Guide to Canyonlands, Utah

Southeastern Utah is home to what’s known as Canyon Country. It includes Canyonlands National Park, but that’s just the nicely packaged part of this vast landscape of endless mazes etched by eons of wind and rain.

The geology is distinctive; striated layers of sandstone sediments have been stacked, tilted, and subducted into a geometrical symphony rock and sand. The top layer is petrified sand dunes, with rolling hills and mesas adorned with orange, pink, and yellow stripes. There are towering, rock walls with black streaks etching their faces like ancient war paint. The landscape is awash with slickrock domes and fins that hide even more mazes, caves, and ancient ruins. This part of the landscape alone ranks as one of country’s best examples of the wild beyond, but it’s is also known for its arches—there’s one that spans 291 feet, the longest in the world. And of course there is the mighty Colorado River, which starts in the Colorado Rockies and snakes its way through seven states (and Mexico) before spilling into the Gulf of California.

This part of the landscape alone ranks as one of country’s best examples of the wild beyond.

But Canyonlands is more than a place. It is a shared mythological past, filled with petroglyphs, cliff dwellings, and pottery shards. The magical landscape has been home to ancient societies who braved the harsh desert conditions; nowadays western towns with unique vibes, like Moab, Kanab, and Springdale offer decent food and convenient accommodations. Despite modern conveniences like good roads, microbrews, and fresh vegetables, there’s a timeless quality to the desert.

When you walk up winding trails through steep red walls, it is easy to feel the spirit of the ancient ones; it is a place where one can feel alone, at peace and one with nature. Porpoise-shaped arches and castellated sandstone monuments dot the landscape. This high desert is exotic and evocative. Whether you’re a mountain biker, climber, hiker, artist, or poet, there’s a home-away-from-home waiting. But you won’t be alone. Despite it being primarily desert, Canyonlands is home to plenty of wildlife. There are rattlesnakes and ravens, mountain lions, and our favorite, the killer mouse, a small rodent that eats scorpions.

The desert can be as inhospitable and dangerous as it is beautiful.

This wild part of the world is, in a word, wild. The desert can be as inhospitable and dangerous as it is beautiful. When you’re visiting, pay close attention to the weather. Flash floods are a real danger. Heat also can be unexpected. The four-season desert kit includes an extra layer and sun hat. As water is scarce in the desert, always have more than you think you need. The best way to avoid an emergency in the desert is to plan for one and pack accordingly.

Spotlight: Canyonlands National Park

This vast, scenic landscape covers nearly 340,000 acres. It’s a newer park; established in 1965 by Lyndon B. Johnson at the urging of then-Secretary of the Interior, Stewart Udall. The closest jumping off spot is Moab, a true desert town where character and western charm outweigh fancy architecture. In the park (and greater area) world-class climbing, kayaking, hiking and even four-wheeling await, while the mountain biking the slickrock trails just outside of Moab proper ranks as some of the world’s best. There are three areas in Canyonlands National Park; The Needles, Island in the Sky, and the Maze. All three are worth visiting, and each have their own unique beauty.

Island in the Sky, with its bird’s eye view of the Green and Colorado rivers, has some truly spectacular overlooks.

The Needles

The Needles has some great day hikes—Cave Spring is a short (less than a mile) loop that leads to a very old spring that sustained Native American and cowboy populations. A longer trek is the 11-mile Elephant Hill to the Druid Arch, but you can turn around and retrace your steps earlier.

Island in the Sky

Island in the Sky, with its bird’s eye view of the Green and Colorado rivers, has some truly spectacular overlooks. Many of the trails are steep in this section of the park, but there are shorter jaunts, like the half-mile trail to Mesa Arch and a two-mile route out of Grand View Point (a not-to-be-missed overlook) that have big view payoffs for not-so-strenuous effort.

SEE ALSO: Hottest Hiking Destinations

The Maze

The Maze is one of the most remote spots in the continental U.S. and is by far the least visited area of the park. You need a four-wheel drive (with high clearance), and there’s no food, water, or services. Places like the Doll House, Golden Stairs, and Land of Standing Rocks are over-the-top amazing, but you’ll need backcountry skills and lots of self-sufficiency.

The Maze is one of the most remote spots in the continental U.S. and is by far the least visited area of the park.

White Rim Trail

And finally, there is the White Rim Trail, which is a 100 mile trail that circumnavigates the Island in the Sky and takes you into some of the most remote parts of the park. Navigation of the trail is usually reserved for those on bicycles or a four-wheel drive vehicle, but in the case of these two very brave or dumb people, it can be accomplished on foot with the proper support crew.

Check out our story about the Best Bad Idea to hike the White Rim Trail in the height of summer (don’t try this at home):

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