Canyonlands National Park is Utah’s least visited national park and perhaps you haven’t even heard of it. Even though it gets roughly half of the visitors as nearby Arches National Park, in 2021, Canyonlands should not be overlooked. It is just about 30 minutes from Moab, and you likely will only need one day to be able to see the more accessible sites. Canyonlands National Park is considered a hidden gem among Utah’s National Parks and you should put it on your list.
Canyonlands National Park Facts
Canyonlands National Park was established in 1964 which made it the largest national park in Utah. The park is massive at over 335,000 acres, or about 172,000 football fields. For comparison, Zion National Park (Utah’s most visited National Park) is just over 147,000 acres.
The park is divided into three “districts”. Technically, there’s four, but I don’t really count one of them for a reason I’ll get to shortly.
The three districts are: Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze. None of them are connected to another within the park. They are separated by the Green and Colorado Rivers. To get from one to another, you have to drive outside of the park. Don’t worry, visiting The Needles and The Maze isn’t necessary, strictly speaking.
The rivers are considered the fourth district. While the other three districts have an area and definable borders around them, the rivers as a district would resemble the most gerrymandered Congressional district. It just doesn’t make sense that the rivers would be a distinct district, but that’s just my opinion. I know that my opinion is wrong, but it is very inconsequential nonetheless.
What To Do in the Island in the Sky
The vast majority of the park’s visitors only go to the Island in the Sky. There are two reasons for this. The Island in the Sky is the most accessible. It is the closest to Moab and does not require a four-wheel drive vehicle. The other reason is that it has the least extreme terrain of all of the districts. Even the most inexperienced hiker will be able to do some of the hikes and see the wonderful sights. Don’t let that deter you – the geology is mindblowing.
Your first stop is likely to be the Mesa Arch Trailhead. The hike to the arch is a very easy 0.6 miles. At first, you may be underwhelmed. Your arrival to the arch is actually somewhat at the top of the arch. There is a spectacular view of the valley below and the distant mountains.
The window through the arch faces due east which makes it popular for sunrise views. When I was there at mid-morning, there were only about a dozen other people there. Thus it was very easy to get a good picture of the arch with nobody in the frame.
If you have a strong stomach and aren’t afraid of heights, walk over to the right side of the arch. It is easy to see the entirety of the arch, which will show just how big the arch is. I don’t have a fear of heights – I have a fear of falling, but I still ventured over to look and was blown away. I completely underestimated the size of Mesa Arch!
Grand View Point Overlook
After returning to your car from Mesa Arch, drive south on the main road to the Grand View Point Overlook. There’s an info board that describes what several landmarks are in the expansive view of the valley below. To the right of that is the trailhead of a very easy out-and-back trail along the cliff’s edge. The trail is very wide so there isn’t a good chance of any mortal accidents. Also, don’t feel pressured into doing the full hike. I turned around after about ? of the way out because the view was basically the same.
If you’re in the mood for a longer hike, drive north to the Upheaval Dome which is one of the most unique geological formations of the Island in the Sky. The hike takes about 1-1.5 hours, depending on how far you want to go, but it is relatively flat.
There are two theories of how the Upheaval Dome was created. One theory is that salt deposits created it with erosion. I’ll be honest, I don’t quite understand that but I’m not a geology expert. The latest, and most accepted theory, is that it was from a meteor strike. However it was created, the Upheaval Dome is one of the must-see features of the Island in the Sky!
How to See The Maze and Needles (without Driving)
As I mentioned, it is not possible to to travel from district to district within Canyonlands National Park. The drive from the Island in the Sky entrance to the entrance of The Needles is well over an hour drive. There are only a few trails that are accessible without a four-wheel drive vehicle. The other trails are longer and more strenuous.
Getting to The Maze involves a multi-day off road drive. Don’t try this unless you are also prepared for a very remote camping experience. Only about 3% of the park’s visitors set foot in The Maze!
As you can tell, seeing The Needles and The Maze is much more involved than the Island in the Sky. In comparison, I wasn’t able to do a ton at the Island in the Sky, and only spent about 5-6 hours there.
One of the best, and by far the easiest, ways to see the other two districts is to see it by air. There are tours that leave from Canyonlands Airport, just outside of Moab. Redtail Adventures offers tours by helicopter and plane. Surprisingly, I have a fear of helicopters, so I looked into an aerial tour on a plane.
Redtail Adventures offers tours of Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park, and other areas of Colorado and Southern Utah. After realizing that the hour-long tour of Canyonlands should let me see features in The Needles and The Maze, I nearly jumped at the opportunity to go. It was considerably more expensive than the shorter tours, but it wasn’t a hard decision.
On the tour, I saw Upheaval Dome, several geological formations of The Maze and the Needles, and the rivers separating the three districts. It was stunning. I was amazed by the sights that I wasn’t able to see from the Island in the Sky. Our world is truly magnificent.
This is one of the many reasons that I encourage people to travel using miles & points. In a nutshell, using miles and points for hotels and flights affords me the luxury to be able to do extravagant activities like an aerial tour. Otherwise, it would have been a bigger decision to splurge on it. I encourage you to do the same if you can.
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