A vast labyrinth of canyons weaves through the ancient sedimentary rock in Utah’s Canyonlands National Park. Rugged and strikingly beautiful, the park is located in the Colorado Plateau southwest of Moab, Utah. Cut by the Colorado and Green Rivers and their tributaries, this is an area of rich desert scenery replete with mesas, deep gorges, and many remarkable geologic features. Outdoor activities abound in this high desert national park.
The vast area of near pristine territory is the result of millions of years of deposition and then erosion of the sedimentary rocks. The rivers flowing through the park cut it into roughly four different areas, each with distinctive features. The Island in the Sky, The Needles, and the Maze make up three of the districts, with the rivers forming the fourth.
Island in the Sky is characterized by a vast sandstone mesa with steep cliffs rising 1,000 feet above the canyons. This is the most accessible area and is suitable for short visits to appreciate the spectacular landscape. The paved road offers overlooks with breathtaking views. Rugged roads, suitable for 4-wheelers, leave the paved road for further explorations. Trails are suitable for day or overnight hiking trips. A campground is located in the Island in the Sky area. Although pit toilets serve the 12-site campground, no water is available.
Natural basins formed in the sandstone offer one of the most unique habitats in this area. Filled for only a limited time with water, these potholes serve as home to a thriving yet ephemeral ecosystem filled with microscopic invertebrates, tadpoles, tiny shrimp, insects, and other hardy creatures. The nature lover who appreciates the resourcefulness of the inhabitants of this harsh ecosystem will enjoy a time studying the pools.
Backpacking is a favorite, yet challenging, activity in the Island in the Sky area. The terrain is rugged with difficult-to-negotiate talus slopes and thousand-foot changes in elevation. The trail to Murphy Point stays on top of the mesa and is suitable for a short-term hike. There is no reliable source of potable water. White Rim road is a 100-mile rugged trail suitable for mountain biking and four-wheel vehicles.
The Needles region is characterized by the striking formations of multicolored sandstone that have been eroded into fantastic spires. Located in the southeast portion of Canyonlands, it is home to an extensive network of trails providing scenic overnight and day hiking. Four-wheel-drive roads lead to many of the most outstanding geologic features. The year-round Squaw Flat Campgrounds has many amenities including bathrooms, tent camping sites, fire grates, and picnic tables for campers. There are also three group camps available.
An interesting geologic feature found in this area, quite distinct from the rest of the park, is Upheaval Dome. It is the only site where disturbed rock layers are found. Although geologists have not reached a consensus on what formed the dome, theories include a meteorite impact crater or ancient salt dome that has since eroded away.
The third region of the park, The Maze, is the least accessible. This is an area suitable for the hardy, experience backcountry hiker and traveler. A minimum of three days is recommended in this area. This region borders the Glen Canyon National Recreation
Area. There are no amenities in this area including no potable water.
The Horseshoe Canyon area is the location of some of the most intriguing archeological sites in the park. Accessible by two-wheel-drive vehicles, it is a roughly two and a half hour drive from Moab. Tours from Moab can be utilized to see the fascinating rock art left by a culture 3,000 years ago. This area is suitable for horse, mule, or burros; no other animals are permitted in the area. Strict rules prohibit grazing and type of feed to prevent disturbances in plant life. Interpretive hikes are offered seasonally in the area.
The Green and Colorado Rivers provide many opportunities for recreation including canoeing, kayaking, and rafting. All launch ramps are located outside the park and river conditions can be extremely variable depending on the weather.