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Jonathan Stull | 05.02.2017

The Green River and Colorado River converge in more than 330,000 acres of vermillion sandstone cliffs, rounded rock spires, and arches in Canyonlands National Park, one of the least-visited national parks in Utah and a canyon country backpacking paradise. It is Utah’s largest national park, and despite barely cracking the top 100 in terms of annual visitation—a bar mitzvah north of 776,000 every year—the park’s popularity with backpackers makes for fierce competition for the limited backcountry permits.

Nothing comes free, they say, and as much applies to Canyonlands. The two major rivers that cut the sandstone canyons here divide the park into three districts: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the Maze. The Maze, accessible through adjacent Glen Canyon National Recreation Area and one of the most geographically isolated areas in the United States, is for practical purposes off-limits for backpackers who want to see the rest of the park. That leaves the Island in the Sky and the Needles for canyonland adventures, and there’s plenty here to delight backpackers.

The Island in the Sky is far more developed than the Needles, and with a variety of canyon overlooks and arches accessible by car, it is ideal for day hikers, or those who simply want to enjoy the park’s natural beauty from the side of the road. Be sure to visit the Shafer Canyon Overlook for spectacular views of the hairpin turns of Shafer Trail Road, which winds its way down Shafer Canyon amid beautiful sandstone mesas. Mesa Arch and the Green River and Grand View Point overlooks also provide overwhelming views of the White Rim and river canyons. The short hike to Aztec Butte showcases ancient Puebloan ruins. Note that, unless you'll be traveling into the backcountry to camp, the only campground is at Willow Flat. Backpackers at Island in the Sky should prioritize the White Rim Road, a 100-mile trail with backcountry camping zones—campers can choose their own sites, for the most part—that circles the Island in the Sky along a southerly arc. Make Upheaval Dome your starting point and visit the False Kiva while you're there, an iconic southwestern vantage point from an archaeological site.

From the backpacker’s point of view, the Needles is the greater prize. Less developed, it attracts far fewer of Canyonland’s visitors. It offers a greater variety of terrain, and as a general rule the best landmarks are found at the end of a long trail. Take in The Loop, a series of tight oxbows in the Colorado River, from the Colorado River Overlook, a long and demanding day hike in the district’s northern parcel. The rest is best for backpacking. Like the Island in the Sky, these attractions fall along a circuitous route around the Needles Visitor Center. Horse Canyon offers Paul Bunyan’s Potty and Tower Ruin a short distance from the campground at Peekaboo Spring. Also, at the end of Horse Canyon is a triad of arches, Castle Arch, Fortress Arch, and Angel Arch.

But the Needles is known for the sandstone pinnacles that mimic their namesake, and these are found in number and beauty at Chesler Park. The spires point skyward amid tight slot canyons that add to the area’s mystique. The Joint Trail is a slot canyon tighter than a wingspan that appears carved smooth and straight by human hands. Caves, corners, and cacti make this area of the Needles one of the most intriguing canyonlands of the desert southwest. A note to campers: the park service has a strict camping policy in this district, and campers typically must stay in designated backcountry campsites.

Not to be forgotten, the Maze offers scenic geology of its own, despite the inaccessibility. There are two modes of ingress into the Maze: via Glen Canyon Recreation Area, and by fording the Colorado on a packraft. Make sure to visit the Chocolate Drops, a dentine line of sandstone walls, or the Doll House.

For even more stunning Canyonlands National Park adventures, keep scrolling down to Featured Adventures!


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