How to spend a day in Canyonlands National Park

The town of Moab, Utah is beyond blessed to be surrounded by some of the most splendidly obscure sights on the planet. The area boasts two national parks, the well-known Arches and the more hushed Canyonlands. This perhaps is one of the charms of Canyonlands in my opinion, on our November visit crowds were nonexistent. At times we had trails and overlooks completely to ourselves. Those who visit Arches and don’t find the time for Canyonlands are truly missing out on witnessing unforgettable sights, so make an extra day in Moab devoted to this park a priority. Canyonlands is large and if you only have one day planning is key. It is split up into three distinct regions: Island in the Sky (most visited), Needles (second in show to most), and the Maze (very remote). I decided to explore Islands in the Sky and Needles in depth, and although many say it is difficult to do both in one day, it can certainly be done with proper planning! So wake up with the sun, and don’t go home till it’s gone…don’t be afraid to do some driving, keep your eyes open at all times, and hike as much as your legs can stand! It was a long day, but an absolute success. Here are some of the trails and sights we enjoyed:

Island in the Sky

As your driving up, up, up, over 6,000 feet on the road to enter Island in the Sky, you will understand how this section of the park obtained its name. You are strangely, godly, above it all on a huge plateau. The views are incredible, the feeling surreal. There’s no better place to begin than the Grand View Point Overlook. You could simply take in the sights from here, but hit the trail if you are capable. It is a fairly easy well-maintained two miles roundtrip trail, packed with breathtaking views into the canyon. As you walk along the rim don’t trip over your jaw, the drop is sheer. The pattern of the canyon floor is full of deep crevices and huge spires, a kaleidoscope of elevation.

canyonlands_national_park_rim_walk_2 canyonlands_national_park_rim_walk_1 canyonlands_national_park_rim_walk_Much of the trail follows the edge of the rim, but you do get to experience some of the typical flora as you cut through the land. You will break out by the end of the trail to more views, colors, and perspectives.

canyonlands_national_park_rim_walk canyonlands_national_park_rim_walk_3You could stay here for hours staring into the beautiful abyss, but there is so much more to see – head back the way you came. Next mission: Aztec Butte. We were seeing big buttes all over and they didn’t look so intimidating. We took to the slightly snowy trail to reach the butte in the distance.

canyonlands_national_park_aztec_butte_1The trail was lovely filled with interesting rock formations, beautiful plants, and an agile rabbit – it was quite easy until we reached the butte.

canyonlands_national_park_aztec_butte_The nature of this formation is very smooth, so to get to the top it was surprisingly quick and steep. A bit of scrambling was necessary to get to the top, and confident sure footedness.

canyonlands_national_park_aztec_butte_8The views are so worth the effort. When you level out you can see far out onto the vast mesa.

canyonlands_national_park_aztec_butte_7 canyonlands_national_park_aztec_butte_4 canyonlands_national_park_aztec_butte_3We looped around the perimeter of the butte so we could see the view in all directions, and came by some ancient remnants.

canyonlands_national_park_aztec_butte_6Happily and more adeptly we headed back the way we came. The final trail we chose in Island was Mesa Arch. I almost passed this hike up with the mind frame “I just spent a day in a park dedicated to arches yesterday, could Canyonlands really have any arches better than that?” I have to say Mesa Arch is as good a trail as any in its neighboring park, and totally worth the quick .5 miles hike. The trail is great, clearly marked and you get some nice elevation changes and good-looking scenery. We saw some excellently camouflaged lizards along the way.

canyonlands_national_park_mesa_arch_4Before too long we arrived at the arch. It is thick, long, and low.

canyonlands_national_park_mesa_arch_1 canyonlands_national_park_mesa_arch_3It looks strong and there is no crowd. With no gates, chains, or warning signs, we scurried up some rocks to get to the top of the arch, I’ll tell you it didn’t seem so thick then.

canyonlands_national_park_mesa_arch_The drop was absolute, don’t misstep. Those views though, that feeling, unparalleled.

canyonlands_national_park_mesa_arch_2You could definitely devote a day, a year, a lifetime to Island in the Sky. There is so much to see and do, but our half day gave us a fantastic introduction, and we were ready to hit the road.

The Needles

Driving from Island in the Sky it takes about 2.5 hours, from town it takes about 1.5 to get to Needles. We worried we were making the wrong decision, but that thought would be melted away soon enough. Once you get on that open road and away from town, the drive itself is lovely. The La Sal Mountains and a roadside arch, it’s a stunning landscape.

canyonlands_national_park_1114 canyonlands_national_park_1112 canyonlands_national_park_111We made it to the entrance and still had a better part of the afternoon thanks to our early start. Make your first stop into the park Newspaper Rock. There were so many opportunities over these days to see petroglyphs, but this is by far the most impressive one.

canyonlands_national_park_newspaper_rockA huge collection of really amazing and strange pictures dating back to over 2,000 years ago. I often have thoughts about our ancestors and wonder how their minds work. Looking at these doodles I gain more insight and think, maybe their thoughts about this incredible land weren’t too different from my own. This is a quick stop though, just a few steps from the parking lot, and back on the road. I heard the Slick Rock Trail was home to many big horned sheep. Though I didn’t see any sheep, I was impressed by all sorts of oddities along the 2.4 mile roundtrip loop. I saw my first mushroom rock formations which were totally funky.

canyonlands_national_park_needles_slick_rock_1I saw spires and mini arches.

canyonlands_national_park_needles_slick_rock_2 canyonlands_national_park_needles_slick_rock_4 canyonlands_national_park_needles_slick_rock_6I marveled at a delicate green sight hidden under a rock ledge,

canyonlands_national_park_needles_slick_rock_5and I was ever careful not to step on the fragile cryptobiotic soil.

canyonlands_national_park_needles_slick_rock_The views were beautiful, the land, the mountains,

canyonlands_national_park_needles_slick_rock_3but for some time I was wondering, why is this section of the park dubbed The Needles? Finally I got to a viewpoint which explained it to me. Though far in the distance, those hazy blue needles jutted into the sky, so bizarre and striking.

canyonlands_national_park_needles_slick_rock_8 canyonlands_national_park_needles_slick_rock_9It was a great hike and very relaxing. Never a part which was difficult and it was so interesting before I knew it we had looped back to the car. The day was getting on and I had planned for one more little hike. On the way towards it we detoured to check out Wooden Shoe.

canyonlands_national_park_needles_wooden_shoeThis really weird and awesome arch made me miss my old Dutch Albany for a minute and excited me for one day in the future when I visit the Netherlands. Just a cool sight to see if only for a moment. Then we were heading to the close by Cave Spring Trail. The dirt road was quiet, no one was around. We passed by more mushrooms.

NEEDLES_canyonlands_mushroomsWe got out and were ready for our last hike, just a .6 mile loop though it has some ‘rough terrain’ and ladders. It started out pretty mellow, you pass by an old cowboy camp,

canyonlands_national_park_needles_cave_spring_4see some petroglyphs in a cave,

canyonlands_national_park_needles_cave_spring_5and learn about different kinds of plants native to the area.

cave_spring_needles_canyonlandsThere are some sturdy ladders to climb up, one of which you have to really hoist yourself along a wall to get over the rock, a little difficult maneuver, but manageable. The mushroom cave rock formations are beyond cool, and at certain times the path leads you right under them.

mushroom_rock_canyonlandsFor such a short loop this hike packs in a lot of really intriguing elements and is well worth a part of your day. The sun was just about down for the day so we began heading out. The tricks the light played on the rocks was such a welcome show.

canyonlands_national_park_needles_11111 canyonlands_national_park_needles_111112The road out of Needles is long, but it’s important to drive the speed limit. We were cruising down the straight road when all of the sudden a deer ran right in front of the car to cross the street. Thank goodness Jeff was going the speed limit and had just enough time to jam on the brakes, saving the life of the deer and a huge head/heartache for us.

canyonlands_national_park_needles_111113After the first deer we waited as the whole crew crossed. Then all of the bunnies decided to cross right in front of our car as well. We were extra cautious on our ride home, this area is truly wild and dusk is an active time for animals, so drive slow! As the sun finally gave way to the moon, we were left with a simple and stunning image, we had to pull over to watch it for a few moments.

canyonlands_national_park_needles_111115Raw beauty. We had a perfect day in Canyonlands, from dawn to dusk, every minute magical. It was long, grueling at times, but with the right planning and effort a cherished memory was created. Make time to create your own memories at Canyonlands, a truly awe-inspiring world of its own.

The town of Moab has no shortage of tasty food options while visiting Arches and Canyonlands:

Grab an early breakfast at Love Muffin Café

Take a picnic lunch from Sweet Cravings Bakery + Bistro

Have dinner at Milt’s Stop & Eat

This entry was posted in Moab and tagged , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , , . Bookmark the permalink.

Leave a Reply