Canyonlands National Park

National Park Number: 43 of 59

It’s impossible to rank Utah’s national parks—they are across-the-board stunners. But we did really fall head over heels for the vibe of Canyonlands. Incredible views, endless hiking, and if felt very peaceful—much less busy than Arches (which we visited in between our days at Canyonlands) and with what seemed to be a different, more rugged crowd.

Canyonlands has four sections, all accessed through separate entrances. One (The Maze) requires four-wheel drive and one (Horseshoe Canyon) is a tiny area several hours away that protects a large petroglyph site. Someday we want to visit both, but for this time, we limited ourselves to The Needles and Island in the Sky. 

We spent our first day exploring the Needles, an area of concentrated buttes and spires. The drive into this part of the park is absolutely gorgeous and we stopped on the way to check out the incredible petroglyphs of Newspaper Rock. 

When we got to the Needles, we thought we’d cover as much ground as possible by doing short trails and overlooks, but after visiting one (Roadside Ruins, where a little kiva sits in a natural stone cave), we were wooed by the description of one of the area’s longer trails and decided instead to spend our day hiking. 

The trail led us across slickrock buttes, through slot canyons, and around sandstone spires to the overlook of a swath of grassland called Chesler Park. It was a perfect trail, engaging for the kids and lovely for us. We started mid-afternoon so our timing was perfect to catch sunset over the area—and if there’s anything better looking than a sunset over red rock country, I haven’t seen it. I’m pretty convinced at this point that we should move to southern Utah; probably if we came in the heat of July I’d feel differently, but the whole area makes an excellent argument for itself.

After our day in the Needles, we spent a few days exploring Arches before returning to Canyonlands, and in the meantime our feet had erupted in a bevy of belated injuries from our hike to Havasu Falls. So when we got to Island in the Sky (or Isky, as the cool kids call it), the other section of Canyonlands, we were a bit destroyed for hiking. This turned out to be ok, as Isky is full of gorgeous overlooks that we could enjoy without having to limp too far from the bus. David also had a few work meetings, so it worked out to have a semi-lazy day without any big adventures. We spent our time bopping from overlook to overlook, playing around on Whale Rock, and catching sunset at Grand View Point.

One of the famous scenes of Canyonlands is of the sun rising behind Mesa Arch, illuminating the spires in the background and making the underside of the arch glow orange. So the next morning, we got up crackin’ early and hit the short trail for the arch. When we arrived, there was a line of 20 or so photographers, tripods set, smack in front of the arch. It turns out we’d run into a photography class there for an on-site lesson with their instructor, and for some reason they were all set up super close to the arch itself so no one could photograph the whole arch without getting a crowd of people in the shot. One kid climbed a tree to try to shoot the arch from above, snapping several branches in the process, and the instructor kept yelling out, “Are you getting that orange glow? You should be getting that orange glow!” over and over again.

So, not the most peaceful sunrise.

But it was stunning, seeing the canyon fill up with cloud-diffused light, watching the spires’ shadows crawl across the basin floor, and—yes—even seeing that orange glow on the underside of the arch.

After sunrise we ate a hearty breakfast and then, our feet feeling quite a bit better after a day of relaxing, headed for the False Kiva trail. One of our favorites was the False Kiva Trail, which takes you below the canyon’s rim to a cave with some archeological ruins, including the base of a kiva. It’s a quiet trail and the views over the canyon and buttes are just breathtaking.

Canyonlands isn’t exactly a secret—it’s really a very well-visited park—but compared to the other parks of the Mighty 5, it’s much less crowded (along with Capitol Reef, which is the quietest of Utah’s parks and a completely perfect place.) Sites like Mesa Arch get crowded at peak times, but if you visit a few hours after sunrise or at sunset, you might have the place to yourself. Canyonlands is a hiker’s paradise and it has loads of unadvertised trails (Google or ask a ranger!) where you’ll probably only see a handful of other people, plus the Needles, the Maze, and Horseshoe Canyon don’t get nearly as many visitors as Isky, so you can find plenty of solitude there too. Are my recommendations starting to sound a little misanthropic? I hope I don’t come across as anti-social, but sometimes you just want a little space, and it can be hard to avoid crowds in Utah’s national parks. If you get beyond the Mighty 5, though, there is so much public land in Utah to explore! Because we were headed to the Philippines just a few days after our Canyonlands visit, we didn’t get a chance to explore more of the area, but we have a loooooong list of places in Utah that we’re dying to check out: Bear’s Ears, Mulee Point, Dead Horse State Park, Grand Staircase-Escalante, Kanab, Snow Canyon, Cedar Breaks, Hole in the Rock, House on Fire, Cedar Mesa, Monument Valley . . . really, we just need to move there and spend the next few years gallivanting. 

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