Canyonlands National Park, 257,640-acres of sandstone pillars, arches, and canyons that looks like they sprang from the pages of a Dr. Suess book, is a playground for adults. Whether you’re looking to tackle a multiday, 100-mile-plus bike ride, climb a dramatic rock spire in the middle of the desert, or backpack through narrow slot canyons with 4,000-year-old petroglyphs Canyonlands has you covered. And, thanks to the high desert climate, late fall is the perfect time to go.
Climbers head straight for the Island in the Sky district of this southern Utah park. A 6,000-foot mesa west of the town of Moab that rises above the Green and Colorado rivers, the Island is home to a series of remote sandstone towers and iconic ascents such as In Search of Suds and Primrose Dihedrals. Rock hounds can get so distracted by the crack climbing, they miss the iconic Washer Woman Arch – actually part tower, part arch – which looks something like a slender woman reaching into a tub when viewed from the east. One of the only arches in the park where climbing is permitted, the descent off Washer Woman includes an airy repel under the arch itself. Other towers worth checking out include Moses, Zeus, Monster Tower, and The Witch.
Mountain bikers also love this district for its famous White Rim Trail. A rough Jeep road built in the fifties and changed little since then, this dirt throughway is a giant loop and a great multiday ride between numerous campgrounds. Typically ridden in three to four days, the rugged road isn’t overly technical or demanding, which makes it totally suitable for intermediate bikers. The only hazard is the temptation to look up for too long when vistas of the area’s red rock cliffs and psychedelic rock formations rear into view.
The best area for backpacking is the less-accessible Needles District. Known for its narrow slot canyons and ancient petroglyphs, the Needles area is linked by 60 miles of interconnecting trails. Thanks to the extremely rough terrain, most of the area is only accessible by foot. The 11-mile hike through Elephant Canyon and Druid Arch is a classic.
But no matter what type of adventure brings you to Canyonlands, no visit is complete without a visit to Horseshoe Canyon’s Great Gallery, a series of several dozen large, highly detailed petroglyph figures that date back more than 4,000 years. The 7-mile round-trip hike up Horseshoe Canyon to the Great Gallery passes three other major petroglyph sites and is an absolute must during any Canyonlands visit.
More information: The nearby town of Moab is chock-full of guide services, outfitters, restaurants, and places to stay. There are also lots of campsites inside the park and most of the hikes and biking trails are well marked with good maps available. If it’s your first time climbing in the park or you’re interested in repelling trips, we recommend getting a guide. Windgate Adventures, based in Moab, is a great choice.