The Landscapes of Canyonlands National Park

Located in the Southeastern region of Utah, Canyonlands National Park is one of the most impressive national parks in the United States that I’ve seen. Covering a vast area of land, the ancient geology and vistas can be best described as weird, magical and enormous in scale.

With both the Green River and Colorado River bordering each ends of the park , there are three distinct regions to Canyonlands: Island in the Sky, The Needles and the Maze. The Island In the Sky is the most popular area due to the proximity to the town of Moab where most visitors stay. It also has the most accessible locations that require minimal hiking.

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Staring at the Island In The Sky District from Pothole Point in The Needles District.

The Needles District is the second most popular area. With it an extensive network of trails and campsites, it’s possible to hike for a few hours, or explore the area over a few days. 

For those seeking solitude or more extreme adventure, The Maze is the most remote location in the park and requires a 4WD vehicle to explore it within a suitable period of time. Those venturing out into the area need to be self sufficient as most adventurers who explore this section easily spend up to a week doing so. I didn’t venture out into The Maze due to the time restrictions as well as not having the correct vehicle to do so. Instead, I stuck with exploring The Needles District and The Island In The Sky.

The Needles District – Chesler Park Hike

I came into Canyonlands from Monument Valley in the south, so starting with The Needles district made sense. If you’re fond of hiking and camping then you will enjoy The Needles district the most as it offers a number of campsite facilities. With over sixty miles of interconnecting trails I felt like my body was craving some exercise.

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The view of Elephant Canyon on the way to Chesler Park

The distinct features of The Needles are the multicoloured sandstone spires that rise out of the earth. Combined with many ruts and smaller canyons, it makes for an challenging yet interesting hiking experience. Personally, I was most impressed with this location because of how close you can get to the geological formations.

As I only had one day scheduled in, so my friend, Taylor recommended the Chesler Park Trail. At approximately 6 miles to reach the area from the carpark, it seemed the most achievable trail that would provide a very good view of the Needles District terrain.

chesler park the needles

A 12 image panorama of the multi colored spires. I used a circular polariser to reduce the glare and included myself in the final frame to add scale.

Despite it only being six miles, the hike can be difficult in parts as the entire trail is back country, with only the occasional cairn along the trail acting as a guide. There are also areas that will require scrambling across rock ledges and steep edges; nothing too dangerous, but care still should be taken when approaching them. As a result, hiking back in the dark can prove to be a dangerous options, so I had to take this into consideration and still returned within a few minutes of evening.

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Staying on track is important when navigating through The Needles trails. Can you spot the cairns used to guide hikers?

The best option if you want to find the best light in this region would be to either camp or use a 4WD vehicle that can withstand the challenging terrain.

The Island In The Sky

The Island In The Sky is the most popular area in the park as it’s only ten miles north of Moab. Paved roads split the area down the middle, with many pullouts that allow access to multiple viewing areas of the canyons.

canyonlands trail

An unpaved trail that also takes a long route back to Moab. Looks tempting doesn’t it?

The craziness of Mesa Arch

The most popular area within the Island In The Sky district is without a doubt, Mesa Arch. With a view of the distant canyons, various buttes and the La Sal Mountains, if you haven’t seen this image in your travel research then you’ve probably been hiding under a rock.

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All the ‘togs waiting to capture the blazing amber light that reflects off the canyon wall below.

Sunrise is the most popular time to photograph Mesa Arch. The reason being when the sun rises above the horizon, the golden light reflects off the mesa sandstone canyon walls and illuminates the arch above; painting it with a intense amber glow. It’s quite a unique and magical experience.

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Six vertical image panorama of the sun illuminating the arch and the canyons below.

Tips for photographing Mesa Arch

Photographing Mesa Arch requires careful planning and preparation. The most important factor is getting there well before sunrise. Once you arrive, you will have up to thirty or so photographers clamouring over the limited real estate. Where you position yourself will affect the composition, so you only get one shot at it – unless if you return the following morning.

Pre visualising what shot you want will dictate where you set up and also the focal length that you shoot at. If you are shooting wide and want to capture the sun or a sun burst in the shot then use an app like Photopills to predict ahead of time the  sun’s position and trajectory, relative to your current position.

The shooting area is quite exposed to the elements, so wind and dust will affect your ability to change lenses. In the end, I brought two camera bodies with me; one with the 16-35mm wide angle lens that I shot a panorama with, and the other with a 80mm equivalent for a tighter field of view.

mesa arch canyonlands utah

A handheld shot at a 80mm focal length with my second camera. I wanted to compress the image to put more emphasis on the distant spires and the La Sal mountains.

Sunset at the Green River Overlook

The Green River Overlook has a South West viewing direction for sunset. Where most of the overlooks are of the various canyons, this one in particular is of the plateau which has been carved out by the Green River over millions of years.

The light during the afternoon wasn’t the greatest as it flattened out once it dipped below the thicker clouds on the horizon, it was still stunning enough to enjoy as day turned into night.

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Sunset at the Green River Overlook.

Tips for photographing Canyonlands

Bracket your images at varying exposures as you may want to blend the images in Photoshop for a more natural look. You’ll most likely be shooting into the sun as well, so double check that you aren’t getting any flares on your images. 

Pack a sturdy tripod especially if you’re shooting panoramas or bracketing your images. It also ensures your spot in the madness at Mesa Arch once it is set up.

Bring a second camera and lens with different focal lengths. That will allow you to zoom into the detail and the millions of years of erosion.

Use a circular polariser to reduce glare especially during the daytime.

Pack plenty of water and energy snacks. There’s a free water fountain at the visitor centre, but always bring more than you need, especially when hiking.

Despite the sunny days, temperatures can drop to freezing as well as experience snow falls. I always made sure that I had a hat and jacket nearby at all times. 

Other useful information

Where to stay: The best place to stay is in Moab, just ten miles from Canyonlands National Park. I stayed in Motel 6, a budget motel which has all of the basic necessities but is also on the edge of town closest to Canyonlands as well as Arches National Park.

How much time should I spend?: I spent two days in Canyonlands, but if I could do it again, I would spend four days. Reason being, I would have attempted some hikes to other locations as well as explore Dead Horsepoint State Park.

canyonlands utah

It is possible to drive along the White Rim Road, once used by miners. However having the right preparation and vehicle is vital on this multi day journey.

If you enjoyed any of these images, they are available for purchase as high quality prints HERE

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