Canyonlands National Park is a unique outdoor museum of natural history and geology. It is a landscape dominated by rock. Here erosion has sculpted, sliced, and shaped the bedrock into cliffs, pinnacles, flying buttresses, minarets, abrupt canyons, and rounded domes. The horizontal strata of sedimentary rocks, stacked like layers on a wedding cake, yields a lesson in geological history. Each rock layer seen here—Navajo sandstone, Kayenta Formation, Wingate sandstone, the Chinle and Moenkopi Formations, White Rim sandstone, and Cutler Formation—tells a tale of the earth’s varied history.
The cliff-forming Navajo and Wingate sandstones were deposited as immense sand dunes that blanketed most of Utah during the Mesozoic Era. Earlier formations were laid down as sand, silt, and mud on floodplains and broad river deltas during moister times.
The Island in the Sky sits atop a massive 1500 foot mesa, quite literally an Island in the Sky. Twenty miles (32.2 km) of paved roads lead to many of the most spectacular views in Canyon Country. And, Island in the Sky is a natural observation platform. Vistas rival those found anywhere. We can explore with any of several excellent short hikes on the mesa (Grand View, White Rim Overlook, Mesa Arch, Aztec Butte, Whale Rock, or Upheaval Dome Overlook).
Sandstone layers of varying hardness make up Canyonlands' visible rock. But the character of the land is largely shaped by underlying salt deposits, which, under tremendous pressure from the rock above, push upward, forming domes that fracture the surface.
Yearly rainfall averages eight inches but varies greatly from year to year. Trees that grow here have to be tough and resilient. In drought years, junipers survive by limiting growth to a few branches, letting the others die. Gnarled juniper and pinyon pine take root in the rimlands wherever soil collects, including slickrock cracks and potholes.
Toward the Visitor Center
The approach enters the park after crossing 18 miles of BLM-managed land - the road runs along a narrowing ravine (Sevenmile Canyon), climbs the steep cliffs on the south side then ascends more gently over uneven, partly wooded ground to the flat grasslands in the center of the plateau. Just before the park boundary, a turn-off leads to Dead Horse State Park.
The Scenic Drive
The flat land at the top of the Island in the Sky mesa becomes narrower towards the south as the river confluence approaches. After the entrance station and visitor center , the first viewpoint is over Shafer Canyon to the east, a steep drainage containing a rough 4WD track that descends to the Colorado, becomes paved at the mining settlement of Potash and joins US 191 just north of Moab. To the west, the land drops away at the head of another canyon (Taylor), leaving quite a narrow strip of land in between (The Neck), but the plateau widens for the next few miles as the road crosses a flat meadow known as Grays Pasture, the original name for this whole area. The next canyon on the east (Trail) causes the plateau to split into two forks, as does the scenic drive. The west road leads past the main campground and an overlook of the Green River, both at Willow Flat, then descends gradually to the end of the mesa at Upheaval Dome. Also near the road junction are two short trails - to Mesa Arch, a graceful span of Navajo sandstone framing distant canyons to the northeast, and to some Anasazi granaries on Aztec Butte - plus one longer route that descends to the White Rim and the Green River.
Grand View Point
The remaining 5 miles of the main road cross a rather narrower plateau, past several overlooks. The park road ends at Grand View Point, which offers magnificent vistas across the Colorado canyons and the spires of Monument Basin, to the distant La Sal mountains in the east and the Needles area to the south. A further one mile, 20 minute walk southwards along the Grand View Trail leads to the very end point of the Island in the Sky plateau, where the cliffs drop away in all directions, and the canyons of both rivers can be seen. The actual confluence point is hidden, but can be reached by a long trail starting in the Needles section of the park.
From the rim you glimpse only segments of the Green River and the Colorado River, which flow together at the heart of Canyonlands. But everywhere you see the water's work: canyon mazes, unbroken scarps, sandstone pillars.
The Needles, The Maze
The paths of the merging rivers divide the park into three districts. The high mesa known as the Island in the Sky rises as a headland 2,000 feet above the confluence. South of the Island and east of the confluence is The Needles, where red- and white-banded pinnacles tower 400 feet over grassy parks and sheer-walled valleys. A confusion of clefts and spires across the river to the west marks The Maze, a remote region of pristine solitude. On every side the ground drops in great stairsteps. Flat benchlands end abruptly in rock walls on one side and sheer drops on the other. It is a right-angled country of standing rock, and only a few paved roads probe the edges of the park's 527 square miles.
The Colorado and Green rivers are calm upstream of the Confluence, ideal for canoes, kayaks and other shallow water craft. Below the Confluence, the combined flow of both rivers spills down Cataract Canyon with remarkable speed and power, creating a world-class stretch of white water.
Canyonlands is a paradise for photographers. Under conditions of constantly changing light, the varicolored landscape provides limitless photographic opportunities. Often, the difference between an average photograph and an exceptional photograph is good lighting. Low sun angles at sunrise and sunset can add brilliant color to the rock. Scattered clouds can also add depth to an image and a passing storm can provide extremely dramatic lighting.