Canyonlands National Park

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Canyonlands National Park Overview

In the far southern reaches of Utah, the Colorado and Green Rivers carve the high desert into a labyrinth of red-rock canyons that are sheer ecstasy for the hiker, mountain biker, and whitewater adventurer. The park is broken into three distinct districts—Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze. The vast landscape offers hundred-mile vistas of rust-colored pinnacles, high mesas, sculpted buttes, sandstone spires, and sheer crimson cliffs.

The final scene of the film Thelma and Louise was filmed just outside of Island of the Sky. Actor John Wayne and director John Ford are among the film personalities who came to the red-rock country of Utah to shoot Hollywood Westerns, forever searing this landscape into public consciousness.

While Canyonlands is the largest national park in Utah (three times as big as Zion), it sees far fewer visitors than its cousins Bryce Canyon, Arches, and Zion. With the right timing and a bit of ingenuity, you can have the best of this sublime rock world to yourself.

Hike into a Magic World
Rugged desert hikes snake their way past Indian ruins, orange sandstone arches, and along canyon rims. Island in the Sky offers hikers the opportunity to behold one of the most peculiar geologic formations in the world—the 1,500-foot Upheaval Dome is believed to be a collapsed salt dome or a meteorite impact crater. Or, is it a UFO crash site? Whatever it is, it's unusual and worth the hike. The Druid Arch Trail begins at the Elephant Hill Trailhead and leads to Druid Arch—Utah's version of Stonehenge.

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Backpack the Badlands
Pitch a tent under the stars and watch meteors streak across the sky above mesas, buttes, and crimson cliffs—backcountry camping in remote regions of the park offers a solitude seldom found anywhere else in the world. You'll also find two developed campgrounds—the 26-site Squaw Flat Campground in the Needles District and the 12-site Willow Flat Campground in the Island District.

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Bike the Desert Wilds
Pedal through this desert realm of red-rock badlands along a web of slickrock trails. The Maze is the most primitive district in the park and offers long trails that penetrate deep into the wildest and remotest regions of the Canyonlands. The 44-mile descent to the sandy bottom of Horseshoe Canyon requires two days. Cleopatra's Chair is a 21-mile route that winds its way through sculpted spires. Standing Rocks is a three-day, 78-mile journey that goes through deep sand and slickrock terrain.

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Raft the Rapids of Utah
Utah's Green and Colorado Rivers offer paddlers lazy stretches of serenity punctuated by heart-in-throat plunges through narrow gorges foaming with water the color of cafe latte. Cataract Canyon has been called the "Graveyard of the Colorado"—Class III rapids cascade down a series of drops named Big Drop One, Big Drop Two, and Big Drop Three, culminating with dangerous holes named Satan's Gut and Little Niagara. The Green River also has a mean streak—Disaster Falls, Hell's Half Mile, and Triplet Falls are no-joke rapids in the Lodore Canyon.

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Go on a Night Safari
Grab a pair of night-vision binoculars and you'll be surprised at how many critters come out once the sun goes down, as much of the park's wildlife is nocturnal. Of course, you'll see lots of lizards and snakes. And then there's the kangaroo rat and the jackrabbit—both emerge from their burrows at night to forage for food. During the day, you might spot the sure-footed bighorn sheep that like to impress technical climbers with their ability to clamber up canyon cliffs without any gear. Check the skies for red-tailed hawk, golden eagle, peregrine falcon, and turkey vulture—and be glad you're not carrion.

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