A large, maze-like wilderness of rocky mesas, cliffs, canyons, and rivers, Canyonlands National Park protects an amazing region of southeast Utah. Established in 1964, this park features breathtaking views, imposing landscapes, a fascinating range of geologic features, as well as a variety of plants, animals, petroglyphs, and recreational opportunities.
The rocks that are exposed at Canyonlands offer an excellent illustration of changing environments over time. These sediments were deposited from the late Carboniferous Period (359 to 299 million years ago) through the Jurassic Period (201 to 145 mya). Hundreds of millions years of earth history are recorded in the rocks, from periods of uplift and mountain-building to erosional environments to advancing and retreating inland seas. The various sandstones, siltstones, mudstones, and evaporites provide for geologic insight as well as magnificent landscapes. Over the last few tens of millions of years uplift, erosion, and river downcutting have carved these variably-resistant sediments into a modern wonderland of nature.
My wife and I visited this national park on April 13 and 14, 2014 and set out to explore as much as possible. Canyonlands is divided into three main “districts” by the Green and Colorado Rivers that cut through the region. The Island in the Sky follows high mesas that look down on the rivers and canyons below. The Needles District winds deeper into canyons and rock formations closer to the rivers. The Maze, accessible only by foot, is a truly confounding landscape of deep, labyrinthine canyons. The rivers themselves are often considered a fourth district. The smaller, more distant Horseshoe Canyon Unit can be considered a fifth district, and it features a wealth of Native American rock art that can only be reached on foot.
We began our visit at The Island in the Sky, the most-visited district in the park. As soon as we entered the park boundary the scenic vistas of Shafer Canyon were most impressive.
From here a four-wheel-drive route called the Shafer Trail Road wound down the razor’s edge of the canyon to the valley below. Although we didn’t have time to explore this feature, it sure looked like a lot of fun:
We then headed north to the Upheaval Dome trail. For many years this geologic feature was a mystery. The two leading hypotheses were that it was formed by a salt dome or an impact from a meteorite. The discovery of shocked quartz finally settled the matter, showing evidence for an impact crater.
The trail itself offered some other features of interest, including this Utah penstemon…
…as well as this rock-dwelling chipmunk:
We then made our way southward. Along the way we stopped for a few minutes at an overlook of Candlestick Tower and the Soda Springs Basin:
At the south end of The Island in the Sky is Grand View Point, and the views here lived up to the name:
This spot overlooks the White Rim and Meander Canyon, displaying some beautifully resistant white sandstone over less-resistant red sandstone:
The following day we headed down to the Needles District. This more distant area is about 76 miles south of Moab and sees only about half the visitors of Island in the Sky. Our first stop was a hike along the Slickrock Trail:
From here we could see The Island in the Sky that we had visited the day before:
This trail also featured views of the sandstone rock formations that gave The Needles its name…
…as well as the distant La Sal Mountains to the northeast:
Along the way we also found plants like Indian paintbrush…
…claret cup cacti…
…and yellow wildflowers:
In spite of the cool temperature, a lizard even made an appearance:
From here we spent some time climbing around on the rocks at Big Spring Canyon Overlook:
We then headed down Elephant Hill Road, a rough gravel route that leads down to the Elephant Hill four-wheel-drive trail. It made we wish I had brought my Jeep:
On the way out we stopped to look at Wooden Shoe Arch, and this rock feature seemed to have an appropriate name:
We had only budgeted about eight hours to visit Canyonlands, but its captivating beauty and natural features kept drawing us back for more. We ended up spending about fourteen hours here, and even then we felt like we only touched the surface of what this park had to offer. We mostly stuck to paved roads and short nature trails, but this park harbors a vast array of four-wheel-drive routes and backcountry trails. Perhaps more than any other national park, I would love to come back here to spend a week or more exploring it in a Jeep or lost in the wilderness with nothing but a backpack.