Most people still choose the Grand Canyon National Park in Arizona when looking for breathtaking canyon views. But around 300 miles north in Utah lies another national park that will equally make your jaw drop, without having to be shared with as many tourists. Canyonlands is a mouthwatering mezze of proud mesas, deep canyons, awesome arches, and exciting drives.
There are four districts of Canyonlands National Park: Island of the Sky; The Maze; The Needles; and The Rivers. Separated by the Colorado and Green rivers, it takes many hours of driving via the highway to get to each section. My companion and I opted for the former for its easy access. About 40 minutes drive from Moab, the 191 north leads you past Arches National Park before you take a left down the 313 onto Grand View Point Road. With possession of an annual national park pass costing $80, our entry to the park was free.
It doesn’t take long after entering the park before the sweeping views from the Island of the Sky mesa take you by surprise. A remarkable vista of sprawling red ravines and flat sandy basins with jagged buttes and plateaus of sandstone rock sketched into the bare desert landscape, it is easy to see why this section of the park received its name. 1000 feet below the cliff edges, a narrow track was pencilled into the dry terrain. We knew little about this park before arrival, but soon discovered that it offers the opportunity for a drive of a lifetime.
The 100-mile White Rim road begins with the Shafer Trail. No permit is required to drive along this section (however from 2015, those planning to continue along the White Rim road do require one). With our Land Cruiser we met the requirements of a 4WD vehicle to travel the route. It seemed foolish to refuse the chance for such an adventure. Those who get caught out by the rain can expect to pay up to $2000 for a tow. Confident that the puffy clouds above wouldn’t turn nasty, we took a deep breath and set off on an epic journey.
Daft Punk’s ‘Disc Wars’ was the soundtrack of choice to our descent. Its rumbling first bars built up the tension perfectly as we began navigating the dirt track, careful to avoid potholes but also wary of driving off the edge in the process. The outburst of a higher tune began pertinently as we started a steeper descent towards a string of switchbacks that left me sucking in my stomach for the next 30 minutes as the edges of the steep cliffs repeatedly loomed closer before us.
If you see a car approaching, even if a few minutes drive away, it’s best to perch in the nearest space available rather than face a nerve-racking reverse back along the narrow track. Stay in low gear and use the engine brake rather than relying on the foot pedal. It’s important to keep a cool head – any loss of control and you could be doing a Thelma and Louise!
Finally we reached flat lands and could breathe normally again after our intense descent. All was quiet in our surroundings as we stopped at Gooseneck Overlook to explore the bottom of this dry ocean below the island. Lizards posed in a frozen state of camouflage against the rock painted with natural black bacteria, before darting through tiny cracks which, when peered through on all fours, might sometimes reveal a stomach-churning drop to the base of the canyon far below where rivers of sandstone snaked their way through the valley. Further on towards Musselman Arch, giant statues of stone with bold faces stood closely together, looking like ruins from an ancient temple of the underworld. With nobody else around, it was the perfect playtime for young adults.
The hairpin bends were just as hair-raising on the way back up the trail, however we were now more comfortable with the road. Reaching the top of the mesa and looking back down into the canyon where we had come from brought a huge sense of fulfillment. How many people could say they had conquered a road like this?!
Further into the park, Mesa Arch attracts more tourists, becoming more reminiscent of the neighbouring Arches National Park. After our experience of tranquility in the canyon, the noise of clicking cameras and giddy children became a little irritating and so we drove north-east towards Whale Rock. The trail here was marked with piles of stone which gave it a more rustic feel. From the top of the rock you can see Upheaval Dome, an enormous block of rock with jagged peaks that looks very out of place in the canyon. The question on geologists’ minds is, is it simply an excessive sandstone deposit or a meteorite..?
After an adrenaline-pumping afternoon, the remainder of our day was spent basking in the evening calm at the Grand View Point Overlook. Looking out over Monument Basin, the way the canyons were carved into the plateau reminded me of the shape of bronchi from Biology lessons in school. On the other side of the road looking out over the Green River, a gang of hairy Aussie bikers on Harley Davidsons asked, “What’s for tea?” as we cooked sausages.
We sat and admired the sunset beaming down on the basin below, the colours changing from intense reds to hot pinks and warm oranges. It was definitely a pinch-worthy moment. I remember seeing the tiny outline of a plane soaring overhead and suddenly feeling a flood of heartbreak because I knew I would have to be on a plane back to England in a few weeks’ time.
We watched a spectacular show of shooting stars up above in an indigo sky where the Milky Way was the clearest I’ve ever seen it. Sat safely in serenity, I counted 50 flashes of lightning in the space of two minutes appearing hundreds of miles away to the west.
Canyonlands is a place that could so easily be missed off someone’s list in favour of the more famed Arches National Park. This is a shame because it is a place quiet enough in popularity to make you feel like a local once having arrived, but crazy enough in auto-touring opportunities to make you feel like a VIP once having left! If you have a 4WD vehicle that you are confident using, definitely make sure to drive the Shafer Trail for an experience that you won’t forget in a hurry. I visited Canyonlands in August 2014, and it remains my favourite national park to date.