Canyonlands National Park Day 1

Today was the first of two scheduled visits to Canyonlands National Park…this was because there are essentially two entrances to the park with accompanying road systems…and no connection between the two systems so it’s almost like two different parks. The northern end of the park is an area named Islands in the Sky and primarily consists of hikes and viewpoints up on the top of the plateau that adjoins the northern and western side of the Colorado River gorge…we’re about 250 miles or so upstream from the Grand Canyon and it’s a different gorge through Canyonlands, not quite as deep or wide but still pretty impressive.

The southern end of the park is an area known as The Needles because it has a large population of topographic features known as needles (discussed in more detail below). The far center west portion of the park is named The Maze and is essentially impassible except via hiking…and maybe by a high clearance 4×4 vehicle. You need a back country permit to enter The Maze so we left that off of our tour.

Our destination today was The Needles…we got up at 0600 but Connie had a bad headache and tummy issues from the pain so we ended up not leaving until after 0800. We had to drive about 40 miles south then 30 miles west and then northwest into the visitor center.

On the way down UT-191 from Moab we happened across a road side arch named Wilson’s Arch. This is actually bigger than most of the arches in Arches National Park and is basically about 200 yards away from and parallel to the highway…so it was an easy get. We got pictures both in the morning with back lighting and again in the afternoon when it was front lit. It’s about 200 feet up from the road to the bottom of the arch and the opening is probably 60 feet high and 80 feet wide.

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After getting the morning photo we continued down another 20 miles or so then turned west and headed toward the park. After going pretty much across the plain for 20 miles we hit a steep 10% downgrade as we descended off of the plateau and into the Colorado River valley. Heading north along the river we quickly entered the approaches to the park and started getting beautiful views even before we entered the park. We came around this curve in the canyon and both said “Wow!”. It was that cool…and we kept saying it over and over the next 15 miles as we transited through a relatively narrow portion of the canyon before entering the park. We liked Arches yesterday but the Canyonlands area is seriously cool and extremely different from Arches. If I had to pick one I would pick Canyonlands as being a more scenic, spectacular park because of the huge size of some of the chunks of stone we saw.

Here are the first views we got of the features approaching the park…although pictures really cannot do the views that we saw today justice…you simply can’t fully appreciate the size, massiveness, and how far away these features are visible from a photo. These formations are probably 2,000 feet higher than the valley floor and maybe a half mile away from the road. These shots were taken approximately perpendicular to the road which continues to the right of the frame and then curves to it’s left and back through the open area between the farthest left hand and farthest right hand mesas then sort of back and to the left into the park. The mesas are solid rock with just a little dirt and vegetation on top and are surrounded by piles of rubble from erosion over the millennia. The center portion of the mesa is composed of harder rock than the outside so over time the outside erodes away through a combination of wind blown sand and the freezing/thawing in cracks in the rock to split off huge house sized (and larger) boulders. One thing we were struck by was that the mounts of rubble are all at almost exactly the same angle and the top of the rubble pile is almost exactly the same on all the mesas.

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Speaking of Mesas; we found out today what the difference is between a Mesa and a Butte. Mesas are wider than they are tall as you can see from the above photos and Buttes are taller than they are wide; for instance this repost of the Organ and Tower of Babel from yesterday’s Arches post.

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There are a couple of other erosion caused features very common in Canyonlands…needles and mushrooms. Needles are caused by a layer of sandstone sliding on subterranean salt layers (the salt came from the former inland seas that occupied this area). As the stone slides it cracked in roughly a checkerboard pattern…then the cracks are eroded by wind/freeze/thaw cycles as in the mesas and buttes until you end up with what looks like a forest of tall thin towers. Mushrooms are caused when a harder layer of rock overlies a softer layer…erosion reduces the diameter of the softer stone faster than the cap and you end up with a mushroom shaped cap on top of the softer stalk. I’ve got some pictures of these later.

Our first stop in the park was to see the Wooden Shoe Arch…which was both pretty small and pretty far away; not to mention back lit so it didn’t make all that great a photo.

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Our next stop was the Big Springs Canyon Overlook where we got a nice shot of the canyon itself and also one of a mushroom and what would have been a butte if it was larger than this specimen, but the proportions are right for a butte.

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We then stopped at the Pothole Point overlook which has some fairly decent views of the valley bottom and also a large stone surface area potted with potholes. These potholes gather rain at every storm and shortly a plethora of invertebrate life springs forth…tadpoles, shrimp, and other crustacean like creatures that quickly grow, mate, lay eggs and die before the puddle dries up. There were also some really strange rock formations up at the point; we took about a 0.6 mile hike around the point to see all the cool stuff. We also spotted this neat little gecko/lizard near one of the pothole pools.

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Our next stop was the base of Elephant Hill which required a 3 mile drive down a gravel road; we had to ford a couple of dry washes with some sand in them but had no trouble getting the Mazda over them. At the bottom we were as close as we could get to The Needles themselves so got a couple nice shots of them…it’s really, really rugged terrain in between those towers.

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Next up was our second hike on the Cave Springs Trail…another 0.6 mile hike which took us underneath the cap of a mushroom to an old cowboy camp, the weeping spring itself, and an area with a lot of petroglyphs left by Indians.

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With that we headed out of the park towards home…stopping for a few more shots of the impressive mesas along the way.

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Stopping at an area known as The Big Crack…which turned out to be a rock climbing area we were taking a few more pictures and heard some voices. Looking up on the side of the mesa we spotted some climbers so Neil grabbed a series of shots showing first the climbers then zooming out until the whole mesa is visible…I’m really trying to just give you a sense of scale for these huge formations. The hiker is in the center of the photo in all 4 of these shots…and you can barely see him by the time the whole side of the mesa is in the frame.

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And this was just a medium sized mesa as far as some of the others we saw today goes. As we turned back north onto the main road to Moab and our final destination for the day Connie spotted this neat rock across the road…she was particularly taken with the color layers in it.

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Our final destination was the Needles Overlook which isn’t actually in the park itself but in an adjoining Recreation Area. We were talking to a guy at one of our stops and mentioned we were going up there for some views from the rim…he tried to talk us out of it by saying you can’t see anything from the rim of the canyon. Guess he’s never been up on top of a canyon rim taking in the views. We ignored him and went to the viewpoint anyway and as expected the views were spectacular. We could see all the way across to the far rim probably 20 miles away and 30 or 40 miles up and down canyon in both directions…although since it was getting late in the afternoon it was getting a bit hazy. Here’s a nice 140 degree or so panorama taken looking northwest from the overlook.

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Really crummy view, eh? Glad we took that guy’s advice and skipped this portion of our trip. Not!! To give you a sense of how tall this plateau us; here’s a wide angle shot he took looking down from the overlook at about a 70 degree angle (i.e., almost straight down) of the canyon floor. Those light lines you can see above and to the left of center are the 4×4 roads on the canyon floor.

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There was another viewpoint on the east side of the canyon but it required a 25 mile round trip over a gravel road…and it was getting late…and we are going to a bunch more canyon view overlooks on tomorrow’s trip to the Islands in the Sky region in the north of the park; which means we’ll be essentially across the canyon from where these were taken from……so we skipped the other overlook for another trip. Not to be outdone though; before leaving Needles Overlook we grabbed a couple more panoramas looking in different directions.

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With that our day was done. We headed home, filled up the car with gas and got back to the house about 1730. A quick change into our swimsuits later we popped up to the hot tub for 20 minutes then had some oven baked potato wedges and burgers…we found these really good pre made burgers from Walmart that you cook frozen so they make a really easy meal when you need one.

Tomorrow we’re off to the northern portion of Canyonlands NP…the Islands in the Sky section. There aren’t many short hikes in this section so we’ll mostly just drive, check out overlooks, and take photos including a state park with a 2,000 foot high overview of the Colorado River that’s supposed to be the best state park in the state of UT. We’ll check it out and let ya’ll know.


About Gunther

The full time RV travels and experiences of Gunther the Bear and Kara the Dog…along with their human staff neil and Connie.
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4 Responses to Canyonlands National Park Day 1

  1. pam says:

    Finally had a chance to catch up with your travels via the blog. We have not been to Canyonlands or the Arches but definitely have them on our ever-growing list. You did a great job explaining all the geological features in a concise way. I never knew the difference between a butte and a mesa and needles and mushrooms are entirely new distinctions for me. Thanks for the fabulous tour of this national wonder.

    • Gunther says:

      Yeah, I didn’t know the difference until the other day either…the Ranger was explaining it to somebody and I overheard him. I’ve had several people tell me that Zion puts all of these parks in the NE/E side of Utah to shame…too bad we didn’t get down there because of the broke foot. Oh well, gives us a reason to visit this area again; we haven’t seen the Grand Canyon north rim or Antelope Canyon down on the UT/AZ border by Page AZ either.

      Thanks for the kind words on my explanation…glad to know it helped at least one person…I taught a bunch of stuff in the Navy and at the ROTC unit back in the day so maybe I have a little teacher-foo in me.

  2. Ingrid says:

    We just went to Canyonlands Island in the Sky section today…..amazing. Heading into Arches tomorrow. Thanks for all the info you posted. I was wondering if the Needles portion of Canyonlands was worth the drive. Enjoy….we sure did!

    • Gunther says:

      Yeah, Needles section is definitely worth the drive…and you actually get the best views before you get into the park. Once you head west from the highway you’ll go about 10 miles then down a steep grade into the canyon and head NW towards the park…the best views of the day are the next 10 miles or so. Once you’re done there; make sure you go to the Needles Overlook outside the park, it’s about 10 miles or so north on the highway towards Moab and then about 22 miles in to the overlook. Anticline Overlook is also supposed to be cool but it’s an unpaved road part of the way…although we drove down it for a mile or two and it’s a nicely graded gravel road so no worries for the car…but we didn’t have another hour plus to spare so we skipped it. Anticline is supposed to be cooler.
      I think I liked Canyonlands better than Arches overall…and Needles and Island in the Sky are both way cool, just different types of cool. Hard to pick which of those two was better overall, but Needles was definitely less crowded since it’s a longer drive.

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