Canyonlands National Park
The largest and least-visited park in the Southwest, Canyonlands National Park is both breathtakingly beautiful and totally inhospitable, an arid wilderness of high plateaus and deep canyon carved by the mighty Green and Colorado Rivers. The park is divided into several different areas, each of which is at least a 100-mile drive from the others, so it pays to plan ahead. The most popular section, the Island in the Sky, stands high above the confluence of the rivers and gives the most sweeping panoramas—100 miles in every direction from over 6,000 feet above sea level. South of the rivers, The Needles district holds 50 square miles of spires, arches, and canyons and is the best place to undertake lengthy hikes. One trail leads from the end of the road down to the mouth of Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River. Another area of Canyonlands, The Maze, is west of the rivers and virtually inaccessible.
There’s one visitors center near the entrance to Island in the Sky and another near the entrance to the Needles. The Canyonlands Park Headquarters (2282 SW Resource Blvd., 435/719-2313 or 435/259-7164) in Moab also has extensive information. Adjacent to Canyonlands are two state parks, Dead Horse Point in the north and Newspaper Rock in the south, both of which are also well worth a look.
Arches National Park
Taking its name from the hundreds of naturally formed sandstone arches scattered here, Arches National Park is the most feature-packed of southern Utah’s national parks. Ranging in size from around 3 feet to nearly 300 feet in span, the arches are the result of erosion over millions of years, the same agent that formed the thousands of brilliantly colored spires, pinnacles, and canyons that cover southeast Utah. Piñon pines and junipers add a splash of green to the red and brown backdrop, but mostly what you see are red stone and blue sky—lots and lots of both.
The park’s highlights can be easily reached from the 18-mile paved road that runs through the center of the park. A visitors center (435/719-2299, hours vary seasonally) at the entrance, east of US-191 and five miles north of Moab, has maps, pamphlets, and displays on the geology and natural history of Arches.
From the entrance, the road switchbacks uphill past the sandstone skyline of “Park Avenue” before reaching a turnoff east to The Windows, whose dense concentration of arches and spires is required viewing, no matter how little time you have. Four miles beyond The Windows, a dirt road leads east to Wolfe Ranch, trailhead for Delicate Arch, the park’s most postcard-worthy feature, a three-mile round-trip hike. Three miles farther along the main road, Fiery Furnace is an otherworldly collection of narrow canyons that, despite the name, is quite cool and shady; park rangers give guided walks here throughout the summer. At the far end of the road there’s a two-mile trail leading to Devils Garden, where you can see Landscape Arch, the park’s and the world’s largest arch—291 feet across and 105 feet high.