SOUTH OF MOAB — Of all the Christmas gifts we’ve gotten as a family, we plan on getting the most mileage out of our National Parks annual pass from Katie’s sister Mandie.
That free admission to any National Park in the country, plus the fact that Utah’s home to five national parks (and within easy weekend distance of quite a few more) make a visit to a park as easy as hopping in and going.
So a short stopover in Canyonlands National Park was a no-brainer for our family as we made our way back home to Sandy after visiting my people in Oklahoma.
Canyonlands, in southeastern Utah, south and west of Moab and Arches National park, is huge. So big that it’s been divided into three districts to make it a bit more manageable. Island in the Sky district in the north is the most-visited one, as it is the most easily accessible. The Maze is pretty much only accessible with four-wheel drive (something our Focus lacks) so we didn’t try that one yet. For our first bite of Canyonlands, we took on the eastern district: The Needles.
The Needles is easy to get to – the roads are paved all the way in – but it’s not the sort of place you can get to by accident. Arches National Park’s entrance is just outside Moab city limits and right off the Highway 191 that runs through town. Canyonlands’ Needles requires a good 30 mile plus drive off the main highway.
This is a good thing though, for several reasons. For starters, unlike Arches, we had no crowds on our visit to Canyonlands. No line at the entrance, empty parking lots, and no other souls on the hiking trails. You felt the solitude that goes hand-in-hand with everything the American Southwest ought to be.
Another bonus is the drive in gives you some amazing views (and you also pass by quite a few BLM campsites and hiking trails – National Park campgrounds fill up fast but nearly every national park has BLM or National Forest campsites right outside).
Along the way you get to stop by Newspaper Rock, an ancient house-sized boulder that’s home to hundreds of pictographs dating back hundreds of years (and a few bits of graffiti left by morons in more modern times). This rock is right off State Road 211 and an easy walk up. You can see ancient drawings, left for unknown reasons, of hunters on horseback (so dating back to around the 1600s?), bison, antelope, deer, mysterious creatures, snakes, six-fingered footprints, and nightmares captured on stone.
My girls had fun guessing what the animals were, and what story the panels told. Norah found all the snakes, while Evie counted deer.
As for the stories, nobody who’s talking really knows for sure. Is the rock a billboard for a clan? A signpost signifying good hunting? Some kind of religious altar? Whatever it was, it’s still a can’t miss top on the way in or out of Needles.
We only had the morning to explore, so this was sort of a scouting trip for future outings. To make the most of our time, we picked out a couple of quick hikes to get a taste of the Canyonlands’ natural and human history.
To stretch your legs, the first hike you come to from the Needles entrance is a great option. The “Roadside Ruin” is an easy third-of-a-mile loop. The short distance and virtually non-existent elevation change makes it a great hike for people of any age, skill, or fitness level. You also get a quick payoff: at the tail end of the hike comes a peek at an Anasazi granary. Hidden safely under a cliff overhang, the stone silo is an example of some of the archeological wonders of the park.
My kids loved scrambling up the slickrock and playing in the sand. They spotted a small lizard, so that kept their interest during the hike.
As for me, I was left wondering about the motivations and daily lives of the Ancient Ones. What was their life like? Why did they build their food storehouses and homes in the cliffs? Were they hiding from something? From someone or something real? From something spiritual?
What was it like to live in this bare land?
If you want a good look at the entirety of Canyonlands, Cave Spring Trail is a great hike. In fact, this was one of the funnest hikes I can remember.
A short dirt road leads to a small parking lot and the trailhead. Although only .6 miles, the trail has something to keep everybody entertained.
The very first thing we came to (we took the loop in a clockwise direction) was an old cowboy camp under a cliff overhang. Old tin cans, a wood stove, and some furniture show the spartan lives these cowhands must have lived. Nearby, a spring drips down the walls as petroglyphs decorate the ceiling of the cliff overhang (the petroglyphs are rather high up – the Ancient Ones must have stood on something or perhaps the sand floor was higher then?) reward those who look up. Handprints and a mysterious figure decorate the roof. More unknowable messages.
From the desert floor, the trail goes up (courtesy two fun wood ladders) to the rock top. A quick scramble up, following cairn markings (my wife told the kids these are called ‘ducks’ back east, and somehow that morphed to everybody calling them pigeons) leads to spectacular 360-degree views of all the red rock, mountains, and sky. Turn around and every view is otherworldly spectacular.
Just a start
Our visit was short. We need to come out for a few days or week. As it was, we only had a morning (vacations don’t last forever). That small taste was enough to ignite a lifelong love with Canyonlands. The sky, the rocks, the solitude… This is what I picture when I think of Utah. This is the land my kids are going to grow up scrambling over. And there’s so much left to explore. Get started.