You'll find many opportunities for backpacking in Canyonlands National Park, although hikers will often be sharing trail/road combinations with four-wheel-drive vehicles and mountain bikes. If you've come to Utah for mountain biking, hiking, four-wheeling, or rafting, this is the place. The region holds surprises, too, from ancient American Indian dwellings and rock art to dinosaur bones.
Unlike most national parks, the backcountry at Canyonlands is not only the domain of backpackers. Here rugged four-wheel-drive and mountain-bike roads, as well as rivers navigable by boat, lead to some of the park's most scenic areas. Primitive campsites, strategically located throughout the backcountry, are available to all visitors, regardless of their mode of transport. Just be sure to make your backcountry campsite reservations well in advance -- up to a year ahead for the more popular areas. You can get reservation forms and detailed information by mail, over the phone, or from the park's website.
Outfitters Based in Moab -- More than 60 local outfitters offer excursions of all kinds, from lazy canoe rides to hair-raising jet-boat and four-wheel-drive adventures. Advance reservations are often required, and it's best to check with several outfitters before you decide on one. In addition to asking about what you'll see and do and what it will cost, it doesn't hurt to make sure the company is insured and has the proper permits with various federal agencies. Also ask about the cancellation policy, just in case.
Road bikes are of little use in Canyonlands, except for getting to and from trail heads, view points, visitor centers, and campgrounds in the Island in the Sky and Needles districts. Although bikes of any kind are prohibited on hiking trails and cross-country in the backcountry, they are permitted on designated two- and four-wheel-drive roads. Mountain bikers have many possibilities, although they will find themselves sharing dirt roads with motor vehicles and hikers. Some spots on the four-wheel-drive roads have deep sand that can turn into quicksand when wet -- so you may find that mountain biking, while certainly a challenge, is not as much fun as you'd expect. It's wise to talk with rangers about conditions on specific roads before setting out.
Among popular rides are the Elephant Hill and Colorado Overlook roads, both in the Needles District. The 100-mile White Rim Road, in the Island in the Sky District, also makes a great mountain-bike trip (allow at least 4 days), especially for bikers who can arrange for an accompanying 4WD vehicle to carry water, food, and camping gear.
Cyclists can get information and rent or repair bikes at Poison Spider Bicycles, 497 N. Main St. (tel. 800/635-1792 or 435/259-7882; www.poisonspiderbicycles.com), which recommends shuttle services from Porcupine Shuttle (tel. 435/260-0896, also access through Poison Spider website). Bike rentals and repairs, plus shuttle services, will be found at Chile Pepper Bike Shop, 702 S. Main St. (tel. 888/677-4688 or 435/259-4688; www.chilebikes.com). Bike rentals range from $40 to $65 per day, with discounts for multiday rentals. Bike shuttle services are also available from several other companies, including Coyote Shuttle (tel. 435/260-2097; www.coyoteshuttle.com) and Roadrunner Shuttle (tel. 435/259-9402; www.roadrunnershuttle.com).
Several local companies also offer guided mountain-bike tours, with rates starting at about $85 for a half-day and about $110 for a full day. Multiday biking/camping trips are also available.
Boating, Canoeing & Rafting
After spending hours in the blazing sun looking at mile upon mile of huge red sandstone rock formations, it's easy to get the idea that Canyonlands National Park is a baking, dry, rock-hard desert. Well, it is. But both the Colorado and Green rivers run through the park, and one of the most exciting ways to see the park and surrounding country is from river level.
You can travel into the park in a canoe, kayak, large or small rubber raft (with or without motor), or speedy, solid jet boat. Do-it-yourselfers can rent kayaks or canoes for $40 to $65 for a full day, or rafts starting at $70 for a full day. Half-day guided river trips start at about $45 per person; full-day trips are usually $55 to $75 per person. Multiday rafting expeditions, which include meals and camping equipment, start at about $300 per person for 2 days. Jet-boat trips, which cover a lot more river in a given amount of time, cost about $50 for 2 hours, and from $80 for a half-day trip. Children's rates are usually 10% to 20% lower. Some companies also offer sunset or dinner trips.
The Colorado and Green rivers meet in the park and are calm before the confluence. But after they meet, the Colorado becomes serious white water; you will most likely want a guided raft trip here.
One fantastic canoe trip is along the Green River. Canoeists usually start in or near the town of Green River (put in at Green River State Park or at Mineral Bottom, just downstream) and spend about 2 days to get to the Green's confluence with the Colorado, where they can be picked up by a local outfitter.
Public boat-launching ramps in the Moab area are opposite Lion's Park, near the intersection of U.S. 191 and Utah 128; at Take-Out Beach, along Utah 128 about 10 miles east of its intersection with U.S. 191; and at Hittle Bottom, also along Utah 128, about 24 miles east of its intersection with U.S. 191. The Colorado Basin River Forecast Center (tel. 801/539-1311 [recording]; www.cbrfc.noaa.gov) provides information on river flows and reservoir conditions statewide.
Unlike most national parks, where motor vehicles and mountain bikes must stay on paved roads, Canyonlands has miles of rough four-wheel-drive roads where mechanized transport is king. We're talking serious four-wheeling here; most roads require high-clearance, short-wheelbase vehicles. Many of these roads also require the skill that comes only from experience, so it's usually a good idea to discuss your plans with rangers before putting your vehicle on the line. Four-wheelers must stay on designated 4WD roads, but here the term road can mean anything from a graded, well-marked two-lane gravel byway to a pile of loose rocks with a sign that says THAT-A-WAY. Many of the park's jeep roads are impassable during heavy rains and for a day or two after.
Several local companies offer four-wheel-drive vehicle rentals. They include Farabee's Jeep Rentals (tel. 877/970-5337 or 435/259-7494; www.farabeejeeprentals.com), Canyonlands Jeep Adventures (tel. 866/892-5337 or 435/259-4413; www.canyonlandsjeep.com); and Cliffhanger Jeep Rental (tel. 435/259-0889; www.cliffhangerjeeprental.com)
The best four-wheel-drive adventure in Canyonlands' Island in the Sky District is the White Rim Road, which runs some 100 winding miles and affords spectacular and ever-changing views, from broad panoramas of rock and canyon to close-ups of red and orange towers and buttes. A high-clearance 4WD is essential. Expect the journey to be slow, lasting 2 to 3 days, although with the appropriate vehicle it isn't really difficult. There are primitive campgrounds along the way. Reservations on this route should be made well in advance.
Four-wheeling on one of many routes in the Needles District can be an end in itself or a means to get to some of the more interesting and remote hiking trails and camping spots. Four-wheelers will find one of their ultimate challenges on the Elephant Hill Road, which begins at a well-marked turnoff near Squaw Flat Campground. Although most of the 10-mile trail is only moderately difficult, the stretch over Elephant Hill near the beginning can be a nightmare, with steep and rough slickrock, drifting sand, loose rock, and treacherous ledges. Coming down the hill, one switchback requires you to back to the edge of a steep cliff before continuing. This is also a favorite of mountain bikers, although riders will have to walk bikes on some stretches over an abundance of sand and rocks. The route offers views of numerous rock formations, from striped needles to balanced rocks, plus steep cliffs and rock "stairs." Side trips can add another 30 miles. Allow 8 hours to 3 days.
For a spectacular view of the Colorado River, the Colorado Overlook Road can't be beat. This 14-mile round-trip is popular with four-wheelers, backpackers, and mountain bikers. Considered among the park's easiest 4WD roads, the first part is very easy indeed, accessible by high-clearance two-wheel-drives, but the second half has a few rough and rocky sections that require four-wheel-drive. Starting at the Needles Visitor Center parking lot, the trail takes you past numerous panoramic vistas to a spectacular 360-degree view of the park and the Colorado River some 1,000 feet below.
Several local companies provide guided trips, starting at about $70 per adult and $60 per child under 16 or 17, for a half-day.