Mazes, Needles and an Island in the Sky

Canyonlands National Park in Utah offers some of the United States’ most stunning and varied natural sites.

By Michael Gallant

September 2018

Mazes, Needles and an Island in the Sky

Mesa Arch, a stone arch perched at the edge of a cliff with views of canyons and mountains in Canyonlands National Park. It is a popular spot for tourists to view once-in-a-lifetime sunrises. (Alan Szalwinski/Courtesy Flickr)

Pierced by the Colorado River in the southeastern portion of Utah, Canyonlands National Park encompasses a vast desert landscape unlike any other. Thanks to the park’s vistas and canyons, rivers and rock formations, thousands of visitors travel from around the world to experience its wonders each year.

Although Canyonlands has a desert atmosphere, the park is largely defined by the water within it. Its widely-varied, multilayered and multicolored landscapes are the result of millions of years of erosion caused by the grand Colorado River, the smaller Green River and their tributaries. The park’s twin rivers are also responsible for dividing Canyonlands into four distinct districts, each with its own signature geology, geography and character.

Located in the northern region of the park is the most accessible of the four districts—Island in the Sky. And, it truly lives up to its name. The mesa, a flat-topped hill, rests on sheer sandstone cliffs over 300 meters above the surrounding terrain and offers breathtaking visibility that stretches for kilometers in all directions.

To capture once-in-a-lifetime sunrises, photographers often embark on daybreak hikes to Island in the Sky’s famous Mesa Arch. It is a towering cliffside window of rock through which visitors can get stunning views of canyons, mountains and the White Rim Road that runs along the White Rim Sandstone formation. At the southern end of the district lies Grand View Point, a vista that gives visitors spectacular sight of the White Rim and faraway mountains, as well as two of the park’s other districts—The Maze and The Needles.

The Maze is much more remote and difficult to access than Island in the Sky. According to the Backpacker magazine, only a fraction of the visitors to Island in the Sky journey into The Maze, and those who do, come fully prepared for multi-day treks with maps, supplies and even four-wheel-drive vehicles. Those who make the trip are rewarded by amazing sights, like the Chocolate Drops, a series of four rectangular shafts of shale that rise into the sky. In addition to its plentiful remote canyons, The Maze is also home to the Doll House, a series of imposing, multicolored stone spires that indeed look uncannily like a family of dolls.

The Doll House, stunning rock formations that look like a family of dolls, in The Maze district of the park.

The Doll House, stunning rock formations that look like a family of dolls, in The Maze district of the park. (Kait Thomas/National Park Service)

More accessible and regularly-visited is The Needles district, located in the southeast region of Canyonlands National Park. The district derived its name from the multilayered red and white pinnacles of Cedar Mesa Sandstone that guard the area. The sight of The Needles is truly impressive, so much so that it inspired Bates Wilson, the superintendent of the nearby Arches National Monument from 1949 to 1964, to push for the creation of a national park including the majestic pillars, thereby beginning the process that would conclude with the official creation of Canyonlands National Park. Access to The Needles requires either a boat ride or a four-wheel-drive vehicle, and strenuous hiking should be expected.

The Needles is also home to relics of a bygone era, including mud and stone shelters created by ancestral Puebloans, some of the first farmers in the U.S. southwest, as well as historic petroglyphs, images engraved into the park’s richly-colored stone by its earliest inhabitants. Another place to witness Native American rock art is Horseshoe Canyon, located northwest of The Maze. The Great Galley, the best known panel in Horseshoe Canyon, includes life-sized figures with intricate designs.

The final district of Canyonlands is the lifeblood of the park itself—the rivers. Visitors can enjoy numerous flatwater trips on both the Green and Colorado rivers, or brave the kilometers of challenging whitewater that flows through the park’s Cataract Canyon, an isolated section of the Colorado River. Like other areas of Canyonlands, Cataract Canyon was once home to indigenous American cultures; ruins and rock art can still be found amidst the canyon walls.

Regardless of whether interests lie in peaceful walks and serene sunsets or endurance-testing adventures into raw desert backcountry, Canyonlands National Park offers unmatched opportunities to explorers, who would all be well advised to come prepared. Plentiful information on hikes, treks and boat trips is available on the Internet. National Park Service rangers also present a bevy of on-site programs to help visitors safely enjoy, explore and make the most of their visits.

Michael Gallant is the founder and chief executive officer of Gallant Music. He lives in New York City.


From Prey to Protection

Till a few decades ago, a large patch of a jungle in Rajasthan was used as a violent playground, an area in which to hunt majestic tigers for sport. In the 1970’s, though, the same wild area took on a new identity: a protected sanctuary to support and sustain India’s precious tiger population.

Ranthambore National Park  is considered one of the best places in the world to see Bengal tigers in the wild.

The park is considered one of the best places in the world to see Bengal tigers in the wild. (Ranjan Ghosal)

Ranthambore National Park in Sawai Madhopur, Rajasthan, covers nearly 400 square kilometers and is now regarded as one of the best places in the world to see Bengal tigers living and thriving in the wild. Visitors come from all over to witness the jungle cats in action, as well as to watch and photograph the park’s peacocks, leopards, marsh crocodiles, wild boar and other varieties of diverse wildlife.

Key to the park’s history is its majestic namesake and a UNESCO World Heritage Site, the 10th-century Ranthambore Fort, which rises over jungle and ruins alike. Travelers to the fort can visit its trio of 12th- and 13th-century temples all carved from striking red Karauli stone. Also worth investigating is the acoustically-unique Hammir Court, an open court area where words whispered at one end amazingly resonate on the other.

For history enthusiasts, Ranthambore offers something reminiscent of Canyonlands National Park—rock art. The Kailadevi forests, located within the park boundaries, were recently found to contain cave paintings of leopards, tigers and other wildlife. They are believed to be nearly 2,000 years old—a full 1,000 years before Ranthambore Fort was built.

Visit Ranthambore National Park to absorb millennia of history and come face-to-face with the beautiful Bengal tigers in the wild. —M.G.


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