Drive and hike the red rock wonderland of Utah's Canyonlands National Park
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).
Island in the Sky
This is the easiest district to navigate and provides the best roost from which to appreciate the park’s name. Numerous overlooks reveal how the geologic uplifts and erosion of the past 300 million years sculpted massive canyons. Some rims and towers of rock proved worthy opponents to erosion, and their intriguing postures lend depth and fancy to this landscape. Island in the Sky yields no easy way to walk into its yawning topography, but there are plenty of panoramic viewpoints from roadside pullouts and plateautop trails.
ACCESS: From Moab, the district visitor center is 32 miles away via U.S. 191 north and State 313 west. Outside Canyonlands, State 313 passes the access road to Dead Horse Point State Park ($7 per vehicle; www.stateparks.utah.gov or 435/259-2614), which offers views of the Colorado River as it follows its goosenecked course into Canyonlands.
BEST VIEW: Grand View Point Overlook, 12 miles south of the visitor center, reveals the enormity of the abyss that erosion from the combined powers of the Green and Colorado Rivers has carved.
BEST HIKES: Mesa Arch, 6 miles south of the visitor center, offers a stunning view through an arch backed by a 1,200-foot drop ― perfect for watching the sunrise. Access it via an easy 1×2-mile walk on the Mesa Arch Trail.
The Aztec Butte Trail, about 1 mile west of Mesa Arch, makes a moderate 2-mile round-trip to the top of the butte. Several granary ruins can be found here; the best are on the west side.
Drive 5 miles west of Mesa Arch to check out Whale Rock, a bulbous sandstone formation. An easy 1×2-mile path runs to the main overlook atop the rock, but there’s plenty of room for roaming.
CAMPING: A 12-site first-come, first-served campground is located at Willow Flat ($5 per night; no water, vault toilets), 61×2 miles south of the visitor center.
Canyonlands’ finest geologic sculptures stand tall in the Needles: Erosion here is a masterful ― and whimsical ― artist. Proof resides in the rock-hewn castles, minarets, and even “wooden shoes” that decorate the landscape.
Elephant Hill Access Road is passable for sedans until it becomes rugged Elephant Hill Road, which leads four-wheel-drive enthusiasts deep into the park. Here sedimentary spires ― the Needles ― line the horizon like sentries smartly at attention. In the foreground is a grove of mushroom rocks, named for their bulbous caps of hard stone.
ACCESS: The Needles visitor center is 76 miles from Moab via U.S. 191 south and State 211 west.
BEST VIEW: Elephant Hill Access Rd. surrounds you with colorful sandstone spires.
BEST HIKES: Three miles beyond the visitor center, the Cave Spring Trail offers an easy 1×2-mile round-trip hike past a historic cowboy camp, pictographs, and buttetop views.
Chesler Park Trail, 61×2 miles west of the visitor center and next to Elephant Hill itself, offers a moderate 11-mile round-trip trek into the district’s backcountry, where you can get up close to the sandstone needles. The Chesler Park area is a surprisingly open grassland, rimmed by rock steeples and studded with pudgy, colorful, car-size mounds of rock.
The Slickrock Trail, 8 miles beyond the visitor center near Big Spring Canyon, features a moderate 21×2-mile round-trip hike with striking views into canyons and the chance to spot bighorn sheep.
CAMPING: The 26-site first-come, first-served Squaw Flat Campground ($10 per night; gravel tent pads, restrooms, water) is Canyonlands’ most beautiful. In fall, sites fill early. Overflow campers head to the private Canyonlands Needles Outpost ($15 per night; www.canyonlandsneedlesoutpost.com or 435/979-4007) campground just outside the Needles’ entrance.
The Maze and Horseshoe Canyon
Some of the world’s best Native American rock art can be found in the Great Gallery, deep in the park’s Horseshoe Canyon. The canyon was added to the park in 1971 to protect the images, which were daubed on the walls between 2,000 and 3,000 years ago. On one 300-foot-long panel depicting more than 60 red ocher figures, you can easily recognize bighorn sheep, warriors, and flitting birds, but other armless, larger-than-life, more mysterious images spur conjecture and continue to defy interpretation.
While Horseshoe Canyon is easy to reach, the same can’t be said of the wilderness heart of the Maze, a destination for serious backpackers.
ACCESS: Horseshoe Canyon is 119 miles west of Moab via U.S. 191, I-70, State 24, and Hans Flat Rd., which is 30 miles of graded dirt road suitable for sedans but best avoided in wet weather. The Maze is another four or five bouncing hours along Horseshoe Canyon Access Rd., a route best left to experienced drivers in high-clearance four-wheel-drives.
BEST VIEW: From the plateau at the Horseshoe Canyon Trailhead, watch sunset colors splash across the rippled topography of the canyon.
BEST HIKE: The Horseshoe Canyon Trail runs a moderate 31×4 miles one way to the Great Gallery, mostly along a sandy wash. Rangers lead hikes to the rock art at 9 a.m. Sat, Apr-Oct.
CAMPING: A wide spot on the rim of Horseshoe Canyon at the trailhead can handle six or so car campers on a first-come, first-served basis (free; no water, vault toilets). Camping within the canyon is prohibited inside the park.