Canyonlands, The Other Red Rock!

Canyonlands, The Other Red Rock!

I really don’t believe there’s better state than Utah for scenic experiences outside. Honestly. There are places so unique that you will find yourself wondering if you are even still on planet earth.

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Most people assume it’s a “desert” state, and looks like “desert” all around. But what many people don’t understand is that not all deserts are just sand dunes and tumble weeds. There is such variety that it can leave you in awe.

There’s a big difference between the salt playas and horst-and-graben ranges of the great basin’s west desert and the red rock monoliths and flat-topped hills of the Colorado Plateau in the southeast. The Southwest drops much lower in elevation and marks the beginning of the Mojave. There are high-elevation deserts with their sparse vegetation on rolling hills where it’s always cold and windy and low deserts with their cactus and Joshua trees, ergs (large expanses of sand dunes). So, when you say Utah is a desert, that’s true, but there’s more variety than most people can even imagine.

Utah And Its Red Rock

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Most people visit Utah to see the “mid-east” part of the state. The mid-east is part of the Colorado Plateau, extensively channeled and gorged by canyons that are red in color. The part of the state situated around the adventure-hub of Moab.

The most visited park in the area is Arches, and then there’s Canyonlands, which for many tourists is kind of just “there.” If Arches is too crowded, then the less hyped canyonlands could be a second option, but never most people’s first. I think people really don’t understand just how great this place is though. While I love Arches and all that you can do and see there, Canyonlands has really grown on me. With time it has become one of my favorite national parks in the country. I think the views rival even the Grand Canyon… heck, I may even like them a little better!

The outdoorsman and environmental activist Edward Abbey said of Canyonlands… “…[it’s] the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth—there is nothing else like it anywhere.”

I would have to agree. There is undeniably something magical here.

The Island In The Sky

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The area you’ll want to see coming from Moab is the “Island in the Sky.” The other areas are about a day’s drive to get to… it’s a pretty big park. The actual “Island in the Sky” is the top of a high plateau that overlooks the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. The way to it is clearly marked by signs, but here are the directions in a nutshell. You’ll take US route 191 northbound then turn left onto SR 313. Follow it as it changes names to “Grand View Point Rd” or “Island in the Sky Rd.”

Once there, check out all the viewpoints you can drive to by car (doesn’t take too long and they’re all a little different looking), making sure to hit up Mesa Arch and Grand View point.

Mesa Arch very nicely frames a majestic panorama of cliffs and the faraway alpine peaks of the La Sal range. If you’re daring you can get a picture on top!

The view from Island in the Sky feels like looking from the sky onto the desert floor a thousand feet or more below…. What’s incredible is that the desert floor drops EVEN lower into the canyon bottoms visible from the top. Honestly, you will feel like a bird.

It’s in places like these that you really get a feel for how small you are in the grand scheme of things… I remember looking out at this and feeling like I was looking back in time millions of years and feeling this incredible sense of solitude and stillness… I had kind of a “moment!”

On Foot

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After you’re done driving to the viewpoints, there are plenty of places to get out and log some mileage on your hiking boots, or even better, climb and scramble around the red rock. There’s something about the sandpaper texture of this rock that makes it ultra-easy to move around on and crawl to the top of.

You’ll enjoy a visit to the Upheaval Dome, which is a weird geologic mystery in a horseshoe-shaped cliff amphitheater with cool views of the surrounding area too. It’s about half mile to a mile just to get up to where you can see the dome, and if you choose you can walk another couple of miles total round trip to different viewpoints. Some of the trail is groomed and very obvious, some of it will just be over the top of rocks and you’ll need to keep an eye out for cairns. The edge IS exposed and cliffy so no horsing around and watch the kids!

If you or the older kids have a climbing itch to scratch, you gotta see Whale Rock. It looks like, as you would imagine, a beached whale carved in smooth, sloping sandstone. You can opt to reach the top by a foot path, or you can try by all fours on the face! It’s really not too hard, but a lot of fun. The view from the top is swell.

A Few More Sites

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The Canyonlands area is well-known for Indian rock art, and there are several sites in the area where you can enjoy these mysterious ancient images from what looks like outer space. Be aware that these sites like Grand Gallery or Thompson Canyon are a few hours drive from the main visitor’s center so maybe they’re better visited on the way down or on the way back as a side trip. Really neat though!

The Island in the Sky district of the Canyonlands park is very RV friendly, but for your big rigs you’ll want to stay in Moab. For tent campers you’ll find a bunch of sites right along SR 313 in between town and Canyonlands, but when it’s the busy season know that you won’t be guaranteed a spot if you just drive in day-of! Check out either COWBOY CAMP or HORSETHIEF, I’ve stayed at these before.

Maybe this post has wetted your appetite for Canyonlands a little bit… now go out and get some cliff selfies!

But seriously, be careful, people die taking selfies.

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