The Park in a nutshell
The park can be seen as a 3 section area: Island in the Sky District, Maze District, Needles District. And Horseshoe Canyon in the north-west area as a detached part of the park.
Dead Horse Point State Park is not part of the National Park but should be visited as well since it is gorgeous and so close-by. Read more here: Dead Horse Point State Park — a must-see near Moab
Or learn more about the town of Moab, Utah
Each destination within Canyonlands offers different opportunities for sightseeing and exploration.
There are no roads that directly link the districts. Although they may appear close on a map, traveling between them requires two to six hours by car. Most people find it impractical to visit more than one area in a single trip.
Canyonlands National Park preserves one of the last, relatively undisturbed areas of the Colorado Plateau, a geological province that encompasses much of the Colorado River and its tributaries. Carved out of vast sedimentary rock deposits, this landscape of canyons, mesas, and deep river gorges possesses remarkable natural features that are part of a unique desert ecosystem.
The foundation of Canyonlands’ ecology is its remarkable geology, which is visible everywhere in cliff profiles that reveal millions of years of deposition and erosion. These rock layers continue to shape life in Canyonlands today, as their erosion influences elemental features like soil chemistry and where water flows when it rains.
Known as a “high desert,” with elevations ranging from 1.127 m – 2.194 m (3,700 to 7,200 feet) above sea level, Canyonlands experiences very hot summers, cold winters and less than ten inches of rain each year. Even on a daily basis, temperatures may fluctuate as much as 50 degrees.
The plants and animals in Canyonlands have many adaptations that enable them to survive these conditions. Some species are found only in this area. The diversity of organisms reflects the variety of available habitat, which includes lush riparian areas, swift rivers, ephemeral pools, dry arroyos, mixed grasslands and large expanses of bare rock.
Biological Soil Crust The dirt is alive! A living crust called “Biological Soil Crust” covers much of Canyonlands and the surrounding area. Composed of algae, lichens and bacteria, these crusts provide a secure foundation for desert plants. Biological soil crust is a living groundcover that forms the foundation of high desert plant life in Canyonlands and the surrounding area. This knobby, black crust is dominated by cyanobacteria, but also includes lichens, mosses, green algae, microfungi and bacteria. Cyanobacteria, previously called blue-green algae, are one of the oldest known life forms. It is thought that these organisms were among the first land colonizers of the earth’s early land masses, and played an integral role in the formation and stabilization of the earth’s early soils.
The 3 Districts
The Island in the Sky mesa rests on sheer sandstone cliffs over 1,000 feet above the surrounding terrain. Every overlook offers a different perspective on Canyonlands’ spectacular landscape. The Island is the easiest district to visit in a short period of time, offering many pullouts with spectacular views along the paved scenic drive. Hiking trails and four-wheel-drive roads access backcountry areas for day or overnight trips.
To reach the Island, take US Highway 191 to Utah Highway 313 (10 mi/16 km north of Moab, or 22 mi/35 km south of I-70) and then drive southwest 22 mi/35 km. Driving time to the visitor center from Moab is roughly 40 minutes.
The visitor center is open 8 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. daily (except some winter holidays), with extended hours spring through fall. Exhibits, publications and information are available, and a park orientation video may be viewed. Bottled water is available for sale at the visitor center. No water is available elsewhere; bring all that you will need.
The Needles District forms the southeast corner of Canyonlands and was named for the colorful spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone that dominate the area. The district’s extensive trail system provides many opportunities for long day hikes and overnight trips. Foot trails and four-wheel-drive roads lead to such features as Tower Ruin, Confluence Overlook, Elephant Hill, the Joint Trail, and Chesler Park.
On US Highway 191, drive 40 miles (60 km) south of Moab or 14 miles (22 km) north of Monticello, then take Utah Highway 211 roughly 35 miles (56 km) west. Highway 211 ends in the Needles, and is the only paved road leading in and out of the district.
Visitor center is open year-round from 8:00 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. (except some winter holidays), with extended hours March through October. Exhibits, information and publications are available.
The Maze is the least accessible district of Canyonlands. Due to the district’s remoteness and the difficulty of roads and trails, travel to the Maze requires more time, as well as a greater degree of self-sufficiency. Rarely do visitors spend less than three days in the Maze, and the area can easily absorb a week-long trip.
Potholes in Needles District
To many, the most outstanding natural features of Canyonlands are the park’s geologic formations. In each of the districts, visitors can see the remarkable effects of millions of years of erosion on a landscape of sedimentary rock. Two unusual natural features are common in Canyonlands and intrigue both scientists and visitors: biological soil crust and potholes. Biological soil crust is a living groundcover that forms the foundation of high desert plant life. Potholes are naturally occurring basins in sandstone that collect rainwater and wind-blown sediment. These potholes harbor organisms that are able to survive long periods of dehydration, and also serve as a breeding ground for many high desert amphibians and insects. Both of these communities are very vulnerable to human impacts.
Horseshoe Canyon contains some of the most significant rock art in North America. The Great Gallery, the best known panel in Horseshoe Canyon, includes well-preserved, life-sized figures with intricate designs. Other impressive sights include spring wildflowers, sheer sandstone walls and mature cottonwood groves along the intermittent stream in the canyon bottom. Horseshoe Canyon was added to Canyonlands in 1971.
Most visitors access Horseshoe from the west. Two-wheel-drive access to the west rim of Horseshoe Canyon is from Utah Highway 24 via 30 miles of graded dirt road, or from Green River on 47 miles of dirt road. Driving time is roughly 2.5 hours from Moab or 1.5 hours from Green River. A four-wheel-drive road leads to the east rim of Horseshoe Canyon from the Hans Flat Ranger Station. All access roads may become impassable during storms.
Park Website / Further detailed information
Maps on above website to be found here: https://www.nps.gov/cany/planyourvisit/publications.htm