‘It’s Like Stepping Back . . . ‘


(Photo by Conor Barry)

(Photo by Conor Barry)
(Photo by Conor Barry)

In the wintertime, Canyonlands National Park can give you the illusion of flying.
The park is separated into three divisions: the Needles, the Maze, and the Island in the Sky. The latter is named appropriately. The Island in the Sky is a prominent mesa that towers over the park, sitting at around 6,000 feet above sea level, with the rest of the park tapping out at 5,000 feet.
Robby Anderson, a Canyonlands park ranger, said that in the winter months, clouds surround the mesa, providing visitors with a surreal feeling.
“You get the clouds that roll in, and the clouds are beneath you, and you are standing on the mesa top and looking down on a sea of clouds,” Anderson says. “So it’s almost like you’re in an airplane, flying over the clouds.”
Island in the Sky is the most accessible district, featuring paved roads for travelers to visit overlooks and take in the grand sights of the park. The Island is also where you find the White Rim Road, a 100-mile road that loops around the mesa top. It’s a four-wheel road that requires two to three days to fully experience and complete.
But it’s just one of many experiences that await Canyonlands visitors. The Colorado and Green Rivers separate the park into districts and each of them also provides a unique way of experiencing the park. Rangers often suggest visitors plan trips with at least a couple of days at the park. The different districts require more exploration to fully get the feel of Canyonlands.
A high-clearance four-wheel drive vehicle is also required to reach the Maze, the least accessible district of the park. The ranger station there has no amenities, gas, or anything else. Explorers who venture out to the Maze must be prepared to be fully self-sufficient.
The Needles district features sandstone spires that Anderson says are a must-see. There’s also an extensive trail system that allows guests to choose between long overnight trips or quick day outings. It’s those hikes that distinguish Canyonlands from the other Utah national parks.
“I would tell everyone to go to all five parks, but [Canyonlands] forces you to get out of the car,” Anderson says. “At Zion you can ride the shuttle and get a fair sample of the park from the shuttle. Bryce, you can drive up to the overlooks and get a fair sample, but Canyonlands, once you get out of the car and start hiking, the park really comes alive.”
Recent visitor Ryan Stinger was inspired in much the same way.
“It’s like stepping back into a prehistoric world that only our primal genetic code remembers,” he says. “It’s an apparent barren land of earthy tones and scarred canyon walls that come alive.”
The rivers that separate the districts provide adventures of their own. The river water varies anywhere from heavy rapid to calm water, providing variety for rafters.
Even with all the adventure, Brad Riding, a psychology student, said the lasting image of Canyonlands is purple and orange-ridden skies at sunset.
“The red sandstone and awesome overlooks provide stunning vistas,” Riding says.
Anderson often retires to the Green River overlook as the sun is setting to take in the park. There, with the Green River rolling on below, the sky erupts into a scene of bright colors perfectly complementing the red rocks below and showcasing the vast beauty of the park.
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