Road Trip: Island in the Sky, Canyonlands

December 29, 2014  •  Leave a Comment

Utah became the 45th state to join the United States on January 4, 1896. The capital city is Salt Lake City. The highest point is Kings Peak at 13,528 feet.

Road Trip 2013 - Day 12 - June 22 - Island in the Sky, Canyonlands (Previous 2013 Road Trip posts: Indiana DunesDe ImmigrantAmana ColoniesDes MoinesMadison County Roads, Bridges of Madison CountyWhite Pole Road, Great Platte River Road Archway MonumentGolden Spike Tower & Union Pacific's Bailey Rail Yard, Loveland PassThe Resting Day at Powderhorn, Black Canyon of the GunnisonCimarronColorado National MonumentFruita RodeoArches National ParkGrand Junction, Grand Mesa CreekArches National Park Add-On)

Look through the Mesa Arch, Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah (UT).Look through the Mesa ArchIsland in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park Canyonlands National Park, located in the southeastern corner of Utah, is spread over a very large area and is divided into districts, each offering a whole different experience. Island in the Sky in the park's north is high above the canyons and offers expansive scenic views of the land below. It is squeezed between two rivers, the Green River to the west and the Colorado River to the east. The other districts of the park are Needles, Maze, Horseshoe Canyon, Rivers.

Canyonlands is not as famous as the Grand Canyon in Arizona, or some of the other parks in southern Utah like Bryce or Zion. You don't hear people planning a vacation at Canylonlands (at least not here on the East Coast). Even for us it remained illusive for a long time. Over time, we made it to the South Rim of the Grand Canyon, the North Rim, Monument Valley, Zion, and Bryce. We never made it north enough to visit Canyonlands. On this road trip, Arches National Park had a priority too, as well as the Colorado National Monument due to proximity to our base. Now that we needed to make it from our base in Mesa, Colorado to the Mesa Verde National Park, a route had to be established. Long story short, the fact that it laid so conveniently located near Utah Route 191, which offered a nice detour through Utah between the two Colorado destinations, won us over.

Textures in the Wood, Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah (UT).Textures in the WoodCanyonlands Seeing the whole park was out of the question and we decided to focus on the Island in the Sky and see as much of the area as possible in one day. Being there still before the main summer travel season certainly helped a lot and even the better known areas and viewpoints allowed for exploration free of crowds, and often free of any people at all, even if just for several minutes. That was the case even by the Mesa Arch where we arrived as another family was leaving. We had plenty of time to enjoy the spot on our own, pose family photos, and capture several angles of the American Southwest classic looks of the red rock.

I am a sucker not only for rock formations, but for strange and spooky "formations" created by dead trees, cacti, and other plants. And these fit in the desert very well in my opinion adding a sense of danger to the dry desert look. I usually focus on their spooky shapes placing them as a photo foreground to add to the story of the landscape captured with a wide lens. However, details also often call for attention as was the case with the tree in the photo on the left. It's lack of color provided a nice contrast to the prevalent reds yet reinforced the same message of the effect of water deficiency. With close ups like this I always find it intriguing how much even the slightest move of the camera matters. The tiniest shift in position or an angle can change the composition so much!

As we moved through the park I realized what a wonderful surprise this visit was. Planned only as a possibility and not included in the itinerary until the very last moment Island in the Sky impressed me. There was so much to see and the views were extraordinary. In my opinion they easily rivaled those of the Grand Canyon. The drops of the individual canyons were dramatic with the cliff walls tall and steep. They also connected an intriguing maze of interconnected canyons painting an abstract pattern into the top plateau where the erosion started its carving process a long time ago.

The Canyons Below, Glimpse into Geologic Past, Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah (UT).The Canyons BelowGlimpse into Geologic Past I also felt the park's views were the missing piece in between to explain the erosion process. Reading about it is one thing but seeing it is another. In Grand Canyon, despite its sheer size, there is no doubt about the canyon being carved out into the rock by the Colorado River and the forces of erosion. In Monument Valley, the whole concept seems impossible to grasp as relatively few rock formations stand tall above a huge expanse of land below. There, they seem more like hills or mountains pushed up from the land. It does not seem possible that hundreds of square miles of flat land would be the result of erosion with just a few rocks defying the process and towering over the land that lost the battle.

In Canyonlands, I found both types of views. I could find areas of what clearly used to be a flat land with narrow deep canyons carved into it. I could also find other areas where a wide canyon had tall rock formations raising above their floors with no apparent "ceiling" that used to exist. And these areas were close to each other, with sections being a blend or in between.

I really enjoyed all focal lengths I had available switching between wide views and telephoto "close ups" often resulting in abstract patterns that the forces of nature left behind in the land. The distant mountains struck me again too.  They provided food for thought about how areas so different can be such close and good neighbors.

Green River, the Snaking Culprit, Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah (UT).The Snaking CulpritGreen River

Green River, the Snaking Culprit - Green River Overlook, Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park

And in closing, a view I have always enjoyed. If there is water to be found in the desert I want to see it and photograph it. There is something mysterious about it! Here in Canyonlands, that water was the Green River, a tributary to the Colorado River. The river that started working on this natural wonder a long time ago and is still tirelessly at it today. The river, the culprit caught in the act.

If another road trip takes us within a stone's throw of the Canyonlands we will be less likely to hesitate and leave things for a last minute decision and more likely to include some of the other districts of the park into our itinerary. The 2013 road trip gave us a wonderful preview and a teaser to stay with us until we are back for more.

Have fun on your trips!

References: Places to Go in Canyonlands on NPSUtah on

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