Canyonlands National Park is the largest national park in Utah and it’s one of the Mighty 5 parks. Plus it’s only about twenty minutes away from Arches National Park. Who knew so much awesomeness could be packed into the same area. This gigantic 527-square-mile park is separated into three different areas (four if you count The Rivers). Closest to Moab and to Arches is Island in the Sky. This section is where most travelers spend their time. And it’s the part we went into. Noelle here, by the way.
The Maze and The Needles
The Maze and The Needles are the other areas of Canyonlands, which we didn’t explore. In one of our nation’s most remote areas, you’ll find The Maze. It’s also the wildest part of this park. You’ll find a 30-square-mile sandstone puzzle full of rock towers, buttes and mesas. You really have to know what you’re doing and be completely self reliant in this part of the park. Or you can take one of the commercial tours from Moab and feel more secure in your choices to go exploring!
The Needles is full of red and white rock pinnacles. It’s similar to Arches in that it has a notable collection of natural rock spans. Druid Arch is located in Elephant Canyon and stands over 100 feet high. The difference between The Needles and Arches is that you’re hiking or four-wheeling to see most of the arches. You can’t just drive close to them. Although, I guess technically that’s true in Arches as well, since you have to hike a bit to see the best rock spans.
Island in the Sky
So that’s my limited knowledge of The Maze and The Needles, it’s really what I’ve read in the brochures and other websites. So our real hands on knowledge comes from the Island in the Sky portion of Canyonlands. This section gets less than ten inches of rain a year! We’re from the Pacific Northwest, so we live in a rain forest! That’s a far cry from this arid, rocky landscape. There’s not a lot of greenery here. It also means you need to bring in your own water. Drink it constantly as it sure makes a difference in how you’ll feel.
Hear me whine for a minute!
Let me tell you my biggest whine about this whole portion of the country. It’s the same in Colorado, as the weather is so dry there, too. Here it is…my nose is so freakin’ dry. It’s a serious dirt booger convention. I’m constantly blowing out huge dust fields and picking more than I should ever admit. Face is dry. Skin is dry. Hair is dry. I’m literally sloughing off skin like a shedding snake. We ate lunch one day with a couple from Florida and the wife said it’s the same for her. They’re used to humidity. As are we. So when I pull my shorts down to use the toilet, I can see an entire layer of skin on the inside of my clothing…well that’s alarming. Oil of Olay is my best friend here!
Back to Canyonlands
Okay, now that I’ve got that off my chest. Let me tell you about our time in the Canyonlands. Super easy to get to, just take US 191 (which leads to Arches and Moab) till you get to UT 313 south. Drive till you get to the entrance gate. It’s that simple. Inside the park are two paved roads: the one you came in on and the one going to the campground and Upheaval Dome. There’s also the Shafer Trail, which leads you to the White Rim Road for exploring off the beaten path. But those are high-clearance four-wheel-drive roads, so plan accordingly. Maybe rent a jeep or a dune buggy (I’ve really got to figure out what those are called nowadays) and explore the back country that way.
For the bulk of the travelers to Canyonlands, we’ll take the paved roads! Come early in the day or later in the evenings, because parking is a bit tight here, especially on the weekend. We came on a Saturday, thinking we were visiting for the day. We didn’t actually leave till Tuesday morning! Yep, that’s how we roll. Anyway, Cupcake doesn’t really fit in all the parking areas, so patience plays a role in finding a spot.
Shafer Trail Overlook
The first overlook you come to is the Shafer Trail. Definitely stop here. You don’t need to hike or get all sweaty, just look over the edge. Way down below you can see the four-wheel-drive road that cuts some pretty steep switchbacks in this section. We watched a truck meandering along and we didn’t feel envious at all! ha! It’s actually quite a sight to behold.
The next stop is the Mesa Arch. This is the most popular stop in the park, so parking is sure tight. Hence, my suggestion to come early or late in the day. This is an easy half mile hike to see the arch. It’s super popular at sunrise, but we don’t wake up that early, so no worries for us. Here you’re going to share the views with fifty or so new friends, so just be patient and you’ll get your own Insta-worthy picture. We wandered off to the right of the arch a little bit for great views down into the valley. Then we made our way to the left of it and sat for a while. Great people watching as well as great views.
Buck Canyon overlook in the Canyonlands
I know sometimes national parks seem like a lot of driving to the next overlook, hopping out, taking a look and continuing on. And that’s kind of what it is. But the overlook is there, because it’s something pretty awesome to look at. So don’t miss this one.
Grand View Point
We continued our drive to the end of the road at the Grand View Point. I think this is one of Canyonlands highlights, myself. Steve and I took the fairly easy two mile roundtrip hike to the edge for views of the White Rim and the lower basins. Have I mentioned before that we use hiking poles? They sure make life easier when crossing over rocks and going up and down the stairways that are carved into the stone. I highly suggest using them! Anyway, the views here are spectacular. We sat for awhile to share some pretzels and Nutella, while soaking up the sunshine and the panoramic canyons, cliffs and spires.
We watched one young lady and her father as she posed in some risky places to get just the right picture. She yelled down to him from atop a huge boulder, “get over to the other side, so you can see my legs dangling over!” Sure enough her legs dangled over a several hundred foot drop into the canyon below. I felt nervous just watching. We were reminded of some FaceBook post we’d seen where it showed the last selfies people took before falling to their deaths. Seemed to us like her dad needed to tell her to get the hell down from there! Geez Louise!
This stop is another place where you can choose your own hike. We stopped here Tuesday morning after backpacking along Alcove Spring the previous couple days. Our legs felt tired, so we chose to only go to the first overlook. It’s about eight tenths of a mile round trip, but it’s up to the top of the dome, so a little steep. You can also hike to the second overlook, which is about 1.8 miles roundtrip. Or if you’re really serious about seeing the dome, you can follow the Syncline Loop around it, going into the dome itself at the base. That’s about 11 miles total, with the backside of Syncline being one of the most dangerous in the park. Most park rescues occur on this trail. It’s hot, it’s rocky, and it’s challenging, with a 1300 foot elevation change. That’s a lot! I know, because we did it on the Alcove Spring trail.
Upheaval Dome is kind of a mystery in Canyonlands, because no one’s entirely sure how it came about. One theory is that a salt dome cracked and tilted over time. About 300 million years ago, a salty inland sea covered this whole area. A large basin trapped the sea, which evaporated and left behind thousands of feet of salt. Wind and water deposited more sediment, which pushed down the salt and created something of a dome. The salt rose and fractured the surrounding rock and sediment.
That’s a little boring though, so I personally like the other theory better. It’s that about 200 million years ago a giant meteorite crashed into the earth, instantly fracturing the rock and vaporizing on impact. The force of the impact created a large crater, causing rock layers to rebound inward and upward to fill the void. It makes no rational sense for me to like one theory better than the other, but I do, so that’s that.
Alcove Spring Trail to Moses & Zeus
Back to Saturday afternoon…we saw the main sites and decided to head back to the Visitor Center to talk with a ranger about backpacking in the park. I guess we both thought we’d just gather some information and then come back to the Park the next day. Turns out, she signed us right up! The only two choices at this time are the Alcove Spring Trail or the Wilhite Trail. After hearing the ranger’s opinions on both, we chose Alcove Spring. The park information says it’s 5.6 miles from the trailhead down to Moses and Zeus rock towers, but our Garmin InReach GPS put us at almost seven, so either way it’s a trek.
This is a strenuous trail descending 1,300 feet past a huge alcove in the rock. It looks sort of like an amphitheater, although the trail doesn’t let you get too close to it. My feet were screaming as we made our way down to the canyon floor and I thought my toes were blistering up. Thankfully, they did okay, but it was a hard descent. The next day we came back up it and that was a chore in itself!
The trail along the canyon floor is level and easy from an elevation standpoint, but much of it follows a dry river bed, so you’re hiking through gravel and deep sand. We found quite a few shady spots, which we greatly appreciated. You can read my whole account of backpacking here, but I did want to list this hike in this post as well. It’s certainly off the beaten path for many Canyonlands visitors, but we’re glad to have done it.
Canyonlands National Park
Overall Canyonlands is one of my favorites. The geography and landscapes are amazing. It’s also a dark sky park, meaning that there’s no light pollution at night. You can see up to 15,000 stars at night, compared to city living where you may see less than 500. It’s like the whole sky comes alive. In non-Covid times, rangers lead night sky programs, which are extremely popular. A camper we met while in Mesa Verde said Canyonlands area is like the sky is full of glitter and I have to admit that’s a very good description. I’ve maybe never seen so many stars. Simply stunning.
During the day or at night, I hope you make it to Canyonlands National Park and I hope you enjoy your time there as much as we did! Just bring water. Lots of it! And enjoy!