Traveler's Checklist: Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park might just be the most rugged national park in the Lower 48, and it's also one of the most beautiful. NPS photos of Pothole Point and the Grand View Trail by Neal Herbert.

Canyonlands National Park is quite accurately described by its name. It's a landscape cut by canyons, rumpled by upthrusts, dimpled by grabens, and even pockmarked, some believe, by asteroids. To explore its 527 square miles acres, you'll need a good rig with good gas mileage, and preferably high ground clearance, for getting around Canyonlands entails a lot of traveling, some down roads that will swallow your average sedan.

But don't let that scare you off, for this is also a wondrous landscape. So if you're planning to visit Canyonlands in the near, or even the not-so-near, future, let us point out some stops you definitely shouldn't avoid.

* Do visit the Island in the Sky District of the park. For starters, the views from the Grand View and and Green River overlooks explain without a doubt how this national park got its name. But there's more. The photograph of sunrise through Mesa Arch is iconic. Scampering up onto the back of Whale Rock is a guaranteed kid-pleaser, and also allows you a gander into the maw of Upheaval Dome, which some scientists believe was created by a rock from outer space smashing into the Earth. An added bonus for history buffs is the short hike up onto Aztec Butte, where you can see the ruins of granaries built by ancestral Puebloans to store corn and grains.

* It's a somewhat long drive if you're staying in Moab, but don't deny yourself a visit to the Needles District. The trek here rewards you with the park's best campground -- Squaw Flat --, a nice auto tour that leads you past such interesting points as Wooden Shoe, Roadside Ruin, and Pothole Point, and, if you manage to find a spot in the campground, some of the most star-studded skies in this part of the country. If you're too late for a first-come, first-served spot at Squaw Flat, just east of the Needles entrance you'll find the Canyonlands Needles Outpost, which also offers campsites as well as gas, a store, and a small restaurant.

* Once you get to the Needles, get out and walk around. Head a bit of a ways, if not farther, down the trail to Chesler Park. The redrock landscape with its boulders, spires, and cliffs wraps itself around you. Also make a point of walking along the Cave Spring Trail. Though less than a mile in length, it certainly packs a lot into that short stretch. You'll see an historic cowboy camp stuffed into an alcove, spot some prehistoric petroglyphs, and climb up two wooden ladders onto the top of this rockscape where you'll enjoy some great views of the surroundings.

* Either while going to or coming from the Needles, stop and check out Newspaper Rock. Though outside the national park, this state historic site is well-worth a stop. The rock is actually a 200-square-foot panel of cliffside that has served, down through the centuries, as a kind of graffiti tableau for Native Americans. Pondering aloud what the artists meant is a proven conversation starter.

* If backpacking is on your checklist, then park your rig at the Elephant Hill Trailhead in the Needles District and take the Chesler Park Loop into the backcountry. This is only an 11-mile loop, but since there's no water along the way you'll have to carry all you'll need and so you won't be looking into any really, really long hikes. But the payoff is a landscape of multi-colored spires, sunken grabens, and the extremely narrow "Joint Trail" that will determine whether you suffer from claustrophobia.

* Visit the Maze District. True, this is an even longer drive from Moab than the Needles District, but if you're coming from afar and this is likely to be your only visit to Canyonlands, you really shouldn't miss this part of the park. Actually a detached "annex" lying just west of the main body of Canyonlands, the Maze District lays claim to Horseshoe Canyon and its mystical and mysterious Great Gallery of rock art. This arguably is one of the most significant rock art sites in North America. Items found in the canyon date back to 9,000 years B.C., "when Paleoindians hunted megafauna like mastodons and mammoths across the Southwest," notes the Park Service. More recently, it's said that Butch Cassidy used the canyon, and those that spur off of it, to avoid posses.

* Like to mountain bike? The White Rim Trail is one of the epic mountain bike rides in the National Park System. The 100-mile loop lies below and encircles the Island in the Sky mesa top and provides panoramic views of the surrounding area. Trips usually take three to four days by mountain bike. Just be sure to get your permit before you leave for Canyonlands.

* Take a trip to another national park. You've come this far, so it'd be a shame not to check out the neighborhood. Arches National Park is Canyonlands' next door neighbor, and Natural Bridges National Monument and Mesa Verde National Park are, relatively, nearby, as is Hovenweep National Monument.

* Don't write-off a spring or fall trip to this park. The weather is cooler than summer, the crowds fewer, and the lodgings more easily snagged. Just avoid Easter weekend, as that's when a large off-road vehicle event takes over Moab and lodgings not only can be hard to find but are more expensive than usual.

* Do yourself a favor: Bring a cooler, or buy one of those cheap Styrofoam ones in Moab, and pack it with ice and cold drinks. You'll appreciate this stash when you get back to your rig after one of your short hikes. And don't forget salty snacks. Visit in summer and you're sure to perspire and rundown your on-board stores.

* Treat yourself to breakfast at the Jailhouse Cafe in downtown Moab. You'll find all the calories you'll need for a day in the park. And enjoy a dinner at the Desert Bistro on the north end of town. It's owned and operated by two climbers, so if you want to find some secret spots, ask Karl or Michelle.

Traveler tidbit: There are no in-park accommodations, other than your tent, in Canyonlands, so you'll mostly likely need to find lodgings in Moab.

RESOURCES

For detailed information, visit the Canyonlands National Park website. For park maps, visit this site.

FRIENDS ORGANIZATION

The mission of the Grand Canyon Trust is to protect and restore the Colorado Plateau — its spectacular landscapes, flowing rivers, clean air, diversity of plants and animals, and areas of beauty and solitude. Accomplishing that involves opposing mining that could threaten the canyon, working to protect public landscapes as far away as Arches and Canyonlands Nnational Parks, and involving tribes in the discussion of how best to resolve environmental issues.

Comments

Thank you -- this article was so helpful. We are planning a trip to Canyonlands in a few weeks. The area is so vast, with so much distance between park entrances, it's hard to plan if you don't have time to visit them all. This kind of information is exactly what I've been looking for. Thanks!

In the reading I've done, it seems to me the only way to see the Maze is via a three day jeep trip in some pretty rough terrain. Are there other avenues of seeing this part of the park?

At least one company offers a multi-day mountain bike trip through the Maze (http://www.bikeraft.com/expeditions/trips/biking/maze/the_trip.php3) and there are other multi-sport trips as well (http://www.escapeadventures.com/tours/multi_sport_tours/ut_maze_cataract_canyon.htm).

In the Needles district, 2 other worthwhile shorter hikes are the slickrock trail and pothole point trail. Also, some rock art along Devil's Lane rivals that in the Great Gallery.

BLM has a number of campgrounds along the Colorado river above and below Moab, although I don't think that any have drinking water, so bring your own. Moonflower campground a couple of miles outside of town on Kane Creek Rd. is my favorite, but it only has tent sites and fills up early.

Even better, think about camping in Manti-La Sal national forest. The La Sal mountain loop is worth the drive, and in late spring, summer, and early fall, the night temperatures up the mountain are much easier for sleeping. There are a couple of developed campgrounds with water and pit toilets, but many places where you can pull off the road and dry camp. [The "half loop", from Spanish Valley south of Moab but coming out through Sandy Flats instead of Castle Valley, is also nice, and driveable in a rental car even in march and November.]

There's also camping in the ranger district south of the road into the Needles district of CANY and west of Monticello. [If you go to the Needles District but do hotels instead of camping, Monticello has a couple of no-frills motels that are much closer to the Needles District, much cheaper than Moab hotels except in December-February, and much more likely to have vacancies even without reservations during the spring and summer. Just don't expect fine dining or the ability to buy beer.]

Fisher Towers is worth the 20 minute drive upstream from Moab, and the hour hike into the base of the spires.