Canyonlands National Park Things to Do

  • View of arch through tree line
    View of arch through tree line
    by BruceDunning
  • Eroded flat surface in water flow area
    Eroded flat surface in water flow area
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  • Eroded buttes are plentiful
    Eroded buttes are plentiful
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Most Recent Things to Do in Canyonlands National Park

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    Island in the Sky: Grand View Point Trail

    by goodfish Updated Nov 28, 2013

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    This is a fun one with drop-dead fabulous panoramas. The trailhead for the 2-mile RT hike is at the southernmost end of the scenic drive, and the trail follows the mesa edge all the way to a narrow point. From there you can see for miles and miles in every direction: the far-away La Sal mountains to the east, Monument Basin way down below, Junction Butte rising from the canyon floor, and the more remote sections of the Maze and Needles.

    The trail is fairly level and no sweat to navigate (follow the cairns) but we spent a LOT of time dawdling along the rim taking pictures and gawking over the view so allow twice as much time for this easy two-miler than you think you should. There's also an overlook close to the parking area that's wheelchair/stroller friendly.

    Note: much of this trail has unprotected edges and long, long drop-offs

    http://www.nps.gov/cany/planyourvisit/iskyshorthikes.htm

    Grand View Point Trail, Canyonlands Grand View Point Trail, Canyonlands Monument Basin from Grand View Point Trail Along the way: Grand View Point Trail
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    Needles: Tse' Hane - the rock that tells the story

    by goodfish Updated Nov 28, 2013

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    This isn't inside the park but along the road in so you can't miss it: look for the "Newspaper Rock" sign. Close to the parking lot is a large section of flat rock with 2,000 years of petroglyphs etched into its desert-varnished surface. Petroglyphs are found all over the Southwest but it's unusual to find a collection this large in such an easily accessed spot - you usually have to do some hiking/scrambling to get to them.

    You'll often see images like these referred to as "rock art" but the peoples who painstakingly pecked them into the sandstone likely had little time for decorative leisure. Some archeologists think they were a form of worship while others believe they could be records of important historical or astronomical events. Or all of the above. So while none of them really know for sure what the squiggles, footprints, animals and otherworldly anthropomorphic (human) forms mean, they have a rough idea how old they are and which groups of people carved them by the age of other artifacts found nearby and specific attributes of the images themselves. For instance, bows and arrows first appeared in this region around 500 A.D, and horses not until after the Spanish brought them in the mid 1500's. Sometimes the age of the surface they've been etched into is a clue, and older figures are darker than more recent additions. The carvings here are said to range from undetermined B.C. Archaic to A.D. 1300 Ancestral Puebloan with later images (see the horses and riders?) and some unfortunate modern graffiti scattered about.

    Whatever they mean, this is one very noisy piece of rock. The ancient (and some not-so) people had a LOT to say about this spot and the visible chatter makes you wish you could hear with your ears what you see with your eyes!

    Please don't touch the carvings as oils or other residue on your hands can damage them. And don't even think about adding to the graffiti; there are big fines for that.

    http://www.publiclands.org/explore/site.php?id=1880

    Newspaper Rock detail Newspaper Rock detail
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    Needles: Good stuff to know

    by goodfish Updated Nov 28, 2013

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    This unit of Canyonlands is more remote than Island in the Sky: 75 miles from Moab and about 50 from Monticello. Hikes here are either very short or very long with just one 2.5 and another 6-miler in between. That said, if you're wanting to do more than one day of exploring, you'll need to camp or plan on putting in some road time. The way in is paved and there's a scenic drive of sorts but if you're unwilling or unable to get out of the car, this is not the unit for you; go to Island in the Sky.

    You do need a pass ($10 per vehicle for 7 days, $5 for bikes) to hike here and it's $15 a night for a spot at Squaw Flat campground. Group sites are available as well: see the website. This is a very popular location with backpackers and there are lots of designated, primitive sites scattered around the park that fill quickly during the spring/fall seasons so apply for your permit well before your trip.

    It has a small visitor center (open 9:00 - 4:30 with longer hours in warmer months) for maps, chats with the rangers, drinking water and restrooms but no food. Drinking water is also available the Squaw Flat campground but nowhere else so bring plenty with you.

    There are also a number of primitive roads for 4-wheeling but they're not for novices and cost over $1,000 to be towed out if you hang yourself up. These can also become impassable after heavy rains. Nope, your own two feet are the best method of transport here!

    http://www.nps.gov/cany/planyourvisit/needles.htm

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    Needles: Chesler Park/Joint Trail Overview

    by goodfish Updated Nov 28, 2013

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    We drove the 75 miles from Moab just to do this one as the raves were irresistible: it's consistently rated a 5-star for scenery, and some call it one of the best hikes in the U.S. It's also supposed to be the most popular route in the park although we saw less than a dozen people on its entire 11-mile length. I'll cover some specifics about both trail sections in separate tips but here's some general info to know before you go:

    Chesler Park is a fun journey over a ridge in Elephant Canyon to a huge and astonishing "city" of pinnacles and hoodoos rising from grassy meadowland. Joint takes you deep into fractures as narrow as 2 feet wide. Together, they create more drama than you can shake a trekking pole at. You can do either trail individually but will be retracing all of your steps unless taking a different (and probably longer) loop back to the trailhead than the Chesler/Joint combination. By doing these two as a loop, you will still retrace 3 miles of ground but have another 8 that are one-way. 11 too much for you? Then just do the 6-mile RT to Chesler Park (3 in and 3 out) as it'll be the shortest of the two to access. 11 too little for you? Add another 4 miles by tacking on a spur to Druid Arch.

    The trailhead starts at the end of 3 miles of dirt road at the Elephant Hill parking area. There are vault toilets but no water: make sure your packs are well stocked with what you need to rehydrate and refuel. Averages are 5-7 hours to do the loop depending on how speedy you are and how many photo stops you make. It took us about 7 but we had a little complication with the weather...

    I'm including a very nice route description, with thanks to David Day and Utah Trails, as the park directions are a little sketchy and it's nice to know more exactly where you are along the way. Ignore the bit about taking the 4-wheel drive road in as the Elephant Hill section is described in the park materials as "one of the most technical 4-wheel-drive roads in Utah." Due to recent heavy rain, it wasn't even passible by jeep when we were there.

    And speaking of rain, do NOT do the Joint if there are any all-day showers in the forecast. If there is a chance later in the day, do the route clockwise and go into the Joint early so you're well out of there before the clouds open. The route I've provided is counterclockwise and has the Joint towards the latter half of the hike; just reverse it. Yup, we got caught in an unexpected downpour and just guess where we were?? I repeat: do NOT do the Joint unless it's sure to be a dry day...

    http://www.utahtrails.com/CheslerPark.html

    Chesler Park Trail, Canyonlands Fissure slot, Joint trail, Needles Rain in the keyhole, Joint Trail Along the way: Elephant Canyon, Needles
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    Horseshoe Canyon Overview

    by goodfish Updated Nov 28, 2013

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    Other than the Maze, the Horseshoe Unit is the most remote section of Canyonlands to access. This is a detached piece of the park some 120 miles from Island in the Sky (by the most commonly used west entrance) and the last 30 miles of that is dirt road: it is a long way from anywhere. But along the walls of this canyon are some of the most stunning and archeologically important pictographs on the continent and the primary reason to make the trek. I'll cover specifics of the 7-mile RT hike in following tips but here are some good things to know before putting this one into your planner.

    Reaching the parking area from Moab takes about 2 and 1/2 hours. That can be a bit shorter or a bit longer depending on the condition of that 30 miles of dirt road. You can usually do this with a 2-wheel drive car but a recent, heavy rain could make it impassable to any vehicle, or slow going for those without 4-wheel drive/high clearance. There is another entrance from Green River that's 47 miles of dirt and can have the same access issues but is closer to Moab.

    We chose to stay in the tiny town of Hanksville - about 50 miles from the trailhead - to cut some drive time and be within shoutin' distance (for vast, middle-of-nowhere Utah) of Goblin Valley State Park and another excellent hike at Little Wildhorse and Bell canyons: highly recommended. There are a couple of stations for refueling the car, 2-3 basic places for refueling the tummy, one decent motel, and that's the extent of Hanksville but hey, it worked for us.

    Except for a vault toilet at the trailhead, there are no facilities here at all so food, water, etc. needs to be brought with you. And do bring plenty of water as there is little shade on the trail. Other than any other hikers you'll encounter, you're totally on your own so prepare accordingly: see my warnings and dangers.

    Camping is allowed at the trailhead but not in the canyon itself, and hiking/camping are free: you don't need a park pass.

    For all of its various little challenges, this is one terrific hike that's a must-do for anyone interested in the archeology of the Southwest. See my next review for details on the trek to the pictographs.

    http://members.virtualtourist.com/m/p/m/215b42/

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    Horseshoe Canyon: the pictographs

    by goodfish Updated Nov 28, 2013

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    I'd been crazy to do this hike for years and had some tense moments when heavy rains closed the access road with no clear idea when it might be passible again. But we got lucky: the crews had 'er in shape by the time we hit Hanksville. Yay.

    As beautiful as this canyon is (see previous tip) these images are the stars of the show. They are very ancient - between 2,000 and 9,000 years old - and very rare; incised petroglyphs are much more common to this area. These particular groups of paintings are so important that the name of canyon in which they were found is used as the identifier for others of the same genre: Barrier Style. Archaic hunter/gatherers could have dabbled them on around the same time the pyramids of Egypt were being built or even earlier, and their positions under rock shelves or in the walls of alcoves clearly indicate that they were created to last a long time. No one really knows what they mean but many theories suspect that they were shamanistic in nature and symbolistic of death and rebirth or transformation into animal spirits. That newer images were not superimposed by later peoples (except modern vandals) may support this view - they were apparently respected as sacred and maybe even feared.

    I can go along with that; they are definitely unsettling to see. Eerie armless, legless anthropomorphs - some with staring eyes or horned heads - hover menacingly above your head and cluster in dark recesses. The largest and most impressive grouping - the Great Gallery - has been nicknamed the "Holy Ghost Panel" for a large figure with huge empty sockets in a skull-like head surrounded by blind and featureless "mummies".

    There are four pictograph groupings on this trail:
    High Gallery: on your left and high on a canyon wall shortly after reaching the canyon floor
    Horseshoe Gallery: on your right and just beyond High Gallery
    Alcove Gallery: on your left, about 1/2 mile from Horseshoe Gallery
    Great Gallery: about 1 and 1/4 miles from Alcove

    None of them are marked so to have some idea where to start looking for them on the trail, make a rough sketch of the map in the parking lot kiosk and bring it along. At the Great Gallery viewing site there should be two metal boxes marked "Open me" containing binoculars and some background literature. This is really not a difficult hike although some of it is through sand, and infrequent water in the wash could make for boot-soaked crossings. The most strenuous piece is the climb out so save a good amount of water for that stretch if doing it on a hot and sunny day. And please do not touch the fragile paintings - those at Alcove have been sadly abused enough.

    http://www.nps.gov/cany/planyourvisit/upload/HorseshoeCanyon.pdf

    Section of Great Gallery, Horseshoe Canyon Horseshoe Gallery, Horseshoe Canyon Alcove Gallery with graffiti, Horseshoe Canyon High Gallery close-up, Horseshoe Canyon
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    Mesa Arch

    by Basaic Written Jul 17, 2012

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    Mesa Arch is another of the best sites in the park. This 50 foot arch is one of the most popular and photographed places in the park so your chances of getting a photo with no other people in the photo are slim to none. Make sure you get a photo of the spectacular view on the other side of the arch. You can also hike to the other side of the arch.

    Mesa Arch Mesa Arch Mesa Arch
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    The Neck

    by Basaic Written Jul 17, 2012

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    There is a small (only 40 foot) strip of land that allows access to the Island in the Sky. The neck is slowly eroding and will someday disappear altogether ending its use to access the main part of the park.

    The Neck The Neck The Neck
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    Buck Canyon Overlook

    by Basaic Written Jul 17, 2012

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    Buck Canyon shows the affect human habitation and construction can have on the terrain. Cattle grazing here altered the vegetation which changed the terrain and roads were constructed in the 50s to look for oil and uranium.

    Buck Canyon Buck Canyon Buck Canyon
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    Grand View Point Overlook

    by Basaic Written Jul 17, 2012

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    In addition to the Green River Overlook, this is one of the must see stops on Island in the Sky. This is the southernmost stop on the scenic drive. From here you can see parts of The Maze and The Needles portions of the park, along with the Colorado River. Check out the White Rim Sandstone.

    Grand View Point Grand View Point Colorado River Tough White Sandstone
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    Orange Cliffs

    by Basaic Written Jul 17, 2012

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    The Orange Cliffs are an excellent place to view the different rocks that form Canyonlands like the Kayenta Formation; Chinle Formation; Navajo Sandstone; Wingate Sandstone; different trees and other formations.

    Orange Cliffs Orange Cliffs Orange Cliffs
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    Green River Overlook

    by Basaic Written Jul 17, 2012

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    The Green River Overlook is accessible via a short spur road almost directly across from the access road. The view of the Green River and its surrounding canyon is quite nice, as is the white mesa formations. There are also several nice formations visible in the distance like Ekker Butte and Turks Head (which has a visible cap of the white rock). If you only have time to stop at a few overlooks, this should be one of them.

    Green River Overlook Green River Overlook Green River Ekker Butte Turks Head
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    Upheaval Dome

    by Basaic Written Jul 17, 2012

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    On the Northwest end of the scenic drive is one of the more interesting features in the park. Unlike much of the more orderly scenery, Upheaval Dome, looks more jumbled and displaced. Another thing that makes Upheaval Dome interesting to me is the controversy. Some geologists trace the origin of this 2-mile wide crater-like formation to the impact of a meteorite some 60 million years ago. The earth then recoiled partly refilling the crater and years of erosion have left the formation as you see it today. Other geologists disagree with the meteorite theory and say the formation came about much more slowly and naturally. They say that a vast area of salt was deposited by an inland sea that occupied the area some 300 million years ago before dissipating and leaving behind the salt. Slowly the salt was covered over by sediments brought in by wind and rain. Pressures from below push the less dense salt up through the rocks causing a dome that slowly eroded over the millions of years to form the feature you see today. Either way, this is a pretty interesting feature; the colors differences are neat and the view of the surrounding area is great. There are two viewpoints to see the dome, both trails are steep in some places. I felt it was worth the hike.

    Upheaval Dome Beautiful View From Upheaval Dome Beautiful View From Upheaval Dome
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    Whale Rock

    by Basaic Written Jul 17, 2012

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    The next stop is Whale Rock which is an appropriately named slick rock formation that looks like a beached whale. You can get a good view of the formation by walking a short distance down the trail. If you continue the rest of the way down the trail you get a great view of the surrounding area from the top of the rock.

    Whale Rock Whale Rock
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    Scenic Drive

    by Basaic Written Jul 17, 2012

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    You really need to explore the less accessible areas to fully appreciate the park but there are also quite a few nice overlooks available along the 20 mile scenic drove on Island in the Sky. The drive TO the park is pretty impressive too.

    Scenic Drive
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Canyonlands National Park Things to Do

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