It's so easy to do a windshield tour of Canyonlands National Park by driving up onto the Island in the Sky District and through the Needles District. But here are five reasons why you should do a little more exploring in the park that preserves a wondrous slice of Utah's canyon country.
Yes, it's out of the way, on the western edge of the park and not quickly reached from Moab, Utah. But traveling to Canyonlands without visiting the Great Gallery in the bottom of the canyon is akin to visiting Paris without visiting the Louvre.
This canyon is worth the 2.5-hour drive from Moab, for it offers a fascinating trip back into prehistory, a time when nomadic tribes would follow the washes through the Southwest's canyon country from camp to camp.
Trek down into it and you'll find the “Holy Ghost” hovering above a sandy wash. Surrounded by lesser figures, the striking specter nearly eight feet tall shimmers on the canyon wall under the relentless sun.
Ancient nomads created the larger-than-life image perhaps as long as 7,000 years ago by filling their mouths with red ocher-tinted paint and spraying it out with a mighty burst onto the sandstone. The “Holy Ghost” is the focal point of the Great Gallery, a vast mural some 300 feet long and featuring about 80 figures ranging from flitting birds and bighorn sheep to bizarre figurines.
Without a doubt, there is no better time to hike in Utah's canyon country than spring. In Canyonlands on the Elephant Hill Trail mid-May blends on one palette the reds, yellows, golds, and whites of wildflowers against a redrock backdrop daubed with cream and buff.
While narrow-leaf yucca are concentrating on sprouting their flower stalks and haven't yet thought of blooms in May, and the Mormon tea isn't quite fully in bloom, claret-cup cactus, Desert Indian paintbrush, orange globemallows, and western peppergrass are in full bloom. And those are just the easy ones to name.
Hike the Elephant Hill Trail, which leads from a backcountry parking area in Canyonlands' Needles District towards Chesler Park and your eyes jump from the flowers rimming the trail and running across the ground to the surrounding minarets, boulders, and cliffs that define this section of the park.
The entire Chesler Park loop covers 11 miles, but since there's no water along the way you'll have to carry all you'll need.
Though outside the national park on the way to, or back from, the Needles District, 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.
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.
5. Get wet
You can either ride the waves through Cataract Canyon, or take a mellower approach to running rivers by canoeing the flat water stretch of the Green River that runs from the town of Green River down to the confluence with the Colorado River. From there, you can either arrange for a jetboat to meet you and take you upstream to Moab, or you can dig deep inside and paddle your way upstream.