The Colorado and Green Rivers divide Canyonlands National Park into three districts – the Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the Maze, with the rivers themselves listed by the National Park Service as a fourth “district.” Island in the Sky is the easiest to visit and, thus, the most popular. The Maze is more remote and the least accessible of the park’s districts. The Needles is a 75 mile drive from Moab. Most of the district’s features are found on its extensive trail system and four-wheel-drive roads.
The road to the Needles district passes through Newspaper Rock Recreational Site, location of a large collection of prehistoric petroglyph rock art.
Most of our September 26, 2011 exploration of the Needles was on the relatively short scenic drive and the 2.4 mile Slickrock Trail (a loop).
Canyonlands National Park – A large region of rugged buttes, pinnacles, mesas and canyons south and west of Moab, Utah. This was the second time we’ve hiked this 2 mile round trip trail.
Grand View Point is the southernmost spot on the high mesa of Canyonlands, Island in the Sky. From the Grand View Overlook, the trail runs along the southern rim of the mesa, 1000 feet above the lower plateau, which is in turn carved into complex canyons by the convergence of the Green and Colorado Rivers.
On September 23, after we had moved from Devils Garden Campground in Arches National Park to a campground near Moab, we took a drive to see some some of the area that we had never been through before.
Heading northeast out of Moab on US 191, we turned left onto Utah 128 just before the bridge crossing the Colorado River.
Designated “Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway,” Utah 128 follows the Colorado River Gorge for over 30 miles, after which it crosses open desert towards Cisco. Now a ghost town, Cisco was established as a station for replenishing the water supply on steam locomotives on the Denver and Rio Grand Western Railroad main line. Five miles past Cisco, Utah 128 intersects Interstate 70.
For the first 13 miles, the highway parallels the river through a narrow section of the gorge – part of this distance, the gorge is part of the boundary for Arches National Park. The gorge widens after that, passing Castle and Professor Valleys, shooting locations for western films and television commercials. At 24.7 miles, a dirt road leads to a viewpoint for the red spires of Fisher Towers.
Our drive (blue) took us almost the full length of the scenic byway, including driving to the Fisher Towers viewpoint. We turned back just short of Cisco.
On the way back to Moab (red), we turned at the La Sal Mountain Loop Road, which is also the road into Castle Valley. While the road signs were less than optimum, we were able, with the help GPS, to take the right turns on the Forest Service roads. The road is paved part way.
The La Sal Mountain Range, in the Marti-La Sal National Forest, is the second highest range in Utah, with peaks approaching 13,000 feet. Pines, quaking aspens, and streams make this alpine region a sharp departure from the desert country around Moab just a few miles away.
Our stay at Devils Garden Campground was for three days, but there was still more that we wanted to see in Arches National Park as well as other areas. On our 2007 trip, we had stayed 3 nights at the KOA southeast of Moab. This time, we decided to stay there again for four nights, extending our time in the area out to a full week. Driving distance was just 28.6 miles from Devils Garden to the KOA – the shortest distance between campgrounds we’ve done since September 2009.
Moab is the county seat for Grand County, which takes its name for the original name of the Colorado River, which runs north and west of town. The town’s population is around 5,000, with an economy largely based on tourism and outdoor adventure activities.
After Landscape Arch, we went see some of the sights nearer to the entrance to Arches National Park.
It’s 9 miles (14.5 km) from the park entrance to the Balanced Rock parking area. There are four viewpoints along the way for parking, viewing some of the park’s extraordinary and unusual formations and, at a couple of points, hiking.
Park Avenue viewpoint – trail leads downhill through the “Park Avenue” canyon to Courthouse Towers viewpoint.
La Sal Mountains viewpoint.
Courthouse Towers viewpoint – we hiked up the canyon from this point and back later in our visit.
Petrified Dunes viewpoint.
Balanced Rock is one of many popular rock formations in the park. From the parking lot, a short trail leads out to near the base and loops around it. The height of the pillar and rock on top is about 128 feet (39 m). The balancing rock is about the size of three school buses, estimated at 3577 tons. During the winter of ‘75 – ‘76 a smaller companion balanced rock fell. It had been called “Chip Off The Old Block.”
Landscape Arch is one of the more popular attractions in Arches National Park. Located in the Devils Garden area in the northern part of the park, the trailhead was only a short drive from our site in the Devils Garden Campground. Landscape Arch is 1.5 miles from the trailhead.
It’s the longest arch in the park and according to The Natural Arch and Bridge Society, the longest natural arch in the world, laser measured in 2004 at 290.1 ± 0.8 feet (88.4 m). Since 1991, three sandstone slabs have fallen from the thinnest section of the arch, resulting in closure of the trail that once passed below it. Several other arches are accessible in the Devils Garden area.
Our three night stay at Arches National Park was in the Devils Garden Campground. Eighteen miles from the park entrance, the campground is located in the middle of red sandstone fins, boulders and rocky hills, Utah juniper and pinion pines, yucca and prickly pear cacti. The La Sal mountains can be seen in the distance. There are also a few arches nearby. One of them, Skyline Arch, was only a short walk and climb from our campsite, though climbing up into the arch itself was a bit of a stretch.
The nearest town, Moab, is 23 miles away, so there is very little light to pollute the night sky, making the campground a great place to view the wonders of the night sky.
Like most U.S. national park campgrounds, Devils Garden has no hookups for water, electricity, or sewer. Facilities do include potable water, picnic tables, and grills, but there are no showers. There are 50 sites that can be reserved between March 1 and October 31. This is a very popular campground and, for anyone who would like to camp here, I would recommend making reservations.
Over the years, we’d been through Grand Junction at least 4 times, but had never stopped there or visited any of the local attractions. After this trip, Colorado National Monument will certainly be a place we would like to visit again.
Colorado National Monument, established May 24, 1911, is located just to the west of Grand Junction. Part of the larger Colorado Plateau, the monument features canyons that cut deep into sandstone and even granite formation. It is high desert country, with elevation in the park ranging from 4000 feet to nearly 7000 feet above sea level. Summer temperatures are usually very hot, while nighttime winter temperatures can be extremely cold. Precipitation is limited, with an annual average of just over 10 inches..
The monument has a lot of hiking trails, with varying length and difficulty – we took two moderately long hikes during our visit, managing to wander off of the Devil’s Kitchen trail into and unmarked area. We also took the Monument Canyon Trail from the upper trailhead to the Coke Ovens overlook and back. The lower portion of the train from the lower trailhead to Independence Monument and back is highly recommended for visitors looking to do only one hike. It’s a 2.5 mile hike that follows the base of sandstone cliffs, offering views of towering rock formations and, in the fall, it’s the best trail to see desert bighorn sheep.
Our first hike of our 2011 visit to Arches National Park was the 3.0 mile (4.8 km) round-trip trek to Delicate Arch on September 21. We had done this hike almost exactly 4 years before, so we knew what we were getting into.
The trail begins at the parking lot adjacent to the old Wolfe Ranch cabin. A side trail near the cabin leads to some petroglyphs.
The Delicate Arch trail has very little shade. Most of the trail is over open “slickrock” sandstone – a term given by early settlers because of the difficulty of their horses’ metal shoes getting traction on the sloping surfaces of the rock. There is some exposure to heights. The trail can be a brutal hike during the summer, when temperatures can exceed 100°F (37.7°C). The park service recommends at least a quart of water per person on this trail. Across the rock, the trail is marked by rock cairns.
We had planned the southwestern part of our trip for late September into October to take advantage of cooler weather. The high temperature for our hike was probably in the low 70s.
The trail to Delicate Arch is a nice hike and I heartily recommend it for a spring or autumn hike, or even an early summer morning hike provided you’re off the rock before the extreme heat of the day.
After 2 weeks in Colorado, we left Grand Junction on a short drive to our next destination, Arches National Park. It was 131 miles (211 km), mostly on Interstate 70, though the actual straight line distance was 60 miles (96.5 km).
As we traveled west in Colorado several days earlier, the landscape had gradually changed from high mountain forest and tundra to high desert country, with quite a bit of farming in the Grand Valley of the Colorado River (once called the Grand River). Driving west into Utah, the landscape became more and more desolate with a stark and fascinating beauty.
This was our third visit to Arches National Park. The previous two were brief, but this time we had three nights reserved in the park at Devils Garden Campground.
Arches National Park is in eastern Utah. It has over 2000 natural sandstone arches and many other interesting geological formations, such as spires, balanced rocks and sandstone fins. It was designated a national monument in 1929 and became a national park in 1970.