Into the Guts of Canyonlands National Park

In 1961, Interior Secretary Stewart Udall visited the remote reachs of Utah and began lobbying Capitol Hill for the creation of a national park in the state's dusty wilderness. Three years later, Canyonlands National Park was signed into existence. Stretching into the state's southeast corner, Canyonlands is composed of canyons, gorges, sturdy buttes, and ornate spires that shoot into the blue sky. The 527-square-mile park is the largest in Utah, but don't expect bottlenecked entrances—this is Utah at its most rugged, and most pure.
The Green and Colorado Rivers intersect at the heart of the park, creating what's now known as the River District, the first of the park's four sub-regions. Island in the Sky, essentially a massive plateau rising between the river valleys, lies to the north. The remote Maze District, only made public within the last 50 years, is to the west, and the Needles District, named after its colorful rock spires, lies to the east.
Taking to the waters of the park's two rivers is the best way to experience the full expanse and inner beauty of Canyonlands. The water at the confluence of the Green and Colorado is calm and easily runnable, but as the rivers split, the rapids become increasingly rough. River rats wanting to test their mettle against the harshest the Colorado can dish out should brave Cataract Canyon, some of the most furious water in the States. Just be sure to obtain the required permit before taking on rapids like Satan's Gut and Little Niagara—the canyon's got a reputation for a reason. Local operators also offer less extreme alternatives without sacrificing exposure to any of the region's staggering beauty.
Island in the Sky is the park's most accessible district. Extensive 4x4 routes and hiking trails allow access to some of the best of the Canyonlands, including the mountain bike mecca of White Rim Road and Upheaval Dome, an eerie crater caused by a meteorite impact. East of the Colorado River and close to Moab, the Needle District has 55 miles of trails weaving through breathtaking canyons, spectacular arches, and ancient Anasazi ruins. However, to discover the truly remote Utah, hardy hikers should penetrate the badlands of the Maze District, 100 miles from any town, bereft of water, and full of the same mystery and beauty that captivated Udall over 40 years ago.

Published: 19 Jul 2002 | Last Updated: 15 Sep 2010
Details mentioned in this article were accurate at the time of publication


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