34 miles W of Moab, 304 miles SE of Salt Lake City
Utah's largest national park is not for the sightseer out for a Sunday afternoon drive. Instead, it rewards those willing to spend time and energy -- lots of energy -- exploring the rugged backcountry. Sliced into districts by the Colorado and Green rivers, which are the park's primary architects, this is a land of extremes: vast panoramas, dizzyingly deep canyons, dramatically steep cliffs, broad mesas, and towering red spires.
The most accessible part of Canyonlands is the Island in the Sky District, in the northern section of the park, where a paved road leads to sites such as Grand View Point, which overlooks some 10,000 square miles of rugged wilderness. Island in the Sky has several easy-to-moderate trails offering sweeping vistas. A short walk provides views of Upheaval Dome, which resembles a large volcanic crater but may actually have been created by the crash of a meteorite. For the more adventurous, the 100-mile White Rim Road takes experienced mountain bikers and those with high-clearance four-wheel-drive vehicles on a winding loop tour through a vast array of scenery.
The Needles District, in the southeast corner, offers only a few viewpoints along the paved road, but boasts numerous possibilities for hikers, backpackers, and those with high-clearance 4X4s. Named for its tall, red-and-white-striped rock pinnacles, this diverse district is home to impressive arches, including the 150-foot-tall Angel Arch, as well as grassy meadows and the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers. Backcountry visitors will also find ruins and rock art left by the Ancestral Puebloans (also known as Anasazi) some 800 years ago.
Most park visitors don't get a close-up view of the Maze District, but instead see it off in the distance from Grand View Point at Island in the Sky or Confluence Overlook in the Needles District. That's because it's inhospitable and practically inaccessible. A lot of endurance and at least several days are necessary to see even a few of its sites, such as the appropriately named Lizard Rock and Beehive Arch. Hardy hikers can visit Horseshoe Canyon in 1 day, where they can see the Great Gallery, an 80-foot-long rock art panel. The Maze is a great destination if you don't want to see many people. Estimates say that in one recent year about 40,000 people visited the Island in the Sky, about 20,000 visited the Needles, but only 546 ventured into the Maze.
The park is also accessible by boat, which is how explorer Major John Wesley Powell first saw the canyons in 1869, when he made his first trip down the Green to its confluence with the Colorado, and then even farther downstream, eventually reaching the Grand Canyon. River access is from the towns of Moab and Green River; several local companies offer boat trips.