I have driven past the turn off to Canyonlands National Park several times in my life. It’s only ten miles or so north of Moab, after all, but we’ve just never managed to actually take the turn. I didn’t even really know what the draw might be—it doesn’t really seem to have a theme, like Bryce (those gorgeous hoodoos) or Arches (the arches) does. And it seemed confusing and enormous, with two entrances that each seemed like their own destination. But when we planned our impromptu southern Utah getaway, I had to choose: work all day and then drive to Moab, or drive early to Moab and go somewhere? (There are lots of places near Moab I also haven’t gone to.)
I decided to use the vacation time and finally visit Canyonlands.
Throughout the day, I found myself thinking about Yosemite. The landscape is nothing similar, of course, but I remember so clearly, when we first arrived and then hiked to * dome, how different the spirit of the mountains felt. In a sense, a mountain is a mountain: there are trees and steep uphills and lovely downhills, places where the sun is scorching and other spots that are shady refuges. But each mountain has its own spirit; the Sierra Nevada range feels entirely different than the Wasatch.
What I realized in Canyonlands is that each desert place also has its own spirit. It isn’t really about theme so much as that tug each one has, the color of the light and the dryness in the air and the shape of the vista.
Canyonland is quite a vista.
But it is a little bit confusing. And of course, only having been there for one day (and not even an entire day), I don’t know many of its secrets. But here is how I made sense of it and chose the hikes we did:
You can’t see both sections of the park in one day. Well, technically you COULD enter both sections (you can’t drive within the park to each section), but you really can’t experience both of them in a day, unless all you want to do is drive a lot and then look. Both sides have paved roads and long dirt roads that require 4-wheel drive. Make your choice based on what you want to do.
The Islands in the Sky side (40 minutes north of Moab) has a combination of long and short hikes.
The Needles side (90 minutes south of Moab) has mostly long hikes.
We went to the Islands in the Sky side because that entrance was on our way to Moab and because I thought we might have the time or energy to also go to Dead Horse State Park at the end of the day. Once we got into the park (Canyonlands is one of the few national parks that only charges $10 to get in, although the park ranger told us that will go up in the fall), this is what we did:
Stop at the Visitor’s Center. It’s a small one and we just bought a fridge magnet (the souvenir we collect wherever we go), but if you walk across the road, you get your first taste of what Canyonlands feels like.
You can see the Shafer Trail Road from this overlook. If you know me at all, you know exactly what I said when I saw that. (“I want to run on that road!”) This is where I started to get an idea of how starkly beautiful Canyonlands is—what its spirit feels like. We climbed around on some of the boulders here, and it was the second-busiest place we visited in the park. (Don’t be fooled though…by busy I mean “the least-busy national park I’ve ever been to.”)
After admiring this view, we got back into the van to drive to our next spot. Not five minutes past the visitor’s center, we spotted a coyote! I have never seen one in the wild so this was thrilling to me. It crossed the road, so we stopped to let it go and then admired it until it vanished into the bushes.
Hike to Mesa Arch. This is a small hike, about a half-mile loop right to the top of Mesa Arch. It is an easy trail that kids could do. This was the busiest place we
stopped at in Canyonlands and I confess: I was wishing the crowds would go away. It was harder to enjoy with all the shouting, laughing, and selfie-taking. Still, I am glad we did it because it was a beautiful spot. You can walk right to the edge of the canyon here, and look out across the carved desert.
Stop at the Green River Overlook. Just past the Mesa Arch trailhead parking lot, three roads converge. Go right onto Upheaval Dome Road, then take the first left for the Green River overlook. There’s no hiking here, it’s only an overlook, but it is worth stopping to see. You can see many prominent landmarks from this point, and there are some signs explaining what you’re looking at. Read the signs and admire the view—it’s beautiful!
Hike Whale Rock. Just a bit past the Green River overlook is the trailhead for Whale Rock. I wish I had taken a picture of this rock formation, because it does look like a whale, right from the trailhead parking lot. This is a 1 mile round-trip
hike on a good desert trail: some sandy spots, some boulders, and then a climb up the slickrock following cairns. The top of the rock is rounded but wide enough to walk on comfortably. I sat on the top and drank some water and stretched and was entirely content! My guidebook said there were hand rails to help you get to the top, but we didn’t see them. They weren’t really necessary as the scramble wasn’t a steep slope at all.
Hike to the Upheaval Dome Second Overlook. The trailhead for this hike is at the end of the road you’ve been driving on. There are two overlooks into Upheaval Dome, which is a dramatic crater with white cliffs rising from the bottom. It’s not much of a hike to the first overlook, and it’s crowded, so we
went to the second overlook. I loved this hike and am so glad we did it. Once we got away from the main trail, we saw two other groups, and they both turned around before making it to the overlook. I love having a trail to myself! It had
sandy, boulders, cairns, steps carved into slickrock, a dry wash, and an amazing view at the end. I keep thinking about this spot and wanting to go back, down into the crater. It was beautiful and wild and a little bit menacing. This trail is about .85 miles one way if you stop at each overlook, for a round trip of 1.7 miles.
(I think this might be my favorite photo from Canyonlands)
Hike to Ruins on Aztec Butte. This trail takes you to three different ruins. If you take both spurs, the total distance is about 2.5 miles. From the trailhead (same road that Whale Rock trailhead is on, just further south), the trail goes through a sandy meadow. There were a few wildflowers left when we were there, wilted but still pretty, and it was filled with that smell of hot pinyon pine that is what desert smells like for me. (Such a different piney smell than a Christmas tree!) After you’ve gone around the meadow, the trail forks; each trail is an out-and-back to a different ruin and both are worth seeing. The left fork takes you to this grainary:
The right fork takes you to Aztec Butte. It is a scramble to get up to the top. I’m not afraid of heights but I am, I’ve figured out, afraid of steep angles. (Meaning, I can stand on the edge of a cliff and feel exhilarated, but if I have to hike up or (especially!) down a steep slope, I’m terrified.) We had totally underestimated how hot, exposed, and long this hike wasand didn’t bring any water with us. There was a couple a little bit in front of us, and they heard us talking and gave us one of their water bottles. It was, to quote the woman, “hot as water straight from the kettle,” but it still revived our flagging muscles! At the top of the butte, you can walk straight up to this ruin:
The couple, who was from England, and Kendell and I talked for a little bit. They were very friendly and admiring of our country. It’s always interesting to me how many people from other countries visit our national parks. It made me a little bit ashamed of myself when the woman said “you must come here all the time” and I had to confess I’d actually never been there.
There is another ruin on Aztec Butte, but I didn’t find out about it until I got home! The images online make me think I missed the best one. It’s built into a cliff with an arch, and to get to it, you find the cairn on the north side of the butte, and then drop down to a small ledge on the side of the butte. I’m mad at myself for missing this!
The round-trip if you see both ruins is about two miles. Take water! There isn’t any shade, and the scramble to the top of the butte will take it out of your legs. I did take some time to sit by myself near the ruins, imagining what it would be like to live and try to survive in such a place.
Hike to the Grand View Point Overlook. This is all the way at the end of the main Island in the Sky road. If you only take one hike in Canyonlands, it should be this one. The trail goes right along the edge of the mesa. Right to the edge as
in, if you tripped you’d fall in. It was beautiful. Part of the trail was stone steps, some of it wandered through bushes, some went across bare stone. From the parking lot, it is a one-mile hike to the overlook, almost entirely flat, and the views are simply breathtaking. This was where I finally understood exactly why
people come to Canyonlands. In fact, I feel a little bit haunted by it and want to go back—I want to hike some trails that go down off the mesa. I want to hike the Syncline trail into Upheaval Dome’s ragged canyon, see the Zeus, Moses, and
Aphrodite formations (quite a hike unless we came in the truck, which I don’t want to do), and get myself into the river—Green or Colorado hold different but equal draws for me.
By the end of the day, we’d hiked nearly eight miles, which isn’t a ton of distance for us, but enough to make us tired. It was, in fact, the perfect way to introduce ourselves to Canyonlands. I hope I can go back soon.