Canyonlands NP & Monument Valley

Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Canyonlands National Park, Utah

This blog covers the second leg in our roadtrip coming from Garden of the Gods and Colorado’s Gold Belt Scenic Byway.

Leaving Canon City, Colorado, we headed west on Route 50, then headed northwest, merging to I-70 at Grand Junction, CO. We arrived here about 6 hours from our departure that morning. Continuing west on I-70, we prepared to get our final provisions, firewood and ice. From my research, I knew that Canyonlands NP would be the most remote national park we had ever visited. We stopped on I-70 in Thompson, Utah at the Shell Gas Station/7-11 as the last convenient stop to top off our groceries and fuel and buy firewood, just before the next I-70 exit west. At the next I-70 exit, we headed south on Utah Route 191 toward Canyonlands NP. We continued south, entering the city of Moab, (but before reaching Arches National Park), then exited southwest on Utah Route 313. The Moab Giants Dinosaur Park is a good visual marker to make this turn, and maybe a good place to stop if traveling with kids. Still traveling on good two lane paved roads, we started to see wonderful rock outcroppings and mesas. It took about 6 and half hours to get there from our start that morning in Florence, Colorado.

Upon reaching Canyonlands National Park, we drove to the Island in the Sky Visitor Center. From my research, I knew that this was the last place to get water before getting to the campground. We stopped there, picked up some brochures, topped off our water and headed to the Willow Flat campground. It was about another 17-mile drive to the campground, on a windy paved two-lane road. There are two campgrounds in the Island in the Sky portion of the park, Willow Flat and the Needles. Both are unimproved with no water on site. They do have pit toilets, picnic tables and fire rings. Our site at Willow Flat was in a small, primitive, but nicely cared for campground. It only has 12 sites, first come, first served for $15/night. RVs and trailers are permitted, max length 28 feet.

We setup our camp, got out our Goal Zero solar panel, and set it up with our Goal Zero Lithium Power Station. The area was open and flat, with plenty of sunlight for charging. This setup provided power for lighting, camera batteries, and cell phones and our iPad. While we were not in cell phone coverage range, we used our phone cameras in addition to our Nikon DSLR, and downloaded images daily to the iPad. Our Pelican cooler was topped off with ice, and was designed for extended ice storage (up to 7 days); we left this cooler mounted on our Curt hitch rack for the entire trip.

I set up our Yakima Skyrise Rooftop tent without the rain fly because it was extremely windy, and the fly was flapping loudly. Overnight, the wind increased so badly that my wife had to sleep in the car, and our neighbor’s tent next to us was literally shredded apart. I’d estimate we had at least 40 MPH winds that night. Not a good sleeping night. I didn’t realize until the next day that our campground was on the flat top of a mesa 1000′ above the canyon floor. There were small shrub trees and low vegetation, but nothing to break the wind. It probably didn’t help that the tent was also on top of the car.

View from the top of our mesa down into the canyon 1000′ below

We decided to get up well before sunrise in the morning to go take pictures of Mesa Arch, the most famous rock formation in the park. To pack up and drive there, I had to take our sleeping gear out of the roof top tent and fold it up in the dark. It only took about 15 minutes, but it was the first time I started considering getting a trailer for the tent where we could disconnect one time and go. It was about a 15-minute drive to Mesa Arch, and there were already a few busses of tourists there well before sunrise. From the parking area, it was about another 10-minute hike in the dark to get there and setup for sunrise photos.

Getting a good photo spot before sunrise was dicey

Always a big tourist destination, Mesa Arch is most crowded at sunrise and sunset, as the sun reflects off the arch. If you are not very early, it is hard to get a good photo spot without a crowd in front of you. The arch itself is much smaller than we envisioned, and lots of people crowded together and not willing to move made it challenging. We did manage to get a few good shots.

View from Mesa Arch 1000′ above the canyon floor

After our sunrise photos, we drove around the park and hiked several trails, but also wanted to see other nearby sights. Almost every destination required backtracking the entrance road past the visitors center. Along the way, we came across a lookout point where you can look down to the canyon floor and see 4×4 vehicles on the 100 mile-long White Rim Road. This rugged overland road leads to Moab, and requires a high ground clearance vehicle and a permit from the ranger station. There is no water, shade, gas or amenities. If you didn’t bring it, you don’t have it!

Beginning of the White Rim Road near Island in the Sky Visitor’s Center

We stopped at the visitor’s center and I asked about getting a permit. The Ranger asked about my vehicle, and told me I didn’t have the ground clearance or a low gear setup to get over obstacles. In retrospect, that was probably for the best.

Dead Horse State Park, Utah

We later backtracked out of the park on route 313 and headed to Dead Horse State Park. This park is mostly populated by day visitors, and is covered with mountain bike trails. At the visitor’s center, we came across a couple of vintage cross country cars. The owners said they road trip through here every year.

Hiking from the visitor’s center, there is a long paved loop for scenic views. The most striking is of the Green River. No doubt about how it got its name!

The Green River

The visitor’s center had a nice little food hut next door, and we got a couple of sandwiches, stopped at a scenic overview, and enjoyed a picnic lunch.

After lunch, we headed out of the park, taking Route 313 east back toward Moab. At Highway 191, we headed south, and soon passed Arches National Park on our way to the small town of Moab. There we topped off on gas, added a small bag of ice to the cooler (we realized were not going to keep several days of ice frozen), and explored the small town. Moab is a small town, and frankly, we didn’t find much we were interested in seeing there.

Heading back to Cayonlands, we hiked to Grand View Point Overlook on top of a giant rock, and Horseshoe Canyon. We returned to the campground before dark, had dinner and popped the tent open for the night. In the morning, we packed up and got an early start on our next leg toward Page, Arizona.

Heading back out of the park on Route 313, we returned to 191 and headed south.

Bluff Fort

A few hours along our our route down Route 191, we came across Bluff Fort, a re-creation of a Mormon fort built in 1880. Starting in 1879, the Mormons built a wagon road between communities in southwestern Utah and the Four Corners area. They built this settlement here at Bluff, Utah. This was very well done, and we spent about an hour here seeing the various buildings and exhibits.

A little further down the road, near the town of Mexican Hat, Utah, we came upon a marker commemorating the movie “Forrest Gump,” where the character stopped his long run and turned around to go home.

Mexican Hat, Utah
Utah desert near Monument Valley

With Monument Valley in the distance, we could have driven past this area as we have done in the past. You can see all the mesas for free from a distance, but if you want to get up close and personal, you can. On this trip, we decided to actually stop there and drive among the “monuments.”

The entrance is very close to the the Utah/Arizona border, and it is run by the Navajo nation. The Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park can be visited for fee of $20/car to drive the route yourself. The 17-mile loop road winds around sandstone towers from 400 to 1,000 feet high. This unimproved dirt road is not recommended for low level vehicles. Even with our SUV, I bottomed out my trailer hitch rack several times. Be prepared for delays as vehicles cue up and stop in road side pull offs. If you would rather not drive this route yourself, you can take a guided tour with a Navajo guide in Jeeps. There are Navajo shops and vendors scattered throughout the area selling souvenirs.

If you chose to drive through Monument Valley, plan for about two hours. It may be longer with traffic, and you have to follow the one-way route.

From our departure from Canyonlands in the morning, it was three hours south on 191 to the Forrest Gump point, then only about 15 miles further to the Arizona border and Monument Valley.

After our driving tour, we continued another two hours to our destination for the night in Page, Arizona to see Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend. I’ll pick up on that leg in my next blog from this roadtrip.

Leave a Reply

%d bloggers like this: