Canyonlands National Park is considered one of Utah’s Big Five, the other four parks being Arches, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon and Zion. Aside from their plentiful and well-documented attributes, one quality I appreciate the most is how different they are from each other. Canyonlands is the “overview” park, giving expansive views of the desert. Southern Utah is generally about sedimentary deposits and erosion over millions of years, with a few snowcapped mountains thrown in. Hoodoos, arches, spires, buttes – the list of geological specimens is a rock lover’s dream. As its name implies, Canyonlands is about the wearing down and sculpting of the rocky landscape on a grand scale. Located southwest of Moab, there are three sections to Canyonlands. The Maze is the most remote, only accessible via 4WD and hiking. Island in the Sky is the most popular with paved roads and numerous overlooks (this section will be featured in a future Wide Open Ride.) The Needles is a little bit of both. There are numerous 4WD roads and hiking trails. But the two main roads offer plenty of access to beautiful sights. This video essay starts on US 191, heading south of Moab. The approach to Canyonland’s Needles entrance is very scenic with two rock formations in particular: first is Wilson Arch, 30 minutes south. It’s plainly visible and walkable, just to the east of the highway. Then, another 15 minutes down US 191 and you’ll see another Instagram-worthy landmark: Church Rock. This is also where you’ll catch UT 211 for the drive west into the national park. Newspaper Rock is the first major sight, 15 minutes along UT 211. It features dozens of petroglyphs spanning some 2,000 years and created by several different cultures: Archaic, Basketmaker, Fremont and Pueblo. In Navajo, the panel is called Tse’ Hane’, “rock that tells a story,” although no one knows exactly what that story is. Petroglyphs are as mysterious as the people who created them and thus the art’s exact meaning is unknown. Just down the road from this stunning panel, look for rock enthusiasts of a different kind climbing the steep canyon walls. Another 20 miles and you’ve reached the park entrance. Various pullouts give views of rock formations like Wooden Shoe Arch. You can also see the park’s namesake Needles in the distance. But to really view these tall, colorful rock spires up close, you’ll need to hike or 4WD. It’s totally worth driving back to US 191 and north a bit to County 133 which takes you back west to Needles Overlook. Perched high on a butte, the viewpoint gives an almost 360° perspective on the dramatic landscape 1,600 feet below. It’s really the defining panorama of Canyonlands National Park.
Route & Map
Length & Time
Plan on a full day and maybe more if you decide to hike or 4WD.
Best Time to Visit
The Needles is spectacular year-round but winter can be treacherous. Though paved and in good shape, the state and county roads won’t be nearly as well-maintained or traveled as US 191 so monitor conditions closely. The Needles Visitor Center is closed in winter.
Moab is a vibrant tourist town with excellent lodging, art galleries and plenty of restaurants. Monticello and Blanding lie south of Moab and The Needles. They are much quieter options but still provide motels, gas stations and food.