Canyonlands National Park is huuuge, comprising over 337,598 acres of dramatic landscapes. The park is divided into three areas, and it’s not really an option to do more than one in a single day. I spent two days exploring The Needles, and Island in the Sky.
This place has it all. Lavender canyons, giant mushroom rocks, super exclusive high clearance roads, 2,000 year old graffiti, and a park ranger named, “Bing!”*
The drive into this park alone is worth the trip. The turn off of Rt. 191 in southeast Utah has the strangest landmark I’ve seen in Church Rock. From this point, you drive 34 miles through a stunning purple hued canyon, which is the second indicator that this landscape is going to be very, very different.
Those 34 miles bring you to the entrance of The Needles portion of Canyonlands, and along the way, you’ll pass Newspaper Rock, a National Heritage Site which is a definite must see. It’s a large petroglyph panel that records 2,000 years of human activity in stone. No one really knows what any of the symbols mean with certainty, so you are left to your own interpretation (I found this was actually a very fun and amusing mental exercise).
Once I arrived in the park, I made the obligatory stop at the Ranger’s desk, and when I took a look at the detailed maps of this part of the park, I suddenly realized why there were so many jeeps in this area. This park is full of high clearance vehicle only roads that take you deep into areas you otherwise couldn’t access. There were a couple of roads that I could manage with my 4×4 truck, but most of the ones that looked really interesting included driving down rock steps, narrow passages and very high clearance areas. For that, you need a shorter, higher clearance vehicle, and a lot more nerve than I have.
I did some of the shorter hikes to lookout points, and a gravel “4×4 only” road to get a closer look at a few rock formations. I was left with the sense that to get to know this park better, you really need to be prepared to do more hiking (given the remoteness of this area, I decided that wasn’t a good idea on my own), or come ready for the fun of four wheeling into the back country.
I also got a look at the famous “needles” formations, which are the result of a layer of sandstone forming over softer rock, then fracturing in a sort of grid that over time eroded into what looks like a giant field of rock needles.
On the way back out of The Needles, I stopped to check out what seemed to be a popular day hike at Donnelly Canyon. It looked like a great option.
*Ok, I made up the part about Bing, but the rest is true.
Island in the Sky
This part of the park is one sweeping vista after another. To get there, you exit Rt 191 and drive 21 miles to the entrance of the park up through canyon walls and onto the top of a long grassy mesa where cattle graze in open lands. There is a dramatic mental disconnect between what you’ll see on the top of the mesa, and the views only a short walk from the road.
The views are spectacular, and of such a grand scale that I found it difficult to wrap my head around what I was looking at. At the Grand View Point Overlook, you are essentially looking down over a canyon within a canyon within a canyon, with the Colorado River all the way at the bottom. These photos are of the same vantage point, but zoomed in incrementally until you see the canyon below. It’s huge.
I arrived at this point just as a Park Ranger talk was getting started. The Ranger here did a great job of converting millions of years of geologic change into a great story, painting a picture of the dramatic differences in how this area looked over millions of years. She used visual aids to help everyone understand what the different layers of the canyon were made of, and had the best finish ever when she pulled a fossilized dinosaur footprint out of her bag! Whoa! Excellent!
After that, I made my way to the other side of the road only to discover a completely different vista looking out over the Green River.
Once again, my brain was struggling to comprehend what I was looking at. I decided it was time for a hike and to focus on some small things that I could wrap my head around, so I headed up to Upheaval Dome, which is… actually they aren’t sure what this is. This prevailing theory is a giant meteorite slammed into a massive salt dome.
It’s huge, but at least on a scale that my brain could look at and imagine, plus there were a lot of interesting plants and rock patterns to look at along the way.
The scale of the short hike was a mental relief and I’m glad I did that because the next stop I made was here:
This vista was so huge that I started to think I could see the curvature of the earth (not likely, but it seemed that way). I was able to zoom in enough to see the Green River below and consider what it might be like to take a raft down through the canyon to get a closer look at the massive colorful walls. That would definitely be an awesome trip!
I stopped a few more times on the way back out of the park, but when I realized that this view felt just “meh” (which is nuts, just look at it!), I decided to acknowledge that my brain was full for the day.
I didn’t visit this part of the park because you can’t get there from here. This is the most remote and inaccessible part of the park and one of the most remote regions in the entire country. It’s accessed only via an unpaved road suitable to 2WD vehicles, with the road becoming more rugged at the park boundary where 4WD high clearance vehicles, mountain bikes, or foot traffic is the only way forward. Only 3% of Canyonlands National Park visitors make it into the Maze.
Overall impression: This park offered some of the most dramatic views I’ve ever seen in my life. I think I only scratched the surface here, and would love to return and spend a week exploring the canyons and enjoying the night skies. If I had a Jeep, this would be an awesome place to go exploring! I did hear from my fellow campers (who had Jeeps) that the roads are pretty hairy, and the drop offs are extreme. There were also a lot of people with dirt bikes, and they were clearly having an insanely good time.
Costs: $25 per vehicle admission, good for 7 days and covers all areas of the park. My admission was free with my annual National Park Pass. There are no restaurants in the park so be sure to bring your own food and water. Also be sure to gas up your vehicle before you go. There are water container refill stations at the visitor’s center.