Utah Wanted All the Tourists. Then It Got Overrun.

As red-rock meccas like Moab, Zion, and Arches become overrun with visitors, I have to wonder if Utah’s celebrated Mighty Five ad campaign worked too well—and who gets to decide when a destination is “at capacity”

Though COVID-19 has stalled a lot of travel plans, we hope our stories can offer inspiration for your future adventures—and a bit of hope.

Utah had a problem. Shown a photo of Delicate Arch, people guessed it was in Arizona. Asked to describe states in two adjectives, they called Colorado green and mountainous but Utah brown and Mormon. It was 2012. Anyone who had poked around canyon country’s spires and red rocks knew it was the most spectacular place on the continent—maybe the world—so why did other states get the good rep? 

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The state tourism folks hired an ad firm called Struck. They created a rebrand labeled the Mighty Five, a multimedia campaign to extol the state’s national parks: Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, Canyonlands, and Arches. By 2013, a 20-story mash-up of red-rock icons towered as a billboard in Los Angeles. Delicate Arch bopped around London on the sides of taxicabs. The pinnacle was a 30-second commercial that was masterpiece. It was like they took natural features that have been there forever and parks that have been there for decades and putting it together with a new brand.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

The Mighty Five campaign was a smash. The number of visitors to the five parks jumped 12 percent in 2014, 14 percent in 2015, and 20 percent in 2016, leaping from 6.3 million to over 10 million in just three years. The state coffers filled with sales taxes paid on hotels and rental cars and restaurants. The Struck agency brags that the state got a return on its investment of 338 to 1.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

And then, on Memorial Day weekend of 2015, nearly 3,000 cars descended on Arches National Park for their dose of Wow. All 875 parking places were taken with scores more vehicles scattered in a haphazard unplanned way. The line to the entrance booth spilled back half a mile blocking Highway 191. The state highway patrol took the unprecedented step of closing it effectively shutting down the park. Hundreds of rebuffed visitors drove 30 miles to Canyonlands where they waited an hour in a two-mile line of cars. 

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Since then, Arches has been swamped often enough to shut its gate at least nine times including the most recent Labor Day weekend. Meanwhile, in Zion, hikers wait 90 minutes to board a shuttle and an additional two to four hours to climb the switchbacks of Angels Landing. There, visitors sometimes find outhouses shuttered with a sign that reads: “Due to extreme use, these toilets have reached capacity.”

Moab is the gateway to Arches where famous landmarks like Delicate Arch, Fiery Furnace, and the Windows are reached by a single dead-end road. More than any other town, it has borne the brunt of the tourism spike.

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

While the county population has grown in 30 years from roughly 6,500 to 9,500 and where there were a dozen or so small inns there’s been an enormous growth in lodging: there are now 36 hotels and 2,600 rooms, plus 600 overnight rentals, and 1,987 campsites. There’s no way to track how many people occupy each, but on a fully booked holiday that’s at least 15,000 people vastly outnumbering the locals. Traffic jams extend from tip to tail, and the two-mile drag down Main Street is a 30-minute morass. 

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Maybe we can think of the Utah Office of Tourism as Dr. Frankenstein and its Mighty Five campaign as the glorious creature run amok.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Of course neither the tourism folks nor the Mighty Five campaign can take full credit for these booming figures or for the onslaught of tourists. Other factors helped. In 2016, the Park Service celebrated its 100th birthday launching its own ad campaign; between 2013 and 2016, park visits jumped 21 percent nationwide. The past six years have seen a recovery from the recession, low fuel prices, and a continued reluctance by Americans to travel overseas. And social media creates its own viral marketing.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Southern Utah is a victim—or beneficiary—of the global phenomenon of overtourism that has wreaked havoc from Phuket to Venice and Machu Picchu. The rise in disposable income, the advent of discount airlines, and innovations like Airbnb and TripAdvisor made travel easier and cheaper.

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

I don’t want to just be a curmudgeon who mourns the passage of time and fights any change to the way things were. I will never be young again, I get that. But maybe, one way we tap into the eternal is to see how that which is not made by human hand will outlast us all, just as it preceded us. 

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Worth Pondering…

A man can worship God among these great cathedrals as well as in any man-made church—this is Zion.

— Isaac Behunin, 1861

Chasing John Wesley Powell: Exploring the Colorado River—Canyonlands, Lake Powell & Grand Canyon

Retracing John Wesley Powell’s first descent of the Colorado River and its canyons 150 years later

One hundred fifty years ago in May 1869, a one-armed Civil War veteran set off with nine mountain men on a scientific expedition to map one of the last blank spaces left on the US map: The Green and Colorado Rivers through the Grand Canyon.

Lake Powell and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

John Wesley Powell’s 1,000-mile, three-month adventure, officially called the Powell Geographic Expedition, started in Wyoming and ended in Arizona. But the heart of it went through Utah and its jaw-dropping wilderness—through what would become Flaming Gorge National Recreation Area, Dinosaur National Monument, Canyonlands National Park, and Lake Powell (Glen Canyon National Recreation Area).

Colorado River south of Lake Powell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Certainly, some of the scenery and route has changed since the 1869 trip (which Powell repeated in 1871): dams were built, altering the rivers and flooding the canyons he explored. But much of the route remains protected, ensuring a rugged and wild adventure for those following in Powell’s wake.

Here are key segments of his trip through Canyonlands National Park, Lake Powell, and Grand Canyon National Park—and what they offer today.

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

“God help the poor wretch that is caught in the canon during highwater.”
— Jack Sumner, member of the Powell expedition

Cataract Canyon sits 3 miles below the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers— and it bedeviled the Powell crew. The rapids appeared so dangerous, the crew spent days portaging their boats past cataract after cataract.

Colorado River and Canyonlands National Park as seen from Dead Horse Point State Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, a large sign warns paddlers of “hazardous rapids” as they enter Cataract Canyon and the free-flowing Colorado River. Some 400 miles away from the dam that impounds the Green River and 180 miles from another on the Colorado, this segment of the river provides the most powerful white water in the country. It boasts 30 big rapids including The Big Drop, where the river drops over 30 feet in less than a mile.

Canyonlands National Park; the Colorado River is down there somewhere © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Boaters and paddlers can obtain permits through Canyonlands National Park which manages the canyon. Cataract itself is 14 miles, but river trips are usually about 48 miles, starting upstream on the Green or Colorado and ending on Lake Powell.  

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

For those who don’t want to travel via river, there’s still plenty to do in the surrounding national park, from taking in breathtaking vistas in the park’s Island in the Sky district on its paved scenic drive, to hiking or four-wheeling in The Needles district, or serious backcountry trekking in the remote section called The Maze.

Lake Powell

Lake Powell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Powell described Glen Canyon as a “land of beauty and glory” and named it for its many glens and alcoves near the river. About 100 years later, the canyon was flooded by the Glen Canyon Dam on the Colorado River forming a lake named for the one-armed explorer.

Lake Powell © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

With 2,000 miles of shoreline, Lake Powell offers boating, kayaking, and fishing amid rugged red rock canyons and mesas.

For visitors seeking more solace than the lake’s annual 3 million visitors provide, the surrounding Glen Canyon National Recreation Area offers numerous hikes, multi-day backpacking trips, and mountain biking.

Grand Canyon

“The limestone of this canyon is often polished, and makes a beautiful marble. Sometimes the rocks are of many colors—white, gray, pink and purple, with saffron hints.”
— John Wesley Powell

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

About 900 hundred miles and three months after they launched their boats, Powell and crew reached what he later named the Grand Canyon. Theirs was the first recorded passage of white men through the entirety of what Powell called “the great unknown,” though Grand Canyon has been inhabited for 12,000 years.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Today, the canyon is one of the Seven Wonders of the World. It contains 277 miles of the Colorado River and is up to 18 miles wide. Most of the 5 million annual visitors come for the majestic views of its fantastic shapes and colors—red, buff, green, pink, slate, and violet.

Grand Canyon © Rex Vogel, all rights reserved

Those who venture below the rim can hike and camp in the backcountry (with permits), take a mule ride down to the bottom, or raft the mighty river that carved the canyon 5 to 6 million years ago. Whitewater trips last from 3 days to 3 weeks.

Worth Pondering…

Success is a journey, not a destination. The doing is often more important than the outcome.

—Arthur Ashe

A Lifetime of Exploration Awaits at Canyonlands (National Park)

Canyonlands invites you to explore a wilderness of countless canyons and fantastically formed buttes carved by the Colorado River and its tributaries

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.” 

Canyonlands Islands in the Sky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

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.

Canyonlands Islands in the Sky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

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.

Canyonlands Islands in the Sky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

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 Islands in the Sky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

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.

Canyonlands Islands in the Sky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

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.

Canyonlands Islands in the Sky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

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.

Canyonlands Needles © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

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.

Canyonlands Islands in the Sky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

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.

Canyonlands Needles © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

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.

Canyonlands Needles © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

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.

Canyonlands Islands in the Sky © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

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.

Canyonlands Needles © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Worth Pondering…

Look deep into nature, and then you will understand everything better.

—Albert Einstein

America’s 10 Most Popular National Parks, Ranked

The top 10 national parks according to which ones are the best

The national parks system is arguably the best idea America ever had. More than 300 million people visit every year, pouring over $35 billion into the national economy.

Many parks offer free entrance days—for some, every single day is a free entrance day—and if you want to go all out, an $80 annual pass gets you unlimited access to all the national parks for the entire year.

But which parks to visit? There are currently a whopping 60 national parks in America. To help narrow the playing field, we have thusly ranked what are, per to National Parks Service’s 2017 data, the 25 most-visited.

Now, it should be noted that the least-visited national parks are often the least-visited not because they are uncool, but because they are geographically inconvenient for most visitors to reach (like Virgin Islands National Park or Alaska’s Gates of the Arctic). By the same token, Great Smoky Mountains National Park wins “most-visited” year after year on a technicality (basically, people drive through it a lot just to get from Point A to Point B).

But while it is widely known that there is nothing bloggers love more than to put things in numerical order according to how good they are, I don’t love it enough to do 60 things or even 25 things. I will be doing 10 things.

Did we rank the parks according their uniqueness, or photogenicness, or diversity of flora and fauna, or for the level of adventure contained therein? Yes. We ranked them according to which ones are the best. Let’s begin.

10. Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Canyonlands, near Moab, has always been upstaged by its more famous neighbors, Grand Canyon to the south and Arches to the north; and yet it merits a visit just as much as they do. Ancient waters and relentless winds have carved intricate canyons, pillars, stairs, and narrow paths through the sandstone, creating a stunning park that’s best explored on foot or bicycle. There are very few paved roads throughout the park’s 527 square miles.

9. Lassen Volcanic National Park, California

Lassen Volcanic National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Lassen Volcanic is one of few locations on Earth where you can see all four types of volcanoes—plug dome, shield, cinder, and cone. While Lassen Peak is the most famous, as well as the dominant feature in the park, there are numerous other—literally—hotspots to explore including mud pots, stinking fumaroles, and hot springs.

8. Sequoia National Park, California

Sequoia National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The iconic Pioneer Cabin Tree is no more, but we’ve still got General Sherman—the biggest tree in the world, weighing in at 275 feet tall and 60 feet wide. We’ve also got the underground stalactites and stalagmites of the Crystal Cave system. This is a park where you go to be fully immersed in nature; most of it isn’t accessible by car.

7. Great Smoky Mountains National Park, Tennessee and North Carolina

Great Smoky Mountains National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserv

The Clingman’s Dome observatory tower offers truly incredible panoramic views of the whole mountain range and to really cap things off you can pick your fill of wild strawberries, blueberries, and blackberries while you’re hiking around.

6. Zion National Park, Utah

Zion National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve


Zion is a perennial favorite. Backcountry hikers and climbers come here for The Subway, a nine-plus-mile hike that can involve rappelling, depending on which direction you try to tackle it from. The slot canyons here, set off by rust-red rocks and waterfalls (don’t miss Weeping Rock) are undeniably iconic, and Angel’s Landing is a great underrated hike.

5. Bryce Canyon National Park, Utah

Bryce Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

One of the most beautiful places in America, this park contains a massive collection of naturally formed amphitheatres and spire-shaped features called hoodoos that are some of the most distinct-looking geological features you’ll ever see in your life.

4. Joshua Tree National Park, California

Joshua Tree National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Joshua Tree become more beloved every year. Climbers enjoy the wide variety of rock faces available to them here. The dry, arid desert is notably home to 501 archaeological sites and camping among the rugged geological features and famously twisted Joshua Trees—to say nothing of the stargazing—is something everyone should do at least once.

3. Capitol Reef National Park, Utah

Capitol Reef National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Most of the meager attention that gets paid to Capitol Reef—it’s competing with four other national parks in the state of Utah alone—revolves around the Waterpocket Fold, a unique 100-mile-long wrinkle in the Earth’s crust. But you don’t have to be a geology nerd to enjoy what this park has to offer.

2. Arches National Park, Utah

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Thanks to millions of years of sandstone erosion, we’re blessed with the beauty that is the Arches National Park. There are over 2,000 natural stone arches in this 119-square mile park, the most famous being the 65-foot Delicate Arch.

1. Grand Canyon National Park, Arizona

Grand Canyon National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Truly a sight beyond words, the Grand Canyon should be on every RVer’s bucket list. You can’t describe in words what takes your breath away with each view.

Worth Pondering…

The national parks in the U.S. are destinations unto themselves with recreation, activities, history, and culture.

—Jimmy Im

Arches and Canyonlands: Two Parks Contrasted

The vast and rugged desert surrounding Moab is known for its starkly beautiful red-rock country and fantastic rock formations

Moab is unique in that it has two national parks just outside city limits: Arches and Canyonlands, about 10 miles apart, and each represent different visions of what a national park can be.

Arches National Park

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Five miles east of Moab, the world’s largest concentration of natural sandstone arches are preserved at Arches National Park.

Natural arches abound at the park and come in all sizes, ranging from an opening of only 3 feet to the 306-foot span of Landscape Arch, one of the largest in North America.

Landscape Arch, Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Arches National Park is a red, arid desert, peppered with oddly eroded sandstone forms such as fins, pinnacles, spires, balanced rocks, and arches. The 73,000-acre region has over 2,000 of these “miracles of nature.”

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Once inside the park, the 18-mile Scenic Drive climbs a steep cliff and winds along the arid terrain along the first amazing glimpses of red rock features. The road initially passes the Park Avenue area and then Courthouse Towers. The road then comes to the rolling landscape of Petrified Dunes before arriving at Balanced Rock.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Continuing on the park road, a turnoff leads to the Windows section, home to the first concentration of arches and some of the parks largest. Short trails lead from the road to Cove Arch and to Double Arch. This side road ends at the site of the North and South Windows and Turret Arch.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Returning to the main park road, the Scenic Drive continues for 2.5 miles to another turnoff which leads to Wolfe Ranch and the Delicate Arch viewpoints.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Once again on the main road, the Scenic Drive provides overlooks for Salt Valley and Fiery Furnace, home to a fascinating labyrinth of ridges and narrow canyons.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The Scenic Drive ends at Devil’s Garden area, site of the park’s campground (reservations strongly advised) and the trailhead for the popular Devils Garden Trail.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Devils Garden Trail showcases many of the park’s best arches and can be hiked from 1.6 miles to 7.2 miles, depending on your time, fitness level, and number of arches you wish to see. The shortest leg takes visitors to the Famous Landscape Arch, an amazing ribbon of rock that spans more than a football field from base to base.

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Canyonlands National Park covers a vast area of wilderness, centered round the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. The park preserves an immense wilder­ness of rock, in which water and gravity have carved hundreds of canyons, mesas, buttes, spires, arches, and other spectacular rock formations.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The Green and Colorado rivers have carved two large canyons that serve as the centerpieces for the colorful but smaller canyons that sur­round the area.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Over millions of years, the rivers and their small tributaries have carved the flat sandstone rock layers into many amazing forms with an immense variety of colors.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Although there are some paved roads, much of Canyonlands is still largely inaccessible. The best way to see most of the park is by 4WD vehicle, but many roads are rough, and huge areas lack any access.

Two Parks Contrasted

One makes the vast and rugged desert accessible to all; the other makes exploration more work, but worth it.

Arches National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Arches attracts large crowds because of a paved road that brings you a short distance from all the major attractions. Delicate Arch, the red-rock wonder that adorns Utah license plates, requires the most work to see: a 3-mile hike round trip.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

In contrast, most of the 520 square miles of Canyonlands cannot be accessed by road. The park is divided into four sections: Island in the Sky, the most accessible and popular area; the Needles, a more remote area with spectacular rock formations; the Rivers, where people raft the Colorado and Green rivers; and the Maze, the least accessible area in the park.

Worth Pondering…

May your trails be crooked, winding, lonesome, dangerous, leading to the most amazing view. May your mountains rise into and above the clouds.

—Edward Abbey

Canyonlands: Colorado River and Canyon Vistas

The Green and Colorado Rivers trisect the Colorado Plateau, etching Canyonlands into distinct districts

People who live in the West are indeed blessed. They really don’t have to travel very far to visit one of America’s great national parks. In California, there’s Yosemite, Joshua Tree, and Sequoia and Kings Canyon. To the west in Arizona, there’s the Grand Canyon, and north in the state of Utah, you can also find Bryce, Zion, Capitol Reef, Arches, and Canyonlands.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Most of us who tour national parks, probably have explored two or three of the five mentioned Utah parks. The one that is least visited, Canyonlands, is the one that is unusually interesting in that it most resembles the Grand Canyon in structure. That’s for obvious reasons, most importantly, the Colorado River runs through it and over eons carved out the canyons that we come to see and enjoy.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

There are other similarities as well. The Grand Canyon is divided by the Colorado River into the two sections, the North Rim and the South Rim. Most people visit the South Rim, which is all about the viewpoints that look down into the canyons. Canyonlands is the same.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

There are three separate regions for visitation, technically divided by the Colorado River. In the south, one can travel to The Needles and The Maze regions and to the completely separate north, the Island in the Sky region. Most people visit the easily accessible Island in the Sky, and here, too, it’s really all about peering down to the canyon vistas.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The odd thing about Island in the Sky is you take Highway 191 north out of Moab, drive past Arches National Park and you fully expect to see a big sign, that if it could speak, would loudly scream, “turn here, turn here.” Instead a little sign whispers, “this way, this way.”

I’m not sure why Canyonlands can’t attract the attention it needs, but if you blink you will miss the turn sign. Catch it and you head west through the break in the rock wall that has followed you since Moab.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The road will eventually twist and turn, climbing all the time until you find yourself at the top of an extensive mesa, a high plateau as flat as a pancake and going on and on until it ends, which it does abruptly to sheer drops of 1,000 feet or more. That’s where you are heading, the numerous, scenic spots where the mesa ends and you can look out and over the surrounding canyons.

Possibly, the vistas are better at Canyonlands than the Grand Canyon because the canyons aren’t so intensely jangled. At Canyonlands, the canyons are deep below, wide and grand, while the views seemed to go on forever.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The Island in the Sky formation is essentially a stretch of lands that ends in a triangle. To the west are the Green River formed canyons, and to the east are the Colorado River formed canyons. At tip of the triangle is where the Green and Colorado rivers come together.

The high plateau is mostly grasslands, but the elevation rises to anywhere from 5,500 feet to over 6,000 feet at the Grand View Point Overlook. As the elevation ascends, the grasslands devolve and once you arrive at the park, the landscape is red desert spotted with juniper trees and other gnarly plants like pinon pine.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The park begins at the Visitor Center, which is quite sparse and not at all elaborate like nearby Arches.

There are some really strenuous hikes in the parks, but remember you are literally at the top of an existent world and many of those hikes descend precariously. The Murphy Loop trail drops 1,400 feet, while the Syncline Loop features boulder fields, switchbacks, and a 1,300 foot elevation change. Even for the experienced hiker these are hard, full-day journeys.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The typical day visitor to Canyonlands will make two relatively short hikes. The easiest is the Mesa Arch trail, a loop that starts at the road and at mid-point puts you at the edge of a canyon. The reward on this hike is a horizontal arch that at first glance doesn’t look like much, but once you get close enough to actually be under the arch you realize that’s as far as you are going to proceed, because you are at the edge of the ledge. Then continue on for the rest of the loop. All in, it’s about a 30 minute walk.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The highlight for Island in the Sky is the Upheaval Dome, which conversely is actually a 1,500-foot-deep crater. According to one theory, the “dome” was formed by a meteor crashing into earth. However, it’s not just the geology that makes this stop interesting, it’s also the best short hike in Island in the Sky.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

The classic Canyonlands overlook is Grand View Point, where you can see the meeting of the Green and Colorado rivers, but it’s anticlimactic after the exhilarating walk to Upheaval Dome.

Canyonlands National Park © Rex Vogel, all rights reserve

Worth Pondering…

Everybody needs beauty as well as bread, places to play in and pray in where nature may heal and cheer and give strength to the body and soul.

—John Muir