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Canyonlands - First Glimpse

I'm certainly hoping our May visit to Utah will be just the first time we visit to explore this amazing area. The Colorado Plateau is an enormous jigsaw of geology, canyons, cliffs, erosion, history, pre-history, paleontology, stark beauty, power to be respected, gigantic vistas, hidden nooks and crannies, and much more.

Photo of Aztec Butte in Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Aztec Butte, made up of Navajo Sandstone, has several well-preserved, ancient granaries

Because it was our first visit, and we didn't really know what to expect, we camped too far away but in a familiar place. However, it meant our drive to the park put us there from late morning to late afternoon, which doesn't provide the most awesome lighting conditions.

Photo of Navajo Rocks biking trailhead from Highway 313 in Utah
Navajo Rocks biking trailhead from Highway 313

One of the landmarks seen shortly before the Canyonlands entry gate is the Navajo Rocks, with a large parking lot and multiple trails for mountain biking. The small clump of trees just below the large column-like structure is where the trailhead parking lot is located and there are around a dozen Jeeps visible in my photo when it's expanded to 100%. That might give a tiny foregleam of the immensity of all the views in this amazing place. So it was incredibly hard to cull my photos down to just a few that might represent all we saw while we were there.

Photo of a juniper appearing to dance with cirrus clouds overhead, Utah, titled "Dance of Tree and Sky"
"Dance of Tree and Sky"

I'd never before realized how big Canyonlands National Park is -- totaling more than 500 square miles! It's broken into four districts, and to simplify my own notes, I would say three elevation areas. The districts are Island in the Sky, generally the highest elevation, at around 6000 feet, and roughly triangular, following the convergence of the Colorado and Green rivers. The Rivers District is,

Photo of a juniper and an unnamed butte overlooking the Green River, Utah
Juniper and butte

of course, the Colorado and Green rivers and their confluence, and it's frequented by rafting tour groups; it's at the lowest elevation, around 4000 feet. In between is the rough country of The Needles District, easterly of Island in the Sky, and The Maze toward the west and south; both are anywhere from a few hundred feet to about 1500 feet lower than Island in the Sky. The higher elevation of Island in the Sky is where most tourists go because it has the most developed roads and easiest access. The Needles District can be accessed by Utah Highway 211 south of La Sal, and has plenty of less-developed roads as well as hiking and biking trails; The Maze District is almost entirely accessible only from four-wheel-drive trails. The most interesting of these trails is White Rim Road, a 100-mile loop that can be seen from a number of overlooks.

Photo of striking canyon formations in Canyonlands National Park, Utah
View overlooking a section of White Rim Road and the Green River toward Glen Canyon NRA

The White Rim Road is approximately 1,500 feet below the level of Island in the Sky, with the Colorado and Green Rivers more than 500 feet lower than that. The Shafer Road winds down to the level of the White Rim Road in narrow, hair-raising switchbacks. Today, the road is

Photo of Shafer Road switchbacks below the Shafer Canyon overlook, Utah
Shafer Road switchbacks below the Shafer Canyon overlook

recommended for high-clearance 4x4s and mountain bikes, but interestingly, the National Park Service has a photo from 1965 of a Volkswagen Beetle negotiating giant rocks at the lower end of this trail. Back then, Beetles could go just about anywhere!

White Rim sandstone is one of the middle layers of 25 identified geological layers in the Park and is named for its striking white color. As can be seen in the larger photo above, the White Rim sandstone stands out dramatically from all the red tones of the other sandstone layers. Getting accurate colors in my post-processing

is difficult because the Entrada sandstone (the tops of the buttes in the far distance above)

Photo of an unnamed butte overlooking the Green River in Utah
Unnamed butte overlooking the Green River

are nearly purple-red, while the Navajo sandstone (Aztec Butte at the top) can be pale gold with orange inclusions. Most layers have their own color palette and different lighting conditions certainly changed them, too.

Photo of canyon area called the Needles District toward the Abajo Mountains, Utah
Needles District toward Abajo Mountains
Photo of the area known as the Needles District looking toward the La Sal Mountains, Utah
Needles District toward La Sal Mountains

Many of these views show how vast this area is, and how difficult it is to explore. The Needles District, introduced by the two photos above, is marked by thousands of monuments and small buttes separated from the cliffs and talus slopes of the larger landscape. The La Sal Mountains are probably 30 miles away by sight; the Abajo Mountains even further. In between, there are formations with names like The Totem, Wooden Shoe, Angel Arch, and Paul Bunyan's Potty! If it works out as we plan, we'll head back that way to camp in the La Sal Mountains and explore some of this District in the fall.

Photo of a view in Canyonlands National Park from near the Alcove Springs trailhead, Utah
View from near Alcove Springs Trailhead, showing a seasonal watercourse

As always, I'm intrigued by the people who made their homes in these dry and rugged canyons for more than a hundred years; there are granaries, petroglyphs and pictographs, some homes and other evidence that people spent much time here centuries ago. These people were widespread, too. Evidence of their presence is seen from north of Dinosaur National Monument in northeastern Colorado to Mesa Verde in southern Colorado, throughout this area, along with swaths of Arizona, New Mexico and northern Mexico. And long, long before that, before desertification took over the area, dozens of dinosaur species thrived here.

Photo of a Shafer Canyon Overlook view toward Dead Horse Point and the La Sal Mountains
Shafer Canyon Overlook view toward Dead Horse Point and the La Sal Mountains

Exploring this immense geologic puzzle could easily take a person a hundred years or more; likely more for me, since I'm not fond of heat! But I'd happily come back and do some of that exploration just to learn additional tidbits about this harshly beautiful country. I'd love for you to keep up with my posts and let me know your thoughts by filling out the Contact Denise form on my About tab or including a comment on this post. As always, I'm expanding my portfolio of photo art and stock photography at, so check back to see what new images might be posted.

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