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Don’t forget about Canyonlands

Tales of Trails

Canyonlands National Park gets less than half the visitors of Arches National Park and exactly zero features on Utah license plates.

Upheaval Dome is one of those Moab areas with fun, green rocks juxtaposed next to the usual rusty red sandstone. The Syncline Trail will get you much closer to the action, but it’s also the trail where most park rescues occur. The overlook trail is a safer distance.
Photos by Carter Pape

At the same time, Canyonlands is more than four times larger than and has a budget three times larger than those of Arches. It is a monster of a park. I want more people to experience it.

Canyonlands is perhaps best known for its namesake of having dramatic canyons and taking up a lot of land, but it does also have arches, Mesa Arch being the most popular. Not only that, but the park is — and I feel like I cannot say this in strong enough terms — ginormous.

The 100-mile White Rim Road, a legendary loop for bikers, presents the challenge of completing the full trail in a single day. That road is fully contained within just one of Canyonlands’ four districts. For comparison, Arches barely has 50 miles of road.

My mom, granny, and I take a selfie in front of Mesa Arch. It’s typically a busy spot, partially because it is relatively easy to access and not as roomy as the area around Delicate Arch.

Have you ever visited Anniversary Arch, Eye of the Whale Arch, Tapestry Arch, or Ring Arch? These and others are features in the backcountry of Arches National Park. If you have seen them, consider how remote each of them is — how far from the crowds you go to visit them. If you have not, consider just how much of Arches you have not seen.

Now think about this: Canyonlands has Druid Arch, Angel Arch, Kirk Cabin, Cleft Arch, Paul Bunyan’s Potty, and Tower Ruin. Those are all features in just the Needles District, the entrance to which is a full 1.5 hours from Moab by car. They are even more remote, scattered in an even larger expanse than the arches of Arches.

And then, there is The Maze. It is not only the most remote part of Canyonlands; it is one of the most remote parts of the National Park System. Getting to the canyons of The Maze, according to directions from the park service, can take anywhere from six to nine hours from Moab. That includes a three-hour drive to the Hans Flat Ranger Station, which itself is roughly 24 miles of 4-wheel driving (or a little more than 10 miles of hiking) to the edge of the park.

Arches isn’t the only park with balanced rocks.

I am a casual enjoyer of the national parks. I drive my Subaru Impreza and all 5.1 inches of its ground clearance along the paved road into Island in the Sky, the only district I’ve ever visited, and enjoy a half-day of hiking the shorter trails. I fantasize about biking part of the White Rim in a day — perhaps from Shafer to Gooseberry. I’ve never pursued a backcountry permit or tour.

For people like me, Canyonlands has plenty to offer. Drive 30 minutes out of town, and you have a whole new set of hikes and scenes to enjoy, curated by the same public lands managers who brought you Arches. If you’re even more casual than me, here are three shorter excursions I would recommend, and one vista you must see before you leave.

Upheaval Dome

This 1.5-hour (1.8-mile) hike takes you to the second overlook of Upheaval Dome, a disruption in the rock layers that define most of the park and the area. There is also a shorter, 1-hour hike to the first overlook, but in my opinion, the view from the second overlook is better.

Finish your Canyonlands hiking at golden hour, and the red rocks will get even redder. (I promise they are red, not gray.)

Rather than layers sitting on top of layers like a sandwich, Upheaval Dome looks like a meteorite impacted the ground and stirred up the usual order of sedimentary deposits. That is, in fact, the leading theory of how it formed.

The second theory is that part of the thick salt layer that underlies much of southeastern Utah bubbled up to the surface like ice in water, uplifting deposits into a dome-shaped anticline.

Regardless of which of the two theories is true, the feature is dramatic. The colors are stark; the shape is striking; the syncline surrounding the dome is fascinating.

Mesa Arch

This feature is smaller than some, but it’s awe-inspiring for many of the other reasons a rock in Southeast Utah can rise to fame. It sits above a steep cliff; it has the La Sal Mountains as a backdrop; a few friendly little plants are growing out of it; it’s accessible; and, most of all, it’s an arch.

The hike to and from Mesa Arch is 30 minutes long (a half-mile). It’s the shortest, easiest hike in the park.

Grand View Point

The Grand View Point trail follows a path that, like so many in Moab, skirts a cliff of staggering height. Watch your step.

At southernmost end of the Island in the Sky scenic drive is an outdoor exhibit that explains some of the multitude of features visible from the Grand View Point. For extra credit, you can make a 1.5-hour (two-mile) out-and-back hike for an even grander, panoramic view of the surroundings.

Green River Overlook

This is the vista I think you cannot miss. There’s no hike; you just park and walk to the fenced-off ledge. I didn’t bother trying to photograph it because the view is so expansive. The sheer number of features to see, their distance from the overlook, the colors and contrast — it’s all too much to try to cram into a single photograph. Bring binoculars and stay a while.