Canyonlands – A Testament to the Power of Water

Shafer Canyon overlook provides stunning views of the canyon

Moab, UT

A few miles from Arches National Park, about 30 miles (48 km) southwest of Moab along a scenic desert drive; you will find Canyonlands National Park. This network of canyons was formed via the meanderings of two powerful rivers. Over the millennia, giant canyons were carved out of the landscape at the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. The park has two visitor centers and multiple entrances. The northern center is in an area known as the Island in the Sky. Here you will find information on the park, its vistas and its history.

Another view of Shafer Canyon from the overlook

If you visit the park and view the canyons from the scenic drives via the north entrance, you will only be looking down into the canyons below. However, those who are more adventurous, and equipped properly for the environment, will find there is plenty to do inside the canyons as well. Hikers, bikers, climbers, white-water rafters and off-road drivers will find much to enjoy in the lower parts of the canyons. For this trip, Lynn and I would stay at the upper level and enjoy the views of the canyons below.

Mesa Arch is a short, fairly easy hike on a loop trail from the parking area

As in most of the national parks, from the Island in the Sky visitor center, a single scenic drive winds through the northern section of the park with side roads branching off to special attractions. If all you plan to do is drive the scenic route and take photos of the views, a morning or afternoon will be all the time you need. If you plan to stay in the area, there is more to see at the south end of the park. To get to the Needles visitor center, though, you will have to drive back to Moab, then south along route US-191 and UT-211W to the south entrance of the park, about two hours enroute. You might as well stop for lunch at Moab on your way there. Hikers and off-roaders will be well rewarded for their travel.

At the far edge of the arch, the canyon walls drop precipitously

In addition to the areas with the two visitor centers, there are two other major areas inside the park. The Maze District is for those who are truly intrepid. Accessible by four-wheel drive, high clearance vehicles only, you will find no food, water or fuel in the area. You had better be pretty self-sufficient to see the attractions in this area, and plan to stay a few days to see everything.

View from the Buck Canyon Overlook

A remote extension of Canyonlands, Horseshoe Canyon, features The Great Gallery. Well preserved rock art pictographs are a major attraction of this area. Hiking in the canyon is a popular pastime as well. Horseshoe Canyon is not a contiguous extension of the park. The entrance is a two-and-a-half hour drive from Moab, or an hour and a half from the town of Green River. A high clearance vehicle with four-wheel drive is necessary.

Our sedan is a great touring vehicle for the open road; however it is no match for the rugged country that you will find in the less-traveled areas of Canyonlands. It’s no wonder that in Moab, it’s not uncommon to see off-road vehicles being trailered, and a plethora of four-wheel drive pickups and SUVs. We opted to stick to the highways in the Island in the Sky area, but couldn’t help but feel we missed seeing a lot of what Canyonlands has to offer.

When writing my blog posts featuring National Parks, I often rely on the National Park Service website for background information. The Canyonlands branch site, however, is evidently in some state of disrepair as I write this. Most of the side links are broken. Fortunately, the Utah Travel Industry Website, Utah.com, has some excellent information about the park, and a park map is available at the site, as well. Much of the material for this post was researched from Utah.com.

John Steiner

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