As evening slides over deep, red-walled canyons, slivers of sunlight slip beneath a patch of clouds and splash onto towering pinnacles, igniting the wind-weathered rock. Here in Canyonlands National Park, the luminescent close of day is the perfect time to admire the park's geologic wonders.
While Canyonlands officially turns 40 this month, its rippled and furrowed landscape is much, much older, a spectacular sedimentary slab of rockscape millions of years in the making and still a work in progress. Encompassing 337,598 acres, the park is a puzzle of desolate mesas, crumbling buttes, and deep canyons interrupted by fossilized sand dunes that reach like fingers across the canyon floor.
So diverse and large is the park that it's sliced into districts. From the Island in the Sky District at the north end ― the closest to services in the gateway town of Moab and easiest to access ― you can enjoy horizon-stretching views into the cavernous heart of the park. The Needles District, in the southeast, offers a towering geologic fantasyland you can walk through, while the Maze District, to the west, is a remote, hard-to-reach sanctuary of water-sculpted rocks and fins, from where you can also explore the satellite Horseshoe Canyon Unit, with its hidden gallery of rock art.
You can visit either Island in the Sky or the Needles in a day from Moab; otherwise, plan on camping. Allow four or five days to really explore all three districts.
Moab is five hours southeast of Salt Lake City by car. Canyonlands National Park is generally dry from mid-September through October; September daytime highs are in the 80s. Leave Moab with a full tank of gas, a spare tire, food, water, and sun protection; you can purchase drinking water at Island in the Sky and drink from the wells in the Needles.
For current travel updates, maps, and important information on hiking and camping safety, contact Canyonlands National Park ($10 per vehicle, good for seven days; www.nps.gov/cany or 435/719-2313).
INFO: Room reservations are essential during spring and fall. For information on Canyonlands, and on lodging, dining, and various sports outfitters, contact the Moab Information Center (Center and Main Streets; www.discovermoab.com, 800/635-6622, or 435/259-8825).