We made it to our last Utah National Park—Canyonlands. It’s Utah’s largest park and has some of the most challenging and remote terrain in the nation. Canyonlands is part of the Colorado Plateau—a large region known for canyons, buttes, mesas, and other dramatic rock formations that have been carved by water and erosion over millions of years.
The park is divided into three sections by the Green and Colorado Rivers:
- Island in the Sky
- The Needles
- The Maze
Canyonlands gets the award for best named park. There’s even a formation called Paul Bunyan’s Potty. How’s that for descriptive?
Island in the Sky
This area of the park is closest to Moab and the first section we explored. As the name implies it truly feels like you’re on an island high above the rocky landscape below. There are numerous viewpoints from which you can take in the expansive vistas of Canyonlands.
This is one of the most iconic formations in the park. It’s accessed from a short easy hike. Mesa Arch is a popular place for sunrise. If you’re really lucky and the clouds cooperate you may get to see the sun’s rays peeking through the arch. We chose a different place for sunrise, but would love to come back and view it here.
Grand View Point Overlook
The name says it all. The sights in every direction are breathtaking. This is a 2 mile relatively flat trail that leads along a ledge to the main overlook. The trail is exposed so you get great views all along the walk, but at the end you see an amazing panorama of the area. The many canyons spread out below looking like giant puzzle pieces. There are incredible red, purple, and orange rock formations in all directions and majestic mountains in the distance.
The most mysterious formation in the park, Upheaval Dome looks like a giant crater—which it very well might be. Scientists don’t know exactly what caused this huge hole in the earth, but the most recent findings support the theory that it was created by a violent meteorite impact.
In order to explore The Needles, we moved camp from our site near Moab. We’d been there a whopping 10 days—our longest time at one camp yet—and it was really starting to feel like home. Fortunately, the 2 hour drive provided some lovely Fall colors and snowcapped mountain scenery. We stopped at Newspaper Rock on the way which is covered in hundreds of petroglyphs—the oldest dating back 2,000 years.
As you’ve probably guessed, the main attraction in this section of the park are the “needles”. These are spire-like rock formations with bands of contrasting red, white, and orange colors. They’re not unlike the hoodoos and some of them are technically hoodoos. This area of the park is a hiker’s dream. It’s filled with a web of connected trails that offer seemingly endless possibilities for long day hikes. Honestly, we’re starting to get a bit hiked out. Total bummer when you come across a hiker’s dream right? Well, the short hikes were looking better and better so we tackled all of those plus one strenuous trail.
Slickrock Foot and Pothole Point
The Slickrock Foot trail is close to Big Spring Canyon overlook—a nice view and the starting point for a 10 mile hike to the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. We weren’t feeling that ambitious so we opted for this 2.4 mile loop instead. We climbed over rocks, followed cairns, lost the cairns a couple times, and saw views of the surrounding canyons.
Pothole point is another even shorter hike on the same road. Only one pothole was filled with water while we were there, but after a rainfall this would be a lovely place to look for reflections and pothole critters. Yup these shallow pools are home to a community of hardy little life forms.
This is a fun historic trek where we encountered our first (but not our last) trail ladder. The path weaves past an old cowboy camp and ancient rock art near the cool cave spring. Then you climb the ladder for some great views before circling back to the parking lot.
Chesler Park Overlook
At 6 miles this is the longest hike we did in Canyonlands. I wasn’t kidding about the hiking fatigue. It was by far our favorite though. The trail goes up over a rock ridge, then down into a canyon and back out again. There are narrow passageways, open basins, and rocky ledges—a lot of diverse terrain. It ends at the overlook of Chesler Park—a green valley circled by the densest area of needle formations. It reminded me of the view from Pride Rock in the Lion King. I kept expecting to see lions pounce or a monkey with a walking stick traipse around the corner. Instead we only found some very bold ravens that had a strong curiosity about our lunch.
You can probably guess what this area of the park is like right? It’s a labyrinth of canyons, buttes, mesas, and other bizarre formations. It’s also considered some of the most remote land in the nation. Sadly, we didn’t get to explore The Maze since it’s not Stan friendly—a 4×4 high-clearance vehicle is required. You also need strong off-road driving skills. Let’s just say it’s probably not wise for me to drive in this area anytime soon. We’ve seen a lot of park warnings this year, but the most extreme warnings were for The Maze. There’s no water, no bathrooms, little if any phone service, and not surprisingly few people here. If something goes wrong, you’re on your own. It sounds like a wild and magical place to us! Next time we’re in Utah, there may just be a Jeep rental in our future.
Natural Bridges National Monument
Before continuing east, we backtracked for a brief visit to Natural Bridges National Monument. Like most of the places we’ve been in Utah, Tom has visited before on a family roadtrip, but it was my first time here. Natural Bridges is a great way to spend half a day. There are three bridges and ancestral Puebloan cliff dwelling ruins to explore. You can drive to the overlooks and hike short trails to get a closer look. Or if you want to spend a full day here, there’s a loop trail that goes to all three bridges and past the ruins. The bridges are huge. It’s amazing to see them from a distance and then watch them grow in size and grandeur as you approach. Plus, there’re more ladders to navigate which makes for interesting hiking.
Now that we’ve shared stories from each of Utah’s five national parks (Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Arches, and now Canyonlands), which would you most like to visit? Or if you’ve been there, which is your favorite?