Moab, UT - Canyonlands National Park

Utah – the land of incredible rock formations, red sand that will get in every nook and cranny, and insane wind

Bryan and I had never been to Utah, so what better time to go explore this other worldly state? We decided to start on the east side of Utah and work our way southwest, hitting up all five national parks. Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park are in the same area, so we picked a central location in Moab with easy access to both to call home for the week. We filled up our water tanks, propane tanks, and portable gas tank and headed out to Lone Mesa Campground. Did I mention that we are killing it at boondocking? The drive through Moab was packed with ATVs caked in red sand, hotel pools with large red rock replicas, overcrowded restaurants, Jeeps, and souvenir shops. Then we turned left and headed away from the city and the views were incredible. Huge mesas with alternating layers of every shade of orange, red, and brown, speckled with green bushes. We were definitely not in Kansas anymore. Lumpy and Catalina couldn’t contain their excitement.

Canyon wall with multicolored striations
Lumpy Space Princess sleeping in the backseat
Catalina Wine Mixer sleeping in her carrier

Lone Mesa is located down a very long, very bumpy dirt road. Bryan slowly weaved between rocks and ruts and we arrived safely at dusk. Again, luck was on our side and we found a fairly level spot with an amazing view – 2 large mesas on either side of us and snowcapped La Sal mountains in the distance. After getting situated, we wandered to the far edge of the mesa and watched the sun set.

Sunset view from Lone Mesa campsite
Forest River Salem 22rbs and Ford F-150 at Lone Mesa

The early bird gets the worm… or at least a good view of Mesa Arch at sunrise

We were super excited to explore Canyonlands and wanted to see the sunrise. My alarm woke us up when it was pitch black out. The cats were confused, but still quite receptive to a super early breakfast. No shore power or generator power (didn’t want to piss off our neighbors at 5 am our first morning there) means Mr. Coffee was not going to work. How would we function without our morning cup of Joe? Come on! I told you we were killing it at this lifestyle. Bryan quickly boiled some water, mixed in some instant coffee, and we were off.

Adventure is Calling Tervis Tumbler coffee mug

The sky was just starting to lighten as we made our way towards Canyonlands and there were no other vehicles in sight. As we drove, I told Bryan what I had learned about this ginormous national park. Canyonlands is composed of four districts divided by the Green and Colorado rivers – Island in the Sky, The Maze, The Needles, and Horseshoe Canyon. None of the districts have roads connecting them and a large majority of the roads require high-clearance, 4-wheel drive vehicles to navigate them. Island in the Sky is the closest district to Moab and has a paved road with access to great hiking trails and overlooks. It is called Island in the Sky because it is a mesa resting on sandstone cliffs over 1,000 feet above the surrounding landscape.

Our first stop was Mesa Arch, which is an arch located on the edge of a cliff. It is a short hike to get to the arch and has become a very popular site to watch the sunrise. Our early arrival ensured we got a parking spot and a great view. There were several other tourists there, some with tripods set up to capture the sunrise through the arch, others perched on rocks to look over the cliff at the breathtaking terrain below. Bryan has many skills and I love him dearly. However, taking pictures is not his strongest asset. All of the pictures he took of me sitting in front of the arch make me look like a beached manatee sprawled across the rocks, so I will not be sharing any of those with you!

Mesa Arch
Mesa Arch
Mesa Arch
Mesa Arch

The actual arch itself is cool, but the views beyond the arch are spectacular. The vastness of this landscape is humbling. What we gazed out at had taken millions of years for water and gravity to carve and sculpt. It was incredible to watch how the colors changed as the sun came up. Not a bad way to start the day!

Mesa Arch canyon view
Bryan and Shelly at Mesa Arch

"Everything the light touches is our kingdom" - Mufasa

The nice thing about waking up early is that you can avoid the crowds. We had a few hours to play before we had to start work, so we made our way through the park to Green River Overlook. We had the entire overlook to ourselves and it was like nothing we had ever seen before! The bright Green River was winding its way through the red and brown landscape, 1,300 feet below. There was also a great view of the light sandstone White Rim along the canyon edge. Many Lion King references were made.

Overlook of the Green River

Whale Done!

Next stop was Whale Rock, which is a butte that resembles the profile of a whale. Again, we had this sandstone dome all to ourselves. We scrambled up to the top and enjoyed 360-degree views of Island in the Sky.

Whale Rock

Next, we headed south and stopped at all the overlooks, ending at Grand View Point Overlook. There was no wind, so the views were crystal clear. If you look close, you can see the White Rim Road, a 100-mile unpaved road around the canyon edge. This requires a permit, four-wheel drive vehicle, and multiple days. Maybe next time!

Grand View Point Overlook
Grand View Point Overlook

Hold on to your buttes!

One thing I didn’t know about Utah – it is windy AF! Later in the week, when we went back to Canyonlands, was no exception. When we got to the Aztec Butte trailhead and the sand was whipping our faces, we knew the wind was going to make it a challenging hike.

Aztec Butte
Bryan and Shelly at Aztec Butte

What exactly is a butte? It is an isolated rock tower with steep sides and a flat surface, where the top is narrower than it is high. We had to do quite a bit of scrambling up the side, but we made it to the top and had 360-degree views. I would recommend going on a less windy day, so the views aren’t obstructed with sand.

View from the top of Aztec Butte
View from the top of Aztec Butte

The second part of the trail took us up a smaller butte to a site where Ancestral Puebloans had made stone granaries to store their food. We couldn’t believe how well preserved they were.

Puebloan Granary

Upheaval Dome

Upheaval Dome is a mile-wide crater that seems very out of place in Canyonlands. There are two theories about how it formed - one theory is a meteorite impact fractured the rock and the second theory suggests a salt dome cracked and tilted the rock over time. However it formed, it is quite the site.

Panoramic view of Upheaval Dome
Upheaval Dome
Bryan and Shelly at Upheaval Dome