Saturday, June 17, 2017

Canyonlands National Park

While Canyonlands National Park is relatively close to Arches National Park, it is much different. In the most popular areas of the park, you are looking down instead of up as in Arches. 

The park has three distinct areas: the Island in the Sky, The Needles and The Maze.

The Island in the Sky

The Island in the Sky is the most visited area in the Park. Access to the park is off Highway 191 about 11 miles north of Moab. The turnoff is clearly marked. It is another 15 miles to the park entrance but much of the drive is uphill through beautiful red rock canyons. About two miles from the visitor center you will see the entrance to Dead Horse Canyon State Park. If you have the time, make sure to visit this park after you tour Canyonlands. If you need restrooms, it is a much better stop than the Canyonlands visitor center.

The Island in the Sky offers amazing views of the canyons formed by the Colorado and Green Rivers and if those weren’t enough, the iconic Mesa Arch is only a short walk from the main road.

The views begin near the visitor’s center with Shafer Canyon where there are two parking areas. 

View of Shafer Canyon from near the Visitor's Center

Many of the viewpoints are along the canyon rim and gorgeous views are only a few steps away. If you are limited by time, there are three “must see” views in the Island in the Sky. In my view the Green River Overlook is the most spectacular of all the views in the Island in the Sky. It is impossible to describe. That’s why I’ve included the panoramic photo I made from there. There is a large parking lot by the viewpoint and a short walk will have you enjoying the view in no time.

The Green River Overlook offers the best views in the Island in the Sky

The Grand View Point Overlook is the other “must see” stop in the Island in the Sky. It is located at the end of the road. It is not spectacular but it gives you a view of The Maze and you can just see the spires in The Needles. There nice parking area at this viewpoint and you can hike along the rim if you wish.

The Grand View Overlook

Mesa Arch must be the most photographed landmark in Canyonlands, and for good reason. The Arch is relatively small compared to many of its cousins in Arches but the fact that the rising sun lights the underside of the arch has photographers standing elbow to elbow at sunrise. You don’t have to see the arch as sunrise. It is a great spot anytime and later in the day the front side of the arch is lighted as are some of the more distant landmarks like the “Washer Woman”.

The parking lot at Mesa Arch is relatively small given the number of visitors to the arch so finding a parking place may be difficult. Keep that in mind. The hike to the arch is about a quarter mile. When you reach the trailhead, you can go to the right or to the left. The trail to the right takes you up and over the hill while the one on the left circumnavigates the hill. Neither is difficult, but the one on the left is easier. 

 Mesa Arch at Sunrise

If you have the time, I recommend that you rent a Jeep in Moab and drive the Shafer Trail. The entrance to the trail is near the visitor center. The exit is along the Colorado River at Potash. Most of the trail is a reasonably well maintained gravel road. There is one place where the trail is on slick rock and crosses a dry stream bed. Navigating the trail should be no problem unless there are heavy rains in the area. You will find beautiful views here like this one of the bend in the Colorado below Dead Horse Point State Park:

Colorado River along the Shafer Trail

Needles District

The Needles District of the Park is located 40 miles south of Moab. Take Highway 191 to Highway 211 to access the Park. The first several miles of 211 are not very interesting but that changes as you get closer to the park. Before you arrive at the Park, you will be greeted by this butte:

Near the entrance to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park

Unlike the canyon views from the Island in the Sky, The Needles is loaded with beautiful rock monoliths and other rock formations. Unfortunately, those spires are still some distance from the paved road as illustrated by this photo that I made from one of the viewing areas:

Distant spires in Canyonlands National Park

To see the needles close-up, you should hike the Elephant Hill Trail to Chesler Park. This six mile round trip hike that leads you through some extraordinarily scenic places to Chesler Park, a basin surrounded by red rock spires. The round trip hike will take 4 – 6 hours so be prepared. Good hiking boots are essential as you will be walking on slick rock most of the time and there are plenty of ups and downs on this hike.  Take plenty of water. The views along the way and those at Chesler Park make the hike well worthwhile. When you arrive at Chesler Park, make sure you find a place to sit and enjoy your surroundings.

Rock Formations Along the Elephant Hill Trail

Rock Formations Along the Elephant Hill Trail

Chesler Park

The Maze

The Maze is only accessible via 4-wheel drive vehicle or by hiking. I've never been there so I can't comment.

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