The Green and Colorado Rivers divide Canyonlands National Park into several districts, but not all are easily accessible. The Needles district offers a backcountry experience that requires some hiking or four-wheel driving to see its attractions. The Maze is even more remote and primitive and requires considerably more time to visit. The Island in the Sky, though, is the most easily reached district and offers expansive views from overlooks located along a paved road. As its name suggests, Island in the Sky is actually a sandstone mesa rising 1,000 feet above the surrounding terrain. From this lofty perch, the phenomenal scenery appears to go on forever!
If you don’t have a lot of time to spend at Island in the Sky, that’s OK because you can get a good sense of place in three or four hours. Be sure to at least visit the overlooks at Grand View Point and Green River, and hike the easy Mesa Arch trail. Every roadside stop offers a different perspective on the remarkable effects of erosion on sedimentary rock.
The rugged environment here has been forming for nearly 300 million years. It began with layer after layer of various material and minerals solidifying into mainly flat cement-like layers. Eventually, southeast Utah was flooded by various waterways, and then about 15 million years ago, the earth’s crust began to rise. The uplifting of this region, known as the Colorado Plateau, is why the average elevation here today is over 5,000 feet above sea level. The uplifting also marked the beginning of intense erosion. The Green and Colorado Rivers began to down cut, and as you can see from the park’s overlooks, are now entrenched in canyons over 2,000 feet deep. Years of wind and water and freezing and thawing have ground away at the sandstone, sculpting spires and domes and other shapes that make this landscape so fascinating.
Although the Island in the Sky district is open year-round, the roads can be impassable during the winter, so it’s best to visit March through October. Other than bottled water at the visitor center, no water is available in the park, so bring all that you’ll need.
IF YOU GO:
To reach the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park, take US Highway 191 to Utah Highway 313 (10 miles north of Moab, or 22 miles south of I-70), and then drive southwest 22 miles. Driving time to the visitor center from Moab is roughly 40 minutes. $10 entrance fee per vehicle.
The visitor center is open 9:00 a.m. to 4:00 p.m. daily (except some winter holidays), with extended hours spring through fall. Aside from the visitor center and restrooms, there are no facilities in the park. Cell phone coverage is poor to non-existent throughout Canyonlands. For more information on the Island in the Sky district, visit the website or call (435) 259-4712.
Willow Flat Campground is open year-round on a first-come, first-served basis. There are twelve sites with tables, fire grills and vault toilets. Firewood and water are not available. Sites are $10 per night.
In addition to writing about her travels, Denise Seith is also a treasure hunter and loves a good latté. She and her husband own an online gold prospecting and metal detecting equipment store found at GoldRushTradingPost.com