What Is So Special About Canyonlands National Park

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view of canyonlands national park

The Colorado River didn’t just form the Grand Canyon over millions of years. The steep slope and large volume of this river flowing through the arid Southwest has dramatically impacted the entire Colorado Plateau.

Another national park that owes much of its existence to this mighty river is Canyonlands National Park. Along with the Green River, the Colorado has gradually eroded the landscape here, forming a unique geologic layer cake over 337,000 acres.

Let’s learn more about Canyonlands National Park and why you should plan a visit to Utah soon!

Where Is Canyonlands National Park?

Located west of Arches National Park in central-eastern Utah, Canyonlands is the lesser-known and less-visited of the two parks.

But it’s not any less worthy to hold the designation of “national park.” This area covers over 527 square miles, making it the largest Utah national park. It protects canyons, mesas, buttes, and the Colorado and Green Rivers.

In 2022, over 779,000 people visited Canyonlands National Park. In 2021, park visitation broke a record with over 911,000 guests. But this Utah national park is the least visited of the five.

When Did Canyonlands National Park Become A National Park?

President Lyndon B. Johnson established Canyonlands National Park on September 12, 1964.

Zion was the first Utah National Park, which was designated in 1919. Bryce Canyon followed in 1928.

Canyonlands National Park was the third of the Utah Mighty Five. Arches and Capitol Reef both received the national park designation in 1971.

What’s So Special About Canyonlands National Park?

It’s impossible to visit Canyonlands National Park in its entirety in one day. The park is divided into four sections: the Rivers, the Maze, the Needles, and Island in the Sky.

The main paved road takes visitors through Island in the Sky, making it the most accessible district in the park.

You’ll need a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle to visit the Needles, and the Maze is the least-visited and most remote section.

Flatwater and whitewater trips on the Green and Colorado Rivers are unique ways to explore Canyonlands National Park.

This Utah park protects canyons, mesas, buttes, fins, arches, and spires and teaches the story of erosion in the sculpting layers of rocks in this part of the Colorado Plateau.

It’s a spectacular landscape filled with color during the day and brilliant skies at night.

Canyonlands National Park was named a Gold-Tier International Dark Sky Park because of its pristine night skies and low light pollution.

Stargazing, day hiking, backcountry hiking, four-wheel-drive exploring, and rafting are popular activities.

Canyonlands National Park is so vast that you must choose which districts to visit here. For example, it takes anywhere from 90 minutes to two hours to get from the Island in the Sky Visitor Center to the Needles district. But here are our top attractions when visiting Canyonlands.

1. Hike Some of the Hundreds of Miles of Trails

There are so many hiking and backcountry trails that we can’t narrow them down to just one. So we suggest starting at the Visitor Center and getting the most up-to-date information about the trail conditions. Then, choose the best hiking trail for your time frame and ability.

Most trails are in the Island in the Sky and the Needles districts. There are easy trails like the 1.8-mile White Rim Overlook Trail and strenuous trails like the 4.6-mile Gooseberry Canyon Trail that quickly descends 1,400 feet. 

2. Drive the Island In the Sky Road

You cannot visit Canyonlands National Park without driving the Island in the Sky Road. Start at the Visitor Center and pick up a map.

Then, stop at as many overlooks as possible to take in this vast landscape of varying colors and rock formations. The Shafer Trail Viewpoint and Mesa Arch Trail Overlook are the first two places you’ll want to stop.

The end of Island in the Sky Road is Grand View Point Overlook. There’s also a 1.8-mile trail here that offers panoramic views of the stunning canyons.

It will take 20-30 minutes to drive the entire length, but add plenty of time to enjoy the overlooks.

3. Attend A Stargazing Event With A Ranger

Because Canyonlands National Park is a Dark Sky Park, stargazing is one of the most popular activities.

During the spring and fall, park rangers lead programs in the Island of the Sky district at Grand View Point.

Ask a ranger at the visitor center for details when you visit. Often, guests will have the opportunity for telescope viewing.

Visit This Hidden Gem In Canyonlands National Park

The Needles district in Canyonlands has rugged terrain and challenging backcountry roads. You must have a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle.

However, ATVs, UTVs, and OHVs aren’t permitted. Pets are prohibited as well, even in vehicles.

If you’re taking a day trip to Elephant Hill, Salt Creek (Peekaboo)/Horse Canyon, or Lavender Canyon roads, you’ll need a permit, which can be purchased on Recreation.gov.

Although it’s free, there is a $6 reservation fee. But if you’re looking for an adventure with steep grades, loose rock, stair-step drops, and tight turns, an excursion through the Needles will give you everything and more!

Best Places For Camping Near Canyonlands National Park

There are lots of boondocking options on BLM public lands in this area of Utah. You can search Campendium for dispersed camping locations and find plenty to choose from near Canyonlands National Park.

Needles Campground has 26 individual campsites within the park if you prefer a developed campground. It’s $20 per night, and sites can be reserved on Recreation.gov from mid-March to mid-November. RVs are restricted to 28 feet or less. There are no hookups or dump stations, but potable water is available.

Canyonlands also has a campground in the Island in the Sky district. This campground has 12 sites that are first-come, first-served. There’s no water and no dump station here. RVs are restricted to 28 feet or less at this location, too.

If you prefer full hookups and amenities, check out the KOA in Moab. It’s easy to visit Arches National Park, Dead Horse Point State Park, Canyonlands National Park, and all the other Moab attractions from the KOA.

Plus, you’ll enjoy a dog park, playground, camp store, swimming pool, and more at this convenient location.

Is Visiting Canyonlands National Park Worth It?

Canyonlands National Park may be the least visited of the Utah Mighty Five, but it should be on everyone’s list when they visit Moab.

The landscape is breathtaking. The colors are vibrant. Rafters will love the thrill of adventure on the Green or Colorado Rivers. Jeep riders will relish the backcountry roads of the Needles.

Hikers of all skill levels can find suitable trails in Island in the Sky. Canyonlands is a national park for everyone!

Have you ever visited this national treasure?

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