National Parks: Canyonlands National Park
Apr 21, 2019
After holding fairly steady for about 25 years, in the last 6 years visitation to the National Parks in the US has been jumping. Even lesser known parks are seeing their visitation numbers jump, and parks are really starting to struggle with the number of visitors. The subject of last week's post, Arches National Park, saw 1.6 million visitors in 2018, but not far away, about 45 minutes by car, you'll find a park that had less than half of that in a much larger area. Canyonlands is divided by the rivers that flow through it, with the Colorado River coming in from the northeast, the Green River coming in from the northwest, and the Green flowing into the Colorado in the center of the park. This creates three distinct districts in the park. The Island in the Sky, where 75% of the park visitors go, lies in between the two rivers in the northern section of the park, and is mostly made up of a mesa that rises above their canyons. Most of the rest of the visitors go to the Needles, the district that lies to the east of the Colorado River. The third and final district, the Maze, sees very few visitors and is a very wild place. It lies to the west of the Green and Colorado Rivers, and also includes the Horseshoe Canyon Unit that probably almost no one would have ever heard much about if it wasn't for Aron Ralston, who famously lost his hand and part of his arm in a mishap while canyoneering there.
I'll start with the Island in the Sky. Even though you may not know it, you've likely seen Canyonlands National Park even if you've never been there. A sunrise photo at Mesa Arch was included in the standard Windows wallpapers starting in Windows 7. It's also been used by Hollywood as a standin for it's more famous downstream cousin, the Grand Canyon, probably most famously at the end of the movie Thelma & Louise. While Thelma & Louise Point lies just outside the park on the Potash Road below Dead Horse Point State Park, the views from there extend out into the Island in the Sky & Needles districts. Sunrise views at Mesa Arch are one of the highlights of a visit to Canyonlands, just don't expect to have it to yourself. Sunset views from the Green River Overlook, such as the photo above, can be spectacular as well. Canyonlands is much more of a backcountry park than its nearby neighbor Arches, and it has what is in my opinion one of the premier backcountry trips you can do, provided you have a high clearance 4WD vehicle, or are willing to bike camp. The White RIm road is a vestige of the pre-National Park days here, built to mine uranium on the bench that lies between the rivers and the mesa top. Now it is a popular 4x4 and mountain biking road with a smattering of campsites along its ~100 loop. It is an excellent way to find solitude, and the different perspective you gain by going down into the canyons is a truly unique experience. The night skies are so dark down there that you'll probably see more stars then you've ever seen in your life too. As you circle around to the west side of the loop, the White Rim starts to descend down to the level of the Green River, so that by the time you reach the final campsite at the Labyrinth you are nearly on river level. The campsite there was probably my favorite of the trip, and I would recommend it to anyone who does the loop. While it has become a badge of honor for mountain bikers to do the White Rim in a day, I would recommend to take your time. We camped three nights down there as we wound our way around, and that allowed us to take an easy pace and soak in the many sights to see. Reservations are required to camp on the White Rim, and the campsites fill up quickly, so plan your trip ahead of time to get your desired spots. It's a grand adventure that's totally worth your time while visiting Canyonlands.
The Needles district, inhabiting the southeast area of the park, is almost completely a backcountry area. Keep in mind that there is no way to cross the rivers in the park, so to go from one district to another you must drive out and around. To reach the Needles, you drive south from Moab on US 191 until you come to the turnoff for UT 211. On your way out to the Needles you will pass by Newspaper Rock, a rock face that is interestingly covered in Native American petroglyphs. No one really knows what they all mean, but it is an interesting stop along the way. The Needles is a backpacker's and 4x4 driver's playground. There are a myriad of backcountry trails and campsites, including a hike out to a view of the confluence where the Green River joins the Colorado. If offroading is your plan, the difficult challenge of Elephant Hill guards the way. You must climb it to access the backcountry driving routes of the Needles, but once over you can join in the backcountry fun as well. While I've only made one short visit to the Needles so far, it is definitely a place I'm planning to explore more.
The Maze is a truly wild place where only the most determined of visitors go. It is the western section of the park, and the only ways to access it are by river or by high clearance 4x4 roads. This is not a place for tourists, you must be completely self-sufficient out here. There are only a handful of these "roads", and few established hiking trails. It is no less beautiful, but it's challenges guarantee seclusion should you visit there. The only park service presence is at the Hans Flat Ranger Station at the end of the maintained road in what is technically still part of the Glen Canyon NRA. I have never visited the Maze, only looked into it from across the river in the Island in the Sky, so I will limit my comments on the area. I may yet visit someday, but should you visit remember that you are on your own. Aron Ralston found this out the hard way.
Not to be ignored, visitors also come to and pass through the park on the Green & Colorado Rivers. Multi-day canoeing and rafting trips allow people to see these canyons from below, and I imagine that would be quite enjoyable as well. While the rivers above the confluence are mostly docile, and some visitors meet jet boats at the confluence to return to Moab, the rapids in Cataract Canyon below the confluence reach class V level in high water, usually peaking in late May or early June. Leaving the southern end of the park, the Colorado enters Glen Canyon NRA and quickly starts growing into its first major reservoir, Lake Powell.
A visit to Canyonlands can be a highlight of a visit to the area around Moab, and while visiting the Island in the Sky, a detour out to Dead Horse Point State Park is worth your time as well. The time required to travel between the districts means that you should plan to only visit one on any given day, and they all can easily fill multiple days on their own. Canyonlands can also be a great alternative on a day where the line to get into Arches is so backed up that you just want to try something else. This post is part of a series I'm doing on National Parks and some of my favorite spots in each one, in honor of National Parks Week. I hope you'll take a peek at my National Parks Gallery as well while you're here! If you're enjoying following my posts here on my blog, don't forget to follow me on Facebook & Instagram as well. You'll often see my latest photos there first! If you'd like to order a print of these photos, just click on them and you'll be taken to my art store where you can place your order. Thanks for following along!