Colorado Plateau

Ever since our visit to the Utah National Parks in the winter of 2001, it has been our favorite place to return to. We managed to revisit Zion, Bryce and Capitol Reef in 2009 and explore those parks during warmer times. However, the twin parks near the southeastern part of Utah, Canyonlands and Arches still beckoned for another visit.

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands is the largest of the Utah National Parks and probably gets the least visitors. Its charms require some time commitment from visitors unlike Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef and Arches where a quick half-day or a day driving through the park can be a very rewarding experience. Not so with Canyonlands. First of all its geography is complicated with 3 different zones that are not connected by road. The Green and Colorado Rivers meet in the park and the combined river (Colorado River) moves on south, its gravity aided progress impeded by dams (Glen Canyon, Hoover), forming lakes (Powell Lake, Lake Mead), through the Grand Canyon and then on to the Pacific Ocean.

Island In The Sky

Island in the Sky Section

Canyonlands - Grand View Overlook

Washerwoman's Arch from Mesa Arch Overlook

Canyonlands - Buck Canyon Overlook

This Y formed by the merging Green and Colorado Rivers divides Canyonlands into the 3 sections. The area between the rivers, Island in the Sky, is the highest and northernmost section of the park. It is formed on a broad, level mesa. The paved road in this section, Grand View Point drive is 12 miles long from the Visitor Center to the Grand View Point Overlook and has a handful of vista points. The vista points themselves are some of the grandest one can will ever see with the views encompassing 100 miles of canyons. A casual visitor will likely remember the jewel-studded Arches National Park nearby more than Canyonlands.

White Rim Trail

However, for the more committed visitor, Canyonlands offers plenty more. A thousand feet beneath the high mesa is the White Rim, a nearly continuous sandstone bench that follows the contours of the mesa. And below the White Rim are the two rivers themselves flowing sedately until their confluence. Downstream of the confluence the water flows turbulently through a stretch of white water known as Cataract Canyon. The 100 mile White Rim drive is accessible only to 4x4 vehicles. Parts of it become impassable after heavy rains as was the case when we visited. We were advised that repairs had been completed but even experienced off road drivers were having difficulty negotiating some sections. Hence, we decided to not attempt the full loop but to limit ourselves to an out-and-back drive till White Crack, a distance of 40 miles one-way. This would cover the eastern side of the White Rim and give us the Canyonlands wilderness experience that we craved for.

Section of the White Rim Trail that we traversed

Shafer Canyon

View of the distant Needles from White Crack

The Needles

The southeastern section of the park, the Needles, lies to the east of the Colorado river. While one can view Needles as a distant landmark from the Island in the Sky, one has to drive in excess of a 100 miles to actually get there. The town of Moab lies in between and is also just outside Arches National Park. Chronologically, one can visit the Island in the Sky, Arches and Needles in that order in order to optimize on total time. The town of Moab also servers adventurers who don't have national parks on their minds. All manner of adventure sports involving off road trips, mountain biking, mountain climbing, white water rafting etc. draw visitors to Moab, a buzzling town in the middle of all this remote wilderness.

The Needles Section

Chesler Park Joint Trail - View From Elephant Hill

The paved road inside the Needles section offers even fewer vistas than its Island counterpart thereby reducing visitor count even further. The 4x4 tracks inside Needles are highly technical and so we opted to do a day long hike on a 11 miles loop circuit that covered two landmarks. The first of these is Chesler Park which is a large meadow dotted with the Needles – massive sandstone spires of orange, rust and coral-colored rock that stand upright in a tangled formation. The other astonishing landmark is the Joint Trail, a long walk through a narrow section between two huge rock fins, with room only for single file only and open to the sky.

Chesler Park - Joint Trail

Chesler Park - Joint Trail

The Needles section also has some arches (Angel, Castle, Druid, Fortress, Wooden Shoe) but most of these are only accessible through long hikes or 4x4 drives. Wooden Shoe Arch is an exception and can be viewed from your car as you drive past on the paved road.

Chesler Park Joint Trail - Panorama

The last section, the Maze, is one of the remotest areas in the entire US and requires considerable survival skills with 4x4 and is not meant for novices. It is described as a “30 square mile puzzle in sandstone” with bizarre towers, walls, buttes and mesas. Fascinating though as it sounds, we decided to leave well enough alone.

Arches National Park

Map of Arches National Park

Arches National Park is home to more than 2000 natural sandstone arches, as well as other rock formations (Petrified Sand Dunes, Fiery Furnace among many). Towering spires, fins, continuous walls and balanced rocks create a remarkable assortment of landforms in a small concentrated area.

Across the state border is the spectacular Colorado National Monument (not visited on this trip) but with even less visitor numbers.

Delicate Arch is the best known feature of the park (featured in some Utah license plates and several iconic photos of the state, default wallpaper with Windows). The longest arch is Landscape Arch , 306 feet long at one point.

Fiery Furnace is a twisting maze of fin formations and canyons and requires one to go on ranger guided hikes or sign a declaration asserting expertise in navigating that kind of terrain. We could not schedule a precise visit to enable advance booking of a ranger tour.

Other highlights of the park include the Courthouse Towers, the Three Gossips, Devils Garden, Parade of Elephants, Tower of Babel and Park Avenue. These are easily accessible from the road and greet the visitor within minutes of entering the park.

How Arches Form

Arches are not permanent structures and are all due to crumble some day on account to weathering. The most recent example occurred in August 2008 when Wall Arch collapsed. Due to this remarkable concentration of arches in a small area and since most of these are accessible from the road or through short hikes, visitor numbers to Arches are considerably higher compared to the nearby Canyonlands National Park.

Balanced Rock

Delicate Arch

After visiting Canyonlands-Island, Arches and Canyonlands-Needles we had enough time to visit either the Dinosaur National Monument in the remote northwest corner of Colorado or the North Rim of the Grand Canyon. We chose the latter as it also offered us the opportunity to sample many delights en route: some that we had visited before and some for the first time.

Goosenecks State Park

We had visited the Goosenecks State Park area with its dramatic view of the twisting San Juan river in 2005 and the equally dramatic unpaved section of Hwy 261 known as Moki Dugway which switches back over a steep mesa that rises above the vast Valley of the Gods. A 4 mile spur road from the top of the mesa takes one to another viewpoint of the goosenecking San Juan river. All these sights are well worth repeating and we spent a couple of hours just doing that.

The Double Gooseneck of the San Juan River

Looking down to the Valley of the Gods

Switchbacks of the Moki Dugway

Near the border with Arizona is the quaint town of Mexican Hat and Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, which is featured in classic films like McKenna's Gold. We merely drove past Monument Valley this time just pausing on the highway for a few more photographs, as we sped towards Page, AZ.

Monument Valley


We had always wanted to visit Antelope Canyon, just outside Page and we got to do so on this trip. A brief stopover at Glen Canyon dam gave us a useful geography lesson at its visitor center.

Antelope Canyon

Glen Canyon Dam

Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument

The Grand Staircase Infographic

The Grand Staircase-Escalante National Monument is a dramatic landscape with multi-hued cliffs spread over a huge swathe of south-central Utah like a staircase. This rugged, remote region was the last land in the continental US to be mapped. We had previously visited this area while driving between Bryce and Capitol Reef National Parks. Those are near the northern end of the staircase (top of the stairs). On this trip, we skirted the southern side near the remote Arizona border, visiting two more centers, Big Water and Kanab. The interior of the monument is remote and is only accessible through 4x4 roads. We overheard the ranger at Big Water advising a party interested in traversing the Cottonwood road to avoid that route due to recent rains and take the much longer paved route that will take them all around the perimeter of the monument rather than the straight, short approach.

We learned about the Lefevre Overlook enroute to the North Rim of the Grand Canyon from Kanab. From this overlook, one gets the best view of the staircase with the multi-hued layers stacked on top of each other – from bottom to top with Chocolate Cliffs, Vermillion Cliffs, White Cliffs, Gray Cliffs and Pink Cliffs.

View of distictly colored layers that forms each step of the Grand Staicase of the Colorado Plateau from Lefevre Overlook

Grand Canyon National Park (North Rim)

Which brings us to the last entry on this trip, the North Rim, the less visited side of the Grand Canyon due to its remote entry from the northern (Utah) side. The park and the canyon are well within Arizona. The South Rim is easier to get to from Las Vegas. The drive between the two rims is 200 miles and there is an expensive shuttle service running between the two. Unlike the South Rim, the North Rim has fewer overlooks and only a few of those actually look directly across at the South Rim. However, the Cape Royal viewpoint takes one close to two dramatic formations, the Vishnu Temple and Wotan's Throne. These are visible from the South Rim but only as distant objects, one gets a totally different perspective from the closer North Rim.

Grand Canyon North Rim - view from Cape Royal

Grand Canyon North Rim - View of formation called Wotan's Throne at sunset

We still fantasize about our own Rim to Rim hike including a night (or two) stay at the bottom. We got a sampler by executing a spur of the moment hike from the North Kaibab trailhead down to the Supai Tunnel (a descent of 1400 feet) and back up during the middle of the day. It was the hottest part of the day but our load was light and we paced ourselves well.

Our access point for this trip was Salt Lake City airport and we made quick trips to the Temple Square and Utah State Capitol while en route.

Utah State Capitol at Salt Lake City

The Photos

Aug 23, 2014 Photos: 8

Highways Utah-5 US-191

Aug 23, 2014 Photos: 21

Salt Lake City

Aug 23, 2014 Photos: 28

Island In The Sky

Aug 24, 2014 Photos: 77

White Rim Drive

Aug 25, 2014 Photos: 106


Aug 27, 2014 Photos: 85

Canyonlands - Needles

Aug 28, 2014 Photos: 24

Moki, Gooseneck, Monument Valley, Page

Aug 29, 2014 Photos: 66

Antelope Canyon

Aug 29, 2014 Photos: 20

Glen Canyon Dam

Aug 29, 2014 Photos: 17

Grand Staircase Escalante

Aug 29, 2014 Photos: 84

Grand Canyon North Rim

Aug 31, 2014 Photos: 7

Highways Utah-12, US-89, I-15

Videos: The Complete Playlist

Below is the link to the YouTube playlist. These are HD videos and can be viewed at 720p if you have a high speed internet connection.

Photos and Text: R. Venkatesh and Malini Kaushik