Tuesday, September 18, 2012

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park encompasses 337,598 acres west of Moab, Utah. Park visitors can choose to visit either the Island in the Sky section to the north or the Needles section to the south (see map). Because of its proximity to Moab -- which is our base camp at this time -- we elected to visit the Island in the Sky.

We left Moab heading north on US 491, a beautiful 4-land highway. On the north edge of town, we crossed the Colorado River and began climbing immediately. Moab sits at an elevation of 4,026 ft, making it our lowest elevation since we left Texas several weeks ago. As we left Moab, we passed Arches National Park on our right; we will visit that park later this week.

A few miles north of Moab, State Highway 313 turns west and winds its way through a narrow canyon.

Highway 313 looking west into its canyon, just after leaving US 491

The highway began working up the canyon soon after. One of our first stops was to view two buttes, the Monitor and the Merrimac, named for the two ironclad ships that engaged in battle during the War Between the States. The buttes are said to resemble the ships.

The Merrimac and the Monitor tower 600 feet above their sandstone bases

Just south of the Visitor Center is an area appropriately called The Neck. An overlook affords a great view of the canyon country to the east, including Shafer Canyon.
Road descending into Shafer Canyon
One of the draws to the park for many adventurists  is riding the dirt roads in jeeps and other off-road type vehicles. If you look carefully at the picture above, you'll see at least 2 vehicles in the picture descending the road into the canyon.

Shafer Canyon
A few miles south of Shafer Canyon is Mesa Arch. To view the arch, you must take a short hike, but it is well worth the effort.

Our first glimpse of Mesa Arch; La Sal Mountains in the left background.
View of the canyons through Mesa Arch

At the southernmost tip of Island in the Sky is a place called Grand View Point. This point overlooks the confluence of the Colorado River and the Green River. It is these rivers that carve the Island in the Sky.

Imagine an arrow head with the tip pointing south. Visitors to the Island in the Sky arrive from the top of the arrow head after a gentle climb up to the top of the mesa. On the east is the Colorado River and its tributaries carving away the sandstone country. On the west is the Green River and its tributaries carving away the sandstone country. They converge at the tip of the arrow. Over the eons, the mesa or plateau has eroded except for the area known today as the Island in the Sky. So, you literally have a mass of land that is an island in the center of all these canyons. On the mesa top, the land is gently rolling with pretty good grass. Below, the country is rough and broken, strewn with rocks and boulders.

From the Grand View Point, you can scan the confluence of the two rivers, but you can't actually see the river beds -- at least, I couldn't. Just to the west of the confluence is the area known as The Maze.

I believe this is Monument Basin, near the confluence of the two rivers.
Looking south towards the Maze from Grand View Point. It's a vast country.

From the Green River Overlook farther west in the park, we were able to actually see the Green River.

The Green River
We stayed strictly on paved roads during our visit, and we only took the hikes labeled "easy". To fully visit the park, you need at least one full day in each section. To really see some country, you would need to take more adventurous hikes or use an off-road vehicle to get down into the canyons.

The highest point in the park we visited was Buck Canyon Overlook at 6,240 ft, putting it at more than 2,000 feet higher than Moab, which is at the level of the Colorado River. This height difference provides some great views. I took many more pictures than I posted here, but I've tried to select those that best represent the park. This is big country, and I do not think the pictures do the park justice. For every good picture I took, there are hundreds more waiting to be snapped.

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