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A Day in Canyonlands

Our 4,750 mile road trip route for our Utah National Parks and Grand Canyon Adventure is here if you’d like to see our full itinerary.

Islands in the Sky

From the Moab KOA, it took about 40 minutes to reach the Island in the Sky Visitor Center in Canyonlands National Park.  Canyonlands is a spread out park made of four different sections- the Needles, the Maze, Island in the Sky and the rivers.  Since we only had one day to spend there, we decided to focus our visit on Island in the Sky since it was the most accessible section and it’s beauty had been highly recommended to us by a park ranger at Grand Canyon’s Phantom Ranch.  If planning a trip to Canyonlands make sure you come with enough food for your stay since none is for sale in the park.  Also be sure to bring plenty of water or be ready to purchase it in gallon jugs from the gift shop in the Visitor Center since there is no running water in the park.

A much more rugged experience than a typical National Park, Canyonlands is a vast desert wilderness for which visitors must come prepared. In fact, Canyonlands is the park that James Franco made famous in the movie 127 Hours which portrays Aron Ralston’s 5 day ordeal trapped in an isolated canyon when a boulder falls on his arm. Terrifying and at the same time absolutely inspirational, the movie does a good job showing that the wilderness deserves our respect and that we have to take it seriously. We were sticking to the main trails, so I wasn’t worried about having to cut my arm off with a pocket knife but we did make sure to have plenty of water, snacks and sunscreen with us.

Stop at the Visitor’s Center

At the Visitor Center, we watched the short orientation video and talked to the park rangers about how best to spend out day.  We also picked up Junior Ranger packets for the kids to complete.  Our first stop was the Mesa Arch Trail which was a short (about a mile) hike to a beautiful arch overlooking the canyon beyond.  It is an absolutely stunning view for such a small amount of effort and we sat and soaked it in for an hour or so.

Upheaval Dome Trail

We next drove about 5 scenic miles to the Upheaval Dome Trail where we hiked a few miles to several different overlooks over a 170 million year old eroded crater.  Unlike anything we had ever seen before, the scenery was so unusual it felt like we were looking at Mars. Again, the trail was easy to follow and not difficult but we took our time so we could fully enjoy the scenery. Only a couple of other people were on the trail with us on the beautiful summer day.

Picnic Lunch in Canyonlands

After spending a couple of hours at Upheaval Dome, we walked to the adjacent picnic area where we made Ramen and dehydrated veggies for lunch under the sheltered table. It was nice to sit in the shade and get out of the bright summer sun for a while and we were glad to cool off while the kids completed their Junior Ranger packets.

Whale Rock Trail

Once we finished lunch we drove just a mile or so to the Whale Rock Trail which ended up being a highlight of our visit.  This “trail” climbs a large whale shaped rock and had been highly recommended to us by the park ranger we had talked to at the Visitor Center. Maybe a mile long, it ended up being a favorite memory of our visit.  After parking our car in the lot, we followed the cairns over the huge slick rock formation to absolutely amazing 360 degree views from the top.  The hiking wasn’t very difficult and we all had a great time climbing.

I wanted to get a few pictures of everyone at the top so after spending a while looking around the top of the giant rock, I left ahead of the group to climb down.  The pictures I took then are some of my favorite pics on any vacation since it brings back so many great memories of the beautiful sun, the bright blue sky, the orange rock and really just the whole experience.  The hike to Whale Rock remains one of my favorite hikes I’ve ever taken.

Eventually everyone came down the trail and we drove back to the Visitor Center where the kids received their Junior Rangers badges.  It was late afternoon by this time so we decided to head back to the Moab KOA to grill out for dinner and swim in the pool. Our day at Canyonlands was a wonderful adventure.  By taking a few relatively easy hikes we were able to see amazing sites and beautiful views. One of our favorite National Parks, we all hope to go back someday and explore the other sections of the park and maybe even take a river trip. It was also the last park we visited on our wonderful trip to Utah and the Grand Canyon so the next morning we started our long drive back to Cincinnati.  While sad to be ending this adventure, we all looked forward to our next one!

If you go to Canyonlands National Park:

–Bring plenty of water as there are no water faucets in the park! While the Visitor Center does sell gallon jugs at a reasonable price, it is better to arrive prepared in case they are out. We brought 8 full gallons with us for the day.

–Wear sunscreen.  We found the sun in Utah to be strong!

–There are no restaurants or food stores in the park so be sure to pack a picnic for your meals and bring with you any snacks you need. Or you will end up eating Ramen like us. 🙂

–Get your kids excited before you go!  We like to read books about our destination to help pass the long rides in the car and to read at bedtime during our visit. A great book that helps kids understand the amazing landscape of the park is Canyonlands: The Story Behind the Scenery. We also enjoy National Geographic Kids Ultimate U.S. Road Trip Atlas: Maps, Games, Activities, and More for Hours of Backseat Fun and National Parks: A Kid’s Guide to America’s Parks, Monuments and Landmarks which are wonderful resources for kids about National Parks and help provide context for a visit.

–To help plan our trip to Utah’s National Parks we read Frommer’s EasyGuide to National Parks of the American West and Fodor’s Utah: with Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Capitol Reef & Canyonlands National Parks which were an invaluable resource and we also took along National Geographic Maps: Trails Illustrated: Canyonlands to map out our hikes which was also useful.

Have you been to Canyonlands? Which section of the park did you focus on?

Happy Travels!





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