Located a short drive from the town of Moab, Canyonlands National Park is overshadowed by the tourist-drawing superpower of Arches. Which really doesn’t make sense for two reasons – 1. It’s wayyyyy higher up than Arches, and 2. It’s actually a lot more enjoyable than Arches.
You might ask where Canyonlands gets the upper hand from. A good question, dear reader! Seeing as you asked so nicely, we’ll tell you: it’s a much larger area to explore and it’s not as popular as Arches, so there’s a greater dispersion of people and so less pushing, shoving, and standing on tiptoe to see the view. In addition to that, the views are absolutely fantastic, and you feel strangely superior high up on your “Island in the Sky”. What’s more, there are only 5 main attractions to focus on over the course of your visit, thus you can take your time and enjoy them, rather than rushing around the park trying to see every single one of the ten million other attractions, as with a lot of other parks.
The following 5 attractions can be seen easily in one day, and you’ll still have plenty of time to get back to your campsite or hotel before it gets dark.
1. Shafer Canyon Overlook
While not the greatest view in the park, Shafer Canyon Overlook is easily accessed by foot from opposite the Visitor Centre, and eases you nicely into the park “scene”. It wouldn’t do to see the best view first, now, would it?
There are also some interesting rock formations surrounding the overlook, and you can use the opportunity to nip into the visitor centre and fill up your water bottles and become acquainted with the nuances of the park.
2. Mesa Arch
Next along the park road is Mesa Arch, and this is not one to be missed. Mesa Arch is something akin to Arches National Park’s Delicate Arch (yes, I realise I just said “arch” three times in a row), and in our opinion it is a worthy contender. The arch itself isn’t competition for the soaring grace of Delicate Arch, however the scene which can be viewed through and beyond Mesa Arch is breathtaking, and makes for some very good photo opportunities indeed.
You’ll see the sign for Mesa Arch approximately 6 miles (10 km) from the Visitor Centre, and then it’s a short 15 minute stroll from the parking lot. Be sure to take at least a little water, as there is a bit of a climb involved and it can get very hot even in the late summer months.
3. Green River Overlook
Directly after Mesa Arch, take the road to the right and then follow signs for Green River Overlook. This provides excellent vistas of the Green River, prior to it’s meeting with the Colorado River. The canyons at this location are spectacular, with sudden and definitive precipices in the otherwise flat terrain marking the passage of the Green River.
4. Upheaval Dome
5 miles from the Green River Overlook, the road will take you to the parking lot for Upheaval Dome. An enjoyable but slightly rough 10 minute walk to the first viewpoint (there are two viewpoints, but the second is considerably further away and if you’re short on time we wouldn’t recommend it) will unveil a very strange sight indeed – a mountain within a crater!
According to the sign at the viewpoint, theories abound as to the origins of Upheaval Dome, including a possible meteorite impact or salt deposits left behind by a prehistoric inland sea. Whatever the origin, the setting is very strange indeed, and well worth the short walk. Afterwards, consider taking a bite to eat or making dinner in the pleasant picnic areas around the Upheaval Dome trailhead. We used this as a good chance to pass some time until Grand View Point, which is best seen at sunset.
5. Grand View Point Overlook
The end of the road both literally and metaphorically, Grand View Point should be the last stop on your Canyonlands Adventure, and ideally you’d time it for sunset. Dozens of people stick around at the viewpoint for the same reason, many of them (like us) eating their dinner as they enjoy the subtle changes of light over the canyons and hoodoos far below.
If you arrive early and have some time to kill, the trail which winds along the rim from the overlook is an excellent one, and time well spent. Allow at least 40 minutes to enjoy the walk, take in the panoramas surrounding the point at the end of the trail, and return in time for the sunset show from the overlook. Either that, or stick around at the point for a different sunset perspective.
If you’d like to read more about Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, check out our blog post.