Visiting Canyonlands National Park
by Katie Beltramo
Even if Canyonlands National Park doesn't have the same "household name" status as the Grand Canyon or Yellowstone, chances are you're not wholly unfamiliar with its amazing landscape. If you remember the story of a fellow who amputated his own arm after a boulder pinned him in a slot canyon back in 2003, that was Aron Ralston, and he was exploring a remote area just south of the park. If your computer uses Windows, it's likely that you see Canyonlands frequently as it shuffles onto your screen between a mossy waterfall and a field of lavender (sound familiar? click here to see the view). Luckily, it's easy to access some of the splendid sights of Canyonlands, and if you think that the screensaver looks impossibly splendid, it's only because you haven't visited in person yet.
Big, beautiful Canyonlands National Park is divided into four districts by the Colorado River and its tributaries, most notably the Green River. These sections are so vast that the National Parks service advises that visiting more than one district in a single day isn't practical. If I had it to do over again, I think this park is worth a multi-day visit, although we were fortunate to enjoy similar landscapes outside the confines of the park during our visit to Moab.
On the advice of locals, we opted to spend our Canyonlands time by visiting the Island in the Sky district of the park at sunset. Island in the Sky is the most easily accessible of the sections. The views are spectacular nearly everywhere you look, and it's easy to drive and pull over frequently. Island in the Sky is a mesa surrounded by sandstone cliffs, and there are places to explore (remember to stick to marked trails and slick rock to avoid damaging delicate Biological Soil Crust). Our visit took place not too long after there had been rain, and my kids delighted in the pools of water that we found at Grand View Point.
Visiting Canyonlands at sunrise or sunset really puts a spotlight on the gorgeous cliffs as the sun's rays sweep along the horizon. It's an avid photographer's paradise, and even though we arrived about 40 minutes before sunset, my husband, giddily juggling his extra-special lenses, wished aloud that we'd arrived earlier.
Canyonlands National Park is far more spectacular than we had anticipated, and we were unprepared, having allotted only an evening's visit. If I were able to plan again, I might choose to camp within the park itself, allowing us much more time to hike and explore. At the least, I'd try to devote half a day to the area, both to see more of the dramatic change in light and to do some more hiking. Grand View Point, where we were, seemed like a great place to plan a picnic, and if I'd known better, I would have packed our dinner and brought it along so that we could take a hike, then relax and enjoy dinner while watching the sunset. The Discover Moab website has terrific information to supplement what's available on the National Parks website.
Tips to Make the Most of Your Visit
- Check Discover Moab's Astronomical Information page to determine the timing of your visit.
- Double check Visitor Center hours. If you're planning to be at Island in the Sky at dawn or dusk, you're likely to miss out on Visitor Center hours.
- If you're visiting in the evening or early morning, like we did, keep in mind that it's a vast stretch of space, making it windier and chillier than you might expect.
- Keep in mind that this park is big. Travel time from the entrance of the park to Grand View Point, where we spent most of our time, was about 25 minutes.
- Bring along shoes that you won't mind getting wet if you or your kids are puddle-jumpers.
- For any visit, plan to bring about 1 liter of water per person and pack some salty snacks.
- While there are restrooms available within the park, I'd also suggest a "bathroom emergency pack": Store a whole stack of baby wipes and several large, sealable plastic bags in another plastic bag and keep it in the Mom Daypack always.
On the Canyonlands page, the National Park Service announces that "a lifetime of exploration awaits you," and after a quick visit, it rings true. Getting just a taste of Canyonlands doesn't feel like enough. This place is a treasure, and if you're looking for moments when your family can enjoy pure awe from nature, you'll find them at Canyonlands.
Click here for several more KidsOutAndAbout reviews of active outdoor family experiences in the Moab, Utah area. You won't believe how much there is for a family to do in Moab!