Canyonlands National Park Things to Do

  • Things to Do
    by goodfish
  • Mesa Arch
    Mesa Arch
    by Basaic
  • View of arch through tree line
    View of arch through tree line
    by BruceDunning

Best Rated Things to Do in Canyonlands National Park

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    Shafer Trail-Island District

    by BruceDunning Written Oct 16, 2009

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    This is one I did not take, and it is not advised unless you have a 4WD vehicle. Even then it is said the "trail" or road path as you may call it is treacherous, and only for the adventuresome. Access to the trail is located close to the Island in the Sky visitor center and goes off to the east for about 20 miles before connecting to a paved Potash Road that is another 17 miles to get to Hwy 191. The 4x4 drive from what I read takes you up and to Goosenecks Park area, and many scenic overlooks to the Colorado River. To get there, the climb is steep and so rough even a lot of 4WD vehicles cannot make it past the first few miles. Then the road becomes single lane while going up the road, and some areas are washed out with cracks from erosion that you have to drive over. The rough rocks also have sharp points that can ruin a tire. This is to be investigated before trekking further.

    Layout of the trail map
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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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    For the early risers...

    by kazander Written May 1, 2007

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    Mesa Arch at Sunrise is just spectacular. The underside of the arch glows a bright orange red with the expanse of the valley stretching beneath it. One of the most famous formations out in that scene in the washer woman arch. The rocks really do look like a woman bent over a bucket full of laundry....You must get up quite early to witness this spectacle though. At least an Hour and a half if not 2 hours before sunrise if you are coming from Moab. We only had a couple other photographers as company when we were there, but I do hear it can get quite crowded at times....
    The trail head is located just off the road as it forks. The trail is about a half mile long.

    Mesa Arch with Washer Woman in the distance
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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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    Shafer Trail Overlook

    by windsorgirl Updated Dec 9, 2004

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    This viewpoint is worth a look. Not only do you have great views looking east toward Dead Horse Point, but you also have a good view of the Shafer Trail which descends 1000 feet to the canyon floor via a series of exhilerating switchbacks down the canyon wall.

    There are also a series of interpretive signs here that explain the history of the Shafer Trail. It was first carved into the canyonside by early ranchers in the 1880's who used the sheltered canyon floor for winter grazing for their herds of cattle and sheep. The Shafer's were one such family of ranchers. Each fall the herd would be led down the narrow and dangerous ledge and then back up again in the spring. Many animals were lost as they fell off the trail.

    In the 1950's the trail was improved to allow the passage of trucks and 100 more miles of road were created on the canyon floor. This was paid for by mining companies who were looking for uranium in these hills. The uranium market declined, but the roads remained, opening up new areas of the park to be explored by visitors in 4 wheel drive vehicles or mountain bikes.

    Shafer Trail Overlook
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    Cave Springs-Needles District

    by BruceDunning Written Oct 16, 2009

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    This trail hike of only 3/4 mile RT is over some sand, up a couple of ladders, and then to the backside of the cave view over some slick rock trekking (a bit steep) to get back to the parking lot. This trail shows the use of it by cowboys from the mid 1800's until 1975. Outside the park they still have open range cattle grazing. A guy named John Scorup started the operation of ranching in late 1800's and continued using this area and the trails in the park are form cattle roundup paths. The cave spring area was a place for cowboys to sleep and rest and they may have stayed out here for weeks and months. Items left form those days are in the cave overhangs.

    map of the trail route Items left by cowboys-stayed in crevices Foliage near spring water Worn water erosion of rock facing CAve ledge overhang-cowboys stayed here
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    Island in the Sky: Shafer Overlook

    by goodfish Updated Apr 8, 2015

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    This is an easy, unpaved stroll to a really fabulous overlook right across from the visitor center. From here you can see the Shafer Trail - built in the early 1900's as a horse path, and then used to move uranium ore - that winds down into the canyon to connect with the 100-mile loop of White Rim Road, or Potash Road farther east. You need a high-clearance 4X4 to travel all of this so don't try it in your minivan, OK? Hang up your car and it'll cost you over $1,000 to have it hauled out. You can mountain-bike them if you have two wheels and the time: RT on White Rim takes 3-4 days. Have a jeep? 2-3 days will do ya. And a camping permit. Otherwise, just enjoy the view.

    http://www.nps.gov/cany/index.htm

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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

    by goodfish Updated Apr 2, 2015

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    So as promised in the previous tip, here's the skinny on the Chesler Park portion of Chesler/Joint. This portion of the loop is about about 4.5 miles in length, and a real honey. It has its share of big ups and downs but not much for elevation change: a good thing for this flatlander.

    The trail travels over sections of slickrock, sand and dirt, down into Elephant Canyon, up through a narrow opening or two, and past fantastic hoodoo and pinnacle formations of layered deep reds, bright oranges and pale yellows. And just when you think it can't get any better, you reach the wide-open meadow of Chesler Park itself. *Gasp* It is one truly magnificent panorama. It defies words. Below you stretches a fantastic, alien city of monoliths, towers and caprocks that look for all the world like a set in a sci-fi movie. Here is the best spot for a bag lunch and a long, long look from your perch... but be careful lest you gaze away some serious daylight!

    It's at this point that you can either turn around and retrace your steps 3 miles back to the parking area, or continue onto the Joint. If choosing the latter, there are still 8 miles to go so tear yourself away and drop down into the "city" itself to circle 1.6 miles or so around the needles to a short section of 4-wheel road that signals the upcoming turnoff to the Joint. After about 1/4 mile or so on this road you'll see the sign: you'll be heading east .5 miles to the next amazing stretch of this loop...

    Although there's good signage at critical points, you need to watch carefully for the cairns that mark the trail over large sections of slickrock. I'm including the same link from the previous tip (thank you to David Day and Utah Trails) that gives a good route description and which direction to turn at forks to other trails.

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

    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.

    Trail to Chelser Park, Needles Chesler Park, Needles, Canyonlands NP Slot enroute to Chesler Park, Canyonlands Chesler Park, Needles, Canyonlands NP
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    Grand View Hike-Island District

    by BruceDunning Written Oct 15, 2009

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    The hike is fairly easy and takes about 40 minutes for 2 mile venture to the point at the end of the trail, and then return the same way. There are too many people trying to get the hike, and it creates congestion at some points. The trail is at the end of the road and overlook and it goes from there

    Climbing up through the forest Climb through the boulders View of the buttes at end of trail
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    Ranger Class Sessions on Geology

    by BruceDunning Written Oct 15, 2009

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    There is usually a series of Ranger class sessions that discuss the creation of the parks formations and the park itself. They are interesting and informative. They last about 45-60 minutes and maybe have 6-20 in a park each day at various points on interest.

    Group listening to Range talk
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    Needles: Eye Candy

    by goodfish Updated Oct 8, 2011

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    The camera's lens often can't capture the depth, breadth and impact of what the eye can see. Even worse, we ended up here under grey, rainy skies with just a few rare peeks of sunshine: whatcha gonna do. Out of desperation for a few interesting snaps, I set my Canon on vivid color to try and breathe some life into a fantastic but cloud-dulled landscape and tried like to devil to have it in my hand when the sun DID make a fleeting appearance. While not exactly accurate, they're at least a little more fun. So don't worry if the weather or light doesn't cooperate - just play with some pre-set effects until you find one that makes you happy.

    Thank goodness for those no-brainer buttons 'cause we had a lot of rain on this trip and just clicking over to few of those pre-sets made this novice shutterbug very happy.

    Chesler Park Trail, Canyonlands Chesler Park, Canyonlands Chesler Park, Canyonlands Needles, Canyonlands
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    Enjoy the many Photo Opportunities

    by windsorgirl Written Dec 9, 2004

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    This is another view from Mesa Arch. We encountered a group of photographers here, they belonged to a Nikon group and seemed very well equipped and experienced. They offered me some picture taking advice and one of them posed on top of Mesa Arch for this interesting photo.

    man on mesa arch
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    The Needles

    by johngayton Updated Apr 4, 2011

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    This is a bit like the Grand Canyon - totally unphotographable in one shot, and in its own way equally impressive. The problem with Canyonlands from the accessible roads is that the scenery is on such a vast scale as to be pretty much uncommunicable without getting closer to the detail.

    The Needles are a panorama of rock formations forming a wall against the skyline which come into view relatively soon after passing the visitor centre. Apart from the Needles themselves there are many odd formations in the area, usually standing alone, who all I assume have names but I can't seem to find out what they are!

    Needles from East to West #1 Needles from East to West #2 Needles from East to West #3
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    Elephant Hill - 2 wheel drive road?

    by johngayton Written Jul 11, 2006

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    There is a short road billed as "an unpaved 2 wheel drive road" leading up to Elephant Hill from which you get good panaromic views of the surrounding wilderness with its various stand alone (and as yet names undiscovered) formations. But to describe this as 2 wheel drive accessible is perhaps pushing the definition to its limits - this is accessible but only if you have a very high clearance.

    Photo is a view from as far as we got and I have no idea what the plateau formation in the distance is called, it must have a name!!

    View of?
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Canyonlands National Park Things to Do

Segolily's Profile Photo Updated Mar 24, 2015

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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