What To Do in Canyonlands

Whether you're looking for the perfect photo at Mesa Arch or hoping to see some of the 273 bird species in the park, there are plenty of reasons to visit Canyonlands National Park.

TOP EXPERIENCES

At Island in the Sky’s Grand View Point Overlook, sync your visit to an hour before sunset. As shadows play across a vast tectonic landscape of Jurassic period rock, you’ll feel the primaeval pull of a land forgotten by time.

Launch out on a multiday, 160-kilometre mountain bike trek along the White Rim Trail or raft down otherwise inaccessible Cataract Canyon, plunging through some of the gnarliest class V rapids in North America.

If you’re up for a challenge, take a ranger-led hike into Horseshoe Canyon and stand face-to-face with shamanic life-size figures painted between 2000 B.C. and A.D. 500 by mysterious pre-ancient Puebloan nomads.

SCENIC DRIVE

Pace your day along the Needles’ 10.5-kilometre-long Scenic Drive, stopping for four self-guided hikes as time permits: Roadside Ruin to see an ancient Puebloan granary (20 minutes); Cave Spring Trail to view an old-style cowboy camp next to an alcove spring with ancient pictographs (45 minutes); Pothole Point Trail to inspect ephemeral ponds teeming with micro-life (45 minutes); and a 3.8-kilometre loop on the Slickrock Trail, your best chance for spying bighorn sheep in the Needles. (Tip: Look for their white rumps.)

BEST HIKES

In Island in the Sky, it’s almost a kilometre walk to the park’s greatest mystery, Upheaval Dome. Is the mile-wide crater the result of a collapsed salt dome or a meteor strike? (Among geologists, it’s a split verdict.) Explore Aztec Butte, a kilometre and a half-long trail that begins with an easy saunter along a sandy wash then requires some steep friction walking on Navajo slick rock to reach the top. Look for several 800-year-old ancestral Puebloan granaries hiding beneath the rim.

In the Needles district, the classic hike is a ten-kilometre round-trip route from the Elephant Hill trailhead to Chesler Park, a vast sage-scented meadow edged by the park’s namesake sandstone spires. The 16-kilometre round-trip Confluence Overlook Trail demands a bit more sweat equity. There’s scant shade hereabouts as you hike across Big Spring and Elephant Canyons, but the payoff is spectacular: a yawning 305-metre chasm where the mighty Colorado and Green Rivers merge.

FLORA/FAUNA

One of Utah’s few remaining native herds of desert bighorn sheep roams the park, never straying far from its water sources. Near rivers and streams, you’ll also find many of the park’s 273 bird species. Keep an ear out for the park’s songsters: canyon wrens in steep-walled canyons, western meadowlarks in the grasslands, black-throated grey warblers in the piñon-juniper woodlands.

Wildflowers peak in May—orange globemallow, claret cup cactus, Indian paintbrush—as yellowy stands of cliff rose release a potent fragrance. The sego lily, Utah’s state flower, is a rare find. (Look for it hiding among the sagebrush). A second wildflower bloom unfolds in early fall depending on the rain. Moonlit walks reveal night-blooming wildflowers: sand verbena, evening primrose, and Sacred Datura.

PHOTO OPS

Sunrise casts an orange glow on the underside of Mesa Arch, the park’s most sought after image. But you’ll have to arrive at least an hour before sunup to jockey for prime tripod space. The Needles’ most intriguing subject is imposing Druid Arch, an angular rock span evoking Stonehenge (hence its name). Given the 8.7-kilometre long trail to get there, a dawn departure is required to arrive while optimum light still illuminates the arch.

SMART TRAVELER STRATEGIES

Don’t try to visit Needles and Island in the Sky the same day. You’ll waste two hours just driving from one district to the other. Instead, base out of Moab, an adventure-sports town that sits between the two areas. Visit I-Sky’s car-friendly overlooks on the first day for soul-stirring vistas of the Colorado Plateau. The following day, immerse yourself in the park by tackling the Needles’ network of rugged backcountry trails. Don’t even consider entering the backcountry-only Maze district unless you’ve got a respectable 4WD vehicle and plenty of backcountry cred.

EXCURSIONS OUTSIDE OF THE PARK

South of Canyonlands, Bears Ears National Monument spreads south across Cedar Mesa, preserving a rich trove of ancient Puebloan ruins. Dead Horse Point State Park, just outside the entrance to I-Sky, provides dizzying views 610 metres above a bowknot bend in the Colorado River. The John Wesley Powell River History Museum in Green River, 84 kilometres north-west of Moab, pays homage to Canyonlands’ most famous explorer.

Header Image: Shafer Trail Road winds along the cliffs of the White Rim in Canyonlands National Park. PHOTOGRAPH BY AGE FOTOSTOCK/ALAMY STOCK PHOTO

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