Review of Canyonlands National Park in Utah: The largest of the Utah national parks with spectacular views of canyons and buttes!


Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Prior to planning our (my wife and I) cross country road trip, we wanted to really focus on national parks and national monuments along the way.  Our trip would take us from North Carolina to California, and as you can imagine, mapping all these national parks/monuments was a monumental challenge.  

In our planning, we knew we would skip Grand Canyon National Park, as we had previously visited it, but we knew we would add Zion National Park, as that was our favorite national park out of all the national parks we had visited.  After visiting the awesome Petrified Forest National ParkMeteor Crater Natural Landmark, and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, up to that point in our current trip, we were ready to visit the famous Utah Big 5 National Parks!

On the afternoon of December 27th, we were heading out of Monument Valley in Arizona towards our next destination, in Moab, Utah.  Google Maps showed it would take a little under 3 hours to get to our hotel, Sleep Inn & Suites in downtown Moab.  

We arrived at around 3 o’clock in the afternoon, then checked into the hotel.  By that time of our trip, we had already stayed at a Sleep Inn & Suites at Page (AZ), so we kind of knew what to expect.  After getting our keys to our room, we noticed immediately that the size of the hotel was different.

The one in Moab was bigger than the one in Page, and the Moab hotel had two elevators while the Page hotel had one.  It certainly made going up to our 3rd floor room much easier and quicker…

We opened the door to our room and we loved it!  Room was bright, airy, clean, with modern furnishings (just like the other Sleep Inn), and it had a good view of the Utah’s uniquely colored rocks in the distance. We got to enjoy the changing views every single day: during a rainy, a snowy, a cloudy, or a sunny day.

Sleep Inn & Suites, Moab, UT
View from our room

The next morning, we got up, then got ready for our first of Utah Big 5 National Parks, Canyonlands National Park.  Canyonlands National Park is the largest national park in the state of Utah at 527 square miles.  The park is so big that we eventually decided to take many travel experts’ tips to see Island in the Sky district, which is 32 miles from the town of Moab.  

We, in fact, started seeing signs for Canyonlands National Park as we were driving up from Monument Valley just the day prior.  We briefly thought about turning into the southern part of the park, but decided against it, as we had not researched the park all that much at that time…

There are 5 different districts in Canyonlands National Park.  Those include: Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, Horseshoe Canyon Unit, and the Rivers.  To truly experience Canyonlands, one would need to spend a month to properly see the park, and we only had three days to see this and Arches National Park.  

We headed out of our hotel in downtown Moab, turned north towards US-191.  About 5 miles out, we passed Arches National Park to our right, which would be our next destination for the next day.

We turned left on UT-313 going west, which took us on some of the most beautiful roads we’ve ever driven on.  The colorful reddish/brownish rocks jutted straight up into the cloudy skies, creating a landscape that felt magical and inviting…

Heading to Canyonlands!

We climbed more and more, with every mile bringing us closer to Canyonlands.  As the elevation increased, we started seeing the first signs of an impending snowfall.  We started seeing a snowflake here and there as we got near the Island in the Sky visitor center.

The Island in the Sky sits on a 1000 foot high mesa with spectacular views of the surrounding terrain.  We pulled over to the visitor center hoping to use the restroom.  What we found is a composting toilet and not a flushing toilet.  For those of you not used to that, you should prepare before you head up there, as there are no flushing toilets anywhere.

We headed out of the visitor center with weather turning gloomier by the minute.  We wanted to see what we could that day, as we knew we could come back in two days to see more of the park.  

We pulled over at the Shafer Canyon Overlook, noticing many cars already parked at the parking lot.  We walked down the short trail and was taken aback by the spectacular terrain.  Wow!  

We headed towards the end of the sheer cliff with a large boulder precariously perched at the end of the cliff.  We stopped for few minutes to experience the incredible beauty of the landscape surrounding us.

Shafer Canyon Overlook, Canyonlands National Park

Scary cliff with drop of a 1000 feet!

We waited our turn to walk near that boulder at the front of the overlook.  The walkable path to cross over to that boulder area was literally only about 2 feet wide, with sheer drop of a 1000 feet on our left!  We tried not to look to our left as we slowly but steadily took baby steps to cross into that area.

Once we got to see the boulder up close, we realized the boulder was actually split into two, revealing a small opening.  The views of the canyons below were tremendous as the scenery opened up!  We could make out the vast landscape opening up before us, with what looked to be off-road paths at the bottom.  

A split boulder with an opening!
View from the boulder area up front, Canyonlands National Park

We really felt like we got our money’s worth just at that point in our exploration.  The views were that impressive!  We enjoyed the views for few more minutes then started to walk back up to the parking lot to continue our exploration of the rest of the park.  We headed towards the famous and iconic Mesa Arch, one of the most photographed places at the park.

We barely found a parking spot then followed fellow visitors.  The trail was short, at .6 mile long.  The trail was slippery with snow still visible on parts of the trail.  It took us under 15 minutes to get to the Mesa Arch.  

There were so many people at the arch that all of us took turns looking at the arch and the canyons below. We asked a group of college students visiting from Houston (TX) to take a photo of us together, then we returned the favor afterwards.  

The views of the Mesa Arch were unlike anything we’ve ever seen.  The beautiful arch was framing the canyons below for that iconic photo (including my photo at the start of this post) we saw previously online.

View through the arch
Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park

Mesa Arch was definitely iconic for a reason!  It was just incredible…It’s the kind of place you get to experience few times in your lifetime.  The scale of the canyons below was hard to fathom, at least for my naked eyes to adjust to the immense size…

Thanks to the high vantage point, we felt like birds gliding over the canyons and looking down from high above.  Words just can’t express how beautiful the actual place is…

We spent another few minutes walking around the area.  We walked to our right, just beyond where the arch ends, then looked down from that point.  Views were everywhere!

View down to the canyons

We spent few additional minutes immersing ourselves to the landscape surrounding us.  We took deep breaths to remember the place as best we can.  Air felt absolutely crisp and fresh, thanks to close to zero pollution in that part of Utah.

We got back in our car to continue our journey, but the weather had turned for the worse.  The snow, which had been falling once every few seconds, was now turning into a mini snow squall.  We were planning on visiting the Whale Rock area of Island in the Sky, but the heavy snow by then, made us turn around.

We didn’t want to be stuck at the park, with nary a lodging, a restaurant, or a flushing toilet in sight!  We headed out of the park, slowly making progress due to the snow and low visibility.

We passed the visitor center to our left, then drove past the entrance station after that.  The roads were luckily not fully covered with snow yet, but we knew the heavy snow would cover the roads quickly enough.

We braced ourselves for the harrowing drive through the mini snow squall as we descended towards our hotel.  The beautiful UT-313 we had came up on, had now turned more menacing as visibility was down to few hundred yards and the snow was getting even heavier.

We watched several cars coming up to the park even with the heavy snow, and felt bad for those visiting the park under stressful driving conditions.  I put that thought aside as I had to concentrate on the road ahead.  

We almost slowed to a crawl, going not faster than 25 miles per hour, trying control our descent down to the valley.  We were grateful we were driving an all wheel drive vehicle right then and there…

After a slow, painful, and harrowing 50 minute ride down to the valley, with scary hairpin turns and few white knuckle moments, we had finally made it back to our hotel, safe in one piece.  At the hotel, we relaxed after a hot shower, then decided we should revisit the park in two days.

Exactly two days later, we headed back up to Island in the Sky to actually do some hiking and do more of exploring.  The weather was much nicer the second time around.  It was cloudy but the sun was trying break through the clouds.

The first stop we made was to hike the Whale Rock.  Two days prior, we had partially seen the unmistakable Whale Rock from a distance, even though the mini snow squall that was hindering our visibility made it tough to see.

This time, we saw the gigantic rock shaped like a whale up close.  We parked with no one else around when we parked around 10:30 a.m.  We followed the trail, marked by rocks stacked up on top of each other.

Whale Rock, Island in the Sky, Canyonlands N.P.

We made slow progress ascending a feet at a time along the trail.  Even though snow was visible at the bottom of the Whale Rock, once we got on the gigantic rock itself, snow was not to be found.  Still, we took our time climbing the rock, as the drop was severe, on either side of the rock.  

We made it almost to the top of the rock when we took our time taking in the tremendous views all around.  What a view!

View from the top of Whale Rock

Another view with clouds in the distance!

We pushed on after few minutes to see the very front of the rock.  We were glad we did, as the views really opened up nicely!  

Front of the Whale Rock
Views from the front of Whale Rock 

By the time we had made it to the top, we saw another couple coming up right behind us.  We greeted each other and we all agreed the views were fantastic.  After saying goodbye, we headed to our car to explore the other parts of Island in the Sky.

We next went to Green River Overlook, with river beds visible at the bottom of the canyons.  The place reminded us of Grand Canyon, albeit with wider canyons, but with similar feel.  It was an incredible view…It was like visiting another planet…Wow.

Green River Overlook
View from Green River Overlook 

Wind was howling at the overlook, and it was cold, but at least the weather was turning much nicer.  Clouds were finally parting, revealing the sun at times, making the views even better!  We get to experience stupendous views like that maybe few hundred times in our lifetimes, and we were really thankful we got that at Canyonlands National Park.  Thank goodness for national parks!!!

After Green River Overlook, we headed south towards the Grand View Point Overlook.  We found lots of cars and lots of people at the overlook.  After parking, we walked few hundred yards to the overlook.  Wow, another fantastic view!  In fact, views everywhere…

Grand View Point Overlook

We saw a descending staircase to our right that seemed promising, so as to get a closer view of the canyons below.  As we got near the cliff, a hiker told us not to get too close to the edge, as the winds may tip us over.  Yikes!  We heeded that advice and stayed a good 6 feet away from the edge.

The views were again incredible near the cliff, but we made sure we didn’t venture too close to the cliff…

Close to the cliff, but not too close!

Thanks to clearing clouds, we really got to enjoy the canyons below.  There were buttes and hoodoos below making the scenery unique to this part of the country.  We were so incredibly glad for this cross country trip…

In conclusion:

Canyonlands National Park is one of the most incredible places we’ve ever visited in our lifetimes.  The massive scale of the place cannot be properly shown via photographs, nor can the stupendous beauty of the place be described with words…

Everyone should see and experience this place at least once in their lifetime.  It is that incredible of a place…We were so grateful we got to visit this place during our cross country road trip…

Please keep up with us on our continuing journey across the American West!  Thank you for reading.


Wandering Money Pig 

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