Canyonlands National Park
Visiting Canyonlands is like visiting three parks in one! Two rivers slice the park into three districts. Between the Green and Colorado rivers lies the aptly-named Island in the Sky mesa. On the east bank of Cataract Canyon lies The Needlesspires and canyons that include arches, ruins, and amazing rock art. To the west of the rivers lies Canyonland's most isolated and least-visited district, The Maze. See the Park Overview Map.
Island in the Sky
Views from Island in the Sky reach from the depths of the Green and Colorado rivers to the heights of distant mountaintops and stretch across canyon after canyon to the horizon 100 miles distant. A broad, level mesa wedged between the Green and Colorado, Island in the Sky serves as Canyonlands' observation tower. From its many overlooks, sightseers absorb overwhelming vistas of almost incomprehensible dimensions. Closest to the mesa's edge is the White Rim, a nearly continuous sandstone bench 1,200 feet below the Island. Another 1,000 feet beneath the White Rim are the rivers, shadowed by sheer canyon cliffs, and beyond them lies the country of the Maze and the Needles. Outside the park's boundary, three jagged mountain ranges abruptly break the pattern of the flat-topped canyon landscape. To the east rise the La Sals; to the south, the Abajos; to the southwest, the Henrys. Rain that passes by the arid soil of Canyonlands keeps these mountains mantled in forests of pine and fir. On the Island, vegetation is much sparser. Open fields of Indian rice grass and other grasses and pinyon-juniper pygmy forests survive on less than ten inches of rain a year. Coyotes, foxes, squirrels, ravens, hawks, and smaller birds share the food of these lands. Herds of cattle and horses once grazed these desert pastures, too: Abandoned water troughs and fences are reminders of those bygone days. The many trails around the Island are good places to encounter wildlife, especially at dawn, at dusk, or during the cooler months. Trails also lead to striking vistas, arches, and other outstanding geological features, including 1,500-foot-deep Upheaval Dome.
Exploration - From U.S. 191 take Utah 313 south to the Island. A paved road continues across the Island. Facilities include: four-wheel-drive roads; self-guiding and primitive trails; developed campground; primitive campsites (backcountry permit required); picnic areas; overlooks; roadside and trailside exhibits; ranger talks and evening campfire programs (seasonal); and commercial tours from nearby towns. Reservations for White Rim primitive campsites are recommended and can be requested in writing: Address inquiries to the White Rim Reservations Office care of Canyonlands National Park. No water is available on the Island and an entrance fee is charged.
The Maze country west of the Colorado and Green rivers is Canyonlands at its wildest. It ranks as one of the most remote and inaccessible sections in the United States. There is the Maze itself, a perplexing jumble of canyons that has been described as a "30 square mile puzzle in sandstone." Beyond are the weirdly shaped towers, walls, buttes, and mesas of the Land of Standing Rocks, Ernies Country, the Doll House, and the Fins. People come to this wilderness of broken rock, little water, and stunted junipers and find intangible resources hard to find elsewhere: solitude, silence, and challenges demanding self-reliance. The 600-foot descent to the bottom of the Maze is a plunge into the heart of this country. Until the park was created, few individuals had explored these canyons.Even today there are few visitors each year. Many come to see the ghostly figures painted on the walls of Horseshoe Canyon, which were left by Indians at least 2,000 years ago. The haunting life-size forms are considered among the finest examples of prehistoric rock art in the country. They are a fitting reminder of the otherworldly spirit of this region, where people come and go, but never stay. When visiting take photographs, but leave no trace of your visit.
Explorations - From Utah 24 or 95 take two- and four-wheel drive routes east to the Maze. Facilities include: four-wheel-drive roads; primitive hiking routes; primitive campsites (backcountry permit required); overlooks; and commercial tours from nearby towns. No water is available.
The contrasting names in the Needles country reflect the diversity of the land itself: Devils Kitchen and Angel Arch, Elephant Hill and Caterpillar Arch, Gothic Arch and Paul Bunyans Potty. The dominant landforms are the Needles themselvesrock pinnacles banded in red. The Needles is a startling landscape of sculptured rock spires, arches, canyons, grabens, and potholes. Earth movements fractured the rock, while water, wind, and freezing and thawing eroded it into the jumbled terrain of today. Grassy meadows such as the 960-acre Chesler Park offer a striking contrast to the Needles' bare rock. And arches add a touch of the unusual to the region. Like Arches National Park to the northeast, the Needles country boasts a fascinating collection of natural rock spans. Angel Arch, located in a side canyon of Salt Creek Canyon, stands 150 feet high. The Wooden Shoe Arch, on the other hand, is just a small tunnel-like opening. Other arches are shaped like a caterpillar, a wedding ring, and a horse's hoof. Most of the arches lie hidden in backcountry canyons and are well-deserved rewards for those who make the long four-wheel-drive trips or hikes to see them.
Explorations - From U.S. 191 take Utah 211 west to the Needles. The paved road continues into the park. Facilities include four-wheel-drive roads; self-guiding and primitive trails; developed campground; primitive campsites (backcountry permit required); overlooks; evening campground programs (seasonal); and commercial tours from nearby towns. Water is available spring through fall. Entrance and camping fees are charged.
Confluence outlook is located over 1,000 feet above the meeting place of the Green and Colorado rivers. Throughout this country the Anasazithe Ancient onesonce ranged, growing corn, squash, and beans, hunting deer and bighorn, and gathering native seeds, fruits, and roots. This advanced culture was part of the same group of people who built the giant stone pueblos of Mesa Verde in Colorado and Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. Traces of the Anasazi can be found in almost every canyon in the Needles. Many of their stone and mud dwellings and storehouses are remarkably well-preserved. Tower Ruin, built high on a cliff ledge in a side canyon of Horse Canyon, is an outstanding example of the Anasazi's architecture. They also left a record in the petroglyphs they etched and the pictographs they painted on cliffs, as did the Archaic hunters and gatherers who were here centuries before them. The meaning of the many figures, faces, handprints, and other images remains largely a mystery. Unfortunately, many pots, tools, and other items crafted and used by these prehistoric peoples are gone, stolen by looters. Please leave artifacts in place.
The rivers of Canyonland form a fourth district, boasting lovely flat water on the upper Colorado and Green, and the 24 of Cataract Canyon's 52 rapids that remain undrowned by Lake Powell. Explorer John Wesley Powell recorded the first impressions of the Canyonlands region as seen from the Green and Colorado rivers on his Pioneering 1869 boat trip. "The landscape everywhere, away from the river, is of rock," he wrote. More than a century later the rivers still run wild here. Above the confluence, the Green and Colorado meander slowly through deep, sheer-walled canyons. Below the confluence, the combined waters begin a 14-mile rush and tumble through the rapids of Cataract Canyon. It is one of the country's most treacherous white-water stretches, rivaling any in the Grand Canyon. The Jekyll-and-Hyde personality of the rivers satisfies those looking forward to a quiet float, those eager for a helter-skelter river run, and those who want both. For more information on how to enjoy Canyonland's rivers, check out river trips.
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication