Southwestern US, Travels, US National Parks

Island in the Sky – Canyonlands National Park, Utah (part I)

After two wonderful days in Arches National Park, it was time to explore Canyonlands. Canyonlands National Park is located west of US Highway 191 in southeastern Utah. The park is transected by both the Green and Colorado Rivers, which converge, effectively splitting the park into three disconnected sections. There are no bridges across either of the rivers.

The northern third is the Island in the Sky district. The western portion is The Maze district, and the southeastern section is The Needles district. The Maze can be accessed only by long drives down rough roads, for which a high-clearance 4WD vehicle is required. My mom’s Corolla obviously doesn’t fit this description. This is the most rugged and primitive section of the park, and is therefore the least visited.

The Needles and Island in the Sky are more developed and easily-accessible, though both of these districts also have some roads that can only be traversed with 4WD. We didn’t visit The Needles because it was significantly farther from where we were camped, but I’ve heard this area is extremely cool. Next time, I suppose.

From our campsite in Dead Horse Point State Park, it was just a 20-minute drive to the Island in the Sky visitor center, located just inside the northern park boundary. This is the only place in the Island in the Sky district that potable water is available, so we stocked up before leaving!

Beyond the Visitor Center, a paved scenic road extends 17 miles (27 km) into the park, providing access to overlooks and trailheads. The park road is Y-shaped; on day 1, we headed left at the fork. At the end of the left fork are Grandview Point Overlook and White Rim Overlook. From each parking area, an easy 2 mile (3.2 km) round-trip trail extends out to the edge of canyon, providing stellar views of both rivers and the rugged terrain.

Grandview Point

Grandview Point
Grandview Point Overlook
White Rim Overlook
White Rim Overlook

Working our way back down the road, we next came to Buck Canyon Overlook, a viewpoint overlooking Candlestick Towers, and a viewpoint that I don’t remember the name of.

Buck Canyon Overlook
Buck Canyon Overlook
Candlestick Towers Overlook
Candlestick Towers
Candlestick Towers Overlook
Canyonlands handstand


Next, back at the fork in the road, was the 0.5 mile (0.8 km) round-trip hike to Mesa Arch. Mesa Arch is a popular place to photograph the sunrise – but it’s very pretty later in the day as well.

Mesa Arch

Mesa Arch
Mesa Arch

And finally, on our way back towards the visitor center, was Shafer Trail Viewpoint. From here, we could see Shafer Trail and White Rim Road, 4WD roads that drop down into the canyon and follow the Green and Colorado Rivers through the Island in the Sky District.

Shafer Trail Viewpoint

Shafer Trail Viewpoint
Shafer Trail Viewpoint

I imagine these roads would be very neat to drive, though I don’t foresee myself ever owning a large 4WD vehicle. If any of you have ever driven them, I’d love to hear about your experiences!

The Important Stuff:

  • Getting there: the Island in the Sky district is located 33 miles (53 km) southwest of Moab, UT on Utah Highway 313. Maps are recommended, as a GPS may not lead you to the correct location
  • Fees & passes: $25 per car for 7 days
  • Camping: Willow Flat Campground; 12 sites, $15 per night, no water or firewood available; reservations not accepted
  • Hiking: there are short, easy trails to viewpoints, as well as difficult trails leading down into the canyons
  • Other: Water is available only at the visitor center. There is no food, lodging, or gas in the park, and cell phone service is spotty at best.

4 thoughts on “Island in the Sky – Canyonlands National Park, Utah (part I)”

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