I really don’t believe there’s better state than Utah for scenic experiences outside. Honestly. There’s such variety in the terrain that depending on where you are, you might question whether you’re on the same PLANET, let alone the same STATE. Most people assume it’s a “desert” state, and looks like “desert” all around. While that’s not totally true (a good quarter of the state I would consider to be “Alpine”), much of it is a desert. However, someone who’s traveled around enough can say that there are so many different KINDS of desert in Utah that it’s not really fair to generalize them as one and the same. 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. And there’s high-elevation deserts with their sparse vegetation on rolling hills where it’s always cold and windy, low deserts with their cactus and Joshua trees, ergs (large expanses of sand dunes), the wondrous weirdness that is the San Rafael Swell, I could go on…
Of course, most people visit Utah to see the “mid-east” of the state; a part of the Colorado Plateau extensively channeled and gorged by canyons and red in color and 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” and if Arches is too crowded or if there’s time after seeing it you can take a drive around the viewpoints. Somewhat less visited and less hyped. While I love Arches and all that you can do and see there, Canyonlands with time has become one of MY favorite national parks in the country, and I think the views rival even the Grand Canyon… heck, I may even like ‘em 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 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 in a nutshell you’ll take US route 191 northbound then turn left onto SR 313 and 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!
Matthew has a deathwish…
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”!
After you’re done just driving to 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.
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! These pictographs are from Thompson Canyon in the Book Cliffs a few hours north.
The view from the “false kiva”… one of my favorites in the whole state.
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 whetted your appetite for Canyonlands a little bit… now go out and get some cliff selfies!
But seriously, be careful, people die taking selfies.