When visitors come to Moab they usually search out the famous arches of Arches National Park, the world-renowned mountain biking, or the amazing river rafting. Canyonlands National Park seems to be an afterthought to many people. “Oh, there’s another national park here? Cool, let’s drive out there for a couple of hours to check it out.”
Located to the west of the town of Moab and a short distance from Arches, Canyonlands National Park is wild and wonderful and diverse in its landscapes and travel opportunities. Rivers divide the park into four districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the rivers themselves. These areas share a primitive desert atmosphere, but each offers different opportunities for sightseeing, photography, and adventure.
Imagine wave after wave of deep canyons, towering mesas, pinnacles, cliffs, and spires stretching across 527 square miles. This is Canyonlands National Park, formed by the currents and tributaries of Utah’s Green and Colorado rivers. Canyonlands is home to many different types of travel experiences, from solitude in the more remote stretches of the park to hikes through the Needles district to the opportunity to create your own version of one of the West’s most photographed landforms, Mesa Arch.
In Canyonlands, opportunities abound for day hiking and backpacking. Mountain bikers can tackle challenging dirt roads that lead through the heart of the park. The Needles district has more hiking trails (about 74 miles) and a better variety of trails than the Island in the Sky and Maze districts. In addition, this area is, in general, set up and managed for hikers with lots of loop trails and a good selection of easy or moderate hiking options as well as backpacking opportunities. Most trails have sections of slickrock, so get used to following cairns.
Canyonlands National Park is also a great place to view incredible scenery from the paved roads that lead to awe-inspiring viewpoints. The well-marked turnoff for the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands is on the left at Highway 313, 6 miles north of the Arches turnoff on U.S. 191 north of Moab. A few miles along Highway 313, note on the right Monitor and Merrimac Buttes, looking like their namesake Civil War ships.
Eventually you come to a prominent fork: left it is 4 miles to Dead Horse State Park, straight is 4.5 miles to Canyonlands Island in the Sky. Dead Horse Point is, like Island in the Sky, an isolated promontory of stone jutting out over the deep gorge of the Colorado River. The overlook provides some of the most famous views in the region, especially of the Colorado River 2,000 feet below. It is well worth a side trip.
The Needles district of Canyonlands National Park has about 10 miles of paved roads. The longest branch of the paved road leads to Big Spring Canyon Overlook. Along the way are several stops at man-made or geological points of interest. You will drive in on the Indian Creek Scenic Byway; make sure you stop at Newspaper Rock before you get to Canyonlands. It is one of the better roadside rock-art viewing sites in the Southwest. A 50-foot-high sandstone face is covered with a variety of fine petroglyphs from several periods.
For those staying overnight, Canyonlands offers some of the most peaceful campgrounds you will ever find.
Camping in Canyonlands National Park is a great way to enjoy a fun family vacation and share an intimate experience with the landscape. Plus you’ll be out there in the early morning and late evening when the light is amazing, especially for photography enthusiasts.
Squaw Flat Campground is located 3 miles west of the Needles entrance station. The campground here has 26 sites available on a first-come, first-served basis for $15 per night. The campground has electrical hookups, drinking water, fire pits, picnic tables, tent pads, ADA sites, and flush and vault toilets.
The smaller Willow Flat Campground is located about 9 miles southwest of the Island in the Sky entrance station. Willow Flat has no water, so come prepared. There are 12 basic sites (first-come, first-served, $10 per night) with fire pits, picnic tables, tent pads, and vault toilets. Junipers and piñon pines decorate this small campground, which is a good place from which to explore the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands. A number of trails lead to striking vistas, arches, and other geologic wonders.
There is also a campground at Dead Horse Point State Park, reached by turning east of UT 313 before you enter Canyonlands northern entrance. The campground here has electrical hookups and water, and, unlike the first-come-first-served national park campgrounds, you can use your credit card to reserve a site.
Do yourself a favor and don’t hurry through the park. Instead, take your time and let the nature of Canyonlands sneak up on you and take root in your heart. It’s quite likely you’ll become so attached to the place that you’ll have to return again and again and again.
Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.