Canyonlands National Park Things to Do

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    by goodfish
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    Mesa Arch
    by Basaic
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    View of arch through tree line
    by BruceDunning

Best Rated Things to Do in Canyonlands National Park

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    Grand Views Point in Island In the Sky

    by KimberlyAnn Updated Jul 16, 2004

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    This is an easy, two mile walk along the rim with views thousands of miles below us. Stairs made of natural rock, will take you over the elevation changes on this trail. The altitude gain here is only 50 ft/14m. This was the most developed trail we had been on since arriving in the Moab area, where we visited Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

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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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  • markftlaud's Profile Photo

    canyonlands confluence of rivers

    by markftlaud Written Jan 31, 2004

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    This is the confluence of the Green and the Colorado River both of which run through Canyonlands National Park. The confluence separates the Needles and the Maze sections of the Park. I took this photo from the Needles section. It is a very short hike from the parking lot

    The confluence of the Green and Colorado River.
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  • BruceDunning's Profile Photo

    Upheaval Dome-Island District

    by BruceDunning Written Oct 15, 2009

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    This is by far the most unique feature of the park. It is at the north end, about 12 miles form the visitor center. Hiking here can be done, and a shorter for 8/10 mile round trip to a view, and longer, more rigorous for 2.2 mile hike. The second leg is up some steep rock and on angle, then at 2/3 point the overlook hangs you out to the edge of the cliff. It then proceeds another 1/2 mile to get another view of the dome. Theory is a meter crashed here and caused the ground to create a huge crater. It is 2 miles wide and 1 mile deep. Salt deposits from blast heat to the meteor blew out of the ground, and today this is the dome. The salt has dissipated a lot, and the minerals left create the color of the dome and caldron

    First trail View looking into the dome Another angle view of salt/mineral deposits Second leg of hike to dome view Another view of dome
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    Island in the Sky: Aztec Butte trail

    by goodfish Updated Nov 28, 2013

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    This was a hoot as it's up the sides of two slickrock buttes to the ruins of some ancient grainaries and one heck of a view. It's bigger than it looks here - the picture was from some distance away - and the backside is nearly a sheer drop straight into the canyon.

    It's about a 2-mile trek RT from the parking lot to the top of the butte, with a 225 ft. elevation. The top is flat but you used to be able to work your way down and around the canyon side to some of the grainary sites (see bottom pix of my title page). Unfortunately, a section on the larger butte has become unstable so hikes are limited to the smaller of the two. I'll update this tip if they decide to reopen it.

    http://www.nps.gov/cany

    Aztec Butte, Canyonlands NP
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    Island in the Sky: White Rim Overlook Trail

    by goodfish Updated Nov 28, 2013

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    This is another easy two-miler that weirdly doesn't show up on the park website. The trailhead starts at the White Rim Overlook and picnic area parking lot and meanders along slickrock (follow the cairns) to a point as drop-dead gorgeous as Grand View's. Stretching 1,200 feet below is another perspective of Monument Basin and White Rim Plateau. At the end of the trail is a huge sandstone hoodoo rock that makes a great perch for scenery gazing, and braver souls can go out even further onto some flat outcroppings. We spent WAY too much time here, too.

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

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

    White Rim Overlook Trail, Canyonlands White Rim Overlook Trail, Canyonlands Along the way, White Rim Overlook Trail White Rim Overlook Trail, Canyonlands
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    Island in the Sky: Mesa Arch Trail

    by goodfish Updated Nov 28, 2013

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    A one mile RT hike to leads to a 50-foot span of rock that is probably the most photographed spot in the park. A graceful opening perfectly frames the La Sal Mountains, several dramatic towers and an interesting arch below. Look closely at the three formations just left of center in my second photo: the tall thin formation on the right is Monster Tower. Right next to it is Washerwoman Arch: you can just barely see the vertical hole under what looks like the woman's arm. Behind both of these formations is Airport Tower.

    This is an easy one with a gradual 100 ft gain in elevation. Your biggest challenge will be trying to get a shot sans humans as it's one of those places that draws like flies the folks who cannot seem to EVER shoot ANYTHING without someone positioned squarely in front of it. Dedicated photographers will come here at sunrise to capture the most visual drama - but so do 100 other shutterbugs. I read that the best time is at dawn in winter when the sun peeks over the horizon at an optimal position and there are fewer competing lenses to contend with.

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

    Mesa Arch, canyonlands Monster and Airline Towers and Washerwoman Arch Mesa Arch, Canyonlands Mesa Arch, hazier Day
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  • BruceDunning's Profile Photo

    Slickrock Hike-Needles District

    by BruceDunning Written Oct 16, 2009

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    Entry to Needles District is off Hwy 211 and that is 36 miles west of Hwy 191 turnoff. The Slickrock trail is to the north of the visitor center 7 miles and at Big Spring overlook. The hike at Slickrock was 3 miles and took 1 hr 10 minutes. There are boulders to climb and walking on the angle of slickrock facing. Cairn markers are about every 10-30 feet to direct you to keep on the trail. The hike was between easy to moderate in my opinion. The views at the end are worth the trek.
    The more adventuresome can take the Confluence trail from Big Spring for 5.5 miles one way and ends at the Colorado river.

    Buttes and valleys abound Squaw valley views Eroded buttes are plentiful Confluence trail description
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    Island in the Sky: Scenic drive and overlooks

    by goodfish Updated Nov 28, 2013

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    Island in the Sky really needs to be explored from the trails or unpaved bike/4X4 roads to get the full effect but if you have mobility issues or are pressed for time, you can get a taste from the pullovers and a few overlooks along the 20 miles of paved scenic road. Buck Canyon, Green River and Grand View overlooks are all accessible to wheelchairs and strollers and all provide jaw-dropping views for the camera. The scenic road is in 3 branches and all require doubling back to the park entrance - no loops. Bring a cooler along for lunch at the White Rim Overlook or Upheaval Dome picnic areas - they both have a few covered tables and vault toilets (but no water).

    The 32-mile drive to the visitor center from Moab is pretty scenic too: lots of red rock and a few pull-overs here and there as well. Monitor and Merrimac Buttes viewpoint on Hwy 313 is a nice one.

    http://www.nps.gov/cany

    Green River Overlook, Canyonlands Buck Canyon Overlook, Canyonlands Buck Canyon Overlook, Canyonlands Picnic shelter, White Rim Overlook Monitor and Merrimac Buttes, near Canyonlands
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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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    Needles: Joint Trail

    by goodfish Updated Apr 2, 2015

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    If you are planning on doing the Chesler/Joint Loop, this is a continuation of my previous tip with thanks again to David and Utah Trails for the borrowed link to the useful guide (below).

    I've also included a screen capture from the park website's map in my Chesler Park/Devil's Kitchen hike review which can be used as a reference.

    At the end of a jeep road spur on the south side of Chesler park, you transition from wide open space with towering rock formations down into a section of subterranean keyhole caves and a very narrow fracture that runs for about a 1/4 mile or so. The narrow opening in the rock that is the entrance is an uphill climb from the end of the road, through a narrow opening in the rock, and descent down a flight of conveniently placed steps: you'll run into a large keyhole that's almost a subway except for the narrowest of fracture in the ceiling. Previous devotees of the Joint have made it a temple of sorts with offerings of cairns to show their appreciation and the way forward (or out, if you're doing this hike clockwise).

    Follow other cairns through, taking right or left turns as they indicate or where you are forced to - you'll be doing some scrambling over large rockfalls here and there - until you reach a 300-ft section of fracture that's under 2 feet wide in places but with sides rising 50 feet high. Follow along to another nicely placed stairway at the end and up into open air. Follow along the trail that finishes the Chesler Park loop - going left at the fork that otherwise heads to Druid Arch on the right - and return to the loop's starting point to retrace your way back to the Elephant Hill parking lot. Do be careful not confuse that fork with a lefthand path to the CP3 - CP5 primitive campsites: that turnoff is just BEFORE the lefthand fork you'll take on the Chesler/Joint trail.

    Do NOT attempt to do the Joint with rain in the forecast. We got caught down here in an unexpected downpour and while not in a critical section, got a good look how much rushing water can fill the narrow fracture passage in a short time. It also made scrambling out one soggy, slippery pain in the (insert body part): see my warnings and dangers tips. That fracture is also difficult to squeeze through with large backcountry packs.

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

    Rain in Cairn Temple, Joint Trail Joint Trail, Needles, Canyonlands Joint Trail, Needles, Canyonlands Joint Trail, Needles, Canyonlands
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    Driving on the Back Country Roads

    by windsorgirl Updated Apr 4, 2011

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    There are over 100 miles of back country roads in the Island of the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park, however you must have a high clearance 4 wheel drive vehicle, or a mountain bike and some experience on how to use them!

    The White Rim Road is accessed via the exhilerating Shafer Trail which descends 1000 feet down the canyon side by a series of switchbacks.

    The White Rim Road then loops around and below the Island mesa top to various campsites and viewpoints. Trips usually take two to three days by four-wheel-drive vehicle or three to four days by mountain bike. All vehicles and bikes must remain on roads and ATVs are not permitted.

    Permits are required for all overnight camping in the backcountry and you are advised to make reservations well ahead of time, esp in the spring and fall.

    Shafer Trail
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    Aztec Butte

    by Ischyros Written Feb 25, 2003

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    The Aztec Butte trail in Canyonlands takes you past several Anasazi graineries and to the top of a giant butte. This hike is not for hikers with a fear of heights but the view from the top is unbelieveable!

    Aztec Butte View from the top of Aztec Butte
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    Mesa Arch

    by Ischyros Written Feb 25, 2003

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    Mesa Arch in Canyonlands is a rare granite arch. Perched at the edge of a cliff, the arch frames beautiful photographs of the La Sal Mountains in the distance. The trail to the arch is a short half mile loop trip and is an easy walk.

    Mesa Arch
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    Hiking to the Green River

    by richiecdisc Updated Jul 5, 2009

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    While we did not get to hike to the canyon floor on our most recent trip, I did it on my own in 1995 and this is a photo of the Green River from the trail's end. It was a tough hot hike on the way back up! The Taylor Canyon trail is a 20 mile round trip hike from Alcove Spring Trailhead to the Green River that drops about 2000 feet in elevation. As with such canyon trails, it drops steeply over a series of switchbacks before meeting up in a rocky wash that leads to a broad steep-walled canyon. From there you can follow the four-wheel drive road to the Green River. This can be done as a backcountry trip and four permits are available to camp at large.

    The Green River
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Canyonlands National Park Things to Do

Segolily's Profile Photo

Canyonlands encompasses the fantastic canyon area around the confluence of the Green and Colorado River.  There are three separate areas each with their own entrance: Island in the Sky,...

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