Canyonlands National Park
Needles District, copyright Tom Till, Tom Till Photography
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Baked by time like some multi-layer geologic tort, Canyonlands 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.”
Seeking adventure? The Colorado River offers mile-after-mile of white water as well as solitude in a redrock backcountry.
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.
Traveler's Choice For: Hiking, white-water rafting, star-gazing, wildflowers, Native American history
Canyonlands 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.