Going Off Road in Canyonlands and Exploring Arches National Parks in Southern Utah
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Going Off Road in Canyonlands National ParkOvershadowed by Arches, and a bit further away Canyonlands doesn't always get the tourism it deserves. This park offers panoramic views, hints of ancient civilizations, and some pretty arches of its own.
One of the true highlights is Mesa Arch in the section of the park called Island in the Sky. The view through the arch is spectacular and easily reached from the parking lot. To get the most, scrunch down on the rocks and peer through the arch. The LaSal Mountains are in the distance and Buck Canyon is below. Truly gorgeous.
This area was also home to the Ancient Puebloans who built their towns across the area of the United States known as the Four Corners (New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona, and Utah). Some of the ruins are in Canyonlands National Park. In the area known as The Maze you'll find Horshoe Canyon with its trove of pictographs dating back over 2000 years. This area is not for the timid -- you'll need a 4-wheel drive vehicle and bring lots of water. The area known as The Needles is home to Tower Ruin, one of the ancient sites.
Generally a combination of driving the paved roads and short easy hikes will take you to see much of the park's beauty. Stop by the visitors center to pick up a map to help you plan your trip.
Easy Exploring in Arches National ParkLocated just 5 miles from Moab, this national park derived its name from having the largest concentration of natural sandstone arches in the world.
The key to its unique topography is salt. Arches National Park lies on top of a huge bed of salt, the result of the movements of ancients seas that flowed into the area and eventually evaporated. On top of the salt, a layer of debris from natural events gradually formed, turning into rock. But the salt layer is unstable and shifts over time causing cracks the layer of rock. Water creeps in and the cycle of summer heat and winter ice breaks off chunks of the rock leaving pieces freestanding. If they are strong enough they form the arches. The arches in the park today are in the process of being formed and being taken down by those forces.
You can see many of the arches and rock-themed sights by taking the paved road through the park up through the starkly scenic Devil's Garden.
Although hikes are required to view several of the famous arches along the way, including getting close to the famous Delicate Arch many of the other spectacular arches that can be easily reached. Paths through the Windows Section are fairly flat and easily navigated and lead to some of the parks most popular arches including Turret Arch, Double Arch and the North and South Window Arches.
A combination of driving and short paths makes much of the astounding arches within an easy walk.
Dead Horse Point State ParkAround the late 1800s the point that came to be known as Dead Horse Point was used as a corral for wild horses. But once, so the story goes, the horses were corralled and left there, eventually dying from the lack of water. Despite the depressing name, The Point does provide a true panorama of the valley, the mesas, and the Colorado River below. There are also miles of hiking trails that vary in difficulty. Maps are available at the Visitor Center.
Off RoadingIf you're driving your own 4-wheel vehicle you can take advantage of the web of old mining roads that wind through the area. These maps and trail guides are available at the Moab Information Center in Moab.
If you want the 4-wheel off road experience without doing the white-knuckle driving, take one of the tours offered by Tag A Long Expeditions. They take you to the places you'd love to visit, if you knew how spectacular they were. Their half-day excursion covers Island in the Sky in Canyonlands National Park, backcountry roads through Arches, driving under a fallen boulder and more.
Tip: You might be tempted if you are short of time to focus on Arches and blow off Canyonlands. Don't. It's worth a visit.
MoabThe epicenter for tours, lodging, restaurants and shops is Moab. Best Western Plus Canyonlands Inn offered well-located and comfortable lodging and a full breakfast. We've stayed in several Best Western Plus throughout the trip through southern Utah and enjoyed all of them.
Moab is a tourist town so there's no shortage of restaurants and shops. For dinner try Pasta Jay's known not only for its pasta (which was excellent) but also the pizza. As you stroll along Main Street, stop in at Hogan Trading Company for jewelry, pottery, rugs and home decor items and Lema's Kokopelli Gallery for Native American art. If you knit or crochet, stop by Desert Thread for their selection of specialty yarns.
Unless otherwise indicated, all photos by the author
Published: February 17, 2014