Canyonlands is a large national park near Moab, Utah that contains rugged canyons, red rock spires, and rushing waters. The Colorado and Green Rivers naturally divide the park into three “districts”— Island in the Sky, Needles, and the Maze. Although each district shares the same climate, each is completely different and offers exciting and unique experiences for visitors. Canyonlands offers hiking, biking, and 4x4 trails and has very good road systems for the less adventurous to take in Mother Nature’s majesty. Thrill seekers can also raft through the rapids contained in the park’s two rushing rivers.
Island in the Sky
The Island in the Sky district is the closest and most accessible part of the park as it is just a quick drive from the town of Moab. Much like the Grand Canyon, visitors can drive on top of red rock mesas and look down into the spectacular canyons below. The canyons in are not nearly as deep as those seen in the Grand Canyon, but the terrain is very different than that seen in Arizona’s great national treasure. Many vehicle pull-offs allow visitors to take in these sights without the need of leaving their car. However, the Island in the Sky has an extensive trail and 4x4 road systems that give visitors access to some breathtaking country.
The Hot Spots
Probably the most famous, or at least most photographed, natural feature in the Island in the Sky district is Mesa Arch. This arch seemingly rises out of the canyon walls and offers a spectacular frame of the canyons below. With the weather just right, Mesa Arch has incredible opportunities to view the rising run. Mesa Arch can be visited via a very short hike from the main road of the park.
Some of the best overlooks in the park include the Grand View and Buck Canyon overlooks, which are both accessible via a pull-off on the road. The Green River Overlook is also very popular and can be reach after a short drive on a dirt road.
Upheaval Dome is one of the most unique and enigmatic forms in all of Canyonlands. The “dome” is composed of different rock layers laid out in a circular pattern that is nearly three miles across. Geologists are still unsure how Upheaval Dome was created only adding to the intrigue of this natural formation. The dome can be seen with a short hike. Other hiking trails also exist around the entire rim of the dome.
Camping in Island of the Sky
The Willow Flat Campground is the only, small campground located in the Island in the Sky district. It contains only 12 sites, which are filled on a first-come first-served basis. The campground typically is full everyday (including weekdays) between late March and early June and again from September through mid-October.
Island in the Sky also contains a number of backcountry campsites that can be accessed by foot or four wheel drive. Backpackers are asked to pack in all of their needed water, since there are only a few reliable sources of water near these sites.
If you are unable to find a campsite in the national park, the Bureau of Land Management owns and operates many campgrounds surrounding the canyons of Moab. Most of these campgrounds do not accept reservations.
The Needles District
The Needles District is located about an hour and a half south of Moab and is separated from the “Island in the Sky” by the Colorado River. This section of the park received its name from the dominant Cedar Mesa Sandstone spires that dot the landscape. Unlike the Island in the Sky, the Needles District does not look down into canyons. Rather, it meanders straight through some impressive rock formations. The Needles District even has a handful of arches much like those seen in Arches National Park, except these in Canyonlands are much more remote.
The Hot Spots
First time visitors should first take a drive to the Big Spring Canyon Overlook at the terminus of the Needles’ road system. There are a number of other good pullovers alongside the roads with some great views of the surrounding rock formations. Also be sure to also take a drive on the three-mile long dirt road to Elephant Hill, which offers some good vistas to the far off Needles.
A number of good and short trails include Slickrock and “Roadside Ruin,” which leads to ancestral Puebloan ruins like those seen in Mesa Verde National Park in Colorado. The most popular hiking trail of greater length is the Chesler Park Viewpoint trail, which is six miles roundtrip and takes hikers through some towering spires. In all, there are over 60 miles of trails in the Needles on top of an extensive network of four-wheel drive roads.
Camping in the Needles
The Squaw Flat Campground in the Needles contains 26 campsites and is about twice the size of the campground in Island of the Sky. Again, all sites can be reserved and are filled on a first-come first served basis. RVs can be accommodated and tent pads are at every site. This campground is filled during the same periods as the Willow Flat Campground.
The Needles also has many backcountry campsites along its roads and trails. Permits are required for all overnight stays, and it is suggested that you pack in all of the water you will need for your trip.
Most of the trails in the Maze are primitive and unmarked, but lead visitors through what is literally a maze of canyons. It is very easy to get lost within the canyon walls since they look very similar. Because of this a topographic map and GPS are highly recommended for anyone venturing into the Maze.
The Hot Spots
There are two main four-wheel drive roads that lead into the Maze District. The northern road leads to the "Maze Overlook" and only has minimal hiking opportunities from this point. The southern road leads to a number of different and "popular" rock formations such as The Dollhouse and Chimney Rock. The Land of Standing Rocks, Golden Stairs, and the Orange Cliff overlook are also spectacular sights to behold. A number of hiking trails branch out from the southern road and lead visitors to dozens of mostly unnamed arches.
Camping in the Maze
There are no campgrounds in the Maze, only backcountry sites. All of the sites in the Maze are located in "at-large zones," which are just large areas open to camping. All of these sites are near four-wheel drive roads. Backcountry permits are required for all overnight camping.
Rafting in Canyonlands
The two converging rivers that run through Canyonlands are very rugged and contain many rapids. Visitors can negotiate these rapid via private or guided rafting tours. There are many approved companies that offer guided trips to experience the rapids of the Green and Colorado Rivers. These trips range from half a day to one week or more in length.
If you are visiting Moab, Utah, also be sure to visit Arches National Park. It is much small than Canyonlands but is every bit as beautiful.