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Canyonlands National Park, Utah
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Green River Overlook, Canyonlands

 

Photo by National Park Service

Canyonlands may be the lesser known of the Canyon Country parks but it is no less spectacular and it has far fewer visitors. But be forewarned, the grandeur of this U.S. National Park is difficult to ascertain on a whirlwind tour. Not only is Canyonlands the largest park in Utah much of it is remote and difficult to reach. What's more, at Canyonlands, no two views are the same. Lofty overlooks at Island in the Sky give way to varying panoramas. Canyons, spires and fins as well as the snaking, green-blue rivers roughly 2,000 feet below take on a different light at each bend in the trail. Upheaval dome, a favorite with the kids, is otherworldly whether it was created by a meteorite or underlying salt bed. The Maze, the most remote of the three districts at Canyonlands National Park, is a 30-square-mile sandstone puzzle of oddly shaped monoliths. The Needles with its red and white-banded pinnacles is an enormous rock garden intermittent with grassy green meadows. Cataract Canyon, as the raging rapids below the Confluence are known, offers a ground floor view not to mention a world-class stretch of white water. So when you plan your trip to Cayonlands with kids remember to slow down, take your time and discover. This is one of the last remnants of wild America after all.
Getting There
 
The Colorado and Green rivers divide Canyonlands National Park into 3 distinct districts, Island in the Sky, the Needles and the Maze. Island in the Sky, the most frequently visited area, is accessed from Highway 313 just north of Arches National Park and Moab, Utah. The Needles district, not to be confused with Needles Overlook, is accessible from Highway 211 just north of Monticello, Utah. The Maze is reachable by a mix of graded dirt and rough 4WD roads which are impassable when wet. The nearest full service airports are in Grand Junction, Colorado and Salt Lake City, Utah, a 2 and 4 hour drive respectively from Island in the Sky. The small Moab Airport offers limited commercial service. The nearest Amtrak train stations are in Grand Junction, Colorado and Green River, Utah.
Getting Around
 
Hundreds of miles of hiking, biking and 4x4 trails crisscross the park and provide a closer look at the natural phenomena unique to Canyonlands. Grand View Point and Upheaval Dome Overlook trails are popular short hikes in Island of the Sky. Both are graded easy. Trails from the mesa top to White Rim Bench and beyond have an elevation change of between 1,000 and 2,000 feet. Loose rock and deep sand are but two of the hazards on these steep and strenuous hiking trails, which are easier on the way down than the way up. White Rim Road, roughly 100 miles in length, is a favorite with mountain bikers and four-wheel drivers. Hiking trails in Island in the Sky and the Needles districts are marked with small piles of rock called cairns. Topographic maps, available for purchase at park visitor centers, are a necessity on all backcountry trips as remote trails are unmarked. Permits are required for all overnight backcountry trips.
When to Travel
 
The climate at Canyonlands National Park is high desert. Summers are hot and dry with an average high in the mid 90s°F (35°C). Winters are cool and snowfall is possible. Evening temperatures are significantly lower than the daytime high throughout the year. Plan to dress in layers whether you visit in June or December. Strenuous outdoor activities such as hiking and biking are best in spring and fall but they are doable in summer if you set out in the early morning or late afternoon and beat the heat between 13:00 and 16.00. River rafting is ideal from May to early September.
Health & Safety
 
Heat exhaustion, dehydration and improper footwear are the main cause of incidents at this high desert park. Wear sturdy shoes, light long-sleeved shirts and a hat with a brim. Apply high factor sunscreen to all exposed areas, including your child's nose, ears, and toes, before you set out and repeat applications throughout the day. Carry plenty of water (4 liters per person per day is recommended when hiking in summer), select a trail that is commensurate with the age and ability of the kids and pay particular attention to a change in weather. A closed vehicle is one of the safest places during a lightning storm. If you are unable to reach your vehicle go to a low-lying area. Keep away from open areas, high spots, tall objects and trees. When venturing into the backcountry on an unassisted trip be sure to leave details of your activity and the date of your expected return with a family member or friend.
Hours & Seasons
 
Canyonlands National Park is open 24 hours a day year-round. Visitor Center opening hours vary. Island in the Sky and Needles visitor centers are open daily 9:00 - 16:30 from November through February with extended hours from March to October. The Hans Flat Ranger Station in the Maze district is open daily year-round 8:00 - 16:30. All park Visitor Centers are closed December 25. Ranger-led interpretive programs are offered mid-March through October at both Island in the Sky and Needles. Many of the programs are family-oriented and offer kids a chance to earn a junior ranger badge. The program schedule is posted at the district visitor center.
Admission & Fees
 
A day use fee, valid for 7 consecutive days, is charged per vehicle unless you traveling by foot, bicycle or motorcycle. Campground fees are charged separately. An activity fee is charged for backcountry permits whether you are hiking, mountain biking, rafting, horseback riding or four wheeling. Backcountry permits can be reserved in advance or purchased on site at the various visitor centers.
Things to Keep in Mind
 
Keep an eye on the kids at overlooks and cliff edges. Bottled water is available at Island in the Sky and Needles visitor centers only. There are no stores, concessions or gas stations on park grounds. Junior ranger booklets and children's discovery packs (deposit required) complete with binoculars, hand lens, naturalist guide and notebook are available at park visitor centers.
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