Utah – Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands is the lesser visited sister to Arches National Park. Both are located in Utah, north of Moab and show the dynamic range of results that erosion has on the desert environment. I’ll be honest and say that if I only had one day in the area, I would head straight back to Arches National Park. If you have more than a single day, head over to Canyonlands for stellar canyon views, particularly Mesa Arch at sunrise and Murphy Point hike. Both of these are located in the Islands of Sky area, but I hope to return to the other areas, like the Needles District in the future.
Mesa Arch is notable for its location on the side of a canyon and the orientation, which allows you to view the sunrise and canyon below simultaneously. It’s pure magic. When we visited Delicate Arch at sunrise, we noticed a loll in people once the sun had risen, but before the normal day crowd arrived. Roughly the loll happened at 6:30 – 7:30 am, for our sunrise at 6:00 am. Due to the orientation of the Mesa Arch, many professional photographers try to get the sun rising through the arch. Since we do not have super fancy cameras, we thought we would have better luck if we hit that sweet spot after the sunrise crowd thinned out, then go do the Murphy Point hike.
Learn from our mistakes! Do not assume that a quarter of a tank of gas will be enough! Canyonlands is located a good 40 – 60 minutes north of Moab, plus some additional scenic stops along the way. Gas up before heading out, perhaps the night before. We were forced to exit the park back to the main road to get more gas after visiting Mesa Arch, this pushed us back at least an hour, which was not good when the mid-day sun in unbearable.
At a Glance:
- Rating: 3 stars, would do it again, if in the area
- Intensity: Clothes to sweat in, water
- Duration: .5 hour for Mesa Arch, 2 -3 hours for Murhpy Point hike
- Cost: National Park Entrance Fee
- Location: Canyonlands National Park
- Restrooms: at the trailhead for the Mesa Arch
- Mesa Arch at sunrise, or just after is incredible view into the valley below
- Murphy Point Hike was quiet with views in multiple directions
- Mid-day heat on the Murphy Point hike was out of control. The heat made it seem like a difficult hike, when the elevation changes were relatively minor
Recommended for these adventures:
- Plenty of water!!
- Tennis shoes
Mesa Arch at sunrise
Mesa Arch is located in the “Islands of the Sky” area of Canyonlands and about 10 minutes past the entrance. There is a small parking lot on the left side. When we arrived there were probably about 7 other cars in the lot at perhaps 6:45 am. A bathroom is located at the trailhead and the arch is just over a small hill. After the 5 or 10 minute walk, we arrived at the arch.
Mesa Arch at sunrise is stunning. I can see why people try to capture the sunrise because the light warms the underside the arch, while illuminating the intricate canyon below. When we arrived, there were maybe two or three other couples/small groups. One by one they left and we had 5 glorious minutes with the arch all to ourselves. We couldn’t believe our luck. Although we didn’t catch the actual sunrise, the morning light was still dynamic and dramatic. We loved it!
Murphy Point hike
As I mentioned in the prep section, we began the Murphy Point hike a bit late at roughly 9 am. This sounds like a fine start time for most places, but it is not fine for Utah in July. It was beginning to heat up already, but we dove into the 3-mile round trip hike anyways. We reached the overlook by about 9:45 am. We saw two families and a couple other people headed to the trailhead when we were heading to the point.
The trail is relatively flat with a couple small hills to traverse. As we reached the point, we walked to the right to see the Green River in the distance. We walked around the tip of the overlook to get different views of the canyons. By this point it is really getting hot and there is not a soul around. We took our time at the point and turned around at 10:15 am.
As the mid-day heat kicked into high gear, I began to notice how quite it was. Not only were there no people, there were also no sounds of wildlife. Birds seemed to be seeking shade and even the numerous lizards we passed were hiding. The heat was draining, making it seem much longer to get back to the trailhead. Luckily we survived to tell the tail.
Canyonlands and Islands in the Sky are both aptly named locations. If you are having arch-fatigue and want to get away from crowds, then this might be a refreshing respite. I LOVED Mesa Arch at sunrise and thought the Murphy Point hike was a decent-sized small hike with great views from the overlook. Exhausted by the heat on the Murphy Point hike, we didn’t to drive around to the other parts of Canyonlands.
Canyonlands an enormous National Park with other areas to explore, including the Needles District and the Maze (not accessible by car). It would be great to visit the area not in the middle of summer, where we could thoroughly enjoy a long hike out to the Maze or into the Needles District. I researched this one hike that looked incredible, but perhaps a bit too long to enjoy during summer. Finally, it is good to note that Canyonlands does not have the same views as the Grand Canyon. I kept my expectations low, which is a good way to approach the park.
Have you visited Canyonlands? What did you think of the park?