Editor's note: Touring the national parks by recreational vehicle can be a great solution to a number of issues. Issues such as "no vacancy" signs, growing weary of eating out, and desiring to make an unplanned detour. With that in mind, the Traveler from time to time will take a look at visiting parks by RV.
Baked by time like some multi-layer geologic tort, Canyonlands National Park in southeastern Utah features a landscape cut by canyons, rumpled by upthrusts, dimpled by grabens, and even pockmarked, some believe, by ancient asteroids.
A kaleidoscope of tilted and carved geology laid down over the eons -- red and white Cedar Mesa sandstone, the grayish-green Morrison Formation, pinkish Entrada sandstone, tawny Navajo sandstone, just to name a few of the layers -- help make Canyonlands the most rugged national park in the Southwest, and quite possibly if you find yourself deep in the Maze, in the entire Lower 48.
But exploring the park’s 527 square miles does not require you to hoist pack on your back and set off on a week’s journey. Well-maintained state, county, and national park roads help you easily negotiate Canyonlands and find yourself at overlooks and trailheads that show off a landscape both intoxicating in its beauty and mind-boggling in its geology and cultural imprints.
The Island in the Sky District offers views down into the ragged maw of the park, views that quickly explain how Canyonlands got its name, and offers short hikes to ancient granaries.
Set up camp in the Squaw Flat Campground in the Needles District and spend a morning hiking towards Chesler Park and the Creamsicle-hued minarets that quickly rise above you help put “geologic time” in context when you begin to wonder how long it took them to be whittled. Come sundown some of the country’s darkest night skies sparkle with pinpoints of light, as well as the occasional shooting star.
Head to the park’s Horseshoe Canyon Unit and a hike down into the canyon rewards you with the Great Gallery, a sprawling panel of prehistoric artwork that dates, perhaps, to 9,000 years B.C. "when Paleoindians hunted megafauna like mastodons and mammoths across the Southwest.”
Of course, the gateway town of Moab with its many RV-friendly campgrounds, motels, restaurants, and shops can serve as a spoke for your exploration. Arches National Park, another Southwestern wonder not to be missed, is just 5 miles north of town. Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky District is 27 miles west of town, the Needles District rises 76 miles to the southwest, and the Horseshoe Canyon Unit with its Great Gallery is a longer excursion, 101 miles, one way.
What to Do in Canyonlands?
Spread across Canyonlands are great natural, historic, and cultural resources worth exploring. Here’s a cheat-sheet to help you plan your trip:
* Do visit the Island in the Sky District of the park. A nice, smooth, but not terribly wide, road shaped like a wishbone negotiates this broad plateau high above the park's interior. Via it you can easily reach Mesa Arch, Whale Rock, Upheaval Dome (explained below), and the Grand View Point Overlook, which can also offer dazzling views on a moonless, starry night. The views from the Grand View and and Green River overlooks explain without a doubt how this national park got its name. There are some nice large parking lots here, but they can be quickly filled.
* But there's more. The photograph of sunrise through Mesa Arch is iconic. Scampering up onto the back of Whale Rock, a humongous hump of sandstone, 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.
* Don’t deny yourself a visit to the Needles District, perhaps while you’re en route to Mesa Verde or Natural Bridges or Capitol Reef. The trek here rewards you with the park's best campground -- Squaw Flat --, a nice auto tour along a smooth road 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 (no easy task), 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 (with limited merchandise), and a small restaurant.
* Any stay in the Needles District should include a hike of some distance down the trail to Chesler Park. (Note: This might not be possible if you're in a large rig, as the road down to the trailhead packs some steep, tight turns) The red-rock landscape of Chesler Park with its boulders, spires, and cliffs wraps itself around you. Also make a point of walking along the Cave Spring Trail, which is just off the main road. 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.
* Visit the Horseshoe Canyon Unit. 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 unit lays claim to Horseshoe Canyon and its mystical and mysterious Great Gallery of rock art. More recently, it's said that Butch Cassidy used the canyon, and those that spur off of it, to avoid posses. The road to Horseshoe Canyon is dirt and can be rough at time, though not too much for RVs unless there's been a recent storm or it's late in the season, when the road can be a washboard mess.
What Can You Do in the Area?
Take a trip to another national park. You've come this far, so it'd be a shame not to check out the neighbor, Arches National Park. Just 5 miles north of Moab, this park that provided inspiration for the late Ed Abbey, an iconic writer who railed against development in the parks and other public lands, is much smaller than Canyonlands, but it also contains the greatest collection of rock arches and windows in the world -- more than 2,000.
Smooth roads that lead to Balanced Rock, Delicate Arch, the Fiery Furnace, and the park’s other icons allow you to easily see Arches’ main attractions in one day. Dead Horse Point State Park, on the way to Canyonland’s Island in the Sky District, shouldn’t be missed. Located atop a mesa, the point of the park provides stunning views of the Colorado River some 2,000 feet below and the surrounding cross-section of geology.
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.
Moab is powered by muscle -- mountain bikers, climbers, river runners. Some of the best mountain biking in the country lies within the Slickrock Mountain Bike Trail system. Take a day off from visiting the parks and instead take a float trip down the Colorado River, or learn how to canyoneer.
Downtown Moab harbors the Dan O’Laurie Museum, where you’ll receive a great tutorial on the region’s geology, paleontology, and human history.
The nearby La Sal Mountains southeast of Moab are threaded with a nice loop drive that takes you out of the red-rock desert and up into evergreen-thick forests and turnoffs to lakes and a U.S. Forest Service campground.
If Wanderlust Strikes
No need to be anywhere at any particular time? Perfect, for this corner of the country abounds with natural and cultural wonders preserved by the National Park System.
Mesa Verde National Park is just about 150 miles southeast of from Moab on good roads. Of course, if you’re planning on heading south and then west from Canyonlands to Capitol Reef National Park it’s out of the way, so perhaps on your next trip to the Southwest? With more than 4,000 archaeological sites, Mesa Verde provides visitors with a great window into the past, to when the Ancestral Puebloan peoples built cliff dwellings and coaxed a life from what today we see as a harsh landscape.
This park has a surprisingly large campground -- 435 sites, and park officials say they rarely fill. Each site has a table, bench, and grill. Camping is open to tents, trailers and RVs, including 15 full hookup RV sites, but those require reservations. You can make them on this site.
Capitol Reef National Park: www.nps.gov/care/ 435-425-3791 x111.
This is the over-looked sibling among Utah’s five “national parks.” Centered around a late-19th century agricultural community, the park captures a portrait of settler life as well as an outdoor cathedral of red-rock landscape. The drive from Moab, also about 150 miles along state highways, takes you past Natural Bridges National Monument and some of the most beautiful scenery in Utah on one of the least-traveled roads.
There's a 71-site campground ($10/night) that caters to both tenters and RVers. There are no individual water, sewage or electrical hook-ups, but there is an RV dump station you'll find near the entrance to Loops A and B. It's open during the summer.
Natural Bridges National Monument: www.nps.gov/nabr (435) 692-1234 Ext. 16
The monument is about two hours’ drive south of Moab on well-paved and maintained roads. Though one of the more remote corners of the National Park System, make the effort to find it and you'll be richly rewarded with an amazing landscape, rich human history, and glorious solitude. And it's got one of my favorite campgrounds in all the park system, a 13-site campground ($10/night) atop a rise that is open year-round on a first-come, first-served basis. There is, however, a 26-foot length limit on rigs.
Goblin Valley State Park: www.utah.com/stateparks/goblin_valley.htm
Goblin Valley State Park, across from the turnoff to Canyonland’s Maze District, offers another surreal glimpse into Utah’s geologic basement. Rising at the state park’s heart are countless hoodoos sculpted by erosion.
At Goblin Valley you'll find a 25-site campground ($16/night) that state officials say can accommodate "large" motor homes. There also is a new culinary water system, rest rooms, hot water showers, and a dump station. Each campsite has a picnic table, paved parking pad and barbecue grill.
Canyonlands National Park: www.nps.gov/cany/ Phone: 435-719-2313
Spring and fall are the best times to visit Canyonlands, as you’ll miss both the high heat of summer (100 degrees Fahrenheit) as well as most of the crowds. Early May is perfect for the spring bloom of cactus and wildflowers throughout the park. The fall season does stretch deep into October, but the crowds begin to slacken after Labor Day. Come winter little snow falls in Canyonlands, daytime highs can reach into the 50s, and campgrounds rarely fill, if you’re really looking for solitude.
A $10 fee covers your entrance to the park for a week.
If you head to the Island in the Sky District, be sure your tank is full, as there are no service stations in or on the way to the district. Also, while you can get gas at the Needles Outpost, it can be pricey, so it’d be wise to top off your rig in Moab.
The Squaw Flat Campground in the Needles District offers 26 sites available on a first-come, first-served basis. Bathrooms, fire grates, picnic tables, tent pads and water available year-round. Group size limit is 10 people and 2 vehicles. Maximum RV length is 28 feet. Fee is $15 per night.
The Willow Flat Campground on the Island in the Sky offers a dozen sites that also are available on a first-come, first-served basis. Sites include picnic tables, fire grates and vault toilets. No water. Maximum RV length is 28 feet. Group size limit is 10 people and 2 vehicles. Fee is $10 per night.
Arches National Park: www.nps.gov/arch/ 435-719-2299
A $10 fee covers your entrance to the park for a week. A $25 annual pass gets you access to Arches, Canyonlands, Natural Bridges, and Hovenweep National Monument.
The Devils Garden Campground can be found 18 miles from the park entrance and is open year-round. Facilities include potable water, picnic tables, grills, as well as both pit-style and flush toilets. There are no showers. Bring your own wood or charcoal for the grills. Some sites will accommodate RVs up to 30 feet in length. Reservations can be made at www.recreation.gov.
There is no bypass around Moab. U.S. 191 goes right down main street, and with it tractor-trailers, farm equipment, tour buses, and all other traffic.
Once you leave Blanding, Utah, and turn west on highway 95 towards Natural Bridges National Monument you won’t see another service station until you reach Hanksville, some 125 miles away, so fill up if necessary.
Where To Park Your Rig
Both the Willow Flat Campground in Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky District and the Squaw Flat Campground in the Needles District can handle RVs up to 28 feet. There are no hookups in either campground, although water is available at Squaw Flat.
In Arches National Park, the Devils Garden Campground has some sites that will handle a 30-foot RV. There are no hookups, although water is available during the high season.
Outside of the parks there is a baker’s dozen of campgrounds in Moab that can accommodate RVs.
The Slickrock Campground on U.S. 191 just might be the best equipped, able to handle RVs up to 65 feet long and offering Wi-Fi, a pool, cabins, hot tub, playground, and willing to accept pets. And it’s open year-round.
Moab Valley RV can handle rigs up to 60 feet, and also has Wi-Fi, pool, cabins, hot tub, playground, and is pet friendly, but closes in winter.
For a list of Moab’s RV campgrounds, head here.