Canyonlands National Park is also near Moab, but rather than the two-mile drive out of town to Arches, Canyonlands is about 20 miles away. Canyonlands is approximately five times as large at over 500 square miles and preserves a landscape of canyons, mesas, and buttes created by the Colorado River, the Green River, and their respective tributaries. Legislation creating the park was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson on September 12, 1964.
The park is divided into four districts: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the combined rivers—the Green and Colorado—which carved two large canyons into the Colorado Plateau. The Island in the Sky district attracts the majority of park users and is the most accessible by automobile. The Needles district is the second most visited. The rivers within the park and the remote Maze district each only account for 3 percent of park visitation due to it's remote and vast network of unimproved roads and trails. The Needles, Maze, and Rivers districts are all generally visible from the Island in the Sky district.
Our trip exclusively explored the Island in the Sky. From the many turnouts, panoramic vistas of different landscapes were enjoyed and gave understanding to the vastness and variety of topographies that make up the park. As far as the eyes could see in many directions…rivers, monoliths, earth scared by desert storms, winds, and time... As magnificent and grand as these vistas were, there were also many beautiful details. Rocks, plants, birds and other details competed for attention with the more dramatic scenery in the distance.
As we arrived at the rather unassuming park entrance (sans the normal visitors center), we saw a couple getting ready for their own exploration on mountain bikes. The Islands in the Sky would be an enjoyable biking experience for most people due to its relatively flat paved roads.
Although Arches National Park boasts having the majority of arches in this part of Utah, Canyonlands is known among photographers for another very special and scenic arch--Mesa Arch. What gives Mesa Arch such an avid following is its combination of stunning vistas through the arch as well as its orientation to the rising sun. We were content to arrive just after sunrise, but it not atypical for there to be as many as 20 or 30 photographers in a relatively confined space, pre-dawn, jostling for just the right spot to photograph the sunrise through the arch. In the far distance are mountains and mesas, and somewhat closer in view is the Washer Woman Arch, named for its similarity to a woman washing garments by hand.
It was easy to be mesmerized by the sight of Mesa Arch and its setting. Every subtle angle looking quite different and therefore compelling that more photographs be taken. But alas it was time to move on and see what other surprises might await around the next corner...
Canyonlands seems more a wilderness than a park, and feels much less improved and "directive", leaving the exploration and enjoyment more in the hands of one's own time and curiosity. I feel that we barely scratched the surface of the character and diversity of the park, and therefore shortchange the descriptions and narrative for those who haven't been and might consider visiting... I can with certainty however, that if you're ever given the opportunity to visit the area around Moab, this park should be included in your plans.