Arizonans are lucky. We really don’t have to travel very far to visit one of America’s great national parks. Of course, there’s the Grand Canyon, but just north of our border in Utah, one can also find Bryce, Zion, Arches and Canyonlands.
Most of us who do go to national parks, probably have hit two or three of the four mentioned Utah parks. The one that is least visited, Canyonlands, is the one that is unusually interesting in that it most resembles the Grand Canyon in structure. That’s for obvious reasons, most importantly, the Colorado River runs through it and over eons carved out the canyons that we come to see.
There are other similarities as well. The Grand Canyon is divided by the Colorado River into the two sections, the North Rim and the South Rim. Most people visit the South Rim, which is all about the viewpoints that look down into the canyons. Canyonlands is the same. There are two separate areas for visitation, technically divided by the Colorado River. In the south, one can travel to the Needles/Maze area and to the completely separate north, the Island in the Sky area. Most people visit the easily accessible Island in the Sky, and here, too, it’s really all about peering down to the canyon vistas.
Over 30 years ago, when I was in graduate school at the University of Utah, I traveled to Canyonlands to hike the infamous labyrinth of slot canyons, which has come to be officially called the Maze. This time, now traveling with my wife, we opted for Island in the Sky.
Here’s the odd thing about Canyonlands north. You take road 191 north out of Moab, drive past Arches National Park and you fully expect to see a big sign, that if it could speak, would loudly scream, “turn here, turn here.” Instead a little sign whispers, “this way, this way.”
I’m not sure why Canyonlands can’t attract the attention it needs, but if you blink you will miss the turn sign. Catch it and you head west through the break in the rock wall that has followed you since Moab.
The road will eventually twist and turn, climbing all the time until you, the driver, find yourself at the top of an extensive mesa, a high plateau as flat as a pancake and going on and on until it ends, which it does abruptly to sheer drops of 1,000 feet or more. That’s where you are heading, the numerous, scenic spots where the mesa ends and you can look out and over the surrounding canyons. To quote The Who’s Peter Townsend, who probably never came to Canyonlands, you can “see for miles and miles and miles.”
Indeed, my wife thought the vistas were much better at Canyonlands than the Grand Canyon because the canyons weren’t so intensely jangled. At Canyonlands, the canyons were deep below, wide and grand, while the views seemed to go on forever. I had to agree with her.
The Island in the Sky formation is essentially a stretch of lands that ends in a triangle. To the west are the Green River formed canyons, and to the east are the Colorado River formed canyons. At tip of the triangle is where the Green and Colorado rivers come together.
The high plateau is mostly grasslands, but the elevation rises to anywhere from 5,500 feet to over 6,000 feet at the Grand View Point Overlook. As the elevation ascends, the grasslands devolve and once you arrive at the park, the landscape is red desert spotted with juniper trees and other gnarly plants like pinon pine.
The park begins at the Visitor Center, which is quite sparse, not at all elaborate, and not historical, like at so many of the other national parks. Perhaps a little embarrassed by the draconian surroundings, the rangers go out of their way here to impart what necessary information you need. I’m not being facetious, the ranger who gave us a park map, one she got a sense of what our trip needs were, laid out a perfect parkland trek.
Indeed, we were doing the basic Island in the Sky journey, continually driving forward, stopping at the overlooks and hiking the short trails. The ranger said we would be out about three to four hours – and we were. Now, there are some really strenuous hikes in the parks, but remember you are literally at the top of an existent world and many of those hikes descend precariously. The Murphy Loop trail drops 1,400 feet, while the Syncline Loop features boulder fields, switchbacks and a 1,300 foot elevation change. Even for the experienced hiker these are hard, full-day journeys.
The average daytripper to Canyonlands will make two relatively short hikes. The easiest is the Mesa Arch trail, a loop that starts at the road and at mid-point puts you at the edge of a canyon. The reward on this hike is a horizontal arch that at first glance doesn’t look like much, but once you get close enough to actually be under the arch you realize that’s as far as you are going to proceed, because you are at the edge of the ledge. So, step back from the precipice, pose and get your picture taken. Then continue on for the rest of the loop. All in, it’s about a 30 minute walk.
The highlight for Island in the Sky daytrippers is the Upheaval Dome, which conversely is actually a 1,500-foot-deep crater. According to one theory, the “dome” was formed by a meteor crashing into earth.
However, it’s not just the geology that makes this stop interesting, it’s also the best short hike in Island in the Sky. The first part is uphill over a ridge. The trail here is stair-stepped for the most part so any level of hiker can make the climb. Eventually, you’ll get to a huge, rounded rock, which is First Overlook. If you are not too tired at that point or the sun isn’t too high overhead continue on to Second Overlook, a rocky but not too difficult trail to another viewpoint. If you do the trail extension, the hike extends to two miles, or about a one hour hike.
This stop also boasts good ramadas and picnic benches. You’ll be a bit worn down after this hike, so it would be a good spot to sit, eat, drink and re-energize.
The classic Canyonlands overlook is Grand View Point, where you can see the meeting of the Green and Colorado rivers, but it’s anticlimactic after the exhilarating walk to Upheaval Dome.