Vien R. Guenther
Canyonlands National Park - Utah
Updated: Jan 8
Utah is known for its “Mighty Five Parks”- Arches National Park, Bryce Canyon National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, Canyonlands National Park and Zion National Park. Each has its own unique and dramatic desert features. You might visit not just once but many times and absolutely not just for a day. Canyonlands National Parks is known for its beautiful desert landscape, with elevations ranging from 3,700 to 7,200 feet above sea level. The park is huge; in fact, it is the largest national park in Utah and it encompasses some of the most remote terrain in the lower 48 states.
In Canyonlands, there are many viewpoints accessible by car involving just a short walk from the parking lot. Mesa Arch, Upheaval Dome, Candlestick Tower, and Grand View Point are some of the notable features in the Island in the Sky district. The park also has hundreds of miles of hiking trails, from short walks and day hikes to strenuous backpacking trips. The Colorado and Green Rivers pass through the park, although the Green ends at its confluence with the Colorado. The rivers are ideal for water adventures, especially whitewater rafting. Native American rock arts in the Horse Shoe Canyon are noted here as well.
Located in the heart of Utah’s high desert, Canyonlands National Park preserves 337,598 acres of canyons, mesas, buttes, fins, arches and spires. The park was established in 1964, advocated by Arches National Monument (Now Arches National Park) Superintendent Bates Wilson, and signed by President Lyndon B. Johnson.
Canyonlands National Park is divided into three distinct and different regions: The Island in the Sky in the north; the Needles in the southeast corner of the park, and the Maze in the western part. These are defined by the two large rivers – Colorado River and the Green River - which separate the regions from each other by virtue of two deep canyons. The two rivers are in effect a fourth district due to their unique recreational aspects.
The geologic history of Canyonlands is complex and evolved over millions of years of sedimentary deposits, evaporation, erosion and eons of geologic action. Water, wind and gravity also help in forming incredible canyons and countless rock formations.
You might wonder what are the red and black coatings you see on the cliffs. Sometimes they look like melted chocolate poured over a cake and dripping over the side. It is called "desert varnish"; it’s a thin layer composed of clay and other materials including manganese and iron. Black varnish is rich in manganese while red/orange color indicates the presence of iron. Desert varnish forms mostly on stable rock surfaces.
TO GET THERE
If you are visiting Arches National Park in Moab, then Canyonlands National Park is just 32 miles farther away from town. By following UT 313 , it will take you to the Island in the Sky, the closest area of the park from Arches. It's less than an hour drive from Moab, if you don’t stop along the way - why wouldn't you? There are viewpoints along the way worth stopping at for taking pictures .
- ISLAND IN THE SKY -
The Island in the Sky is the most visited area of the park since it has the easiest access. It is also closest to Moab. The mesa rests on sheer sandstone cliffs over 1,000 feet above the surrounding terrain. Hermann and I have visited this park on our own and with family. We did not do any strenuous hikes here (although Hermann has done some of those in years past). We did what typical visitors do, which is taking short hikes to viewpoints and simply exploring by car.
MESA ARCH - 0.5 miles
Mesa Arch is located on a cliff edge with dramatic views. The sun rising behind it makes this arch popular for photographers wanting to catch the spectacular early morning view. You can imagine, it can be very crowded at sunrise. But we are not early risers so pardon this "not so spectacular" photo of Mesa Arch. This trail is short but rough with rocky hills and stone steps. It is not wheelchair accessible.
From here, you can see White Rim Road below. If you have a four-wheel drive, you can drive the 100 mile loop road. It will take about two to three days but if you have time it will be worth the experience.
GRAND VIEW - 2 miles
Grand View Point is located at the southernmost point of the Island in the Sky scenic drive. From the viewpoint near the parking area you can see the White Rim and distant mountains. If that is not enough view for you, a one-mile hike can take you to the second viewpoint at the end of the trail.
UPHEAVAL DOME - 3 miles
Upheaval Dome is a quite unique formation of rock layers are formed into a circular mass or anticline. There are two theories about its strange formation. One is a result of a “salt bubble”, rising to the surface creating salt domes, while the other theory is a result of meteorites colliding with the earth leaving a crater. There is a short but steep trail to the Upheaval Dome overlook and there is an exhibit about this unique geologic feature. To the second overlook is another mile, resulting in a round-trip hike of three miles.
OTHER AREAS IN THE PARK TO EXPLORE: The Needles, with some serious hiking and four-wheel-driving. It was named for the colorful spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone. There are over 60 miles of hiking trails and about 50 miles of backcountry roads; The Maze, however, is mainly for backpacking due to its challenging remote location.
You can also visit Horseshoe Canyon (it requires driving on unpaved roads), which contains some of the most significant rock art in North America. The canyon features well-preserved American Indian rock art. The most spectacular one is the Great Gallery, a life-sized figure rock arts panel - pictographs (painted) and petroglyphs (etched in rock). To reach this rock art requires hiking, about seven-miles round trip.
SHAFER CANYON ROAD
If you have a four-wheel drive and are not afraid of heights, then you might want to try driving on Shafer Canyon Road. It's an 18 mile off-road experience. They filmed the movie "Thelma and Louise" here where they drove their car off the cliff. Commercials and videos have also been filmed here. The Shafer Trail road was once a mining road built by uranium miners in the middle of the 20th century. As you can see, driving here is not for the faint of heart. There are no guard rails here and there is no turning back once you start.
This is something to watch out for when exploring the Canyonlands. You might not notice or know it, but Cryptobiotic Soil is all over the place in Utah. It plays a very important role in the desert's ecosystem. We didn't know the importance of it until we took a guided tour of Fiery Furnace at Arches National Park. Since then we have been very careful about where we walk while hiking in the desert.
What is Cryptobiotic Soil?
Cryptobiotic soil is a biological crust composed of microscopic living organisms, cyanobacteria, among the oldest known life forms on earth. It includes green algae, fungi, lichens and mosses.
These soil crusts are commonly found in arid regions around the world. Cryptobiotic soil stabilizes the sand and promotes moisture retention and helps prevent wind erosion. It will be crunchy if you step on it, which promotes a temptation to step on more. Don't even try. It can take centuries to recover.
If you are visiting Canyonlands National Park, it is worth visiting Deadhorse Point State Park as well. It is not part of the national park and requires a separate admission fee, but you will see an amazing panoramic view of the Canyonlands, with the Colorado River below. Some say that this view is grander than even the Grand Canyon.