Blog Post Megan Cantrell Oct 29, 2014

Plan a Desert Getaway to Canyonlands National Park

Utah’s national parks offer very different experiences, but all of them feature distinctive and amazing geological formations, whether you are looking down into a deep canyon, peering  through an otherworldly arch, or scratching your head at formations like the Upheaval Dome that even geologists couldn’t definitively explain (until recently).

Canyonlands National Park is larger than you might think—more than 337,000 acres or 540 square miles! Divided into four districts, this park has amazing canyon views, rock formations, culturally significant areas, and a plethora of things to do.

Shafer Canyon at Canyonlands National Park

Shafer Canyon.

camera icon Photo © Megan Cantrell/NPCA.

The Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands National Park is the most accessible and popular section of the park—it is literally a mesa with spectacular views of the surrounding canyons. The Needles, on the other hand, is a vaster territory below the Island in the Sky where you can hike among the sandstone spires and surround yourself with the park’s breathtaking rocks. The other two districts (the Maze and Horseshoe Canyon) are more remote and less frequently visited, so be sure to consult park rangers ahead of time to obtain backcountry permits and maps and effectively manage your time and resources.

The most important tip: PLAN AHEAD! If you have the luxury of time, I would highly recommend dedicating a few days to this park. No matter how much time you do have, though, you are guaranteed to have an adventure.

Here are a few recommendations for your visit.

Island in the Sky

  • Spend a full day at Island in the Sky if you can. Check out the visitor center for recommendations and ask if there are any ranger-led events while you are there.
  • Start by watching the sunrise at Mesa Arch. If you can’t get there first thing in the morning, be sure to make a stop there at some point during the day. Great photo spot!
  • Stop at the overlooks at Buck and Shafer Canyons where you will see a very steep and narrow road that was originally a cattle trail. If you have four-wheel drive, taking this road is a fun adventure with beautiful views of the canyon as your reward!
  • Upheaval Dome is a must! Fondly called “Utah’s belly button” by the Utah Geological Survey, this unique formation had geologists debating for years what caused it. In 2008, the discovery of shocked quartz finally put the debate to bed, confirming that the dome was created from a meteor impact, since this type of quartz is created by extreme pressures only possible in an impact or a nuclear explosion. Though the mystery is solved, it is still a wonder to look out at this three-mile-diameter formation unlike any of the other spectacular rocks at this park.
  • While you are on your way to Upheaval Dome be sure to stop at Whale Rock, a rock that looks like …you guessed it, a whale. Climb up and get a different view of Upheaval Dome.
  • Add a little culture into your day with a two-mile roundtrip hike to Aztec Butte where you will discover fantastic views of Taylor Canyon and Puebloan granaries. The climb is steep, but the views are worth it!
  • Grand View Point is breathtaking! Depending on the weather, you might get a roughly 100-mile view. This is a great spot to have a picnic lunch or watch the sunset.

The Needles

  • Depending on where your home base is, you could be traveling 49-75 miles to reach the Needles District (from Monticello and Moab respectively), so plan accordingly to have ample time in the park itself.
  • Take the 6.5-mile scenic drive toward Big Spring Canyon Overlook.
  • Be sure to check out a few short hikes along the way:
    • Roadside Ruin – This short hike leads you to an ancestral Puebloan granary.
    • Cave Spring – This trail leads you to a historic cowboy camp with caves and pictographs. This neat 0.6-mile roundtrip hike includes climbing two ladders for terrific views of the surrounding area.
    • Pothole Point – This short hike brings you to a number of pothole communities with a nice view of the Needles and the limestone spires known as hoodoos on the horizon.

  • Take the graded gravel road to the Elephant Hill trailhead. This road provides some of the best views of the Needles from your car.
  • Interested in another sunrise spot? Try the campground area over the butte between loops A and B.
  • Prefer to watch the sunset? Head to Pothole Point or Wooden Shoe Arch Overlook.

This story is part of NPCA’s biweekly Desert Getaway series. Read more stories in the series for tips on visiting other desert parks.

About the author

  • Megan Cantrell Former Social Media Manager

    Megan Cantrell worked at National Parks Conservation Association for 10 years, much of that time shepherding NPCA’s social media program.