The name of Great Basin National Park comes from the whole of the region between the mountains in eastern Utah (Wasatch Range) and those in California (Sierras). It comprises most of Nevada the northwest half of Utah and a bit of California and Oregon. The park didn’t get national park designation and protection until 1986.
Great Basin National Park is one of the least visited National Parks, and you will enjoy the solitude as you hike the trails. It is most known for the Snake Range of mountains that tower above the park and Lehman Caves.
The Snake Range of mountains, which include Wheeler Peak (12,305 feet) and Mt. Baker (12,298), are the main highlights of the park. These mountains are not remarkable compared to others in the Rockies, but what makes them unusual is how these mountains seem disconnected from the rest of the Rockies as they rise out of a mostly flat, desert environment. If you are visiting the canyon country of the area in the summer – places like Bryce Canyon National Park or Zion National Park, you will love the change of pace in this cool, mountain environment with cool temperatures and snow lingering in places well into June.
Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive
The main paved road that goes to the higher country is a great 12-mile drive that exceeds 10,000 feet above sea level. The road itself gains over 4,000 feet and offers many worthy opportunities at pullouts along the way. The diversity of life and terrain encountered is comparable to going from the desert to they frozen Yukon of the far north.
Along the drive, you’ll see a great variety of vegetation and trees, with noticeable changes as you gain elevation. Starting with sagebrush and pinyon pine, you’ll find Mahogany, fir and ponderosa pine. As you near the summit, the remarkable aspen trees will become common. Aspen trees are remarkable in that a grove of these trees may be one large organism as aspens reproduce by sending runners out underground to become new trees.
Note that single vehicles or trailers in excess of 24’ in length are not allowed on the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive.
Nice Mountain Lake Trails
Like all national parks, Great Basin offers its share of trails. My favorites are those up near the mountain peaks. There are several nice hikes of differing lengths available to you from the top of the Wheeler Peak Scenic Drive with most starting near the Wheeler Park Campground.
My favorite spot in the park is Stella Lake. It can be reached via the Alpine Lakes Loop Trail which is 2.7 miles round trip with 600’ of elevation gain from a starting point of 9,800’. The lake is smallish, but is scenic and placed strategically for a nice view of Wheeler Peak across the lake.
Lehman Caves is a nice cave located within Great Basin National Park. Read my detailed article on Lehman caves here.
The mountains within Great Basin National Park offer some good high-country hiking if you are interested in that. I have not done that here, but most hikes can be done in one long day or two easier days. Check out some good information at summitpost.org.
If you have a good high-clearance 4WD vehicle and some skills with it, you can visit this unusual arch (I haven’t made the trip yet). There is about a 3 miles round trip hike to see it once you’ve made the trip along the unmaintained 12-mile dirt road. As is so often the case, Lexington Arch is probably misnamed and is actually a natural bridge. It is unusual in that it is comprised of limestone instead of the usual sandstone. This leads to speculation that it was once part of a cave system, and flowstone at the base of the opening lends support to this theory. Read more about the arch here.
Location and Services
Great Basin National Park has minimal services available. The Lehman Caves visitor center has a restroom and a simple café that mostly serves snack foods or simple comfort foods. There are several simple but nice campgrounds available.
The park is kind of in the middle of nowhere in eastern Nevada near the Utah border. There is a small town nearby named Baker that doesn’t have much in the way of food or lodging. More than likely, you’ll need to stay at Ely, which is 67 miles to the west. You’ll find numerous lodging and food options there, as well as the requisite casinos.
Great Basin National Park is located in eastern Nevada near the border of Utah. It is a bit small for a national park and has few visitors. This is unfortunate, as it is a nice place to visit for a few hours or to overnight in the campground. The primary points of interest are Lehman Caves and the Snake Range of mountains, which include Wheeler Peak (12,305 feet) and Mt. Baker (12,298).
Note that all the pictures here are from our last trip that took place in early June.
At the bottom of the page are some useful links to my other articles on the subject.
Bryce Canyon National Park is one of my favorite national parks in all of the United States. With narrow rock spires and hoodoos, Bryce creates a fairytale-like experience that must be experienced to understand. Like so many beautiful natural areas, pictures do not do it justice.
Not strictly a canyon, Bryce is a collection of giant natural amphitheaters along the eastern side of the Paunsaugunt Plateau. As you approach the edge, you are greeted with thousands of spires of stones, carved from soft sandstone for eons by water, ice and wind. These are called hoodoos, and some are as high as 150 feet. Many hoodoos create tiny windows (small arches) or take on interesting shapes like the aptly named Thor’s Hammer.
The colors of Bryce would fit in well at South Beach or Curacao, with gentle oranges and pinks streaked with white making for an idyllic environment. The terrain is very inviting, and fortunately, there are hiking trails crisscrossing amongst the hoodoos that are highly recommended. The elevation drops about 500 feet for most trails and will make for a moderately difficult hike that is worth it if you can manage it.
Southern Utah is canyon country and has some of the most striking terrain in all the world. Being a desert-like environment makes for a very hot experience in the summer, but Bryce rises above all of this. The park sits on a high plateau with elevation that varies between about 8,000 to 9,000 feet and is a welcome relief from the heat of most areas nearby. The forests filling much of the park are filled with Blue Spruce and Douglas Fir that can reach almost 200 feet in height. The canyon edge is dotted with a variety of smaller pinyon and pine trees, including the Bristlecone pine which is considered the longest living organisms on earth with ages of several thousand years being known.
There are also occasional grassy areas with wildflowers in season, and you will often see deer, pronghorn antelope and elk grazing there. There are also many smaller mammals and birds to keep an eye out for. Please do not feed the wildlife. The ground squirrels in particular are used to getting handouts from well-meaning but mislead visitors.
Crowds of Folks
Bryce can get busy, but usually not oppressively so. In peak season, they will run a free shuttle to major locations within the park. Since parking can get hard to find when busy, the shuttle is a nice convenience and is recommended. In non-peak seasons, you can readily find parking everywhere you go.
Most of Bryce Canyon is accessible from a single road that leads from the main amphitheater down to Rainbow Point. There are numerous places to stop along the way for viewpoints, but in general, the hoodoos get smaller and less numerous as you drive south. I usually only go as far south as the Natural Bridge before doubling back. There are hiking trails that are accessible from some of these viewpoints all along the drive. I find them less compelling than those in the main amphitheater but they will be less visited.
The whole drive is about 18 miles each way, but you will have to drive fairly slowly for much of it. Please watch for cars coming in and out of parking for viewpoints.
Just as Bryce Canyon is mislabeled as a canyon, Natural Bridge is technically an arch. It is 85 feet high and is viewable a few steps from the parking area along the rim drive south of the main amphitheater.
The Rim Trail follows along the edge of the canyon in the main amphitheater area – from Fairyland Point south to Bryce Point. The trail leads to the various overlooks like Sunrise Point, Sunset Point and Inspiration Point. These overlooks can be driven to separately, but you are likely to just walk between some of them. The most popular hikes of the park are available from these overlooks. Note that Bryce Point and Fairyland Point are a good bit farther along, so you’ll need more time to hike to those from the main area.
Navajo Loop Trail
The most popular hiking trail at Bryce is the Navajo Loop Trail. This hike begins and ends at Sunset Point. If you go counter-clockwise on the trail, which is probably the easiest way to go, you begin the loop by descending through Wall Street – a switchback trail that descends between high walls of sandstone. Once past Wall Street, the trail mostly levels out for a more relaxed walk. From here, you’ll see the hoodoos from below, interspaced with the occasional tall tree that has managed to find a foothold amongst the hoodoos.
Once at the bottom, you have the option to go in different directions than completing the loop trail. The Peekaboo loop trail can be added to this hike, or you can divert to the Queens Garden Trail which I discuss below.
If you stay with the Navajo loop, the trail starts climbing gradually here but eventually more steeply, but never as steep as it was at Wall Street. You’ll pass by Two Bridges, which is a pair of small natural bridges along a side canyon. Near the top of the trail, you’ll see Thor’s Hammer on the right. The entire Navajo Loop trail is 1.3 miles, but the 550 feet down and back up makes it moderately difficult.
Queen’s Garden Trail
Queen’s Garden Trail begins at Sunrise Point. Apart from the Navajo Loop trail, Queen’s Garden is my favorite trail. It is a bit longer, but does a much more gradual descent/ascent into the canyon. You can take the trail down and back to the Queen Victoria formation, or do what I recommend, which is combine Queen’s Garden with half of the Navajo Loop for a whole hike of about 2.7 miles. Note that you will have to hike along the Rim Trail between Sunset and Sunrise Points but this is a pleasant walk.
Queens Garden is more open, with farther views than the closed-in Navajo Loop but still having a nice collection of hoodoos to explore. I like this trail more than the Navajo Loop for portrait photography.
Mossy Cave Trail
One other trail I want to highlight is the Mossy Cave Trail. This trail is not accessible from the main part of the park, but is found off of highway 12 a bit further north. The hoodoos here are shorter than the main area of the park, but there will be a lot fewer visitors here and the setting is quaint. The trail is a short one of 0.4 miles each way that climbs gradually next to a nice stream. The trail forks near the end, with the left side leading to Mossy Cave, which is not a real cave but a deep recess in the rock. Do not enter the cave itself as the moss is delicate. Note that in winter, the cave develops interesting icicles that do not completely melt until mid-summer. The right branch leads to a nice 15-foot waterfall that is very scenic when there has been enough rain to make it interesting. You can see all of it in about 30 minutes.
The Grand Staircase
Bryce Canyon is considered the top step of the Grand Staircase, a geological wonder in southern Utah and northern Arizona. Layers of sandstone create distinct layers of different colors of stone and varying hardness that is the building material of most of the irresistible scenery of the area. Starting at Bryce and ending at the floor of the Grand Canyon, the eroded sandstone layers feature prominently in many nearby locales, including Zion National Park, Monument Valley, Natural Bridges National Monument and hundreds of slot canyons.
Bryce in Winter
Bryce is a great place to visit in winter. The hoodoos are even more scenic when covered with snow, and the view is a very memorable one. Snow piles pretty deep here, so plan on trudging through the snow if hiking, making the trails harder to navigate. There is also cross-country skiing and you can rent snow shoes at Ruby’s Inn if you want to try them out. There is a winter festival at Ruby’s in February each year. Ice Skating and sleigh rides are also available.
The road to Bryce is kept open during winter, but recent snowfalls can close them for a while. Check on recent conditions and I recommend a high clearance vehicle as well as bringing along snow chains for tires.
Be a Careful Adventurer
Bryce Canyon is a pretty safe place to visit. The heat of the surrounding areas of Utah and Arizona is lessoned to a great extent by Bryce’s high elevation. It still gets warm, but not oppressively hot. Still, take enough water with you in the summer months. Also, the hiking trails do not stray as far into the wilderness so risk of getting in trouble far from help is minimal. There is also still the possibility of snakes and other biting things, although the risk is likely lessoned compared to some areas in the southwest. I’d recommend you not put your hands or feet into tight areas.
The main concern is drop offs as there are cliffs along the bowl of the hoodoos. These cliffs are not as high as many others in the area, but it is still best to be wary.
Winter in Bryce offers some new risks. Cold can be oppressive so bundle up appropriately. Also, stay farther away from cliff edges to remove risk of slippage.
Lodging and Food
There are not as many options near the park for lodging and food as I would like. The main complex is Ruby’s Inn right outside the entrance. They have several lodging options and a couple of restaurants as well some shops and a few purely tourist experiences. They offer horseback rides into the canyon as well which can be a nice way to see it. The lodging at Ruby’s is a little on the high side, but its location and availability of services is a big plus.
Bryce Canyon National park also has a nice lodge where you can stay right inside the park, but be aware that it fills up early and you’ll need to plan ahead to get lodging in busier seasons. The lodge offers some nice meal options as well.
There are a few other motels and restaurants scattered about the area, including a few in the nearby small town of Tropic. Ruby’s has a pretty large camping area including full hookups for RVs and you can camp in Bryce as well.
In wintertime, prices in general are cheaper due to far fewer visitors.
Park Pass Needed
Visitors to Bryce Canyon have to get a park pass at the entrance station. An annual pass for all national parks is a good deal if you are visiting several parks during a 12-month period. There are a lot of great national park options nearby such as Zion, Capitol Reef, Arches, Canyonlands and the Grand Canyon.
A gallery of pictures from Bryce Canyon National Park can be seen here.
Capitol Reef National Park is a somewhat unappreciated gem in our National Park system. Filled with sandstone cliffs nearly as tall as Zion, eroded cliffs and temples, natural bridges, wide vistas and slot canyons, it offers much to appreciate for any fan of wild country. Visited by ancient Fremont Culture natives who left their mark on the landscape in mostly subtle ways, you can see their imaginative rock carvings along the main road running through the park. Settled by Mormons in the 19th century who built orchards along the river where the visitor can still pick fruit in season.
Capitol Reef National Park is one of the ‘Mighty 5’ National Parks in Utah. This is mostly a marketing gimmick as Utah has an incredible 35 million acres of protected lands – that is 2/3 of the entire state. This includes 13 national parks. There are so many beautiful places in the state, inside of national parks and on other public lands as well, that you could spend a lifetime trying to see them all. Capitol Reef has always been much less visited than the more popular Zion, Bryce and Arches national parks, but visitation has grown a lot in recent years and crossed 1 million for the first time in 2016. As with all the national parks in Utah, visitation is greatest during the summer months. Despite this increase in visitation, you will have no trouble finding places to be alone with the beautiful scenery.
Capitol Reef gets its name not because of the existence of an ancient coral reef or anything like that, but because the huge waterpocket fold that runs along the entire length of the park looks at times like such a feature. The land folds due to great geologic forces that have twisted and flipped the landscape in a manner that will be wondrous to the casual visitor and make geologists giddy.
Most visitors to Capitol Reef only visit for a few hours, and keep to the well paved areas along highway 24 and the scenic drive south to Fruita and Capitol Gorge. Along highway 24 you’ll find several worthy places to stop and visit. If you have a high clearance vehicle, then more of Capitol Reef awaits your exploration and a couple of days will be needed to do it justice. Of course, if you are a back-country hiker, you can spend many days exploring.
Hickman Bridge is a nice easy hike suitable for families that take you to a nice natural bridge. Read all about it here or click the image.
Some excellent petroglyphs carved by the Fremont culture in approximately AD 600 to 1300 are available for easy viewing just a few steps from the parking right off of highway 24. The Fremont peoples, named for the Fremont River Valley in which their sites were discovered, were contemporaries to the Anasazi who left their mark in such places farther to the south as Mesa Verde, Canyon De Chelly and Chaco Canyon, to name but a few. The images are fanciful and what they are depicting is largely unknown. Some have gone so far as to claim they represent alien visitors.
The most prominent feature along highway 24 is probably The Castle, which is an eroded formation right across the road from the visitor center. Stop here for a bathroom break, fill your water bottles and get some information on the area.
West of the visitor center is another attractive spire called Chimney Rock. This red formation can be approached via a short hiking trail. Just to the east of Chimney Rock is a short hike to Panorama Point and Goosenecks Overlook. This overlook shows meandering canyons carved by a small river, but is not nearly as big as you will see at Goosenecks State Park or at Horseshoe Bend, but is still worth a look.
South on the Scenic Drive is the oasis of Capitol Reef: Fruita. Founded by Mormons in the late 19th century, its orchards once earned it the nickname “The Eden of Wayne County”. The residents never exceeded 10 families, however. When purchased by the NPS, most of the old buildings were razed. A few buildings remain, including the one room school house and the Gifford House, which sells a nice array of traditional treats. The fruit trees are carefully maintained and guests are allowed to harvest ripe fruit as long as care is taken to not harm the trees in any way.
The scenic drive continues south from Fruita along the western edge of the waterpocket fold. The views are nice as the cliffs are high and dramatic. Two canyons cut into the fold and, while unpaved, can be navigated for a bit by passenger car unless recent rains make it a danger or have washed the road out. The first is Grand Wash. This road features Cassidy Arch, which is high on the cliff and can be reached via a steep hike. You can’t drive too far into the wash but the entire distance can be hiked from this point over to where the wash ends at highway 24.
The more impressive canyon to me is Capitol Gorge. This gorge can be driven for a bit further and the walls close in more impressively. As with Grand Wash, you can walk further if you wish, but you’ll need to double back to your car. Both canyons are not navigable with longer trailers or RVs.
For those with a high clearance vehicle and the willingness to go off-road a bit, there are a couple places well worth your time. Cathedral Valley is an impressive area that will take about 6 hours to see in most cases. To do the loop requires fording a river that when passable is about 18 inches deep. The area is named for the eroded formations that look reminiscent to gothic cathedrals. Read all about Cathedral Valley here or click the image.
The other road available to high clearance vehicles is the Burr Trail. This dirt road follows the waterpocket fold south. There are some nice slot canyons along the way as well as some impressive switchbacks. The road splits at one point and you can either go west toward the small town of Boulder, Utah, or much farther south to Eggnog Junction and on to Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. There are other unpaved roads available as well. I haven’t made this trek yet, so it is still on my to-do list.
Be a Careful Adventurer
The paved areas of Capitol Reef will be well traversed by other travelers, but if you journey to any of the unpaved areas or hike any longer trails, make sure to be prepared. Services are few and far between and you cannot rely on someone else rescuing you. Take plenty of water and food – it can get very hot here in the summer months. City travelers can be surprised by the remoteness of places like this. We drove for 6 hours in the busy season in Cathedral Valley and met 2 cars total. There are also rattlesnakes, spiders and scorpions to consider. While the risk is small, do not put your extremities into tight places or into rock seams and holes, which are plentiful here.
Lodging and Food
There are not many options near the park for lodging and food. Plan ahead and bring a sandwich with you. You’ll have to stay at one of the motels in nearby small towns – Torrey, which is to the west of the park, is your best bet. Have a full tank of gas before proceeding off-road to Cathedral Gorge or the Burr Trail.
Park Pass Needed
Visitors to Capitol Reef have to get a park pass at the visitor center to go anywhere other than driving through the park on highway 24. Go to the visitor center to acquire the pass. An annual pass is a good deal if you are visiting several parks during 12 month period as you likely are if coming to Capitol Reef. Such nearby national parks as Arches, Bryce, Zion, Canyonlands and the Grand Canyon are natural inclusions in a visit to Capitol Reef.
A gallery of pictures from Capitol Reef National Park can be seen here.
Capitol Reef National Park is a nice, diverse park in central Utah. Featuring many interesting geologic features, the chief of which is the huge waterpocket fold that runs the length of the park, visitors can soak in the high sandstone cliffs, natural bridges, slot canyons and a myriad of other formations as well as learn the history of Mormon settlers and ancient Native American visitors to the area.
I have written a detailed article about the park here. Below are some hi-resolution pictures to whet your appetite.
Read a detailed article on Capitol Reef National Park here.
The White Rim Trail is one of America’s most interesting jeep trails. It is navigable by most high clearance vehicles for most of its length. It traverses the edge of the White Rim of Canyonlands National Park in the Island in the Sky district.
For our trip, we hired Navtec Expeditions to drive us out there. I would not hesitate to do it if I had my own appropriate vehicle, but since I didn’t, we had a nice trip being driven in their 4WD.
The route we took left from Moab, going north and then turned left on Potash Road (hwy 279). We stopped and took a look at the petroglyphs on the bluffs along the Colorado River and also took a look at Jug Handle Arch. We didn’t stop at Corona Arch on this trip, but went to it on another day. The hike there and back takes an hour or more.
Potash Road was paved up until it reaches the potash plant, where it became a dirt road that is in pretty good shape. The potash mine no longer sends men underground, but instead pumps the mines full of water and then places the water in large, shallow lakes where the water evaporates to leave the potash behind. These lakes were a rich blue that reminded me of clear, Caribbean waters.
The road meandered across rough terrain, climbing up to give nice views of the Colorado River at places along the trail. As we went, high bluffs rose on our right – this is where Dead Horse Point State Park is, although it can’t be reached from here without driving all the way around either through the 4WD trail through Long Canyon or back to Hwy 191 and around to hwy 313.
As we continued, we approached the Island in the Sky mesa directly in front of us and along our right. Potash Road intersected with Shafer Trail, where a park ranger met us to make sure we had the correct pass and to answer any questions we had. To the right, the road climbed up the steep, switchback trail to Hwy 313 that leads into Canyonlands National Park. We’ll go up that way on our way back, but for now, we turned to the left and continued along the White Rim Trail.
Soon, we arrived at a nice overlook of the Colorado called Gooseneck Overlook – so named since the river takes a hard turn here leaving a gooseneck of rock similar to what is seen in Goosenecks State Park 125 miles to the south. After a brief stop for pictures, we continued on, driving past Musselman Arch which we would stop for on the way back.
With the Island in the Sky mesa to our right, we meandered along the trail past eroded canyons and long vistas. Son, we turned down Lathrop Canyon. The road grew rougher here – I wouldn’t recommend this without a proper 4WD and good clearance. The road bumped along down to the canyon floor, where it smoothed out and followed the water course, often going through soft sand and gravel. We stopped here for a picnic lunch.
I would have preferred to continue along the road to the Colorado River, but our driver turned back and we retraced our path back up to the White Rim trail. We turned left and followed it until we reached a point where we could see the Washer Woman and the cliff edge where Mesa Arch sits. The arch was not visible from this distance, but it was neat to see Washer Woman from this side (she is visible through Mesa Arch). There was a much needed waterless toilet at this point.
We turned back and retraced our route. We stopped at Musselman Arch this time. The arch was an easy 300 foot hike from the parking area. After giving it a look, we got back in our ride and went up the Shafer Trail Road.
What a road this is! The dirt road does a number of sharp cutbacks as it works its way up the steep bluff to the mesa above. Precarious drop-offs made the trail very memorable but might not be for those who are afraid of heights. It reminded me of the Moki Dugway about 100 miles to the south.
Shafer Trail comes out at the entrance station for Islands in the Sky and Canyonlands National Park. There is plenty to see by going left, but we have already seen this and headed back toward Moab.
Hiring a driver and car made our visit pretty expensive, but I have wanted to see it for years. I would not hesitate to take a high clearance vehicle along his route, and a regular car might do ok for the route along Potash Road and up Shafer Trail – check conditions before trying this. Lathrop Canyon requires a proper 4WD for sure.
We only saw about one third of the White Rim Trail and I hope to get back to it in the future when I have my own 4WD vehicle and the time to make the entire route.
To see a gallery of hi-resolution pictures from our trip, go here.
Canyonlands National Park has a lot to see. Read about it here.
Utah is a great state for adventure! Read about more places to see and things to do here.
The White Rim Trail is a neat 4WD trail that runs along the river canyon in the Island in the Sky district in Canyonlands National Park. This road can be accessed a few miles outside of Moab, Utah, and is a great to spend a day or three riding in a jeep and is also popular on motor bike or bicycle.
Not having access to a 4WD, we hired Navtec Expeditions to take us along the trail for a day. Below are pictures from our trip. To get all the lowdown on what we did, please see the detailed article I wrote.
My detailed article on our trip on the White Rim Trail can be read here.
Canyonlands National Park has a lot to see. Read about it here.
Utah is a great state for adventure! Read about more places to see and things to do here.
Canyonlands National Park is a huge park in canyon country, Utah, United States. It is some of the most rugged landscape anywhere on earth and offers a traveler many opportunities for site seeing, hiking and adventure. The area is basically the confluence of two large rivers, the famous Colorado River and the historic Green River. South of the confluence is some of the best white water in America, the infamous Cataract Canyon. Rafting this canyon is a multi-day experience.
Most of Canyonlands National Park is remote territory that requires a significant investment in time, long hikes and/or 4WD trails that can take hours. Despite this, there are things to see and do that do not require major time commitments or physical exertions.
3 Parks in 1
Canyonlands National Park is comprised of three districts. These three areas back up against each other but are reached via different roads each about 100 miles apart. The three districts are Island in the Sky, the Needles and the Maze. You cannot travel between these three districts without exiting each and taking the long way around.
Island in the Sky District
The most accessible and subsequently most visited district is the Island in the Sky District. It is so named because the area features a high plateau the looms over the surrounding canyons below. To the east is the more scenic area that includes the White Rim. There are several areas of interest to the visitor and if you only take shorter hikes, you can see the district in a few hours. The evening is a neat time to see it as the shadows in the canyons lengthen and provide some dramatic lines as well as the nice evening color is nice and the high vantage gives a good view of the sunset. Sunrise is equally nice for the same reasons, and Mesa Arch provides a memorable shot in the morning.
Island in the Sky can be enjoyed by auto with short hikes for those who can’t commit to a longer hike. There are several short hikes that are also worth your time. Short hikes from various parking areas along the road offer great views of the valleys and eroded landscape that exists on all sides of island. Make sure to drive the entire length of the road and view each one.
Mesa Arch is one of the most photographed parts of Canyonlands National Park. This arch is situated on the edge of a cliff that allows for a great view of the valley beyond right through the arch. Read more about Mesa Arch here.
Another location that offers a nice shorter hike is Upheaval Dome. Geologists still debate over what caused this strange feature, with opinions ranging from a volcano to a meteor strike. It is clearly different from the eroded landscape about and appears as more of a wound. You can take a look yourself with a 1 mile round trip hike with 351 feet of elevation gain to gain a good view point. A second viewpoint is .5 miles further on. A trail circles the entire crater and there is also a spur trail into the center.
The less known False Kiva is located off of a trail not far from Upheaval Dome – this is on my to-do list and I will write about it when done. Until then, you can find a nice write up here.
Shafer Trail & White Rim Trail
One overlook is Shafer Canyon Overlook, which looks out over the Shafer Trail Road, a crazy dirt road that features steep drop-offs and switchbacks as it descends from the high plateau down to the canyon below. You can probably drive this in a passenger car, but check conditions. I wouldn’t go much farther on the roads beyond without a high clearance vehicle. This route leads to Potash on the left and to the White Rim trail on the right. Read about our trip on the White Rim trail here.
Dead Horse Point State Park
A nice companion stop to Island in the Sky is Dead Horse Point State Park. It overlooks the Colorado River and portions of Canyonlands National Park and other areas that are public lands. It will require a $15 day use fee per car.
The Needles District is so named due to a large concentration of needle-like spires and hoodoos that are common here. These orange and white sandstone features are only part of the attraction, as there are narrow slot-canyon trails and some of the world’s best off-road trails here. Elephant Hill and Devil’s Kitchen are amazing spots if you can get to them. There are also excellent trails to hike – most of the best ones take several hours but can be done in day hikes. Overnight hiking is also available if you want to go to more far-flung destinations. There is a limited amount of paved areas here that make the trip worthwhile if you have some extra time to make the drive out but are not able to make longer hikes. Needles is a wild area and is perfect for those who want to get away from civilization for a day or longer. I have not spent a lot of time here yet – hopefully I can flesh this out soon when I make a visit.
If Needles is wild, then the Maze District is even more so. This area of twisted canyons is only reachable from the west following long unpaved roads. The roads and the trails are less developed than the other districts of Canyonlands National Park. Nearby to the Maze District is Goblin Valley State Park, a neat park worth a stop, and there are numerous slot canyons nearby to it. The Maze District is another area that I hope to spend time at in the future – but I haven’t had the right vehicle yet.
To the west of the Islands in the Sky District is the Horseshoe Canyon unit of Canyonlands National Park. Getting to this place takes a good bit of driving and a 7.2 mile round trip hike that drops 660 feet. The reason for this unit’s existence is to protect some excellent rock art. The hike will pass several examples, including the Great Gallery featuring 20 unusual life-size human-like figures and other animal or unidentified objects – over 80 in all. It is recommended you do this hike in the spring or fall to avoid the excessive summer heat. To read more detail about this hike, go here.
To get to Island in the Sky, go north on highway 191 from Moab, Utah. After about 11 miles, turn left onto Utah 313 – you should see a sign for Canyonlands National Park. You’ll arrive at the entrance to Canyonlands National Park in about 14.6 miles.
To get to Needles, get to highway 191 between Monticello and Moab, Utah. Go west on highway 211. You will arrive at the Needles district in about 32 miles.
The Maze district is only reachable with unpaved roads. Go to highway 24, either south from I-70 or north from Hanksville, Utah. About 16 miles north of Hanksville, turn on the dirt route of Lower San Rafael Road, Hans Flat Road and National Park 777 to Recreation Road 633. This takes you to the Hans Flat ranger station. From here, the roads become 4WD only.
To get into any portion of Canyonlands National park requires a $10 per car fee (which is good for a week) or a previously purchased annual park pass.
The town of Moab is a natural base of operations if you are in the area. Arches National park is just north of Canyonlands National Park and is an amazing destination that should be included in your visit to the area. There are many other things to do in the surrounding country.
I’ve posted a hi-resolution gallery of pictures from Canyonlands here.
To read about other National Parks in America, go here.
Utah features some of the most interesting terrain in the world. Read about things to do here.
Canyonlands National Park is one of America’s most distinctive landscapes. The canyons, mesas, arches and other amazing features that fill the park are almost otherworldly in their beauty. Improbably eroded formations and the twisted path of the Colorado and Green rivers as they tumble through the canyons before meeting in the center of the park make for near endless exploration opportunities. Much of the park is remote and challenging to reach on one level or another, but there are paved roads in places that make it accessible to nearly anyone.
The park is divided into three major districts: Island in the Sky, Needles and the Maze. Each is different from the other and worth your time to visit. To learn more about this interesting but challenging to visit park, read my detailed Canyonlands National Park article.
Below are some hi-resolution pictures from the park.
Read details about Canyonlands National Park here.
To read about other National Parks in America, go here.
Utah features some of the most interesting terrain in the world. Read about things to do here.
Arches National Park feature some of the most unusual and memorable landscapes in the world. Set aside as a National Monument in 1929, it became a national park in 1969. It is 76,519 acres in size, with the majority of visitors in March through October, particularly during the summer. Like most national parks in the U.S., attendance is growing rapidly, reaching over 1.5 million in 2016, but is still not in the top-10 most visited national parks.
Arches National Park has the world’s largest concentration of natural arches in the world. Other striking geologic features, such as sandstone fins, balanced rocks and pinnacles add to the experience. The sandstone is of varied colors but mostly run to a bright orange-red that makes for great photography when contrasted against a bright-blue sky. The shapes of the stones are so dramatic that some early travelers speculated that they were the remains of some ancient civilization. For us, it is just an example of the wonder of creation and the power of erosion.
Wile E. Coyote
As a child who grew up watching Looney Tunes cartoons, the landscapes of Arches National park are reminiscent of the landscapes where Wile E. Coyote always failed miserably trying to catch the Road Runner. This is no accident – the cartoonists were inspired by Arches and other areas in the American Outback when they made the cartoons. And while it’s unlikely you will see any road runners or coyotes rushing about, it will be hard not to imagine some of the rocks dropping from their precarious ledges.
Lots of Arches
The National Park Service will tell you that there are over 2,000 arches within the park. But they include arches as small as a few feet – little more than windows in my vernacular. You can expect to reliably see 20 or so good sized arches in a couple of days if you are willing to make the hikes. If you include surrounding arches outside of Arches National Park but still near Moab (such as Corona Arch and Mesa Arch), add another ten or so, but you’ll need a bit more time. You can find additional arches to see in the local area by looking at my broader arches and natural bridges page.
Entrance and Visitor Center
When you get to Arches National Park, stop at the visitor center if you would like to learn a bit about the park. It is also your last chance to use a nice bathroom within the park (the rest are primative) or to get fill water bottles. After you leave the visitor center, you’ll drive up a steep road to get to the plateau where you’ll spend the rest of your time in the park.
The first area you’ll come to is the Courthouse Towers section of the park. The landscape here features dramatic towers and cliffs – incredibly narrow and tall. The large arches that once existed here collapsed long ago, but the terrain is still memorable. Stop at the Park Avenue viewpoint and hike through it if you desire. A portrait against this background is excellent. As you round the corner, there is a turnout to look at the La Sal Mountains in the distance. These 12,000+ foot tall mountains are snow covered into the late spring and will be an excellent backdrop for some of the pictures you’ll take in Arches National Park – particularly at Delicate Arch.
After that, you’ll reach a turnout where you can see the several tall towers. The Organ will be first, followed by the Tower of Babel, which appears to have a few sycophants climbing to the top. On the left across the road will be the formation known as the Three Gossips. Just past that is Sheep rock, which is the edge of what was once a large arch.
The Great Wall
After the Courthouse Towers, you’ll have about a 6 mile drive with fewer reasons to get out of your car, but take your time and take in the landscape. It is dramatic Great Wall will appear on your left about half way with petrified dunes on your right. There are also numerous rock pinnacles along the way.
The next place you’ll want to stop Balanced Rock. This features a short hike that circles the rock and lets you see it from all sides. As you approach it, it looks the most precarious. Rising about 128 feet high and estimated to weigh 3500 tons, it once had a smaller balanced rock companion known as Chip of the Old Block that fell in 1975. This is a reminder that the landscape of Arches National Park changes rapidly – Balanced Rock will fall from its perch some day.
A turn to the right leads to the next highlight in the park. The Windows Section features some of the easiest to see and dramatic arches in the world. First comes a region of pinnacles called the Garden of Eden. Past that, is the loop road with a pair of parking areas that give access to The North and South
The next highlight is the most famous arch in the world, Delicate Arch. There are two ways to experience the arch. If mobility is an issue, you can look at it from across the Salt Valley Wash from the Lower and Upper Arch Viewpoints (the latter being reached by a short hike). The better way is to hike up to the arch itself from Wolfe Ranch. Read about this hike at my post on Delicate Arch.
Fiery Furnace is the next area you will come to in Arches. This area has restricted access and you need a hiking pass to enter. It features some of the most dramatic landscape in the park, with tightly packed sandstone fins and hidden arches like Surprise Arch and Skull Arch. You’ll have to plan ahead to get here, and I talk all about your options and what you will see in my post on the Fiery Furnace.
The last easily access area in Arches National Park is the Devils Garden. This area features about 10 impressive arches, most of which require some degree of hiking. Highlights include Sand Dune Arch, Tunnel Arch, Pine Tree Arch and Landscape Arch, one of the biggest in the world. Hikes range from a few hundred yards to nearly 8 miles. To learn all about what there is to see, check out my detailed article on the Devil’s Garden.
If you have a good off-road vehicle, you can drive the unpaved road out to Klondike Bluffs and see Tower Arch and the Marching Men. This is still on my to-do list.
Lots to do
As you can see, there is lots to see in Arches National park. Any length visit is worthwhile. You could see the Courthouse Towers and Windows section in a few hours and have a great experience. But I recommend staying in Moab a few days and take in more of Arches as well as nearby Canyonlands National Park and the many other activities and worthy sites located in the region on other public lands. Moab is one of the premier mountain bike locations in the world and is also widely known as a jeeping capital. Adventure and beauty awaits.
Arches National Park is located in eastern Utah in the United States, near the town of Moab. It can be accessed by car by travelling from either east or west via I-70 and then taking either Hwy 191 (from the West) or Hwy 128 (from the east). Another likely approach is from the south via Hwy 191 north from Arizona where there are other interesting locations like Monument Valley and the Grand Canyon. The closest major airport to Arches Salt Lake City, Utah.
It costs $10 per vehicle for a 7 day pass. If you are going to numerous national parks and monuments, then the Golden Eagle, which provides for 1 year of access to all national parks and monuments, is a good value at $80. Access to the Fiery Furnace section in Arches National Park requires a separate hiking pass – go to my article on the Fiery Furnace for details.
There is a nice bathroom at the visitor station at the entrance as well as potable water. There are only outhouse-type toilets after this within the park, other than at at Devil’s Garden campground. Food, lodging and gas are in nearby Moab.
Be a Careful Adventurer
Arches is a very visited park, and you are likely to never be alone on any of the popular hikes. But stay on the trails and bring plenty of water with you. It gets extremely hot in Arches during the late spring through early fall. Know your limits and take your time. There are few high cliffs as such, but plenty of places where a fall could cause serious injury if you are not careful, but most of the hikes follow easy, safe trails. Elevation on hikes is fairly flat – Delicate Arch is probably the hardest hike as far as going uphill.
Thievery is not a big problem in most national parks, but please take proper precautions. Don’t carry a lot of valuables with you and don’t leave them visible in your car – lock them in your trunk when you leave for the park in the morning.