Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park sees more than 735 thousand visitors per year

The landscape of Canyonlands National Park was eroded into a maze of canyons, buttes, and mesas by the combined efforts of the Colorado River, Green River, and their tributaries, which divide the park into three districts. The park also contains rock pinnacles and arches, as well as artifacts from Ancient Pueblo peoples.


Canyonlands National Park is a showcase of geology

Canyonlands National Park is a showcase of geology. In each of the park’s districts, visitors can see the remarkable effects of millions of years of erosion on a landscape of sedimentary rock. Pictured above, the Green River has carved a channel out of rock layers deposited nearly 300 million years ago.


Most of the rock found in Canyonlands today came from distant mountain ranges like the ancestral Rockies and even the Appalachians. For millions of years, rock was broken down and carried here by wind and water, creating deposits that eventually became distinct layers of sedimentary rock.

Some layers were laid down by rivers, their sandy channels surrounded by swamps and lakes. Wind brought some of the thickest layers, creating vast sand deserts or dune fields on the shores of an ancient sea.

The accumulating rock created a geologic layer cake, with most of the material hidden below the surface. There were no canyons: only vast plains gently sloping into the distance.

But change was coming…


Many of the rocks exposed in Canyonlands were deposited near sea level. Today, the average elevation here is over 5,000 feet above sea level – a significant uplift.

Canyonlands is part of a region called the “Colorado Plateau,” an area that stands high above the surrounding country. About 20 million years ago, movement in the Earth’s crust began to alter the landscape of North America, building modern landforms like the Rocky Mountains, Nevada’s Basin and Range, and the Colorado Plateau. Some geologists believe that the plateau has risen as much as 10,000 feet since the uplift began.

These movements also created cracks where melted rock rose from deep inside the Earth. In some places, it cooled before reaching the surface, creating pockets of harder, igneous rock within the surrounding sedimentary layers. Eventually, erosion exposed these harder deposits, creating the isolated mountain ranges visible from Canyonlands: the La Sals, Henrys and Abajos.


Today’s landscape is one of erosion. As this area gradually rose, rivers that once deposited sediment on the lowlands began to remove it from the emerging plateau. The Green and Colorado rivers began carving into the geologic layer cake, exposing buried sediments and creating the canyons of Canyonlands.

However, the rivers aren’t the only force of erosion. Summer thunderstorms bring heavy rains that scour the landscape. Some layers erode more easily than others. As softer rock dissolves away, layers of harder rock form exposed shelves, giving the canyon walls their stair-step appearance. Occasionally, a slab of harder rock will protect a weaker layer under it, creating balanced rocks and towers. Great examples of this are visible in Monument Basin at Island in the Sky and the Land of Standing Rocks in The Maze.

Water also seeps into cracks in the rock, eroding and widening them until only thin spires remain, like those found in The Needles.

As the work of erosion continues, today’s geologic displays will eventually disappear, making way for future wonders.

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Native American History

Home of the Puebloans, Fremonts, Utes, and Paiutes

Humans first visited Canyonlands over 10,000 years ago. Nomadic groups of hunter-gatherers roamed throughout the southwest from 8,000 BCE (Before Common Era) to 500 BCE. Living off the land, these people depended on the availability of wild plants and animals for their survival. They do not appear to have stayed in any one area for very long. They left little in the way of artifacts and didn’t build homes or other lasting structures. However, the hunter-gatherers during this time created a great deal of intriguing rock art. Some of the best examples of their art, known as “Barrier Canyon Style,” remain on the cliff walls of Horseshoe Canyon.

Ancestral Puebloans and Fremont
Roughly two thousand years ago, the hunter-gatherers began to rely more on domesticated animals and plants for food. These early farmers are called the ancestral Puebloan (formerly known as Anasazi) and Fremont people. They grew maize, beans, and squash, and kept dogs and turkeys. In order to tend their crops, they lived year-round in villages like those preserved at Mesa Verde National Park. Though the two groups overlapped, the Fremont lived mostly in central Utah, while the ancestral Puebloans occupied the Four Corners region. These cultures can be distinguished by their different tools, pottery, and rock art.

Over time, growing populations at Mesa Verde caused a search for suitable land all over southeast Utah’s canyon country. By 1200 CE (Common Era), large groups had moved into what is now The Needles, especially in Salt Creek. However, granaries and dwellings used by the ancestral Puebloans are scattered throughout the park. You can see examples of these structures at Roadside Ruin in The Needles, Aztec Butte at Island in the Sky, and along many backcountry trails.

For many years, changing weather patterns made growing crops more and more difficult. Around 1300 CE, the ancestral Puebloans left the area and migrated south. Their descendants include the people living in modern pueblos in New Mexico and Arizona like Acoma, Zuni, and the Hopi Mesas.

Utes, Navajos and Paiutes
Before the ancestral Puebloans left, other groups appeared in the area. The Ute and Paiute cultures may have arrived as early as 800 CE. The Navajo arrived from the north sometime after 1300 CE. All three groups still live here today. These cultures initially lived more of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle than the ancestral Puebloans. Their use and exploration of the Canyonlands area appears to have been minimal.

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Park History

How Canyonlands become a National Park

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Arches National Monument Superintendent Bates Wilson advocated the creation of a National Park in what is now Canyonlands. Wilson led government officials on jeep tours which featured lengthy talks over campfires and hearty dutch oven dinners. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall joined one of these tours in 1961, and took the campaign to Washington.

In 1962, the Canyonlands park bill was introduced by Utah Democratic Senator Frank Moss (in photo above). Also that year, the U.S. Department of the Interior published a paper entitled A Proposed Canyonlands National Park containing evocative passages such as:

“Rock — carved, colored and clothed by weather — controls the character of our land. Nowhere is the relationship between earth’s framework and the forces that shape it more dramatic than in the plateau and canyon country of the American Southwest.”

On September 12, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Public Law 88-590 establishing Canyonlands National Park. Canyonlands expanded to its current size of 337,598 acres on November 12, 1971 when the Maze, the Land of Standing Rocks, as well as Davis and Lavender canyons were added to the park (Public Law 92-154).

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The best things to do in Canyonlands National Park

Whether you’re stopping by for an hour or planning a two-week vacation, Canyonlands offers many ways to spend your time in the park.

Auto Touring: Paved and four-wheel-drive roads help you explore this highly scenic park.
Backpacking: You can take overnight trips in all three districts.
Biking: Bikes must remain on designated roads.
Boating: Flatwater and white water trips experience the rivers’ canyon-carving power.
Camping: There are campgrounds at The Needles and Island in the Sky.
Climbing: Technical climbing is allowed in some areas.
Guided Tours: These companies are authorized to lead trips into the park.
Hiking: From minutes to days, Canyonlands has trails of every length.
Horseback Riding: You may take pack and saddle stock on all backcountry roads.
Ranger-led Programs: Rangers offer activities daily spring through fall.
Stargazing: With few nearby cities, Canyonlands’ night skies are especially dark.
For Kids: Browse a few ideas for engaging young visitors.


There’s a surprising amount of vegetation at Canyonlands National Park

Many visitors are surprised at the amount of vegetation in Canyonlands. Plants are critical components to all ecosystems, and Canyonlands is no exception. Plants capture particulate dust in the air, filter gaseous pollutants, convert carbon dioxide to oxygen, provide animal habitat and possess many raw materials useful to humans.

Visitors encounter a variety of plant species from tiny lichens clinging to sandstone to stately cottonwoods growing in canyon bottoms. Wildflowers bloom in spring, cacti appear among knobby biological soil crust, and bunch grasses grow throughout the open country. These varied communities and ecosystems allow scientists to research how plants adapt to a changing world.

Cacti & Desert Succulents
Trees & Shrubs

Many adaptations in leaves and roots enable plants to survive the extremes of temperature and aridity found in Canyonlands. These adaptations are grouped in three categories: drought escapers, drought resistors and drought evaders.

Drought escapers are plants that make use of favorable growing conditions when they exist. These plants are usually annuals that grow only when enough water is available. Seeds may lie dormant for years if conditions are not favorable. Spring annual wildflowers are escapers. They sprout following winter and early spring rains, and sometimes again after late summer rains.

Drought resistors are typically perennials. Many have small, spiny leaves that reduce the impact of solar radiation, and some may drop their leaves if water is unavailable. Spines and hairy leaves act to reduce exposure to air currents and solar radiation, limiting the amount of water lost to evaporation. Cacti, yuccas and mosses are examples of drought resistors. Yuccas have extensive taproots that are able to use water beyond the reach of other plants. Moss, a plant not commonly associated with deserts, thrives because it can tolerate complete dehydration: when rains finally return, mosses green up immediately.

Another extreme adaptation can be found in the Utah juniper, one of the most common trees in the southwest. During a drought, junipers can self-prune, diverting fluids from one or more their branches in order to conserve enough water for the tree to survive.

Drought evaders, the final group, survive in riparian areas where water is plentiful. Monkey flower, columbine and maidenhair fern are found in well-shaded alcoves near seeps or dripping springs. Cottonwoods and willows require a lot of water, and only grow along river corridors and intermittent streams where their roots can reach the water table easily.

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Animal Life

The mountains of Canyonlands National Park are filled with wildlife

Though the natural quiet of Canyonlands often creates the impression of lifelessness, many animals live here. Birds, lizards and some rodents are seen most frequently, though seasons and weather play a large role in determining what animals are active.

Desert animals have a variety of adaptations for dealing with the temperature and moisture stresses present in Canyonlands. Most desert animals are nocturnal, being most active at night. This can be an adaptation to both predation and hot summer daytime temperatures. Mostly nocturnal animals include kangaroo rats, woodrats (also called packrats) and most other small desert rodents, skunks, ringtails, foxes, bobcats, mountain lions, bats and owls.

Animals that are most active at dawn and dusk are called “crepuscular.” These times of day are cooler than mid-day. The half-dark makes prey animals less visible, yet visibility is good enough to locate food. Some animals are crepuscular mostly because their prey is crepuscular. Crepuscular animals include mule deer, coyotes, porcupines, desert cottontails, black-tailed jackrabbits, and many songbirds.

A few desert animals are primarily active during the day, or “diurnal.” These include rock squirrels, antelope squirrels, chipmunks, lizards, snakes, hawks, and eagles. Many animals have a temperature range in which they are active, so alter their active times of day depending on the season. Snakes and lizards go into an inactive state of torpor during the winter, are active during the day during the late spring and early fall, and become crepuscular during the heat of summer. Many insects alter their times of activity. For example, mosquitoes may be out all night, all day, or at dawn or dusk, depending on temperature.

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Hiking Trails

The best hikes in Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands has hundreds of miles of hiking trails which explore the park’s natural and cultural features. Both Island in the Sky and The Needles provide ample opportunities for short walks, day hikes and backpacking trips. Due to its remoteness, The Maze is primarily a backpacking destination.

Trails are usually marked with cairns (small rock piles) and have signs at intersections. Many remote trails do not receive regular maintenance and may not be adequately marked. All backcountry hikers should carry a topographic map.

Island in the Sky Trails

Several short trails explore the mesa top with minimal elevation change, enjoying canyon views from above. Moderate trails involve elevation, such as climbing a sandstone feature or descending partway into a canyon. Long trails at Island in the Sky begin on the mesa top and descend via switchbacks to the White Rim bench, or beyond to one of the rivers. All are considered strenuous, with an elevation change of 1,000-2,000 feet, and require negotiating steep slopes of loose rock as well as sections of deep sand.

All trails are marked with cairns (small rock piles). Water is scarce; bring at least 1 quart (1 L) of water per person for short trails, and up to 1 gallon (4 L) for long trails. Avoid hiking during peak heat on summer days. Carry a flashlight, map, and basic first aid equipment.

Planning an overnight trip? Read about backpacking.

The Needles Trails

The Needles offers over 60 miles of interconnecting trails as challenging as they are rewarding. Many different itineraries are possible, but some of the more popular ones are listed below.

Four short, self-guided trails along the paved scenic drive highlight different aspects of the park’s natural and cultural history. Surfaces can be uneven. Trail guides are available at the visitor center and at the trailheads.

Conditions of other trails are more primitive, traversing a mixture of slickrock benches and sandy washes. Longer trails are especially rough and require negotiating steep passes with drop-offs, narrow spots, or ladders. Water in the backcountry is unreliable and scarce in some areas. Trails are marked with cairns (small rock piles). Although most trails can be hiked in a day by strong hikers, many form loops and may be combined with other trails for longer trips. Net elevation change is generally several hundred feet or less, except for the Lower Red Lake Trail, which drops 1,400 feet to the Colorado River.

The Maze Trails

Horseshoe Canyon is a popular hiking destination in The Maze. Because of the remoteness of The Maze, most other trails are best for overnight trips.

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