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Four Parks In One: Canyonlands National Park (Utah)

Canyonlands - Mesa Arch - Utah - Happier Place

Canyonlands National Park near Moab, Utah, features an incredible desert landscape of canyons, mesas, buttes, and rivers. It’s a must-see for explorers, photographers, hikers, cyclists, four-wheelers and even river folk.

Admittedly, we only had Canyonlands on our agenda as a side-trip in addition to the main destination: the more famous Arches National Park. But once we stood at Grand View Point Overlook* and took in the canyons and basins below reaching to the horizon in three directions, we knew we had found a Happier Place. There’s something so comforting in seeing this much land that doesn’t seem to be utilized for any big money-making endeavor – but is preserved just for animals, plants and the humans that enjoy to visit such landscapes.

As we saw more parts of the park and went on several short and one longer hike, we decided this park should be on everyone’s American South-West must-explore list. And we’d love to return and explore so much more of this awesome park!

Parts of the large mesa and the La Sal Mountains seen from Island in the Sky – Canyonlands, Utah.

A possible reason why Canyonlands National Park is less popular than nearby Arches National Park is probably because you can’t just drive to all the major sites in an afternoon. It takes a lot more commitment to see all of what Canyonlands has to offer. But even a short visit is well worth it!

The 337,598 acres (1,366.21 km2) of Canyonlands make it the biggest National Park in Utah. It’s divided into three distinct districts by the Green and Colorado rivers: The Island in the Sky, The Needles and The Maze. There are no roads inside the park crossing the rivers to directly connect any districts. Traveling from one district to another takes 2 – 6 hours.

If you only have a few hours to spend in Canyonlands, just pick Island in the Sky or The Needles and enjoy!

Two guys sitting on the Island in the Sky Mesa and looking down onto The Maze.
Two guys sitting on the Island in the Sky Mesa and looking down onto The Maze.

Island in the Sky is the district that is closest to Moab – and the one we chose to explore. Since Island in the Sky is a large sandstone mesa 1,000 feet above the surrounding landscape, it gives you views into the other two districts: The Needles to the south-east and The Maze to the west. Island in the Sky features a Visitors Center, a scenic paved road with pullouts (to allow you to take in the mind-blowing views) and a few hiking trails, some of which lead off the mesa itself.

Besides the paved main road, there are a few 4-wheel-drive roads (required permit via Visitors Center). The most photographed road must be Shafer Trail, which serpentines down the mesa and gets you back to Moab via Shafer Canyon and Potash Road. We had gotten the permit, but ran out of time to take this long road back to Moab.

The most famous site of Island in the Sky is probably Mesa Arch, which is our featured image for this post. Of course, you may be more familiar with the ubiquitous images of Mesa Arch at sunrise. No comment.

The most infamous sight in Island in the Sky is probably the False Kiva… which you can only reach via an unmarked trail…

Heading towards the False Kiva on an unmarked trail in Canyonlands.
Heading towards the False Kiva on an unmarked trail in Canyonlands.
False Kiva overhang in Canyonlands, Utah.
The overhang that provides the shelter for the False Kiva in Canyonlands, Utah.
The view you'd see from the False Kiva (not of the kiva) in Canyonlands.
The view you’d see from the False Kiva (not of the kiva) in Canyonlands.

The Needles district is also accessible via a paved road and features a Visitors Center. The reason the Visitors Centers are worth mentioning is because that’s where you can get water. Always make sure you have water on you – especially in desert parks! The Needles was named after the colorful spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone, which you can see up close via lots of hiking trails (many more than in the Island in the Sky district). The most famous site here is probably the Angel Arch.

Cedar Mesa Sandstone in Canyonlands, Utah.
Cedar Mesa Sandstone in Canyonlands, Utah.

The Maze can only be reached via driving for several hours on unpaved roads and does not have a Visitors Center… it requires a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle… and to quote the NPS website: “Visitors must be prepared for self-sufficiency and the proper equipment or gear for self-rescue.”

The Green River and The Maze beyond - all part of Canyonlands National Park, Utah - Happier Place
The Green River and The Maze beyond, seen from Island in the Sky – all part of Canyonlands National Park.

The Green and Colorado rivers make up their own separate section of Canyonlands and are a cool reprieve for people enjoying calm boating (above The Confluence) and whitewater rafting (below The Confluence). While we didn’t make it down to the Green River, we visited the Colorado River the day before and then saw the Green River meet the Yampa River in the Dinosaur National Monument (Colorado) the next day.

The Green River in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. Happier Place
The Green River in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

Canyonlands National Park is open year-round; but the Visitors Centers are only open in spring, summer and fall. Pets are allowed in the park in the parking lots and on the campgrounds, but not on the trails or in the backcountry. For this reason, we decided to not bring Whiskey Dog at all.

Butte in Canyonlands seen from Island in the Sky. Happier Place
Butte in Canyonlands seen from Island in the Sky.
Buttes along Aztec Butte Trail in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.
Buttes along Aztec Butte Trail in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.
So many rocks, so many different colors in Canyonlands and the La Sal Mountains in the background.
So many rocks, so many different colors and shapes in Canyonlands and the La Sal Mountains in the background.
Trees surviving on the sandstone cliffs in Canyonlands National Park.
A tree and shrubs surviving on the sandstone cliffs in Canyonlands National Park. Happier Place
Tree done surviving in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.
Tree done surviving in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.
Canyonlands National Park keeps on giving! #HappierPlace
Canyonlands National Park keeps on giving!
Utah Chipmunk in Canyonlands!
Hopi Chipmunk (native to Utah, Colorado and Arizona).
Indian Paintbruch blooming between rocks in Utah.
Indian Paintbruch blooming between rocks in Utah.
The unusual sight of Upheaval Dome - an impact crater in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.
The unusual sight of Upheaval Dome – most likely an impact crater!
Detail of the Upheaval Dome impact crater in Canyonlands National Park. Happier Place in Utah.
Detail of the Upheaval Dome Canyonlands National Park.
Famous Mesa Arch in the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park in Utah.
Famous Mesa Arch in the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park in Utah.
Shafer Trail serpentines down into Shafer Canyon from Island in the Sky in Canyonlands.
Shafer Trail serpentines down into Shafer Canyon from Island in the Sky in Canyonlands.
Driving back up to Island in the Sky on Shafer Trail.
Driving back up Shafer Trail to Island in the Sky, a 1,000 above. Yikes.

All photos in this post were taken by Luci Westphal. By clicking on any photo you can see a high-resolution version (and order a print, if you’re so inclined)… except for the following picture. Even more photos from this outing can be found on Flickr.

Scott near Grand View Point Overlook, taking in the breathtaking landscape of the southern part of Canyonlands.
*Scott at Grand View Point Overlook, taking in the otherworldly landscape of the southern part of Canyonlands.

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