Sprawled across 500 square miles of Utah desert, Canyonlands is a maze of sandstone buttes, spires, and slot canyons. To the east, the snowcapped peaks of the La Sal Mountains tower above, and at the park’s center, the Green and Colorado rivers merge, creating some of America’s biggest rapids. It’s no wonder Edward Abbey filled books with odes to this red-rock paradise: “It’s the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth,” he wrote. Park ranger Nathaniel Clark has worked here for 10 years, and he plans to stay for at least another 10. His first tip for serious hikers: Head to the Confluence Overlook, which has vertigo-inspiring views of the rivers. Afterward, ditch the crowds to explore one of the park’s three distinct districts — the Maze, Needles, Island in the Sky — and the rivers themselves. Clark’s favorite? “Whichever one I’m in at the time,” he says.
Where to Stay
There are no lodgings in Canyonlands, so drop your bags 50 miles from the entrance to the park at Sorrel River Ranch (above). The resort prepares meals from its organic garden, and sandstone mesas cast shadows over the wood-paneled rooms (from $360; sorrelriver.com). Just down the road, a pair of 400-foot rock pillars rise from the valley floor; some days you can see BASE jumpers taking the fastest way down. Want to stay closer to town? Try the Gonzo Inn in downtown Moab (from $99; gonzoinn.com), an appropriately named hotel a block from Eddie McStiff’s bar, where many of the patrons will still have climbing chalk under their fingernails.
Bomb the Colorado River
The most epic yet overlooked adventure is a four-day rafting trip down Cataract Canyon, which cuts through the park’s southwest ($1,425; westernriver.com). The trip includes Big Drop, one of the country’s largest rapids, and hikes into petroglyph sites. “For high school graduation, my mom gave me a rafting trip down the canyon, and it changed my life,” says Aron Ralston. “We hiked up to the Doll House, a reef of spires on the canyon rim. The sun was setting, and it just glowed. After that I decided to become an underachieving bon vivant — more experiences like these, less 9 to 5.”
(Rafting the Colorado River. Photograph by Getty Images)
Ride Island In The Sky
Mountain biking is banned in most national parks. But Canyonlands, surrounded by some of the best slickrock riding on the planet, has one brilliant exception: the White Rim trail, a 100-mile ride on an old mining road in the Island in the Sky district, a sea of mesas and canyons 40 minutes west of Moab. “These kinds of roads led to the park’s creation in the ’60s by giving people access to the hinterlands,” says Clark. “And it’s still the easiest way into Canyonlands’ heart.” Hard-core riders can hammer out the cliffside route in a day, though it’s better to hire Western Spirit Cycling ($950; westernspirit.com) for a four-day tour: Guidesin trucks schlep your gear, cook dinners like Dutch-oven lasagna, and set up camp at backcountry sites, leaving you to down a beer and focus on views of rock spires needling into the desert sun after the ride’s done.
Hike the Needles
“You can stand at the Needles trailhead, flip a coin, and be happy with any hike you take,” Clark says of the Needles District, an hour and a half southwest of Moab, Utah. But if you want to get away from the crowds, head to Squaw Canyon and Lost Canyon loop, an 8.7-mile trail that “showcases the best of the Needles,” he adds. The trail winds up a major canyon before heading east over a red-rock outcrop. From there, the trail threads through another canyon, back to a valley full of sandstone towers. This long day trip is safe to hike in the winter, but come prepared: Clark says a single storm can drop half a foot of snow in the Needles in February (though most of it melts quickly).
(A man jumps between two rocks in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. Photograph by Kennan Harvey / Getty Images)
Don’t-Miss Detour: Arches National Park
Less than 10 minutes north of Moab, Arches is a maze of otherworldly sandstone spires and, yes, arches — more than 2,000 of them. So even if you’re devoting most of your time to Canyonlands (and you should, since it’s four times larger, with fewer than half the visitors), it’s hard not to visit. Here’s how to do it right: Arrive at dawn and start hiking the 7.2-mile Devil’s Garden Loop. As the sun rises, you’ll have seven of the park’s most recognizable arches, including Landscape Arch, the longest in the park, all to yourself. Plus, you’ll still have plenty of time to snag the obligatory photo of Delicate Arch, the park’s most famous, and fill up on brunch back in town.