Looking at the first leg of our trip, Canyonlands is one of the parks I would’ve said I had a pretty good handle on through my fair amount of research. Mainly I learned there are 3 distinct districts, the districts are divided by the converging Green and Colorado Rivers, it’s next door neighbors with Arches and, as you would guess by the name, there are a lot of canyons. It turned out the park had plenty of unexpected curves to throw our way – some good and some not so much.
- Permits were a breeze – Since campsites at Canyonlands are all first come first serve, we didn’t make any reservations or specific plans in advance. As I was perusing the Canyonlands website the night before we got there, I was kind of flustered to see all their talk about needing advance permits to hike here and running out of day use permits to bike there, especially during a weekend in their September busy season. Was there going to be anything left for us to do?!
Since the Needles district is a “hiker’s paradise”, we knew we wanted to do a longer trail and stay a night in the backcountry. Luckily, we rolled up to the Visitors Center 30 minutes before it closed the office was still open and there was one backcountry campsite left at “Chesler Park 1”, right in the middle of the primo hiking area we were targeting. Looking at the map, we quickly picked out a perfect 22-mile loop (10 miles on the first day and 12 on the second) that would allow us to circle the famous Chesler Park, hit the also-hyped Druid Arch and cover as many canyon branches as possible.
In the second half of our Canyonlands visit, when we circled around to the more popular Islands in the Sky district, we had similarly good fortune with permits. There’s a spot called Murphy’s Point on the canyon rim that is said to be the best place to watch a sunset at the park. But the lesser known fact is that the point has a single, unadvertised backcountry campsite that allows you to camp with the whole section of rim to yourself. Since securing permits in Grand Canyon and Zion had been such a feat, again we were pleasantly surprised to snag the perfect spot.
And to sweeten the pot… Even though our backcountry permit for Chesler Park was two nights ago, the ranger was able to add Murphy Point to the old permit because they allow for a “gap” night when moving from one district to another. That saved us the $30 cost of a new permit.
So maybe instead of saying permits were a breeze, I should just say we got really lucky!
- Hit hard at the Needles – So remember that perfect 22-mile loop we plotted? We managed half. It turns out traveling and hiking all the time can get pretty tiring after a while! And coming off a very active visit to Capitol Reef we opted to save money and book a KOA site in Moab for our rest day instead of pay an outrageous $160 for a Super 8 (the couch surfing option was surprisingly nonexistent). But combine more camping with a frustrating struggle to find wifi for blogging that was better than the garbage at KOA and it doesn’t make for great R&R.
So after 10 miles on day 1, we weren’t feeling so hot. After breaking camp in the morning we decided to take a shortcut back to the car and try to do the responsible thing and take care of our bodies (meaning we ate lunch at McDonald’s, hung out in their AC for a few hours and then picked up a carton of ice cream to polish off). Then we headed off to find free camping in the BLM land outside the Island in the Sky district and set up to take in the super moon eclipse and try to snap some iPhone pictures using our new night photography app.
- Overlooks rule at Island in the Sky – Once in Island in the Sky what we had read in our research was confirmed – the district is mainly centered around various overlooks from the high elevation of the “island” mesa top down into the canyons. Throughout our entire trip until this point we have advocated for people to go “beyond the overlooks” and tried to suggest creative ways to do that. But at Island in the Sky the numerous overlooks are where it’s at.
The most famous is Grand View Point, but our favorite by far was White Rim Overlook. It has a better all-surrounding view, it offers a closer look at the impressive Monument Basin and most importantly it has zero crowd. There were probably 30 people at Grand View when we went and when we stopped at White Rim right after we saw one other couple along the .8-mile one-way approach trail. The short trail and the fact that it’s an unnamed pull-off along the way might deter people. Grand View also has a 1-mile one-way trail that leads to a better view at the actual point, butcher out there it was still crowded and still not as cool as White Rim.
Our other top pick was Murphy Point (mentioned in #1), reached by a 1.8-mile one-way trail. We were mostly excited that we got to set up camp on the point and take advantage of what we felt was a true park secret. We reached the perfect sunset view on the point at 7:01, just in time for the 7:07 sunset according to my Garmin watch. Sadly we watched the sun just get swallowed by the dense rain clouds on the horizon. The sunset may not have been exactly as we imagined, but the solitude and wake-up vistas sure were.
- We left hungry – In contrast to most of the 8 other parks we’ve hit so far on our #all59 tour, we left Canyonlands unsure whether we got the whole picture.
At Island in the Sky, the main feature that wasn’t an overlook was the 100-mile White Rim Road that circles the perimeter of the island along the white rim, which is a secondary canyon rim about 1300 ft below the higher rim. If we had an extra 2-3 days and more advance preparation, we would love to tackle this 4-wheel drive road on an overnight mountain bike ride. At Needles, beyond the pieces of our loop we missed out on, there seems like so many more eggs of adventure to crack. For one, the Peek-a-boo Trail reportedly has a great swimming hole at the end you can explore. Then there’s the Confluence Trail, which takes you to an overlook of where the two rivers that created the park – the Green and the Colorado – meet at the very heart of the park.
Then you have the third and most boss district of all: The Maze. Even the name is awesomely intimidating. Everything I read about The Maze talked about how its winding canyons and towering rock fins were so remote that only the most daring and intrepid hikers should attempt it. Which of course made me even more interested. But just getting to a trailhead in The Maze requires hours of navigating four-wheeled drive roads. Thus it was not in the cards for this trip. But the pull of its raw, untouched wilderness will stick like gum on a shoe to my imagination.
Finally floating the rivers offers an entirely different and up close way to experience the canyons. So I guess our only option to satisfy our hunger for the rugged, challenging wilderness of Canyonlands National Park is to plan another trip… or maybe two!