Raw and rugged is what best describes Canyonlands National Park. Some call it the Great American Outback, with its relatively unchanged landscape since Powell first wandered through during his expeditions along the Colorado River. Within the heart of this high desert persists wonders far too vast to see within a week. Vivid colors painted across a panorama of canyons, spires, arches, fins, mesas, and buttes. All of it put to shape by water and gravity from the twisting Green and Colorado Rivers. As both rivers converge, they distinctly divide Canyonlands into three land districts. To the north and between the two rivers is Island In the Sky, which is close to Moab and most frequented by tourists. After the convergence of the two rivers is the remote Needles district, located just southeast. The Needles is filled with weird and curious geological formations and is the playground for many hikers, canyoners, and overnight backpackers. Finally, to the southwest, is The Maze district, the most isolated of the districts, and requiring a four-wheel drive and high-clearance vehicles or a boat via river to reach. The fourth and final district are the rivers themselves, the heart of Canyonlands, which cut through layered sandstone to form two deep canyons.
Island in the Sky
Island in the Sky is a high mesa and rises over 2000 feet above the confluence of the two rivers. Preferred by driving tourists who want easy access to amazing overlook views and wide panoramas, this district has some of the best distance views of both rivers and of the other two districts. Grand View Point Road, the main road of the park, leads 15 miles southward from the visitor center and has one spur road leading towards the northwest and Upheaval Dome. If you do the whole tour it’s about 34 miles round trip. At the visitors center, they even sell an audio CD you can play during your driving tour, leading you to each of the driveable overlooks.
Grand View Point
For our first hike, we went to see the famed Grand View Point, which has the best views found in the Island in the Sky. We drove to the end of the main road and then took an easy in-and-out 2-mile trail. Popular with the tourists we decided to go in the late afternoon to avoid crowds. The path was very well maintained but then turned to a red Slickrock trail near the end. Along the way, the trail is rich with stunning views and wondrous vistas. I found it hard to stop gawking and remember to watch my step: I am hiking on a mesa along the top of a sheer cliff after all.
At my first million-dollar view, there’s a grand panorama of Monument Basin, which looks like a strange abstract hole carved out of a landscape, then littered with temples and spires of stone within. Further into the skyline is the La Sal Mountains, just barely glinting in the distance. Along the edge of the basin, there’s a thin white outline of a dirt road: White Rim Road. You can drive on that road for a wonderous 2-day tour of the Island in the Sky, but it comes with warnings such as “4-wheel drive with high clearance required” and “bring a full spare tire” and, (my favorite) “Minimum cost to tow out is $1000.”
The trail then moves inland and then out right to another cliff, facing northwest toward another incredible view. Just below is Murphy’s Basin, and then cliffs of Murphy’s Point just above that. The day is clear and I can see Candlestick Tower, an isolated pinnacle of Wingate sandstone surrounded by open plains, just north of Soda Springs Basin. I even pick out Steer Mesa, named by the cattle rangers of the 1880s, its walls stand over 2000 feet tall from Holeman Spring Basin. These cliffs are said to shine a bright flame orange during sunset.
Moving further southward, we finally reach Grand View Point itself. Looking to the south, there is a fine view of Junction Butte, and although I cannot see them, are the Green and Colorado Rivers – here their course runs so deep within their canyons, I would need another 1000 feet or more in altitude to view them from here.
Another viewpoint that comes highly recommended is Murphy’s Point. Once a dirt road, this 2-mile one-way trail is less frequented by tourists, and you are almost guaranteed for a private viewing of one of the most spectacular sunsets Canyonlands National Park has to offer. This is also the starting place for the more adventurous overnight backpackers since the trail forks off, heads down a set of switchbacks, and into the basin, along Murphy Loop Trail.
When we got to the trailhead we were pleasant surprised by a sea of grass filled with lemony colored flowers at the trailhead. The hike is wonderfully easy and very straight, passing through at least three different plant ecosystems. I especially enjoyed the hike through the wispy tall grass meadow sprinkled with wildflowers and the occasional juniper tree. The land then transformed into a small and sparse forest filled with short stubby juniper trees and petite pinyon pines you could easily mistake for tall shrubs. At the end of the trail near the viewpoint, the terrain turned into sandstone and slickrock, where we were surrounded by green Mormon tea, blackbrush, four-wing saltbush and cliffrose shrubs.
At the end of it all is Murphy’s Point and a panorama lit up in the golden hues of sunset. Upon the ramparts, the view is wide and far. Within a single breath, I could see the lone Candlestick tower, the Turks Head, and Soda Spring Basin. In the far horizon, the rugged land of The Maze seemed to enthrall my imagination and trepidation. Its one of the few viewpoints where you can camp provided you have a permit for the area. Keep in mind that only one group per night is allowed to stay there, so you could have the place all to yourself.
Canyonlands is a place of endless wonder and enough mysteries to satisfy the curious adventurer. In the words of Edward Abbey, a frequent visitor, “The Canyonlands is the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth—there is nothing else like it anywhere.”