We visited Canyonlands National Park on Memorial Day weekend. The weather was starting to get pretty hot - highs were in the low 90s. A couple of days saw afternoon thunderstorms with lots of lightning. Most of the time the rain stopped within a half hour, and was dry and sunny again in no time flat.
Canyonlands has four districts and we stopped by the two most accessible ones, Needles and Island in the Sky. Needles is known for its awesome hiking and backcountry trails and the spindly red rock formations that give it its name. Island in the Sky is a mesa that is connected to another mesa by a forty foot wide "bridge" and offers expansive views of canyons and mountains.
The Maze and the Horseshoe Canyon Districts are at least a hundred miles away from Moab and more inaccessible. We didn't get to visit them.
Canyonlands is in southeastern Utah, near Moab. It is near Arches NP as well, which can easily be visited in a day.
Canyonlands is much larger and its best to give each district at least a day. Island in the Sky and Needles Districts are about 2 hours from each other (visitor center to visitor center), while the Maze and Horseshoe districts are about a hundred miles away to the west.
Moab is about a three hour drive from Durango, CO, and about 7 or 8 hours from Santa Fe and Albuquerque, NM. It is about two and half days from Seattle, WA.
Lodging: You can rent a hotel room, B&B or whatever in Monticello or Moab, UT. Monticello is the closest town to Needles, about an hour away, and Moab is closest to Island in the Sky.
Camping: There is a campground in each district, but they were full when we got there late Friday morning. (First come, first serve) The Needles Campground, Squaw Flat looked really nice. Each site is bordered by huge boulders that provide shade and atmosphere. It has drinking water during the busy season (April-October) and toilets. The campground at Island in the Sky does not have any water.
Newspaper Rock, managed by the Bureau of Land Management, is a free campground about half an hour away from Needles District. It has restrooms (pit toilets), picnic tables, firegrates, and firepits, but no water. The campground is along the road, but with lots of trees and alongside Indian Creek. And it is free.
Newpaper Rock is named for a huge flat rock surface covered with tons of petroglyphs.
And there are many more places to camp in the area.
Food: Moab has a ton of eateries, most of which we have never tried.
- PeaceTree, which makes huge smoothies and a good Thai wrap.
- Eklectika brews up some decent espresso and looks to have good pastries and offers breakfast.
- The diner in Moab cooks up your usual diner fare (and coffee). The Special I got with Green Chile looked like vomit, but tasted ok and was very filling, but not pleasing to the eye. At All. Next time I want to try breakfast at Eklectika or the Jailhouse Cafe.
- Eddie McStiffs brews their own, which even at 3.5% alcohol content are still good to drink. They specialize in weird flavors like Blueberry and Jalapeno (two different beers!). The food is more than decent and the miso salad dressing is excellent.
There are two groceries in Moab, a City Market (usual big store) and a natural food store, which was mostly a regular grocery store with better lighting and black walls. Monticello also has a City Market.
Activities: We hiked and mountain biked in Canyonlands.
The Colorado River Overlook bike ride took us about an hour and half each way (seven - eight miles). Moab is known for its plethora of bike trails, but the National Parks have very few. The White Rim in Island in the Sky is a hundred mile long dirt road that is supposed to be one hell of a bike ride. I want to do it someday.
Needles has many excellent hikes, most of them starting out Elephant Hill Rd, a dirt road in great condition for the first three miles to the trail head. The Civic drove it no problem, and it was smooth and packed down.
Druid Arch is a great hike, but fairly long at 5 miles one way. The trail is well marked with cairns and signs, and the loop possibilities are endless.
We hiked the Neck Spring trail in Island in the Sky, a 5 mile loop. It got pretty hot during that hike - we started around 9 am and finished around noon. There wasn't much shade after the first mile.
You can make backcountry reservations for overnight trips as well.
River rafting, whitewater kayaking, and backpacking are some other possibilities. And of course, there are endless scenic viewpoints and scores of four-wheel drive roads. No ATVs in the national park though.