Canyonlands National Park's Sky Islands, Mazes and Needles

Canyonlands National Park

Redeo, Flickr

Canyonlands National Park is a bit of a curiosity in the wide portfolio of U.S. national parks. Try and compare it to other parks - you'll be left scratching your head. And while the neighboring Arches National Park has seen a major tourist boom over the last few years, Canyonlands continues to hold its own among outdoor enthusiasts.

As one of many Southern Utah national parks Canyonlands certainly has its fair share of breathtaking geological structures.

Yet the combination of the Colorado and Green Rivers and millennia of natural erosive processes has yielded some of the most isolated and diverse districts of any national park.

Chalk this beauty up to erosiveness.

Islands in the Sky, Mazes and Needles


Canyonlands National Park is divided into three distinct sections: Island in the Sky, Needles, and Maze. Separated by rivers, there are no roads that directly link these three districts together.

"Although they may appear close on a map," says the National Park Service, "traveling between them requires two to six hours by car." This typically means that all but the most ambitious trip will include only one of these districts. There's also a separate smaller fourth section called Horseshoe Canyon, added in 1971.

The wide array of geological features found in each area lends to the mystique of the park. Island in the Sky is a hikers' Mecca (see photo above), featuring at least eight major trails of between one and 20 miles in length. Resting on a giant mesa, all the trails lead through or to arches, upheaval domes, and boulders. Out at Needles you'll find amazing sandstone spires that rise up grandly from the valley. It also has some prominent hiking trails, including the lengthy Salt Creek Canyon trail.

As one of the most challenging districts in the park to traverse, Maze requires a bit more careful planning. In fact, Backpacker Magazine ranked Maze as one of America's 10 most dangerous hikes in 2008, and for good reason. There are very few officially marked trails and the terrain is difficult, even for 4WD vehicles. You'll want to couple a Canyonlands National Park map with a recent USGS topographical map and a GPS. You also should be well versed in reading maps.

Traveling and Accommodations


The nearest major town to the park is Moab (not the "Mother Of All Bombs), which is roughly 35 miles from Islands in the Sky, 75 miles from Needles, and 250 miles from Maze.

The closest airport to Moab is Canyonlands Field (CNY), approximately 18 miles north of downtown. Great Lakes Airlines flies to Moab through Denver twice a day. You can rent a vehicle from Enterprise at Canyonlands Field or from other companies in Moab. (All-terrain vehicles are available.)

There are numerous hotels in Moab for those wanting to make one or more day trips to Canyonlands National Park. Camping is also an option at the park, though services are somewhat limited. Note that group camping is handled differently. (Learn more about camping Canyonlands here.)

More Information

• Despite a March 18 extension of three weeks, the U.S. government is still in danger of a shutdown, which could close the park during much of its peak spring tourist season. Be aware.
• The White Rim Road is set to reopen in full at the end of March.
• You can find basic Canyonlands National Park maps here. Don't hesitate to use more detailed topo maps on a trip.
• Aside from an entrance fee, you'll want to be aware of additional necessary permits for various activities in the park.
• Paddling fees on the Green and Colorado river in the park will increase starting March 31.
• The death jump of Thelma and Louise was supposedly filmed in or very close to Canyonlands. Avoid death jumps where possible.

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