The standard view from slickrock in Canyonlands.


Canyonlands is the largest National Park in Utah, and among the less visited. It’s formed at the confluence of the Green and Colorado rivers, which cut the park into a ‘Y’ shape. The northernmost portion of the park – and the most accessible from Moab – is called ‘Island in the Sky.’ The South/Southeast portion is the ‘Needles District,’ and the Western portion is ‘The Maze.’

Moonrise and sunset, near the campground.

Island in the Sky is the most popular, while The Maze is inaccessible except by 4-wheel drive vehicles. Thus, I decided to visit the Needles district. (While at the Needles visitor center, I overheard a German lady asking the park ranger about visiting The Maze. “Oh, you can visit, but it’s a 5 hour drive from here,” the ranger said.) Needles is about 90 minutes from Moab, via state highway and then through a national forest.

View from rocks near my campsite.

The national forest section – it’s not really a forest – is really beautiful. Canyonlands is indeed a canyon, and this area, which is about a 30 mile drive, is nearly as wide as the main parts of the Grand Canyon. But the depth of the canyon is maybe 800-1000 feet, rather than 5200 feet. Thus the ‘floor’ of the canyon is a broad grassy plain dotted with cattle. It’s one of the more beautiful and serene places I visited.

This area of the national park itself is called ‘Needles’ because there are some distant spires which do have the appearance of needles. But much of this section is composed of so-called slickrock, and the hike I went on this first day, about 12 miles from the campground to ‘Peek-A-Boo Rock,’ was mostly on slickrock.

The trail goes across the tan sandstone here; this type of trail persists for 7-8 miles.

It’s unusual to hike so long on solid rock. I’d done a brief stretch at Capitol Reef and a little at Arches, but this was sustained hiking on bare rock, much of it at a 15-20 degree angle sloping left or right, which meant that there was always a slight element of danger. I enjoyed the experience, though, and this was among my favorite hikes.

Pictographs under a ledge.

That wasn’t just because of the slickrock hiking. The destination was a set of pictographs (that is, paint on rock), and some of these were 5 thousand years old! There were the normal geometric designs and human figures, but also quite a few hands. As this was in the middle of nowhere, it was possible to get close to the pictographs. Putting your hand right next to the tracings of a hand 2-3 thousand years old is a special experience.

Circled are further hand tracings.

There were further pictographs through the peek-a-boo hole, and these were high up on a cliff. I don’t know if some daring indian climbed up there, along the edge of a cliff wall, or if there was a more accessible route that broke off at some point, but these pictographs were cool as well.

Tracing of child’s hand.

At this far point on the hike I caught up with an older couple who were from the area. They mentioned that there were some indian granaries – small pueblo buildings built under some of the sandstone ledges – along the trail out. I hadn’t seen them, and made sure to keep my eyes open on the return journey.

One of the granaries, just a short walk from the trail.

There were indeed granaries, two and a half of them and many ruins besides, each about 4 feet across and 3 feet high. I looked inside them, and on the ground nearby I found a few pottery shards. These included a black-and-white shard – these zig-zag designs are very common in the area. I also found a large fragment of pottery that must have been used to line a basket, because there were indentations of vegetable fibers.

Potsherd with basket indentations. The largest fragment I found.

These granaries, unmentioned in any park literature, were great fun to explore, and holding some artifacts (they were lying open on the ground and easy to step on) was really unique.

Back in camp I relaxed and read for a while. This was the best campsite of the trip – well separated from other people, with a large climbable rock pile right behind the site, from which I could look at the stars and have a good view across the canyon. There was a full moon during my stay, and it arose well before sunset. Really a beautiful place.

Can you see the hidden pueblo? A door is just visible.

The next day I just stayed in the campground and relaxed, reading and staying out of the sun. I jogged around the campground and saw my only Hawai’i license plate (I saw all 50 states during my trip, but only saw Hawai’i once).

I really enjoyed my stay at Canyonlands and consider it a far better, and more interesting park than nearby Arches. There’s much less ‘highlight reel’ stuff but the isolation and one-of-a-kind hikes make a visit worth it.

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