Towering rock pinnacles, eroded buttes, a massive mesa, and countless canyons carved by the Colorado and Green rivers make up Utah’s largest national park: Canyonlands National Park. Known for its dramatic desert landscape that shocks even the wildest of imaginations, Canyonlands offers mind-blowing views of the Southwest dotted by rare geological formations and vast desert scenery.
Canyonlands National Park, located near Moab, was established in 1964 after legislation was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson. Open 24 hours a day, year-round, visitors can experience the park and its four regions: Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the rivers, each offering different opportunities for hiking, sightseeing, and exploring the surrounding desert. The Island in the Sky is a massive, flat-topped mesa – here is where the most stunning panoramic views of the Canyonlands lie – while the Needles is filled with pinnacle-shaped rocks. In the remote canyons of the Maze, find the Green and Colorado rivers and their respective tributaries etched into the Colorado Plateau, a high desert region with wide temperature fluctuations (so prepare accordingly).
There are visitor centers located within the park should you need to purchase a map or refuel on water (water is not available at the Maze), but because of its isolated location, visitors are advised to plan carefully. If not, be prepared to drive more than 50 miles to find food, gas, or lodging. March through October is peak season, and long entrance lines should be expected. But if you’re arriving in a car, its best to bring a four-wheel-drive vehicle as many of the roads can be extremely difficult to drive. Never climb or rappel off any of the arches, travel with a companion, and keep a safe distance from wild animals.
Canyonlands and its respective four districts provide ample outdoor activities whether you’re the outdoorsy type – backpacking, camping, hiking, rock climbing, biking, canyoneering – or simply looking to tour by car, horseback ride, or check out Arts in the Parks. Plenty of visitors come here to take advantage of the prime real estate for photo ops, so photography is a popular activity alongside ranger-led programs and stargazing. First-timers should catch a glimpse of the Native American rock paintings in Horseshoe Canyon and see the world-famous Delicate Arch. Other must-sees include La Sal Mountains Viewpoint, Balanced Rock, Mesa Arch, and The Windows, where views of the largest arches in the park are visible for all to see.
The Needles and Island in the Sky are both prime destinations for hiking. The Needles offers over 60 miles of interconnecting trails traversing through thousands of years of natural history. For an easy hike, venture down Pothole Point, or kick it up a notch along the 2.4-mile-long Slickrock trail, featuring expansive 360-degree views of the desert. More experienced mountaineers can opt for Squaw Canyon to Lost Canyon (8.7 miles) or Druid Arch (11 miles), both fit with spectacular sights of the pinnacles. Island in the Sky has several short trails which make their way to the top of the mesa, an outlook that provides stunning canyon panoramas. Mesa Arch is a popular, easy hike (0.5 miles), while Gooseberry Canyon (5.4 miles) and Murphy Loop (10.8 miles) should be saved for the more seasoned of hikers. Nature enthusiasts can also head to Devils Garden, an extensive network of trails that lead to various arches.
Visitors to Canyonlands National Park should opt to stay within the park, as this is the best way to fully experience the surrounding natural beauty; however, there is lodging in nearby Moab should you choose to skip sleeping under the stars. Island in the Sky and The Needles both offer campgrounds – Willow Flat and Squaw Flat – which are open year-round. Sites are first come, first served, so prepare for campgrounds to fill up early during spring and fall, the most popular seasons to visit. However, keep in mind that backcountry camping has recently been suspended. There is a campground at Devils Garden, which can be reserved March through October, but is closed for renovations until fall 2017. There are no restaurants in the park, but some of the bookstores sell hiking snacks; visitors can resupply or dine at eateries in Moab, Monticello, or Hanksville.