Thursday, July 23, 2015

Three days in Canyonlands National Park.

Canyonlands National Park totally blew us away.

mindbogglingly beautiful

The end.

Okay, maybe I could say a few more words about it...

This vast "wilderness of rock" in the Colorado Plateau is comprised of three areas: The Needles about 45 miles south of Moab, Island in the Sky just a few miles from Moab and Arches National Park, and The Maze to the west (only accessible by 4WD or backpacking).

We stopped in the southern Needles area for two nights and visited Island in the Sky for the day while we were staying near Moab. While Island in the Sky is much more accessible (most of the park is a scenic drive with optional hikes, whereas in The Needles you need to hoof it to see the really stunning beauty), these two areas are very different and we highly recommend both if you're in the area.

The hikes. Once again we let the park rangers plan our treks for us; once again they did a fantastic job. Hiking here is not for everyone - it can get bloody hot, there's no forest canopy to shade you, and trails in the parks are usually primitive and marked by cairns. (Staying on marked paths is mandatory - the cryptobiotic soil here and in many other Utah parks is protected. This is one reason pets are not allowed in most areas of the park, so if you visit consider leaving Fido at home.) Hiking here was definitely for us, though!

Day One (first day in The Needles): We didn't get started until after lunch, but that didn't stop us from doing an 8-mile hike around the Big Spring Canyon/Squaw Canyon loop... because we're ridiculous like that sometimes. In our defense, it was a pretty flat hike.

views from Big Spring Canyon hike

Big Spring Canyon

so many desert cacti

The trails wound through canyons, up and down gently sloping canyon walls, and into small meadows of desert foliage. It was a stunning hike.

around mile 5

near Squaw Flat

That night was a lovely combination of Patrick's birthday and the full moon, and we were treated to the moonrise over the canyon while a park ranger gave a really interesting moon talk (including some interesting political history about moon exploration in the 1950-60s). Love those ranger talks!

we like tha moon

Day Two (second day in The Needles): We figured a 15-mile hike was a good way to kill the leg pain from the day before. That's what you would do, right?

We started at Elephant Hill, hiking through the valley to Druid Arch. After that we hooked up with the Joint Trail and meandered back through Chesler Park. It was a long, hot, beautiful day.

Druid Arch

meadows right before the Joint Trail

The Joint - the trail goes on like this for about a quarter mile

nearing the end in Chesler Park

We would have loved to hike out to Confluence Overlook, where the Colorado River and Green River meet, but we ran out of time. Definitely our reason to go back!

Day Three (our day trip into Island in the Sky): We started with a few scenic overlooks in the northern part of the park.

Shafer (!) Canyon

Mesa Arch

Next we hiked the trails to the Upheaval Dome overlooks. Upheaval Dome is a giant crater that was created either by a big salt bubble popping, or a meteorite. The former is way more fun to picture than the latter but whatever the cause, the effect is pretty breathtaking.

our money's on the salt bubble theory

After Upheaval Dome we walked on a whale... well, an eroded rock that looks like a whale from the road.

thunderheads looming in the distance

The sky started to really darken at that point, so we headed south to catch the overlook views before the storm.

Green River overlook

Grand View Point overlook

Around 25 miles in three days... worth every muscle ache.  Many more pictures here.

The campsites. We only stayed in The Needles (where there is nothing but a small, expensive, often-closed market for many miles, so plan accordingly). There is a campsite at Island in the Sky as well, but it didn't appear to have much shade or shelter from the off-and-on rainstorms so we're glad we stayed at our craptastic RV park while we took our Island in the Sky day trip.
  • Squaw Flat campground (we chose site #22 on loop B)
    • Pros: quiet! no artificial light! very spacious campsites! easy walking access to trailheads! (can you tell we really loved this campground?)
    • Cons: no showers (but in the desert, who cares) and the 100° weather (but that's not the park's fault!)
lucky #22

The food. Have I raved about Trader Joe's pre-cooked brown rice as a camping lifesaver? It's not something I would buy for regular consumption but for car camping it's really, really handy.  Just throw it in whatever you're heating up and after a few minutes, it's totally edible again.

Anyway, here are some things we enjoyed at Canyonlands.

Patrick's Tex Mex birthday dinner

roasted veggie salad with toast

I don't have a photo of our third night's dinner after our Island in the Sky visit... I suspect that's because it was raining cats and dogs and we ate another boring salad in the car while waiting out the storm.

The summary. The Needles area ended up being one of our absolute favorite places on the whole road trip. The fact that it was the first of our "Mighty 5" might have something to do with it, or it could have been that we knew nothing about it before visiting (just like how the international places we knew nothing about ended up being some of our favorites).

Canyonlands National Park.  We loved it. You should go there.

the (real) end


  1. Amazing - You go to some awesome places, and I love seeing what you eat along the way :)

  2. Wow that moon! I might have a panic attack hiking through that narrow tunnel though. Eek.

    1. It was odd, for sure. Luckily Patrick and I are comfortable in confined spaces... especially seeing as how we spent two months rotating between a tiny tent and Subaru. :)

  3. Such an amazing journey. This is likely one of my favorite series I've read in a while. The park looks amazing and I really like to hear how you do your camping meals and such. I'm an avid car camper and camping food is my favorite part of camping. I'll have to keep in mind the rice tip!

    1. Thanks Jenni! I did a few road trip food tip posts during our Canada leg but I should do another post one... TJ's 21 Season Salute is also a lifesaver!

  4. Thanks for sharing your adventure, the Joint gave me a twinge of claustrophobia looking at it. Loved the photos, sad that we won't get to see that part of Colorado on our trip - maybe next time!

    1. Thanks Emily! This park is actually in Utah, but I highly recommend exploring both states extensively! :)

  5. I have a vague memory of traveling through Canyonlands as a kid on one of our many road trips, but I would really love to go there again with my family!

    1. Hopefully this is just the nudge you need, Melinda! We really loved this park.