
Canyonlands is like a gigantic red rock that has been woodcut engraved by the ancient winds and water. The Colorado and Green Rivers trisect the Colorado Plateau, dividing Canyonlands into four sections: The Needles, Island in the Sky, the Maze, and the Rivers. The latter two sections are for more adventurous travelers due to their remote locations, where Island in the Sky is the easiest section to visit, and therefore the most visited.
With hundreds of miles of trails to choose from in such a large park, it’s easy to get overwhelmed. For short walks, Island in the Sky and The Needles both offer ample opportunities, day hikes, and backpacking trips (with a permit). The Maze, due to its remote nature, is purely a backpacking destination where a permit is required.
Many trails are marked with cairns, which are small rock piles that lead you along the path, and oftentimes this is the only indication of where to go, so stay alert of your surroundings. Some remote trails do not receive regular maintenance from park staff and may not be adequately marked. If you will be backpacking, be sure to bring a topographical map.
If you happen to be staying in Moab, driving 1.5 hours to get to the Needles may not sound all that thrilling, but it’s certainly worth it. An intriguing landscape where otherworldly pinnacles of rock jut sharply out from the ground. The spectacle creates an environment that is surprisingly diverse and beautiful, providing some of the most fun outdoor activities in the Canyonlands.
Once you’re here, the area is small and very easy to explore. Take your pick from several short trails, such as Slickrock, Chester Park, or Druid Arch. Embrace the wilderness of the area – it is truly a western feel as you hike and explore the Needles. The highlight of your trip in this district will no doubt be at Elephant Hill; a series of amazing trails that take you through the stunning rock formations.
With over 60 miles of interconnecting trails, many are as challenging as they are rewarding. Self-guided trails along the main roads feature different aspects of Canyonland’s natural and cultural history. Surfaces can be uneven, and trail guides are available at the visitor center and trailheads. Other trails can be more primitive, where a mixture of slick rock and sandy washes can be experienced. Longer trails can be rough, with steep passes and drop-offs, narrow ridges, and gathering water in the backcountry can be tricky, so be prepared.
Island in the Sky
If you have limited time in Canyonlands, this is the district to be in, especially for first-time visitors. It is easy to get to from Moab, and the roads are all paved. Visit the overlooks – to visit most of them is to park your car and walk only a few steps. The two main roads, Grand View Point Road and Upheaval Dome Road offer the most overlooks and viewpoints, full of spectacular panoramic views over the canyons that were carved out by the rivers. One exception to the short walk is the must-see White Rim Overlook, which requires a 1.8-mile roundtrip walk that looks out over Buck Canyon and Monument Basin.
Mesa Arch is possibly the most recognizable, as it has been photographed countless times. But photos hardly ever do justice to the real deal, so be sure to visit it when in Canyonlands National Park. Grand View Point is another goodie. Look out below into the collection of stunning canyons that stretch as far as the eye can see.
At Aztec Butte, take a hike where Native Americans used to live, harvest, and hunt almost a thousand years ago. You will see several granaries and ruins offering beautiful views of the park. Then at Murphy Point, enjoy one of the best spots in the park where you can just sit back and admire the layered canyon views. It is the quiet hush accompanied by the grandeur of the scenery that captured the imagination.
If leaving the crowds behind and getting in a 4WD vehicle interests you, The Maze should be on your to-do list. It is the least accessible part of Canyonlands. Here it is rugged, remote, and gorgeous. And some of the roads are difficult to drive, hence the need for an off-road vehicle. Plan to spend at least three days here, and the area is huge and you will be doing lots of driving.
The trails in the Maze include Horseshoe Canyon, which is popular, but be prepared for uneven terrain over steep rocky areas and slogging through sand. The other trails are more lengthy and usually require an overnight trip.
Pro Tip: Most roads in the park require high-clearance, low-range four-wheel drive. The main roads here are White Rim Road, Roads at the Needles, and Roads at The Maze. Some roads even require a permit, so be sure to check with the National Park Service for details.
With the Green River located west of the Island in the Sky mesa and the mighty Colorado River to the east, the two rivers meet at the confluence to the south of the mesa. They then flow into Cataract Canyon, creating a world-class whitewater rafting destination, featuring Class III to V rapids. Above the confluence, the rivers are wide and slow moving – the perfect opportunity to go canoeing or kayaking.
Rob Decker is a photographer and graphic artist who studied under Ansel Adams in Yosemite National Park when he was just 19 years old. Now, he's creating iconic WPA-style posters for each of our National Parks. Click Here to learn more about his story and The National Park Poster Project.
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