The second of the national parks that we visited while staying in Moab, Canyonlands National Park is quite a bit different from the nearby Arches NP. Two significant rivers converge here – the Green River and the Colorado River – and the deep canyons they have carved into the plateau are really spectacular. In a way, visiting Canyonlands is a bit like visiting the Grand Canyon which is not too far away actually; just a couple hundred miles if you’re a crow flying. At both places, erosive forces of great rivers have eaten away at the soft rock, leaving behind deep canyons that have been been re-shaped over millions of years by rain, wind, and ice.
Visiting the primary Visitor Center for Canyonlands and driving along the park’s scenic main road requires a 40-mile drive from Moab – this place is really quite remote!
There are three sections to the park, and many also count the rivers as their own section, for boating and paddling have long been popular activities here.
The main area, Island in the Sky, houses the Island in the Sky Visitor Center, thus sees the most visitors. With minimal effort at a few get-out-of-the-car-and-walk-just-a-bit places, one can see some pretty spectacular views looking out onto the deep river-cut canyons nearly a mile below where the roads and overlooks from which one views them are located back up on the plateau.
A second area, The Maze, requires a high-clearance 4WD vehicle to get back into, thus is visited really only by backcountry campers who drive slowly on unpaved roads for great distances to reach very primitive spots in the park.
A third district, The Needles, was calling our names because a couple of the hikes in this section were longer – we were looking for 10+ miles for some really good exercise – and the descriptions of this unique area of the park were inviting.
And so it went that we drove 85 miles very early last Saturday morning to get to The Needles (we arrived at The Needles Visitor Center at 8 a.m.; you do the math to see how early we had to get up to make it down here by this time to ensure we got one of the limited parking spots at the Elephant Hill trailhead!),
then another several miles, the last three on a dirt road, to get to the above-mentioned trailhead that promised to lead us to a spectacular out-of-the-way arch called Druid Arch.
I’ll just say the early wake-up call, the hour-and-a-half drive to get there, and the 5.5 miles to reach Druid Arch and another 5.5 miles to get back to the car were worth it! We enjoyed a really wonderful hike up and over some rock formations and slickrock following the Chesler Park Trail for about an hour before branching off to travel along the bottom of Elephant Canyon, gradually making our way up the canyon through deep sand in parts and over loose rock. The last quarter-mile was a pretty steep climb with some scrambling and a ladder to take us to our final destination – the arch. You’ll have to scroll through the photos, below, to see this amazing 400′ high arch – it was pretty spectacular…!
Hover your cursor over the photo, below, then use the arrows to scroll through photos of our hike in The Needles to Druid Arch:
Canyonlands National Park is well worth the extra driving and effort to reach it. The fact that it is off the beaten trail a bit (no pun intended!) ensured that the trails and overlooks were far less crowded than some of the other, more popular parks we have visited thus far. The expanses of the deep, river-cut canyons… the beautiful mesas and rock formations… the solitude of hiking among the spires… this rugged, untamed, wild place is another gem in the great state of Utah, and we will return for more of all of the above.