Two great rivers in the West are the Green River and the Colorado River, which meet in Canyonlands National Park. Located in southeastern Utah - just miles from the Grand Junction, Colorado, airport - Canyonlands National Park has become one of the most popular parks on the Colorado Plateau.
The park is a hiker's paradise, with hundreds of miles of excellent trails into the slickrock backcountry. There are plenty of other activities to enjoy, too, such as rafting in Cataract Canyon and mountain biking on White Rim Road.
Entrance fees: $10/vehicle for seven days or $5/individual for seven days Visitor centers: The Island in the Sky Visitor Center and The Needles District Visitor Center are open daily except December 25. The Hans Flat Ranger Station in The Maze District is open daily except December 25.
Other services: One ranger station and two campgrounds
Willow Flat Campground in the Island in the Sky District. Open year-round. First-come, first-served.
Squaw Flat Campground in the Needles District. Open year-round. First-come, first-served.
Visiting Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands encompasses a vast sandstone wilderness cut by great chasms and gorges. From all appearances, this is one of the most arid places on earth, yet it was forged by water. This is a landscape of deep-shadowed canyons, bright orange mesas, great buff-colored pinnacles, and maroon buttes - an intense pallet of natural colors that comes alive in the rays of the setting sun. The terrain here seems so surreal that it looks as though it might have been painted by Salvador Dali.
The wild array of arches, sandstone pillars and needles, canyon mazes, and scarps that make up the otherworldly terrain of Canyonlands National Park is the work of the Colorado and Green rivers. They meet in the heart of the park at a spectacular site called the Confluence. Here, the rivers form a great Y, cutting 1,000 feet into the brilliantly hued sandstone. From the Confluence, the rivers roll on as one.
The park is conveniently divided into three regions: The Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze. On the following page, we will describe the highlights of each region.
Sightseeing at Canyonlands National Park
The Colorado and Green rivers separate Canyonlands National Park into three distinct regions: The Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze. The Island in the Sky lies north of the Green/Colorado confluence; The Needles consists of the country south of the Colorado River; and The Maze (the wildest and most remote area of the park) is found west of the Green and the Colorado.
Only those with a four-wheel-drive vehicle, plenty of drinking water, and a good pair of hiking boots can enter The Maze. Prior to the park's formation in 1964, most of the country in The Maze had been essentially unexplored. Today, however, many "desert rats" are familiar with the features of this starkly beautiful "Land of Standing Rocks."
Most visitors to Canyonlands National Park tour The Island in the Sky district, which features such spectacular overlooks as Grand Point View and Green River, and The Needles, where the trails lead to such wonderful spots as Chesler Park, Peekaboo Spring, Horse Canyon, Butler Flat, and the Devil's Kitchen. Hundreds of prehistoric Native American sites are in Canyonlands, including some awesome examples of rock art (especially in The Maze region).
Visitors without a four-wheel-drive vehicle can get a real feel for Canyonlands by driving into the Needles area on the eastern side of the park. Here is a spectacular landscape of deep canyons, unusual flat-bottomed valleys, called grabens; sandstone formations, such as the descriptively named Molar Rock; and numerous arches.
An 18-mile-long paved road, with dirt spurs, leads into the area. It begins at Squaw Flat, a grassy area with pinon pine trees and junipers. At Pothole Point you can walk to rock depressions that fill with rain water. These little ponds are an important source of water in canyon country. They often teem with life, such as snails, fairy shrimp, and worms, which live through the dry summer months wrapped like mummies in dried mud.
From Pothole Point you follow the road to its destination at Big Spring Canyon. Here, squat pedestals of sandstone rise like mushrooms from the barren bedrock. This point is the beginning of the trail that leads to Confluence Overlook, one of the most spectacular trails in the Southwest. The trail climbs the side of a canyon by means of a ladder, ending at a site more than 900 feet above the point where the rivers merge.
Canyonlands National Park Photo Opportunities
Formerly occupied by the Anasazi, the land encompassed by Canyonlands National Park is a geological and archaeological wonderland. Photo opportunities abound, and here are some of the most spectacular:
Confluence Overlook: The Green River and Colorado River wind through the park, creating two deep canyons. Both are calm upstream of the Confluence, but their joined waters crash over Cataract Canyon with tremendous power.
Druid Arch: Beginning at Elephant Hill Trailhead, this trail offers one of the most spectacular views in the Needles region. Because the massive rock formation reminded many visitors of Stonehenge, they dubbed it Druid Arch Tower Ruin: The Anasazi's ancient cliff dwellings are epitomized in the structures built into the cave wall in Horse Canyon. On the main building there, one can see the well-preserved roof and support timbers.
Great Gallery: Pictographs can be found in the detached Horseshoe Canyon Unit region at Great Gallery. From the stone walls, ancient figures painted in red ocher stare at you through the centuries with hollow eyes.
Grand View Point: From Grand View Point, a vast panorama of rocks and canyons stretches out toward the horizon.
As evidenced by the fascinating pictographs in Horseshoe Canyon, the Canyonlands region was occupied hundreds of years ago. We will examine the land's rich geological and anthropological past on the following page.
History: How Canyonlands Was Formed
The eerie look of the terrain in Canyonlands National Park caused writer Edward Abbey to describe it as the "most arid, most hostile, most lonesome, most grim, bleak, barren, desolate, and savage quarter of the state of Utah - the best part by far."
Over the 20 million years of its existence, the Colorado River has carried away solid rock from an area the size of Texas and two miles deep. The abrasive power of this sediment, helped by wind, precipitation, and frost, has carved out deep canyons, stark mesas, and high buttes unlike any seen elsewhere on earth.
The remarkable stripes that run through the nearly unbelievable shapes of these figures are the result of the way in which different kinds of stone have resisted the constant aggression of these natural sculpting agents.
The perpendicular landscape of the region was also shaped by underlying deposits of salt. Under great pressure from the rock above, the salt is formed into huge domes that eventually fracture the surface.
History of Canyonlands: Inhabitants and Explorers
In a detached section of the park called Horseshoe Canyon Unit, one can observe pictographs. Archaeologists believe that these life-size pictographs may be 6,000 years old. They do not look like the work of the Anasazi or any of the other people known to have lived in this region, so archaeologists surmise that the pictographs were left by earlier people. No one knows for sure.
More recent inhabitants of Canyonlands have also left behind reminders of their presence. These people were related to the Anasazi of Mesa Verde in Colorado and Chaco Canyon, a vast pueblo in western New Mexico. In Canyonlands, they farmed and gathered plants. In the Needles area, you can still see a small but well-preserved granary used to store corn 700 years ago.
A glance at the arid landscape of Canyonlands would probably convince visitors that the land is uninhabitable, but clearly the Anasazi and others didn't find it so. It is amazing to wander among the remarkable wilderness and come across the remains of civilizations past. The national park's historical aspect and striking terrain are what attract almost 400,000 visitors every year.
Canyonlands National Park
2282 SW Resource Boulevard Moab, UT 84532 435-719-2313 www.nps.gov/cany