Canyonlands, Utah, USA

Mesa Arch in Canyonlands, Island in the Sky, SW USA

Mesa Arch in Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky region, a popular sunrise spot. Photo by Snowpeak.

Mesa Arch is initially disappointing as – after a short walk – visitors find it’s much, much smaller than those at Arches National Park, but on closer inspection you discover that the arch is located right at the edge of the cliff and becomes a perfect frame for the spectacular view beyond it, not to mention insane, teetering moments photographers have trying to capture the ultimate shot. Wow!

Visiting Canyonlands

Shafer trail, Canyonlands, SW USA

Shafer trail, which is the name of that very winding road in Canyonlands. Photo by AsturKon.

Canyonlands is the biggest national park in Utah and some say the best, though the BugForce would disagree, we prefer our rocks to be in funny shapes, colours and easily accessible.

Canyonlands is, however, over 500 sq miles (800sq kms) of undeveloped wilderness – rocks, rivers, wildlife and plants interrupted by only two proper campgrounds and a couple of short paved roads, so for serious solitude seekers this is the park.

Canyonlands is split into districts, Island in the Sky, The Needles and The Maze

Shafer Canyon seen from Island in the Sky, Shafer Trailhead, Canyonlands, SW USA

Shafer Canyon as seen from Island in the Sky, Shafer Trailhead.

Actually Canyonlands is four districts if you include the two rivers, Colorado River and Green River. The rivers provide action and entertainment for rafters and kayakers on the quiet stretches above the Confluence while below it there are dramatic whitewater rapids, like those in the Grand Canyon.

The Island in the Sky

This is where day trippers go. Alright, we confess that we also only visited the Island in the Sky region. Our excuse is that we had already been to Yosemite, Grand Canyon, Arches, Bryce Canyon, Zion Canyon, Capitol Reef, Death Valley and Moab, on this trip, and we had overdosed on incredible sights.

Island in the Sky is the highest mesa of the park with the highest number of visitors, a 20 mile paved road and a decent campground, though no water is available so make sure you have a good supply.

Upheaval Dome aerial shot, Island in the Sk, Canyonlands, USA

Upheaval Dome aerial shot, Island in the Sky. Photo by Doc Searls.

Views over ragged ravines and other mesas can stretch up to 100 miles, while one section of the Island sports a geological curiosity, a huge crater – ironically called the Upheaval Dome. Geologists can’t decide if the crater was caused by underground salt deposits pushing the sandstone upwards or a meteor impact.

The Island’s 100 mile White Rim Road is one of the best mountain biking and 4WD trails in the country and will take at least two days.

The Maze

This is the wildest district of all, 30 sq miles of weird sandstone formations, a 600ft descent and very little water. Only the toughest survive.

A popular alternative to all that heat, rock and desert ambience is to plunge onto one of the two rivers – the Green or the Colorado – in rubber rafts, kayaks, canoes or even jet boats and spend the day surrounded by water. Unfortunately time was not on our side and we took part in no activities.

The Needles, Newspaper Rock

The Needles district offers many options scenically, but is not good for bikes or short-term visitors. This is hiking or serious 4WD territory and those with the time and right kit will discover a land of pinnacles, spires and grand arches bereft of tour buses, RVs and travelling sissies. The sissies can, however, sneak in the back way on the paltry 8 miles of hardtop and have a look at one of the best examples of petroglyphs in the area, Newspaper Rock.

Newspaper Rock, The Needles, Canyonlands, USA

Newspaper Rock, in the only easy-to-access section of The Needles district shows 2, 000 years of doodles.

Newspaper Rock closeup, The Needles, Canyonlands, USA

Newspaper Rock, The Needles, near Canyonlands but in Arizona. Free-to-view.

Newspaper Rock

This rock was etched with drawings by prehistoric people such as the Fremont and Pueblo cultures, as well as more recent Navajo and even paleface Anglos.

There is no way to precisely date rock art, nor are experts sure of the purpose of the drawings. They could be doodles, stories, hunting magic, or just The Needles Times, latest edition.

Newspaper Rock is located on Hwy 211, 25 miles before the entrance to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. It is 28 miles northwest of Monticello and 53 miles south of Moab.
Just across the highway from the petroglyphs is a pleasant picnic area and campground among cottonwoods along the Indian Creek, though rather close to the highway. There are 8 sites with vault toilets that are open year round on a first-come, first-served basis.

Canyonlands is open 24 hours a day all year round; the three visitor centres (Island in the Sky; Maze; Needles) mostly open mid-February through early December from 9 a. m. to 4 p. m.

Horseshoe Canyon

The Great Gallery, Canyonlands, USA

The ‘Holy Ghost’ panel of the Great Gallery, Horseshoe Canyon. Photo by Scott Catron.

Horseshoe Canyon is not in one of Canyonlands’ four districts but just north of the park and west of the Green River, though still in Utah and managed by Canyonlands National Park.
The canyon is famous for its Barrier Canyon Style rock art, pictographs and petroglyphs produced by the ‘Desert Archaic’ culture, a group of nomadic group of hunter-gatherers who roamed the area possibly thousands of years BC.
The Great Gallery’s ‘Holy Ghost’ panel is 200 feet long, 15 feet high and the paintings are life-sized human figures.

Get there from State Route 24 via 30 miles (48 kms) of dirt road, or from Green River via 47 miles (76 km) of dirt road. There is a primitive campsite at the west rim trailhead with no water available.

Getting to see the rock art will require fitness and determination, as it’s a 3 mile hike (4. 8 km) to the bottom of the canyon, a vertical drop of about 300m. And no camping is permitted overnight there so you have to walk back too, probably in extreme heat and necessarily carrying a lot of water.