Canyonlands National Park: Island in the Sky

In honor of National Public Lands Day in the USA this Saturday, we’re taking a look at one of the lesser known but incredible Canyonlands National Park.  After our visit to Arches National Park last month, we also visited nearby Canyonlands, Utah’s largest National Park.  There are some places during our travels that make a huge and lasting impression and this was one of them.

Canyonlands vista

The park is divided into three regions or districts: Island in the Sky, the Maze and the Needles.  Each unique in its own way.  The districts are not linked by any direct road.  Travel time between each district can range between 2-6 hours.  We covered Island in the Sky during this visit.

canyonlands road

We knew we were in for some dramatic rock formations when these two huge monoliths, Merrimac and Monitor, appeared in the distance seemingly guarding the park’s entrance.  For history buffs, they may sound familiar as the US Civil War ships.  For geology enthusiasts, they’re large buttes (pronounced byoots).

Canyonlands merrimac monitor

While its name may sound like a floating oasis, the 40-square mile Island in the Sky is actually a mesa or a flat topped mountain connected to the rest of the park by a small land bridge. It sits 1,000 feet above the vast landscape of canyon country like an observation post.

Grand View Point Overlook

This ideal location allowed for plenty of overlooks along the sandstone cliffs into panoramic views of red-rock canyons, spires and sculpted rock formations.  Each lookout offered something different and each one demanded our attention.

Shafer Canyon overlook

The first one we stopped at was the Shafer Canyon Overlook.  The twisting Shafer Trail is visible below and only accessible with a four-wheel drive vehicle. The trail was built in the early 1900s to move livestock to different pastures.

Shafer Canyon overlook

One of the park’s main attractions is the Mesa Arch.  It is precariously connected to the side of the mesa (hence its name).

Mesa arch canyonlands

We did the relatively easy half mile (.8 km) loop on a nature trail filled with juniper trees.  Thank goodness it was short because the summer heat was scorching with low 90-degree (F) temperatures.  This was one of the more family friendly hikes.

Canyonlands Mesa Arch trail

Mesa Arch provided a window to a spectacular scenery of various rock formations below.  This was the view from the left side.

Canyonlands Mesa Arch

The view from the right side of the arch.  Notice the huge drop off from the cliff.

Canyonlands Mesa Arch

Further down the road was the view of the western side from one of the lookout points – the Orange Cliffs Overlook.

Orange Cliffs Overlook

The main park road loops into the Grand View Point Overlook.  It was the ideal name for a lookout that allowed us to see a majority of this region.  Like many of the lookout points, this was very accessible but this was lined with juniper branches.

Grand View Point overlook branches

Once we got to the viewing platform, the panoramic scenery seemed to endlessly stretch out over distant canyons towards the Needles District.

Grand View Overlook Needles

Standing there and admiring this stunning landscape, words were unnecessary.  These pictures can barely capture that beauty.

Grand View overlook

Canyonlands National Park has been called a “showcase of geology”.  Its amazing landscape was shaped by water, ice, wind and gravity over thousands of years.

Grand View Overlook

While not clearly visible from up here, the Colorado River and the Green River, were the driving forces that shaped many of the landforms seen here.

Grand View Overlook

We sat down and looked out to soak up the captivating view.  While not as deep or extensive as the Grand Canyon, the canyons here were just as incredible.  One of the things we loved about this park were the lack of crowds.  The astounding scenery was made to enjoy in solitude.  It’s unfortunate that Canyonlands gets far fewer visitors than the other Utah parks (Zion, Bryce, Arches).  Grand View Overlook

Its name may conjure up an image of a floating isle in a fairy tale setting but there really was something “magical” about Canyonland’s Island in the Sky.  It may not be at the top of most people’s list when visiting National Parks, but a visit here, no matter how brief, is a treasured experience.  We left planning a return trip and excited to explore more of what this park and area had to offer for our family.

Grand View Point Overlook

Visiting Canyonland National Park’s Island in the Sky Tips and Basics

  • Island in the Sky is the easiest to access with enough attractions to satisfy those short on time.  The nearest town is Moab, Utah which was about 40 minutes away.
  • Stock up on water, food and gas.  There are no services available in the park.
  • Viewpoints were easily accessible with plenty of parking.
  • Most viewpoints have no railings so keep a close watch on the kids.
  • Restroom facilities, with the exception of the Visitor’s center, were structures built over hole in the grounds.
  • Fees: $10 per car and good for 7 days;  Free with National Park Pass.

*Have you explored Canyonlands National Park?  What were your impressions?

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