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May 9, 2011

National Parks: Canyonlands

Filed under: National Parks, Photography, Southwest United States, The List, Travel, United States — anotherheader @ 5:07 pm

As many times as we’ve been to Moab and the adjacent Arches National Park we’ve never ventured into Canyonlands National Park.  It’s hard to figure why we’ve missed this particular park.  Canyonlands is close to Moab.  Indeed Moab is the gateway town for both Canyonlands and neighboring Arches National Park.  We’ve been to Arches many times yet we always seem to skip Canyonlands.

We’re not alone in missing Canyonlands.  In 2010 Canyonlands received 40% of the total visits of Arches National Park.   This year we’d miss Canyonlands no longer.  Our attempt to visit all of the United State’s National Parks mandated a visit.

Despite being physically close to Moab, reaching the entrance gates for Canyonlands takes some driving.  Google Maps indicates that the route from Moab to the northern Island in the Sky district of the National Park covers 67 miles of tarmac.  Perhaps discouraging visitors, Google also says that the drive will take over three hours.  Believe Google for the distance and not the time.  This pleasant scenic drive takes a little more than an hour.  With the scenery, the hour passes quickly.

Peaking under Mesa Arch

Arriving at the visitor center, it’s obvious how Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky District was named.  This portion of the park sits high up on a mesa whose sides are defined by the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers.  The District is a mesa-top island amongst a turbulent sea of canyons.

Far below Island in the Sky, when the Colorado and the Green Rivers join, the mighty Colorado River emerges in full force.  Soon the Colorado will fill Lake Powell and Lake Mead, power the lights of Las Vegas, and feed irrigation ditches in Arizona and Southern California.  Little if any of the Colorado’s prodigious current will flow into the Gulf of California.

Edging over to the mesa rim near Island in the Sky reveals a panorama of deep water-carved gorges.  Is there a doubt why this National Park was named Canyonlands?  At the overlooks, visitors peer from the vistas into a warren of colorful ravines.  Fractal pattern drainages feed the Green and Colorado.  The rivers’ heavy brown-green flows continue to carve through the base of the canyon.  Though Canyonlands’ gorges are not as deep as the Grand Canyon’s they might just be more spectacular.

Perhaps the best view though less extensive view into the canyons can be had at nearby Dead Horse State Park.  This state park sits on the point of a mesa just across a gorge from Island in the Sky.  It’s an alternative perspective of the same scene.  While in the area, Dead Horse is a must visit.

Chesler Park (picture from the NPS website)

Google is unsure about existence of the southern, Needles portion of Canyonlands National Park.  If Google Maps can’t find a place can it be defined as remote?  Really though, it’s hard to figure why Google can’t locate the Needles’ entrance to the park.    The Needles District is on all the maps.  South of Moab, along US 191, a large brown sign directs motorists onto the side road, Utah State Road 211, which leads to the park.  Google might have difficulty finding the Needles District of Canyonlands but tourists won’t.

I’d guess that the road from Moab to the Needles District covers 50 miles and takes about an hour and a half to drive.  Off of US 191 and on to Utah 211, the pace of slows.  Narrow and winding, 211 is scenic.  The approach is nearly as picturesque as the park itself.  The beauty of the journey competes with that of the destination.

Canyonlands in color infrared

Needles District is named for the distinctive rock spires.  Eons of erosion have crafted spires in shades of yellow, orange, and red together with a myriad of other improbable sandstone formations.  This area of the park beckons backcountry exploration.  Surely hidden here amongst the veins of the Colorado River’s drainage are many surprises.

It is easy enough to get an overview of Canyonlands National Park on a short visit.  Standing on the high overlooks Technicolor canyons sprawl before you.  Yet it is hard to know Canyonlands well.  Rugged and forbidding terrain protects the park’s secrets.  Untold spectacles undoubtedly lie protected by the rugged geology.  An amazing postcard view of this National Park is possible in a daylong visit.  To fully know all of Canyonlands’ intimate details might just take a lifetime.

Mesa Arch: Becky stands on the edge of reason


  1. Amazing place! Thanks for sharing the photos~

    Comment by Tracy Zhang — May 9, 2011 @ 5:54 pm

  2. […] Canyonlands (2011) […]

    Pingback by The List « Another Header — July 22, 2011 @ 9:15 pm

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