Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park is a vast, wild park. It is drivable from Moab, so we didn’t have to move from our boondocking spot to explore the northern area of the park. We weren’t very familiar with it, so our first stop was to the visitor center for information, which is nearly always our first stop in a National Park or Monument. I love going to the visitor centers, we usually watch an intro to the park video, buy a patch and postcards, stamp our National Park passports, and talk to a ranger about the park highlights and recommended hikes. Then we can make a plan for what to do in the park. We (well, I) used to do more research before getting to a park, but since we’ve been visiting so many places on this trip, and since the visit to the visitor center is always so helpful, we haven’t been doing as much research ahead of time. Sometimes it feels a little embarrassing to show up at a National Park and basically ask a ranger, “so… what’s good here?”, but it’s been working out pretty well lately.

We learned that Canyonlands is split into four “districts”, Islands in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the Rivers. The area is split by the Colorado River and the Green River, which combine in the middle of the park, creating the massive canyons. Islands in the Sky is the most accessible, followed by the Needles, the Rivers are accessible by white water raft, and the Maze is nearly inaccessible.

Islands in the Sky is on an uplifted mesa, so there are three levels to it, the mesa level, the white rim level, (a layer of White Sandstone is harder than the layers around it, so it created a rim around the lower canyons, and caprocks on rock formations), and the river level.

We asked the ranger about the unpaved roads listed on the map as “high clearance, 4-wheel drive required”, and he recommended three drives that were 2-3 hours long. There is a 100 mile unpaved road called White Rim Road, but he didn’t recommend that one because it usually takes 2-3 days to drive, camping overnight.

The first scenic drive we did was the Shafer Trail, which starts in the park, and heads east towards Moab. The first thing this road did was follow the side of a cliff, and then quickly switchback down 1,400 feet to the White Rim level, then it split into the White Rim Road the Shafer Trail. Brian loved driving down the cliff. I was a little less comfortable. I asked Brian how I should describe it (since I keep calling everything “beautiful!”) and he said “say it was badass.”

Every scenic drive we took switchbacked down the mesa to the river level. We also drove Gemini Bridges Road and Mineral Bottom Road up to Hell Roaring Canyon, and got out and walked around in the canyon. The views were incredible, but most of the hike was through a sandy wash and my shoes kept filling with sand, so this wasn’t my favorite place to walk. It was nice to get away from crowds, we had the whole canyon to ourselves.

We didn’t do much hiking in Islands in the Sky, but we did do the two most popular short hikes, Mesa Arch and Grand View Point. The Mesa Arch hike was a half mile loop to a cliff-edge arch. The Arch is a popular spot, and it took a little while before I could get any pictures of it without people posing near it. Through the Arch is a great view below.

The Grand View hike was two miles out-and-back along the edge of the canyon. During this hike we could see the White Rim road below and Brian decided he had to drive at least part of it.

We spoke to another ranger about the White Rim Road, and learned that to get to the place we could see from the Grand View  hike and back would take about 10 hours. So we packed food and drinks and prepared for a long day.

We enjoyed the drive so much that I made this video about it. It was incredible to get down into the canyon and see everything close up.

The drive started with the same switchbacks as the Shafer Trail, and we immediately encountered lots of mountain bikers. Most of the other vehicles we saw on the road were trucks supporting the bikers, carrying their camping gear and food.

We drove for hours along the road, getting out to take pictures when things were really pretty. The first hour or so of the drive was pretty smooth, but it got bumpy after that. At times the road was right on the canyon rim, and we drove over undercut rock.

The road got really rocky, and I heard a ‘whoosh’ sound, and one of the back tires went flat. There was a big hole in the sidewall of the tire. As soon as Brian started changing the tire to put on the spare, it started raining!

After we had the spare tire on, we turned around, since we had driven about as far as we intended to. On the way back we took it a little slower, but decided to push our luck a little and drive down a 4 mile offshoot that took us down to the Colorado River through Lathrop Canyon. Once we were down there, we cooked burgers and had dinner, and then as we were packing up a full rainbow appeared over the river! We drove out of the canyons through sunset and did the switchbacks after dark.

We had an amazing, memorable day driving the White Rim Road, Brian said the White Rim Road would be worth flattening all four tires. It did mean we had to go back to Grand Junction the next day to buy new tires! We needed to get new tires soon anyway, so we replaced all four.

We enjoyed our boondocking spot outside of Moab, and we stayed about a week and a half. We really had to conserve water to make it that long without filling the tanks. We encountered some crazy wind! One night we could barely sleep because the wind was so loud. Another night, the wind started up and blew over the few things we had stored outside, so we went out in it to put our solar panel in the truck. Wind in the desert is no joke!

After we explored the Canyonlands Island in the Sky district we moved about an hour and a half south to be near the Canyonlands Needles district. We found a beautiful spot, just outside the park entrance. It was remote though, there was really nothing around! We were 40 miles from the nearest town, and there was no cell service anywhere. I had to deal with being off the grid for a few days. We had a couple of nice campfires at this spot.

The Needles district has so many interesting rock formations including mushrooms, needles, and grabens (valleys between high walls). There are four short hikes, and many long hikes. We did the four short hikes the first day of our visit (which amounted to about 4 miles), Roadside Ruins, Pothole Point, Cave Springs, and Slickrock. Both Pothole Point and Slickrock laid out a trail using cairns over potholed slickrock. It felt like walking on the moon. The Slickrock trail had amazing views on all sides. The Roadside Ruins and Cave Springs trails showed some of the human and cultural history of the area, from native cultures to more recent cowboys.

The main event of our visit to the Needles was an 11 mile hike that a ranger in the Islands of the Sky recommended. It was three miles mainly uphill scrambling over rocks to the Chesler Park overlook, then a five mile loop through a meadow and the Joint Trail and a dirt road, and then back the three mile trail, this time mostly downhill.

The Joint Trail goes through a crevice between two rock walls. It got pretty narrow at times. A couple people passed us coming the other way, and we had to find little alcoves to get out of the way. It was a fun part of the hike!

It was a really nice trail because the terrain was so varied, a mixture of up and downhill, over rock and sand, through meadows and rock formations, and with great views.

I wish I could say I loved every mile of the hike, but it was too long for me! Now that it’s done I can say it was worth it, but for the last few miles I was cursing the trail. The first 7ish miles were nice, but my feet were so sore at the end. Some things are more fun in retrospect!

We didn’t do any 4-wheel drive dirt roads in the Needles, because they were a bit too intense. The main one was closed due to impassable quicksand!

We saw a lot of lizards here, one posed for us. In the Needles district we saw a long-nosed leopard lizard.

Brian made some great meals, including a mushroom pasta, pork country ribs, chicken thigh kabobs, and chicken and rice with a shredded zucchini sauce.

Day 240 | Mile 23,786


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