Whale Rock at Island in the Sky in Canyonlands

The largest of the Mighty 5 National Parks in Utah, Canyonlands covers 337,598 acres with a hit parade of features that make Southern Utah distinct. The park is divided by the Colorado and Green Rivers into three distinct districts: Island in the Sky, Needles and the Maze. Author Edward Abbey, a park ranger in Arches National Monument and a frequent visitor to Canyonlands described the park as “the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth—there is nothing else like it anywhere.” It definitely lives up to his description.

Rising into the sky then falling dramatically 2,000 feet to the confluence of the rivers below, you do indeed look down upon birds on the wing.

Shafer Trail switchbacks

The Island district is the most accessible with multiple short hikes, myriad dramatic vistas, many turnouts and miles of paved road. There are few visitor facilities but many opportunities for solitude as only 500,000 people visit this park each year. With 1/5 the visitors of Zion National Park, you can be sure of some space and peace. Willow Flat is the lone campground here, with a mere 12 spaces.

Many short hikes get you out of the car, into the elements and lead to views of untamed land disappearing on the horizon. Mesa Arch, a portal clinging to the cliff edge and framing the La Sal Mountains, is a favorite spot for sunrise photos, a half-mile hike with huge pay off. Whale Rock is fun to climb, your sneakers clinging to the steep sides of the sandstone monolith. Grand View Point Trail leads to the very tip of the Island, an easy walk to the edge of the mesa.

Mesa Arch 

The Green River overlook allows glimpses of eons old goosenecks, giant bends in the river exposing rock bands resembling layer cakes. Look carefully and you can spy the White Rim Trail as it hugs the mesa edge. This winding 100-mile track made by Uranium miners in the 1950s is accessed by the Shafer or Mineral Bottom switchbacks, requires a 4-wheel drive vehicle and a backcountry permit for camping. An unforgettable Jeep drive or supported bike ride, the White Rim Trail brings you into the heart of nowhere, unfolding the hidden, secret heart of wilderness.

Green River Overlook

Island In the Sky Visitor Center is four hours from Salt Lake and 40 minutes from Moab, a small town that makes a great base for exploring Canyonlands.

Island in the Sky Visitor Center

Photos in this post by Pippa Keene