Canyonlands National Park is divided into three sections by the generally uncrossable Colorado and Green Rivers. Island in the Sky (north of Moab) is where most people go. The Needles (south of Moab) is where a few people go. The Maze (consult a map) is where almost no one goes. We started at Island in the Sky and this famous view at Mesa Arch. Perhaps you've seen this view before, it is heavily photographed.
This is what a side view looks like. As you can see, the arch is surprisingly low (so low they have to warn you not to walk across it). The drop-off is real though. Part of being at Island in the Sky is that the drop-off is always very real and relatively nearby, possibly on both sides.
Another popular attraction is the Upheaval Dome. In this picture we are standing on the rim of a huge crater, looking across the center to the far rim. A short hiking trail runs out to a couple view points from the parking lot. A much longer trail circles the crater with a spur trail that enters it. The Upheaval Dome is generally thought to be the result of a meteor strike.
At the southern tip of the island in the sky (which is actually a huge plateau) is Grand View point. It's about 1.5 miles out to edge from the parking area with fabulous views in most directions along the way. This hike is probably not for those who are squeamish around heights as the trail runs along the edge of the plateau with no restraints. This is a highly zoomed in view of the Needles district from Grand View point. We'll be going to the Needles a bit further down this page.
The most notable wildlife at Island in the Sky is the ground squirrel. They seem to collect wherever people do because either people are messy eaters or because people feed them. These little guys are not shy. One of them ran across the top of Melanie's hand while we were resting at Grand View point.
This could really be a view off either side of the Island in the Sky. The west edge looks across the Green River Canyon towards the Maze district. The east side, which this happens to be, looks out at the Colorado River which is somewhere out there in that mess of canyons and hoodoos. This is the Grand View point trail incidentally. You don't have to walk right along the edge but at times you need to be within a few feet of it.
We entered Islands in the Sky via the paved road which is quite an impressive entrance. We decided to return to Moab via the Shafer Canyon road which is a "whoa" sort of drive with a few "are you kidding?" moments as well. In this picture you can see the road on the left edge, the right edge and that's also it way down there on the canyon floor. This is not a road for squeamish drivers. The first section is a narrow track along the cliff edge with limited areas to pass oncoming vehicles (yes, there is two way traffic). Then comes a remarkable set of switchbacks. Once you're safely down to the canyon floors, it's still a substantial and difficult trip across very rocky terrain that at times simply follows a natural wash. We had rented a jeep and I'm not sure we ever truly needed the four wheel drive, but the high clearance was mandatory. It also helps to have passengers to look for oncoming traffic in the switchbacks. As added bonuses, you travel beneath Dead Horse Point, through a sheep nursery area and then through the potash ponds outside of Moab.
Moving on to Needles now, on the way into Needles the road passes Newspaper Rock. It's a series of pictographs with some slightly more modern graffiti thrown in and quite frankly, no one knows exactly what to make of it. It's worth a quick stop.
As promised here is a similar view of the Needles, except this time it's from within the Needles. This is some crazy terrain and quite frankly you need to hike out to it to take full advantage of the Needles section of the park. When we were at Island in the Sky the visitors looked much like the cross-section of visitors at any National Park. In the Needles district everyone was outfitted for a substantial hike. There are some short hikes in this section of the park, but the shortest loops into the Needles themselves are in the 7-8 mile (11-13 km) range.
We would like to give a shout-out to the campground connector trail between loop A and loop B at Needles. You know what campground connector trails are like, right? This one probably wins for most difficult and elaborate in the country. You have to follow an open rock cairn-marked trail up and over a ridge. We've taken a picture of someone else out on these trails just for scale. This was a significant enough hike that when we came back from our nearly 10 mile (16 km) loop hike, we just walked the road around rather than go up and over again.
There are several parallel canyons that extend south towards the Needles rock formation. This is Spring Canyon and is indicative of the fabulous terrain one gets to hike through. This probably goes without saying but bring water. Lots of it.
Canyon trails are easy to follow for the most part but crossing (climbing) out of one into another can be difficult and even a bit technical. This is part of the crossing from Spring Canyon into Squaw Canyon. We are looking downhill into Spring Canyon having just climbed up through that U-shaped groove in the rock.
Here's the view the other direction from the same point as we head further up the rock face. If it's windy this exposure will be even more noticeable. All of it makes for a very memorable hiking experience.