A majestic desert marvel in Utah's Canyonlands National Park richly rewards travelers who have the gumption and four-wheel drive.
By Tim Fitzharris
The dramatic vistas at Canyonlands National Park rival those of the Grand Canyon, while its exotic geology is first cousin to that of a nearby and better-known national park, Arches.
I’ve spent many thrilling days chasing endless photo opportunities in this immense region full of deep canyons, sheer-drop mesas, staircase benchlands and soaring sandstone spires.
A remote high-desert wilderness, with elevations ranging from 3,700 to 7,200 feet above sea level, Canyonlands is one of my favorite places to shoot Wild West landscapes.
The park sprawls over 337,598 sparsely populated acres in southeast Utah, not far from the town of Moab.
The park is composed of three sections whose boundaries are loosely carved by the Colorado and Green rivers. The three sections are isolated from one another, and you reach them by separate dead-end roads that snake inward from the park periphery.
The Needles district is on the southeast side of the Colorado River, about 90 minutes from Moab. This is the most developed part of the park, with a small store, cafe, visitor center and campground.
Needles, named for the area’s vibrantly colored sandstone spires, is also known for its steep canyons, towering arches and buttes.
Visitors can explore more than 60 miles of interconnecting trails, which can be challenging even for experienced hikers or those traveling in a four-wheel-drive vehicle. But the spectacular scenery is worth the effort.
Looming over the northern reaches of the park, Island in the Sky is a grand, flat-topped, tree-studded mesa about 45 minutes from Moab.
It’s the easiest area of the park for visitors to reach and the best location for capturing those fabulous panoramic shots. A meandering paved road connects numerous overlooks of the river-carved terrain thousands of feet below. Facilities include a visitor center and small campground.
I love to spend the early morning in this part of the park hiking several of the short trails to discover how the light is mottling the exotic rock forms carved by the river.
The Shafer Trail Road leaves the mesa’s rim and drops 1,000 feet in a series of jaw-clenching switchbacks to the White Rim, a massive bench of rock that encircles Island in the Sky.
If you have time to venture outside the park on a brief side trip, you won’t want to miss the dramatic view of Canyonlands from the adjacent Dead Horse Point State Park.
The Maze district is Canyonlands’ least-visited sector, and thorough preparation is necessary before mounting an expedition there.
This labyrinth of multihued rock canyons is accessible only by four-wheel drive or by hiking over remote unmarked trails.
I have not ventured into the Maze, but this trek is high on my wish list, along with spotting and photographing the park’s elusive desert bighorn sheep and mountain lions.
Spring, with its pleasant weather, light crowds and burst of wildflower color, is my favorite time to visit Canyonlands. Typically, daytime highs reach a comfortable 60 to 80 degrees.
May and early June offer flowering cacti and herbs, which I photograph on rare overcast days, when the landscapes lose some of their drama to the soft light.
Summer’s high temperatures, frequently exceeding 100 degrees, make hiking difficult. But the heat also stirs up photogenic thunderstorms that add rainbows, magnificent sunsets and clouds of all shapes and colors to an already sumptuous array.
In autumn, aspens and cottonwoods along the rivers and streams put on a nice show of fall color, made even more enjoyable by clear October skies and pleasant temperatures.
I’ve also tested my cameras here in the winter, when snow dusts the tawny or rusty wilderness. Use caution when visiting during winter, however, as even a light snowfall can make roads treacherous to navigate.
Through the lens, and to my eyes, Canyonlands’ raw, undisturbed beauty is remarkable and breathtaking all year ’round.
Photos by Tim Fitzharris