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Visitors can explore Canyonlands by foot, car, horseback, mountain bike, or 4-wheel drive vehicles (permits are required in some cases, particularly with backcountry areas or when exploring with off-road bikes and UTV’s).
The Colorado and Green rivers divide the park into three distinct areas not connected by roads: Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the Maze. The Island in the Sky area offers sweeping vistas over the lower two districts, the Needles and the Maze, which are more rugged backcountry districts that offer excellent hiking and biking opportunities.
The history of the geologic forces that created Canyonlands is a tale of millions of years of erosion. First, starting out at an elevation near sea level, was the formation of the sedimentary rock that the current region is comprised of. Most of the sediment came from distant mountains, as far east as the Appalachians, and the somewhat closer Rocky Mountains. Over eons, wind and water carried rock material into southeastern Utah to create deposits that eventually became distinct layers of sediments, a veritable layer cake that over time, became hidden underground.
Fast forward to about 20 million years ago, and the earth rose from sea level to altitudes in excess of 5,000 feet, forming what is now the Colorado Plateau. With tremendous stresses and pressure during the uplift, rocks melted, cooled, and formed layers of hardened rock (igneous) within the surrounding and much softer sandstone layers. Moving forward in time up to present day, wind and water continue the eons long process of erosion, exposing the harder rock layers and carving out the canyons, arches, and distinctive features we see today at Canyonlands National Park.
The Islands in the Sky area of Canyonlands is easily visited by Car or bike, with easy trails that lead to spectacular overlooks. Here are a few tips for your visit:
Winter is a great time to visit, as there are fewer crowds especially if you go early.
Plan what you want to see including the right type of photographic equipment to take – there are spectacular opportunities for taking pictures early morning, at sunset and also at night when the star gazing is spectacular but requires longer exposure times.
Several areas of Canyonlands require a fair amount of “off-road” exploration, whether Hiking, Biking, River Rafting, 4×4 / UTV off-road adventures or climbing – and we are happy to provide personalized itineraries, private escorted tours, and concierge services to help you plan your exploration.
From the ranger station, the canyons of The Maze are another 3 to 6 hours in the four-wheel-drive vehicle, so make sure to allocate ample time for your visit – Canyonlands is a very big park.
Guided hikes led by park rangers through Horseshoe Canyon are available most weekends during spring and fall.)
Canyonlands National park is a big place! So this is just a small selection of things to see and do, but some of our favorite sights include:
Mesa Arch, located right at the perch and about a .5 mile hike.
Grand View Point at the southern end of the park’s main road at the end of the mesa, offers a spectacular southern view out to the Maze and Needles districts.
Green River Outlook, with a view of the river and canyons that are thousands of feet below.
Shafer Canyon Overlook, a short trail from the parking area provides a sweeping vista to the East and the distant La Sal Mountains.
Buck canyon overlook, about 9.5 miles from the visitor center, with sensational views at sunset.
Upheaval Dome, a mile-wide crater formation of mysterious origins, possibly caused by a meteorite impact or a salt dome that originated from within the earth, can be seen best taking a well-marked trail for one mile to the first overlook and another mile to the second overlook (the trail is not difficult, and there is a great picnic area).
The Needles, named for the multi-colored spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone that dominate the area.
Elephant Hill, with hiking and wide variety of trails through an amazing rock formation and color palette of gold, tan, red and white.
Woodenshoe Arch Overlook, is a small but beautiful rock formation, located about 2.5 miles from the visor center.
Roadside Ruin, a short walk from the road a .03 mile loop with 10 suggested stops along the trail while viewing an ancestral pueblo granary (hiking counter-clockwise is best).
Cave Spring, with a steady source of water, this .06 mile loop with 2 ladders provides a great overview of The Needles, is about 1.4 miles from the visitor center (best done clockwise).
Of the districts within Canyonlands, the Maze is the least accessible and most remote, requiring visitors to be prepared. The area is best explored over at least a few days given its size. The terrain in several areas is difficult to traverse, both by 4-wheel drive and backpacking and hiking, and is not suggested for inexperienced terrain drivers or backpackers.
The park has something for every level of hiker from Easy to Hard, and short to full-day hikes. Many of the trails take you to scenic vistas and right up to arches and features that can’t be seen from the road. Top trails you can explore include (rated E for Easy, I for Intermediate and H for Hard): Mesa Arch Trail (E), Corona and Bowtie Arch Trail (M), Grand View Point Overlook (E), False Kiva Trail (M), Chesler Park Loop Trail (M), Shafer Trail (E), Upheaval Dome Trail (M), and Syncline Loop Trail (H)
The park is open 24 hours a day, with both Island in the Sky and The Needles Visitors centers are open daily between March and early December. Trip planning, toilets, self- registering for back country permits are available in both locations when the centers are closed. Water is only available at The Needles, bring your own when visiting Island in the sky and the Maze.
Private car with a capacity of 15 pax or less $25.00, Private motorcycles are $15.00, bicyclists or hikers are $10.00 per person and children under 15 are free.