Canyonlands National Park Travel Guide
Over millions of years, the Colorado River and Green River have been having been busy at work creating the wonderous Canyonlands National Park of southern Utah. Deep canyon crevices, high mesas, and winding rivers make for excellent photography, mountain biking, hiking, and rock climbing. Located minutes from Moab, Utah, this park is easy to get to, and very close to Arches National Park. Read on to find fun activities to do in Canyonlands, places to stay, and scenic images of this beautiful National Park.
The red fingers of stone beckoned to us, drawing us off the highway into a world where the rocks are shaped like giant hornos – the adobe bread ovens commonly used by the Native Americans. The gray-hatted La Sal Mountains rose to the right hinting at the sweeping views of Canyonlands National Park to come.
If you have limited time and need to choose between the Needles and Anticline Overlooks, veer left when the road forks and visit Needles. You’ll know you’re on the right track when you encounter a sandstone rock, sculpted to look like rippling waves.
How was Canyonlands created?
Over millions of years, sediment was deposited on the Colorado Plateau, forming flat layers of rock. Roughly fifteen million years ago, volcanic activity raised the Moab area to about 5000 feet above sea level. The Colorado and Green Rivers, along with ice, eroded the land, carving canyons that are up to two thousand feet deep. To complicate matters, the region sits on the Paradox Formation, a layer of salt below the rock, which shifts to create domes and valleys.
Layers of Rock
These layers of rock have fancy names. Here are the layers at Canyonlands, from youngest (nearest the top) to oldest.
- Navajo Sandstone
- Kayenta Formation
- Wingate Sandstone
- Chinle Formation
- Moenkopi Formation
- Cutler Group
- Hermosa Group
To give you an idea of how old these are, the newest two layers contain dinosaur tracks.
Backtrack to the turnoff for the Anticline Overlook, a seventeen-mile long, unpaved road. We managed it in a four-wheel vehicle and passed larger sedans driving without any obvious difficulty, but you might want to leave your Smart Car at home. The speed limit is 40 mph, which is optimistic bordering on delusion.
During the jarring drive, which tests how securely your joints are connected to your ligaments, you may notice herds of grazing cattle. Alternatively, you could just focus on not biting your tongue with each jolt – the first mile is by far the worst.
The overlook is located on a promontory and, as a result, the view stretches out in three out of four directions. The rocks are Chinese red, a color so named because it is commonly used on lacquered wood in China. The hue changes where a white line of sediment bands the canyons (the White Rim). Far below, the Colorado River twists, a green snake slithering across the earth. The La Sal Mountains are incongruous in the background, reaching up when the rest of the terrain plunges downwards.
This is a great option for anyone with mobility issues. The Anticline Overlook can only be reached by a scramble over some rocks, but the Minor Overlook allows you to drive a short loop around a rock that juts out over the canyons.
There are several designated viewing points on the side of the road nearest the drop-off – unless you’re driving British-style, it makes more sense to stop at these on the return journey.
The third viewing point allows you to see the Wineglass. Look up and to the right for the light shining through a gap in the rock – that’s the wineglass’ stem.
You won’t miss out by skipping the second viewing area, but take a moment to admire the first one, which reveals three buttes. In the afternoon, they seemed a hazy blend of gray, blue, and purple.
- The Needles Overlook Road is off the 191. Assuming you’re coming from Monticello and heading north, make a left approximately seven miles after the turnoff for the 211. From the start of the road, it is twenty-two miles on paved roads to the Needles Overlook and thirty-two miles to the Anticline Overlook (the last part is unpaved).
- The land surrounding the road is open range. There are numerous cattle guards, most of which are marked by signs decorated with black and yellow angled stripes. You do not want to miss said signs and travel over a cattle guard at speed.
- Roadside assistance is a long way off and you are unlikely to have a consistent cell signal.
Things to do in Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands is a popular backcountry hiking that’s divided into sections, like the Needles district. Permits are needed for much of the hiking, boating, and other recreation.
Layers of “suburnt strata” and miles of wide canyon expanses make for unmatched mountain biking anywhere in the country. The huge open area of Canyonlands is inaccessible by car in many areas, so mountain biking is the perfect alternative.
Rock climbing in Canyonlands is largely unmonitored and unrestricted, but you should take extreme caution: this place is a very difficult climb! The steep canyon walls are not for beginners. Also, rock climbers must stop at the visitor’s center to see the latest rules and regulations to protect the archaeology of the park.
The desert photography is one of the best reasons to head to Canyonlands. The canyon is not as large or deep as the Grand Canyon, but the park is more remote, unvisited, and has a different makeup than the Grand Canyon. The landscape varies so much from huge mesas and winding rivers to rocky canyon rim overlooks, it’s really like comparing apples and oranges for photographers. The link above has some excellent desert photography tips for your trip.
Fishing, Boating, Four Wheeling and More Hiking
The park has an enormous amount of activities to take part in, like fishing in the Green River, boating, four-wheeling and jeeping. Read this guide to find more activities within the area.
Canyonlands is a Mountain Biker’s Dream!
The rugged terrain and vast trails of Canyonlands make for the perfect ride!
Mountain biking is a huge sport in southern Utah, especially in Moab. With nearby Arches and Capitol Reef National Park, the area offers some of the best scenic opportunities and riding in the country. When biking in the Canyonlands, keep plenty of water with you and consider traveling later in the day or earlier to avoid the peak sun, which often hits above 100 degrees.
Where to Stay Near Canyonlands National Park
Accommodations and hotels near the park
River Canyon Lodge
Stylish, comfortable rooms in the heart of Moab. Close to Canyonlands and Arches, and the reasonably priced for the budget traveler.
Sunflower Hill Bed and Breakfast
Rated #3 overall on Trip Advisor! This beautiful 4 diamond B & B in Moab is one of the best places you can stay in town. Guests call it “splendid!,” “quaint!,” and has “excellent breakfast and location!”
Red Cliffs Lodge
You really can’t get much better than Red Cliffs Lodge! Serene cabin settings with beautiful red cliffs in the background make this the #1 rated place on Trip Advisor, along with great breakfasts and a quiet atmosphere.
Sleep Inn Moab, Moab,UT
Probably one of the best deals in Moab, this has clean rooms and decent reviews on Trip Advisor from people that have stayed there. Rated #6 overall out of 33.
Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Moab, Moab,UT
Rated #7, one of the best hotels in Moab!
Sorrel River Ranch Resort
Wow! The view on the home page of this site is impressive. Voted #2 on Trip Advisor. AAA four-diamond certified, this hotel is situated away from the downtown area of Moab and is surrounded by beautiful red cliffs. It’s also right on the Colorado River!
More hotels in the area:
Super 8 Motel – Moab, Moab, UT
Find more places to stay in Moab on this page, with further details on some of Moab’s best hotels.
Jeep Road Trails and Hiking Trails in Canyonlands
A guide to travel the beautiful Canyonlands off-roading in a jeep!
Unlike other National Parks in the United States, Canyonlands is a popular jeep off-roading destination. The beautiful area has a lot to see by jeep, but there are rules to follow and places that you should make a priority to see. Read this guide to find out what to see, when to go, and how it can be done!
Where is Canyonlands?
Canyonlands National Park on Google Maps
Canyonlands National Park is located in eastern Utah near the Colorado border. The closest town is Moab, which is right outside the park. Zoom in or zoom out for greater detail on this map.
- Canyonlands National Park Travel Guide