Exploring Canyonlands

Above:  I rose before sunrise, explored Canyonlands National Park in the morning, then stopped briefly once again at Arches National Park.  From there I drove north, reaching Grand Teton National Park at sunset.  It was a long day.

I knew I had a lot of traveling to do today, so I got up early, well before sunrise, and stumbled around the desert in the dark getting cleaned up and having a quick breakfast.  Around 6 a.m. I got in the truck and drove several miles down the dirt road until I hit the paved road leading into Canyonlands National Park.  The road was empty, not surprising at this hour, and if I wasn’t the first visitor to Canyonlands that day, I was certainly one of the first. 

I wanted to get all the way to Grand Teton National Park in Wyoming that evening, so I only spent two hours at Canyonlands.  Canyonlands is a huge, beautiful and mostly desolate desert park, which is divided into three main areas, each with its own personality.  There’s the “Island in the Sky” District north of Moab, with spectacular views from the canyon rims; the Needles District to the south near Monticello and Blanding, with spectacular slickrock hiking through odd desert landforms; and the very primitive and remote Maze District, which occupies the western part of Canyonlands National Park. 

To summarize, the Island in the Sky District is for people who like to look at desert landscapes, the Needles District is for people who like to experience desert landscapes, and the Maze District is for people who like to really experience desert landscapes.  Remember the movie “127 Hours” about the guy who goes hiking in the desert, gets trapped by a boulder and cuts off his own arm?  That was in the Maze District.  But not to worry, though, since not everyone who visits the Maze District has to perform self-amputations.  Some but not all.

Today I had time to visit only the Island in the Sky District, and then only for two hours, so I made the most of it.  I hadn’t been to Canyonlands in about 15 years but other than the large crowds, it thankfully hadn’t changed too much.  I saw all the main viewpoints:  Grandview Point, White Rim Overlook and Green River Overlook, visited the sinuous Shafer Trail and, of course, saw Mesa Arch, while keeping a close eye on the clock the whole time.  

Canyonlands "Island in the Sky"


Three National Parks in One Day

The first time I visited Canyonlands was back in 1982 when Katy and I did a college spring break trip around the desert southwest.  The road into the Island in the Sky District was unpaved back then but fortunately wasn’t too imposing for my 1969 Mustang convertible.  Still, the dirt road provided a feeling of remoteness.  It’s interesting how a road can affect your whole perception of an area, because a few years later after the Park Service paved the Island in the Sky road, the park seemed so different to me.  No longer did visiting Canyonlands seem like an adventure and so, yes, I was disappointed.  I certainly understood the Park Service’s decision to pave the road, as a response to increasing park visitation.  But visiting the park was a lot different now and not quite as fun or interesting. 

Despite the paved roads, though, I definitely enjoyed my quick visit and left Canyonlands around 10 a.m., then drove back into Moab to get gas and then stopped by the Arches Visitor Center one last time.  After leaving Arches (and the massive crowds waiting to enter on this Labor Day weekend), I got back on U.S. 191 and headed north.  I hit Interstate 70, then headed up to Provo, went east into Wyoming, and finally reached Grand Teton National Park around 8 p.m. as it was getting dark. 

I didn’t have a campground reservation but was hoping to find a spot somewhere in the park, and I knew my best bet was at the huge campground at Gros Ventre, a few miles north of the park entrance at Jackson.  By the way, it’s pronounced “grow vaunt" and is a French term meaning "big belly."  It's a holdover from the French fur trapper days in reference, as I recall, to the band of native Americans who lived nearby. After driving all day and stuffing myself with Santitas, I was feeling pretty Gros Ventre myself.

I hadn’t camped at Gros Ventre in over 30 years but remembered it as having lots of space, something like 300+ campsites, so I figured there would be room.  As it turned out, though, I snagged the very last campsite in the campground – not much of a campsite but I was very happy to have it.  I’d driven nearly 500 miles that day from Moab, Utah to Jackson, Wyoming and might be one of the few people to ever visit Canyonlands, Arches and Grand Teton National Parks all in the same day.  It had been a long day, so after a quick dinner, I hopped in the back of my truck, read for a while, then turned out the light.

From Canyonlands to the Tetons




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