Your Guide to Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park is one reason why Moab, Utah has exploded in popularity in recent years. With almost 800,000 visitors annually, its Island in the Sky Visitor Center is less than an hour drive from town. At the center of the park is the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. Looking at a map, you’ll see the two rivers form a “Y,” dividing the park into three distinct districts. For practical purposes, it’s three parks in one: the wedge at the top of the Y is the Island in the Sky District, the southeast section is the Needles District, and the southwest is The Maze.

Canyonlands consists of 527 square miles of magnificent mesas, canyons, and rivers, and boasts over 200 miles of hiking trails. Protected on its western boundary by another national park unit: Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, the entire park has a desert wilderness feel. The Island in the Sky District is by far the most-visited of the three, with about 75% of the park’s annual visitation. The Needles is the second-most-visited, getting 20% of yearly visits. The Maze is no less spectacular than the other districts, but it is remote and to truly explore its wonders you’ll need a rugged four-wheel-drive vehicle, expert off-road driving skills, and the ability to navigate in the backcountry by map—GPS navigation in The Maze is unreliable.

Best time to go

There’s never a bad time to visit the park, although the crowds are largest from spring through fall, and campsites fill quickly each day during these seasons. The weather is best in spring and fall. According to the park’s website: Canyonlands is part of the Colorado Plateau, a “high desert” region that experiences wide temperature fluctuations, sometimes over 40 degrees in a single day. The temperate (and most popular) seasons are spring (April-May) and fall (mid-September-October), when daytime highs average 60 to 80 F and lows average 30 to 50 F. Summer temperatures often exceed 100 F, making strenuous exercise difficult. Winters are cold, with highs averaging 30 to 50 F, and lows averaging 0 to 20 F.

Where it is

Canyonlands is in the southeastern corner of Utah, about 40 miles as the crow flies from the Colorado border, and 60 miles north of the Arizona border. There are no bridges across the rivers that split the park into its separate regions, so driving directions and distances, as well as information about places to stay, are only relevant to the respective districts. Therefore, we’ve organized the remainder of this blog post by district.

Island in the Sky

This district is directly west of Moab, Utah, and is a 32-mile drive from the town’s center. Its proximity to Moab at least partially explains why it’s the most-visited district of the park. Moab is a well-established gateway to all of the outdoor recreation activities of southeast Utah and has many hotels and restaurants to handle the crowds that flock to the area.

Places to stay other than Moab

If you’d rather stay in the park, the Island in the Sky Campground (Willow Flat) has 12 sites that are available on a first-come, first-served basis and is open year-round. The park’s website describes the campgrounds: The spectacular Green River Overlook is nearby. Nightly camping fee is $15 per site. Sites fill quickly spring through fall. There are toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings in the campground. There is no water at the campground. You can get drinking water outside the visitor center spring through fall.

There’s also camping available at Dead Horse Point State Park, whose visitor center is a short 20-minute drive away. Follow this link to learn more about the park or follow this link for information about their campsites and yurts.

Things to do

The two most-notable activities in the Island in the Sky District are hiking and traveling the White Rim Road.

White Rim Road

The trail generally follows the outline of the wedge-shaped mesa carved by the Colorado and Green Rivers as they race toward each other and join at the center of the park. Staying below the rim of the mesa, the road provides travelers with a unique wilderness experience and expansive views of this amazing place.

Only four-wheel-drive vehicles, motorbikes, and bicycles are allowed on the 100-mile White Rim Road; ATVs, UTVs, and OHVs are not permitted. Permits are required when using the road and can be obtained at the visitor center. The park emphasizes the need to come prepared: The White Rim Road has long rocky stretches, deep sand, and little shade. Bring at least 1 gallon (4 L) of water per person, per day — more if you’ll be active. Plan for a minimum of 10-12 hours of driving or cycling.

Along the road, there are 20 campsites in 10 camping areas, with toilets at each area. Travelers are required to stay on the road at all times and are reminded that there is no potable water available.

Hiking

To see a map of the district and a list and description of trails, follow this link. We’ve hiked several of the iconic trails and each one was as great as the next. Mesa Arch and Grand View Point are two that you don’t want to miss if you are short on time. We also enjoyed Murphy Point, Aztec Butte, Upheaval Dome, and the trek out to the White Rim Overlook.

You can see these granaries on a short side trip from the hike up Aztec Butte

In our book Dear Bob and Sue, where we wrote emails to our friends Bob and Sue as we traveled to all the national parks, we describe some of our experiences when we visited the Island in the Sky district back in 2010. Included below is an excerpt from the book.

From: Matt Smith
Subject: #26 – Canyonlands National Park
Date: September 23, 2010

Dear Bob and Sue,

Canyonlands National Park is near where Aron Ralston got his arm pinned between rocks and had to hack it off with a dull knife to free himself and save his life. I assured Karen that if she got her arm stuck today in Canyonlands I wouldn’t need to hack; I always carry a knife sharpener in my backpack. There would be no 127 hours wasting away in the desert; we’d be back in time for dinner.

Today we hiked in the Island in the Sky section of the park. After stopping at the visitor center and getting hiking tips from a ranger, we set out at 9:15am on the Lathrop Trail. We hiked from the park road to the rim of the canyon overlooking the Colorado River to the east. It rained heavily yesterday, but today was sunny and in the 60s. When we started our hike, the trail was muddy, but drying quickly. The colors of the vegetation and rocky landscape were brilliant because of the recent rain; it was a spectacular morning.

About an hour into the hike, I noticed hoof prints on the trail. I was taking a picture of the prints right at my feet when I looked up to see a bighorn sheep standing like a statue 20 feet from me. He walked a few yards away from us, and then stood there for a few seconds staring at Karen and me. Suddenly he snorted, and took off like a shot, running away from us. He must have finally caught our scent. With my camera, I got a good video of him running away. Karen said,

“Wow. He’s a good runner.”

I said, “They’re all good runners. The slow ones get eaten.”

We kept hiking along the Lathrop Trail expecting to see more wildlife, but we didn’t. We saw other fresh prints in the soft, sandy mud that looked like paw prints of a cat – a big cat like a mountain lion. I kept imagining that it was following us. We would be easier to bring down than a bighorn sheep.

When we reached the edge of the canyon, the hike dropped a couple of hundred feet below the rim and snaked along the canyon wall. To one side of the trail we could see for dozens of miles to the southeast, following the path of the Colorado River. The morning sun was in our eyes, but the overlook to the river was still amazing. Through my binoculars, I could see Jeeps in the distance driving the backcountry roads down by the river. A couple of miles later, we turned back. At the car, my GPS said we hiked 8.5 miles.

Karen didn’t like the fact that there wasn’t a single flush toilet in this section of the park. There were only outhouses at the visitor center, and because the smell was overwhelming Karen opted to take care of business outside while we were hiking. She really has come a long way since we started this journey: carrying her own backpack and peeing in the wilderness.

A few miles farther south on the park road (Highway 313), we parked and walked to Mesa Arch. Mesa Arch is one of the most beautiful arches in Utah. I think it’s on par with Delicate Arch. We were shocked to see people climbing on top of it: dancing, jumping up and down and posing for pictures in stupid positions. In Arches National Park, the park service doesn’t allow people to climb on the arches, but in Canyonlands they do. Not sure why. It’s too beautiful a formation to have people crawling all over it.

Mesa Arch was crowded, and many of the people there traveled a long distance to see this particular arch. They didn’t want to wait all day to take a picture of the arch without someone standing on top of it holding his crotch. When the group that had been messing around on top of the arch finally moved on, I started to take a picture. But before I was able to, a woman sat in the middle of the arch to have her picture taken. No big deal – except she wouldn’t leave.

She sat there with her head resting at an angle in her hand while her husband took her picture countless times. Besides the fact that it’s just plain wrong to pose for a picture with your head resting in your hands, there were a dozen people waiting to take a quick picture of the arch.

The woman could clearly see that she was holding everyone up, but she stayed there and kept changing poses. We gave it ten minutes, and then started back toward the car. Many other people gave up also. I have a message for the park service, “Rope this one off!”

After lunch, we did two more hikes, Upheaval Dome and Murphy Point. In total, we hiked more than 14 miles today. We had extra energy, so we kept going. I like it when we hike that much during the day because then I can eat as much pizza as I want at night. We’re going to Zax for dinner. They have an all-you-can eat pizza buffet.

Back in Moab we needed to find a store to buy aloe vera gel for Karen’s sunburned legs. She forgot to put sunscreen on them, and they got fried. She called them her “fried chicken legs.” That sounds good; maybe tomorrow we’ll get fried chicken instead of pizza.

Your friend,
Matt

The Needles

This district is the reason Canyonlands exists as a national park today. In the early 1950s, Bates Wilson, the superintendent of what was then Arches National Monument, explored the area and was so impressed that he began advocating for the federal government to protect it as a national park. In 1964, when President Johnson signed the law making Canyonlands a national park, Wilson became its first superintendent. Named after its incredible towering rock spires, The Needles is one of our favorite places in the national park system because of its beauty and accessible remoteness. Oxymoron aside, you’ll see what we mean when you visit the area for yourself.

The Needles

The visitor center at The Needles is about an hour-and-a-half-drive south and then west of the town of Moab. The closest town to The Needles is Monticello, where you can find several motels and places to eat. We always dine at the Peace Tree Juice Café when we’re in Monticello; the food and service are great, and despite the name, they offer a full menu.

Place to stay other than Monticello

The park’s website describes your camping options within the park: The Needles Campground (Squaw Flat) 26 individual sites, plus 3 group sites in different locations around The Needles district. Nightly camping fee for an individual site is $20. You can reserve some individual sites in spring and fall. Other times of the year, individual sites are first-come, first-served. Sites fill quickly in spring and fall. You can also reserve group sites for nights between mid-March and mid-November. There are toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings in the campground.

If you have your heart set on camping and the sites at Squaw Flat are all taken, you could try the privately-owned Needles Outpost just outside of the park boundary to the east. We’ve never stayed there, but you can’t beat its location for convenience. Your other options are camping on the BLM land adjacent to the park to the east.

Things to do

There’s one thing for sure you should do before you ever get to The Needles District: visit Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument along State Route 211. It is right on your way to the park, and this stunning panel of petroglyphs is conveniently located next to a parking lot that is just off the road. Not only is it worth a few minutes to view the panel and take some photos, there are also restrooms there as well.

Hiking

Hiking is our favorite activity in The Needles. The two trails that stand out for us are the Chesler Park / Joint Trail Loop and the Confluence Overlook.

It’s easier to get to Chesler Park by driving to the end of the unpaved Elephant Hill road and begin your hike from there. We’ve always taken an alternative route by starting from the Squaw Flats campground, which adds two miles of distance each way and some increased difficulty. The attraction of this hike is that it takes you to and through some of the spectacular needles; they’re amazing to see up close.

The Confluence Overlook trail ends at a magnificent viewpoint where the Colorado and Green Rivers join. While the trail is not particularly challenging, it’s about a four-hour time commitment to hike the eleven miles out and back. When we hiked this trail, several Jeeps passed us as we were about a mile from the confluence. Driving most of the way is another option. You can hire a guide or rent a Jeep and drive the rugged, sandy roads back to a parking area a mile from the overlook.

Another popular hike in The Needles District that we haven’t done, but is on our bucket list, is the trail to Druid Arch. You can find a description of the hike to Druid Arch, as well as a map of the district by following this link.

In Dear Bob and Sue: Season 2, we wrote about our first attempt at hiking to Chesler Park. Below is an excerpt from the book.

From: Matt Smith
Subject: Lost in the Needles
Date: March 12, 2017 (Sunday)

Dear Bob and Sue,

We didn’t become campers today. A series of missteps and delays led to us missing out on a campsite. The Squaw Flat Campground in the Needles District has two loops: A & B. In the winter (until March 15) Loop A is available on a first come, first served basis, and Loop B is sometimes closed. I called Recreation.gov last night to find out the status of Loop B and the person I spoke with told me Loop B was still closed for the winter. Hearing that, we thought it would be almost impossible to get one of the fourteen sites in Loop A.

We also woke up to a cloudy, rainy day in Moab, and thought there was a good possibility that the weather tonight would be less than ideal for camping. With all of those discouraging developments, we took our time getting to the park this morning, resolved that camping was out.

By the time we reached the visitor center two hours south of Moab, the clouds had disappeared, and the weather was perfect. Just for grins, I asked the ranger at the information desk, “When do you open Loop B for the season?”

With a confused look on her face, she replied, “Loop B isn’t closed, it’s open right now.”

“Seriously? Is it possible for us to get a site for tonight?”

“Uh, maybe. I was there ten minutes ago and a couple of sites were still open. If you want to camp there tonight, you should go right now and grab one,” she said.

We hightailed it over to the campground, drove through both loops, and watched the car in front of us place a registration receipt on the post in front of the last open site. “We missed it by ten seconds,” I said to Karen.

“Look on the bright side. You have two boxes of Cheez-Its in the back as a consolation prize.”

“Cheez-Its! They cost us a campsite!”

“Yep,” was all Karen said.

“Let’s regroup. It’s still a beautiful day. We can do your hike and figure out later where we’re going to sleep tonight.”

The hike Karen wanted to do was the Chesler Park Loop Trail. It takes you back through the Needles to a slot canyon called the Joint Trail. We could see a trail on our map that connected the campground to the series of trails that lead to the Needles. At the end of Loop B was a small parking area with a few empty spots. We parked the truck and loaded our backpacks.

The Needles District has many intertwined trails, and it can be confusing at trail intersections determining the right way to go. The Chesler Park Loop would have been about eleven miles round trip if we’d started from the Elephant Hill trailhead where most people begin the hike, but since we began at the campground, it added another two miles each way. We set out on the trail at 11:00 am, figuring we had plenty of daylight to do the loop and make it back to the truck before sunset.

Cairns marked the first mile of the hike across bare slickrock. Usually we could see the next several cairns, but a few times we had to stop for a minute or two to search for the next one. At one spot, the cairns led up the face of a large rock that was too steep to climb unaided. A series of metal posts had been inserted into the rock and a chain was attached to the posts to help hikers steady themselves as they climb. We were fortunate the rain clouds disappeared and that we were wearing well-treaded hiking boots. I wouldn’t want to scramble over the slickrock when it’s wet or in worn-out boots.

Karen looking at The Needles in the distance

As we hiked farther into the park, the trail became more traditional, with a clear footpath through the desert and fewer cairns to mark the path. Every mile or so we’d come to a place where our trail intersected another. An hour and a half into the hike, the trail went into a tight slot canyon where the walls were high and vertical. After descending a set of steps, we walked across the flat sandy floor of the canyon for about fifty yards. It was dark and cool in there.

When we got to the other side, Karen pulled out the map and said to me, “This is weird. That must have been the Joint Trail. It looks just like the pictures I saw of it online. But that means we’re on the back side of the loop already. Either this map is wrong, or we went a different way than I thought we did.”

I never gave her comment a second thought, until later in the day. After another hour of hiking we came to the base of one of the Needles. The Needles are rock spires that sit about two miles east of the Colorado River, south of the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers. Extending southward for miles, they are colorful sandstone pillars that look like cairns made of stacked, smooth stones, except they’re hundreds of feet high. It’s difficult to appreciate how spectacular they are unless you’re standing at the base of one, looking up at it.

In the heart of the Needles, we reached a sign that read “Chesler Park 0.2 mile” with an arrow pointing to the left. We decided this was a good place to stop for lunch. The hike to that point had been more strenuous than we’d anticipated, and it felt good to take a break and relax. I laid down on a smooth, flat rock and watched large black birds circle above us and around the Needles. My peaceful break was soon interrupted by Karen shouting, “Go away. Go away! Matt!”

Without looking I knew what was going on. A bold chipmunk was making passes beneath Karen’s legs as she sat and ate her sandwich on the rocks. “That’s it. Lunch is over,” she said.

“I’m going to go to the bathroom behind that big rock over there and then we need to get going.”

When Karen goes off to pee, I usually use that opportunity to place a couple of nuts at the base of her backpack so that when she returns there are chipmunks sniffing around her stuff. She has a suspicion that I do this, that’s why the last thing she says to me before she heads behind the rock or bush is, “Don’t feed them!”

“What do think, that I’m like, twelve?” Is my pat response, which always brings another warning, “I mean it. Don’t.” I shake my head, act like I’m not interested, and then I place nuts at the base of her backpack once she’s gone. To answer my own question, yes, there’s a twelve-year-old kid inside all of us. And that’s a good thing.

Karen came back stomping her feet and waving her hands at her backpack to shoo away the rodents.

“I’m ready to move on, how about you?” she asked.

“Yep, I’ve had enough of a break,” I replied.

“OK, since this trail is a loop, we’ll be going a different way back to the truck. At the sign where the trails cross, we’re going to take a right.”

“But the arrow on the sign for Chesler Park points left to the top of this trail, where it goes through the Needles,” I said. “Let’s at least go up there and look at the view. Maybe we’ll be able to see the Colorado River from the top.”

Another couple hundred yards of steep climbing took us to the high point of the trail. When I looked to the southwest I’d expected to see the river, but instead there were more rock spires off in the distance about a half a mile away—and no river.

“I bet you could hike for days out there and never cross a road or any other sign of civilization,” I said to Karen.

“Eventually you’d reach Bear’s Ears National Monument to the south. You might not run into any towns, but you’d probably find some cliff dwelling ruins. They say there are thousands of them in the monument.”

“Alright, we need to start heading back. We’ve been out here for about two and a half hours and there are only a few hours of daylight left.”

“We’ll be fine; the loop back is no longer than the hike we did to get here,” she said.

For the next hour we hiked a sparsely marked trail that took us north along the base of the Needles. They are spectacular up close. We kept stopping to take pictures, but it was hard to capture their massive scale on our phone cameras.

Matt hiking to the Confluence Overlook in The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park
Matt hiking to the Confluence Overlook in The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park

We took a break to drink water and Karen pulled out her map. “I think we need to go this way,” she said, pointing through a break in the Needles toward the Colorado River. Up to this point I hadn’t paid much attention to where we were. I had confidence that Karen knew the way—she had the map. But I knew that hiking toward the Colorado River was the opposite direction of where we’d parked the truck.

“Are you sure we’re supposed to go that way?” I asked.

“Positive,” she replied.

I was leery, but followed her through the towering rocks and onto a trail that went west across a flat stretch of desert. After about two hundred yards I stopped and said, “Sweetie, I know I’m not the one with the map, but I’m 100 percent sure we’re hiking in the opposite direction of the truck.”

Karen pulled out the map and said, “No, we’re here and the truck is there.” She was pointing in the direction of where she thought the truck was.

I took the map from her, turned it a quarter rotation, and said, “No, we’re here, and the truck is over there.”

“That can’t be right. There’s a huge canyon between us and where you think the truck is.”

“Uh, huh,” I said with a look of concern. “That’s the problem.”

Karen wasn’t convinced. She showed me the map again and said. “You see here? This is the

Joint Trail that we hiked earlier, and then we ate lunch right here.”

Again, I took the map from her and turned it a quarter turn. “Unless, the trail you thought was the Joint Trail wasn’t the Joint Trail, which would put us over here.”

“Well, that would explain why I thought the map was wrong.”

We spent the next five minutes studying the map and trying to match it with where we thought we were in the park. Finally, I said, “Here’s the deal, we’re running out of daylight and we don’t have time to make another wrong turn. If we retrace our steps all the way back to the truck, we have just enough time to get there before the sun goes down.”

Then it dawned on her. “Did you bring your headlamp?”

“No, did you?”

“No,” she said after a long pause. “Crap! We always have our headlamps. There’s no way we’ll be able to follow those cairns across the slickrock in the dark.”

“That’s why I’m saying we don’t have time to make one more wrong turn. We need to go back the way we came, now.”

I know it sounds easy, but retracing your steps through an unfamiliar wilderness area on a trail that isn’t well-marked is harder than it sounds. Especially when you’re in a slight panic. Several times on the hike back to the truck, we were sure we’d made a wrong turn and were going off on yet another new trail that would lead us to God knows where.

About fifteen minutes into our trek back, I said to Karen, “Shouldn’t we have come to that section of the trail where we ducked under a tree and slid through those two large boulders?”

“Yeah, remember I called it a ‘squeeze’ when we went through it before? I was just thinking we should have reached that section by now.”

“If we don’t come to the squeeze soon, then we’re definitely going the wrong way.”

A half an hour later, still no squeeze. Fortunately, we kept hiking and didn’t panic—too much. Fifteen minutes later when we reached the squeeze, we looked at each other and just shook our heads; it was clear we were losing our sense of time and distance. Another ten minutes down the trail we came to a sign that we recognized from earlier. “OK,” I said. “We’ve been here before, I remember this sign.”

“Yep, we ate lunch right over there.”

“And I remember looking at my watch when we reached this sign earlier; we’d been hiking for two and a half hours. If we just follow the trail back to the truck, we should be there in two and a half hours.”

“How much daylight do you think we have left?”

“About two and a half hours.”

For the rest of the way back, the farther we hiked the more confident we became that we were on the same trail we’d hiked earlier. Our concern went from, Where the hell are we? to Are we going to make back before it gets dark?

When we reached the slickrock with the chains, our shadows were long, very long. But we knew we’d make it back while it was still light. At the truck I looked at my watch; except for our short stop for lunch, we’d been hiking for seven hours and two minutes.

“I don’t think we’ve ever been that lost before,” Karen said to me as I pulled our camping chairs out of the back of the truck.

“I know. I’m still not sure where we were exactly.”

“One thing’s for certain. I’m not going anywhere again without my headlamp. Anywhere. I’m taking it with me to the grocery store.”

“That’s a good plan,” I said. “I’m always worried about not having enough water. I never thought about being stuck out there without a flashlight or headlamp.”

Just enough daylight was left for us to sit in the parking lot in our camping chairs and drink a beverage. We both put on flip flops and sank into our chairs. Between eating handfuls of salty snacks to restore our sodium levels, we talked about how lucky we were that we made it back before the sun went down.

“I’m pissed that we never found the Joint Trail, though. That’s the reason I wanted to hike the Chesler Park Loop; the videos I’ve seen of it are really cool,” Karen said.

“It’s still out there if you want to try again someday. I think we now know where it is. We just need to keep going straight when we get to Chesler Park.”

“Yeah, we’ll have to come back and try again. Maybe next spring. The weather is perfect in mid-March, we now know that the Loop B campsites are open this time of year, and you can be in charge of the map. Deal?”

“Deal.”

After a long pause when the only sound was the crunching of Cheez-Its, Karen said, “We should camp right here, as in right here on the pavement of this parking lot.”

“I think we should sleep in our camp chairs. I’m exhausted.”

A minute later, a ranger came walking down the road toward us. We could tell he was a law enforcement ranger because we could see his gun. He was young and fit; he had a serious look on his face—all business.

When he got within earshot of us I said to him, “All the campsites are taken. We thought we’d camp right here in the parking lot.”

He laughed. He knew I was joking. I asked him, “What are our options for camping tonight since all the sites in the park are taken?”

“You could try the Needles Outpost, just outside the park. It’s a private campsite, but I think it has changed ownership recently and I’m not sure it’s open for business. Your other option is to just drive down one of the gravel roads into the BLM land outside the park east of here and set up camp anywhere. The only thing is, there aren’t any services—no water or bathrooms—so you’re on your own out there.”

“I don’t like the idea of us being ‘on our own’ out in the middle of nowhere,” Karen said.

“Yeah, well, you could always drive into Monticello and try to get a room at one of the motels in town,” he said.

“Monticello, motel room, that’s what we should do,” Karen said to me with determination.

“I agree, but first we’re going to sit right here for an hour or so and not move,” I said.

“You can sit here for as long as you want,” the ranger said. “If you don’t fall asleep, you’re not camping as far as I’m concerned.”

By the time we found a motel in Monticello and had dinner at a restaurant down the street, the temperature had dropped into the low 40s. It would have been a cold night in the tent, and I’m not sure Karen would have loved it. Maybe we dodged a bullet.

Your friend,
Matt

A photo of The Joint taken on our subsequent try at hiking to Chesler Park and the Joint Trail

As a postscript to the story above, we went back to The Needles the following year (2018) and successfully hiked through Chesler Park and the Joint Trail. We didn’t get lost the second time, but it was a very long day and strenuous hike. Glad we did it.

The Maze

The Maze is one big bucket list item for us. We’ve never had the time or the type of vehicle needed to explore the area, so we’re saving it for another day. It is a remote place that offers solitude and a sense of adventure for the few visitors who go there. Most of the park literature we’ve read stresses that you’ll have to be able to self-rescue and have the ability to navigate by map rather than GPS. The Hans Flat Ranger Station is where you’ll want to stop before venturing further into The Maze. It’s on the western park boundary and is a two-hour drive from Green River, Utah, mostly on unpaved roads. For more information about this district, follow this link to the park’s website.

Horseshoe Canyon

Horseshoe Canyon is a small, separate area of the park northwest of The Maze. Although it’s not large, it has within its boundaries some of the most significant ancient pictographs in North America. This section of the park is about a one-and-a-half -hour drive from Green River, Utah. For more information about Horseshoe Canyon, follow this link to the park’s website.

The Rivers

A guide to Canyonlands wouldn’t be complete without mentioning the rivers themselves. Both the Colorado and Green Rivers offer river goers calm waters north of their confluence. South of the merger is a different story; Cataract Canyon, which is the stretch of the Colorado below the confluence has some of the roughest white water in North America. Lacking a dam to control the volume of water passing through the canyon, the degree of difficulty is dependent on the time of year, recent rainfall, and snowmelt levels from the past winter. We’ve never floated these rivers through Canyonlands National Park but going on a river trip through Cataract Canyon is on our bucket list. We would only attempt a journey like this with a professional guide. OARS is a river guide company we’ve used before; they offer a tour through Cataract Canyon and would be one of the guides we’d consider for this trip.

Karen looking southwest from a trail in the Island in the Sky District

3 Replies to “Your Guide to Canyonlands National Park”

  1. Thanks Matt for the great info on Canyonlands. My husband and I are heading back to Moab this May. Only got to spend short time in Canyonlands so will be going there to hike more. Never been to the Needles. Excited! Thanks for the tips!

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