Island in the Sky is the most accessible district in the park, nearest to a major city (Moab) and boasting a paved scenic drive with views of the surrounding buttes, fins and water-carved canyons, as well as numerous hikes. The Needles is less accessible, requiring more time, more strenuous hiking and four-wheel drive (or a decent boat ride) to reach its secret corners, but it provides incredible backcountry approaches into some of the most dazzling landscape on earth. But even the Needles feels like a roadside B&B compared to the remoteness of The Maze, the isolated district west of the Green River. The Maze offers challenging backpacking, off-roading and hiking for seasoned explorers. If you’re feeling the life aquatic, you can also book a river trip on the Green or Colorado and see the whole thing from a boat.
Deep canyons and a harsh desert landscape, an ideal place for off-road cycling or 4x4 touring
We stationed ourselves in the small town of Moab for a few days. Moab has become a tourist town based on it’s proximity to the Colorado River and several National Parks. People come here for activity holidays like white water rafting, mountain biking, climbing, hiking and off-road motoring – hence it is quite a young person place with plenty of outdoor clothing, cycle and jeep hire stores and of course bars. It also has a brewery – which does some pretty good beers – that has a restaurant and bar attached so you can conveniently sample their wares. We decided to try a bar come restaurant in town called Eddie McStiffs, which you could imagine gets lively at certain times of the year. We called in between lunch and dinner so it was quiet which suited us as we just wanted to try the local micro-beers.
Our main reason for coming here, of course, was not to drink beer, although this was very pleasurable, was to visit the National Parks: Canyonlands and Arches National Parks both of which are just a few short miles from Moab.
About Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands is the largest national park in Utah, and its diversity staggers the imagination. The easiest way to see the park is with a visit to the Island in the Sky district, only 32 miles (51.5 km) from Moab. The Island in the Sky offers many pullouts with spectacular views along the paved scenic drive. Hiking trails and four-wheel-drive roads access backcountry areas for day or overnight trips.
The Island in the Sky sits atop a massive 1500 foot mesa, quite literally an Island in the Sky. Twenty miles (32.2 km) of paved roads lead to many of the most spectacular views in Canyon Country. From these lofty viewpoints visitors can often see over 100 miles (161 km) in any given direction, resulting in panoramic views that encompass thousands of square miles of canyon country. Take a short day-hike or spend a relaxing late afternoon enjoying the sunset. Whether you have a few hours to spend or a few days, the Island in the Sky provides an unforgettable Canyon Country experience for the entire family.
Although Canyonlands is one park, it’s divided into four regions — three districts (Island in the Sky, The Needles and The Maze) plus the Green and Colorado Rivers that divide them up. It takes hours to travel from one district to another, so most people focus on one area per visit.
What to see in Canyonlands National Park?
After doing some research prior to our visit it was apparent that the best way to explore this vast and remote area was not by the normal paved route but on the off-road track across the park itself.
The three options were; go on foot (too far to cover realistically in the time), on a mountain bike (we didn’t have ours with us) or off-road in a car. We chose the latter as we had limited time and wanted to explore as much as possible. We decided not to take our own Jeep, which after 160,000 miles of service we did not believe was up to the task and we still needed her to get us around afterwards. So we hired a modified Jeep Wrangler, in an olive green colour which got it dubbed the name Shrek.
Taking the road West out of Moab we turned after a couple of miles down the Potash Road – which surprisingly goes to a potash factory. This paved road follows the mighty Colorado River for 7 or 8 miles until it reaches a potash factory, from this point on the road, becomes a track. For the most part, the road is fairly smooth -with the occasional bump. We climb higher to where the potash evaporation pools dot the landscape, the chemicals in the water making them appear a vivid azure blue in the sunlight. This is a very dry and arid landscape but its starkness offers its own beauty – as we leave the potash pools behind we are in a valley with the sandstone cliffs surrounding us -some 1000 feet or so above where we are.
The track took us right to the edge of the Colorado River Canyon. Far below us the river, swollen by the melting snow, flows rapidly through the canyon it has carved over many millennia. We are a bit wary of the cliff edges, the fall here is several hundred feet – but the views are spectacular. Moving on we reach an ox-bow turn in the river which then leaves us to go South-West whilst we follow a shelf road around the upper canyon wall.
Eventually, we reached the end of the canyon and from here the only way is up. This is the scary bit – these series of switchbacks, known as the Shafer Switchbacks (the trail is known as the Shafer Trail), wind their way up 1000 feet or more on the outside of the sheer cliffs of the canyon. The road here is very, very hairy, filled with large rocks and is only about 8 to 10 feet across. This is not a route for those who suffer from vertigo as you get to look down several hundred feet to the valley floor. The worst thing here is that this road is two-way and unfortunately there are quite a few people who have the crazy idea of driving the opposite way to us. Luckily there are a few wider spots in the road but even at these points one or other vehicle teeters on the edge of the cliff with huge drops. Finally, finally, we reach the top of the Mesa and let out a big sigh of relief. To calm our nerves we go to the Canyonlands National Park, Island in the Sky Visitor Center. Ranger Karen gives us a presentation on how some of the animals and plants survive in a high desert environment.
With our nerve-wracking climb up the Shafer Switchbacks already a distant memory we set off again, this time taking a different trail back to Moab. On this trail, the main attraction is a set of natural bridges. To get down to these bridges there are some large boulders to navigate, but in our modified Jeep we decided to take route one over the top. Having been on the Pink Jeep tour in Sedona we had some confidence in what these off-road vehicles could do – so we went for it. At the bridges, we pull short of several hundred feet drops – Jack, Emily and Karen, who are considerably braver than me, took a walk across these natural bridges.
From the natural bridges, we head back toward Moab. We then decided to take a detour from the path down another track to the canyon floor. The trail is rough, climbing over large boulders, following a dried-up river bed and up sand dunes. At one point we get stuck in an area where we have to try and climb out up a sandbank – after several minutes of panic about being stuck in an area miles from nowhere with no passing traffic eventually, we make it out and get back on our trail to Moab! The final challenge is another trail following a shelf down the side of a cliff – but after the Shafer Trail, this is no problem. We get back on to the paved road and head back the few miles to Moab, stopping at a massive sandbank we had seen the previous day. Jack and Emily had really wanted to climb up this sandbank and roll down – this proved to be harder than they expected so after catching their breath at the top they came down with a mixture of running and rolling. Bear Grylls is Jack’s hero…and he makes it look so easy!
In summary …
- Canyonlands National Park is one of the premier National Parks and for good reason. It is a vast park so seeing it all in one day is impossible and there is limited access on paved roads. If your time is limited then focus your visit on the Island In The Sky area.
- Moab is a good place to stay during your visit. It is a little pricey to stay here but it is a great place to explore Arches and Canyonlands National Parks and the impressive Dead Horse Point State Park
- It can get very busy in Canyonlands National Park and the parking lots fill up quickly – consider starting early in the morning or later in the day
- This is a desert location so plan accordingly if you intend to hike and explore the more remote parts of the Park. Take plenty of water, sunscreen and hats.
Planning your visit
Canyonlands National Park is located in southeast Utah, 32 miles from Moab, Utah. All large cities are some distance away.
- 110 miles southwest of Grand Junction, Colorado
- 236 miles southeast of Salt Lake City, Utah
- 360 miles southwest of Denver, Colorado
Best time to visit Canyonlands National Park
The area where Canyonlands is located is designated “high desert” which means it experiences wide temperature fluctuations, sometimes over 40 degrees in a single day. The temperate (and most popular) seasons are spring (April through May) and fall (mid-September through October), when daytime highs average 60º to 80º F and lows average 30º to 50º F.
Summer temperatures often exceed 100ºF. The late summer monsoon season brings violent storm cells which often cause flash floods.
Winters are cold, with highs averaging 30º to 50º F, and lows averaging 0º to 20º F. Though large snowfalls are uncommon (except in nearby mountains), even small amounts of snow or ice can make local trails and roads impassable.
Other places close by worth visiting
1. ARCHES NATIONAL PARK
Arches story started around 65 million years ago when the area was a dry seabed stretching as far as the eye could see. Geologic forces shaped the landscape tearing it apart and forcing the region to rise in elevation. The fractures in the relatively soft sandstone rock formations allowed water to force its way in and carve the formations we see today.
Rain erodes the rock and carries sediment down washes and canyons to the Colorado River. In winter, snowmelt pools in fractures and other cavities then freezes and expands, breaking off chunks of sandstone.
Over time, the same forces that created these arches will continue to widen them until they collapse.
2. CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK (130 MILES)
Even considering Utah’s many impressive national parks and monuments, it is difficult to rival Capitol Reef National Park’s sense of expansiveness, of broad, sweeping vistas, of a tortured, twisted, seemingly endless landscape, or of limitless sky and desert rock. While Bryce and Zion are like encapsulated little fantasy lands of coloured stone and soaring cliffs, the less-visited Capitol Reef is almost like a planet unto itself. Here you get a real feel for what the earth might have been like before life appeared when nothing existed but earth and sky.
3. BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK (230 MILES)
Bryce Canyon is one of the ‘Big 5’ National Parks in Utah. The main draw of the park is the Bryce Amphitheatre that has the highest density of hoodoos (spire-like rock formations) in the World. These hoodoos have been carved from the red sandstone over the millennia by the weather.
4. ZION NATIONAL PARK (290 MILES)
There are not too many places that we have gone out of our way to visit multiple times, but Zion National Park is one of those exceptions! We have had the good fortune to visit Zion National Park three times, twice during the summer months and the third over the Christmas break. Each time we have really enjoyed exploring the varied trails that run throughout the Park, which range from very easy to the most challenging (which we declined to do – more on that later!) I am sure we’ll be going back again before too long.
Where to stay?
1. NEEDLES CAMPGROUND
The Needles Campground has 26 individual sites, plus 3 group sites in different locations around The Needles district. Nightly camping fee for an individual site is $20. You can reserve some individual sites spring through fall. Other times of the year, individual sites are first-come, first-served. You can also reserve group sites for nights between mid-March and mid-November. There are toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings in the campground.
If you want to look at making a reservation follow this link
2. UNDER CANVAS MOAB
If you are looking for something more unusual then Under Canvas Moab might be a good option. This is a chain of resorts focussing on luxury glamping. You will be staying under canvas but this is not your regular tent experience. Here the tents have electricity, water and a full washroom! The resort is only open from March to October and gets booked out. Also, be aware that most accommodation in Moab is pricey – a tent here will set you back $250 per night.
3. MAINSTAY SUITES
For our last trip to Moab, we decided to stay at MainStay Suites Moab. This was a good choice for us as each room has a kitchenette, with stovetops and microwaves. We’re vegan and there is not a lot of dining options in Moab so we decided to self-cater most of our meals.
The hotel is well equipped with a spacious breakfast room and washing facilities. There is also an outside pool to cool off on those hot summer days. We would recommend this as a good base to explore the amazing Parks in the area!