Canyonlands National Park, Utah

National Parks are areas that are known for their diverse ecosystems, natural beauty, and distinctive geological formations. There are currently 63 National Parks in the United States that are managed by the National Park Service (NPS), under the US Department of Interior. Located in the west-central region and covering an area of 219,890 km2, Utah is the 13th largest state in the country. This geographically diverse state is divided into three distinct landform regions including the Colorado Plateau, the Rocky Mountains, and the Basin and Ridge region. Due to the rich natural diversity of the state, many areas in Utah are protected as National Parks.

Situated in the southeastern part of the US State of Utah, the Canyonlands National Park preserves a ruggedly vivid landscape, whose various features were shaped by the Green River, the Colorado River, and their tributaries. The park occupies an area of 1,366.21 km2 and is the largest National Park in the US State of Utah. It is located southwest of the Arches National Park and the city of Moab.

Geography

Overlooking the Colorado River in the Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

The Canyonlands National Park comprises two parts: the larger main portion and the comparatively smaller and geographically detached Horseshoe Canyon unit. The Green and Colorado Rivers meet within the park and divide the larger portion of the park into three districts: the Island in the Sky District, the Needles District, and the Maze District. Even though the three districts share a primitive desert atmosphere, they retain their distinctive characters.

The Island in the Sky District features a vast, level sandstone mesa and occupies the northern part of the Canyonlands National Park, between the Green and Colorado Rivers. The mesa, which is situated at an elevation of 1,830 m, is accessible by paved roads and overlooks the Grand View Point, which provides spectacular views of the surrounding buttes, sandstone fins, and winding canyons. About 360 m below the Island is a continuous sandstone bench known as the White Rim. From here the mesa descends to another 300 m to the Green and Colorado Rivers, located below the White Rim. The Upheaval Dome is a 450 m deep and 2 km wide sheer-walled crater that is situated on the top of the mesa. It is believed that this crater was formed either as a salt dome or from a meteorite impact.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

The Needles District features huge red and white banded rock pinnacles and is situated on the eastern side of the Colorado River, south of the Island in the Sky District. Several other geological features like the Angel and the Druid Arches, grabens, and potholes are found here. The majority of arches in the Needles District are located in the backcountry canyons and require long hiking and four-wheel driving trips to visit these attractions.

The Maze District is a remote area of the Canyonlands National Park that borders the Green River and the Island in the Sky District in the northeast, and the lower Colorado River and the Needles District in the southeast. After it meets with the Green River, the Colorado River forms the 74 km-long Cataract Canyon. The Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is contiguous with the entire western boundary of the Maze District.

Hikers in Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

The Horseshoe Canyon Unit is located to the north of the Maze District and features several artifacts, pictographs, and rock art made by the hunter-gatherers who inhabited the area during the Late Archaic Period. The unit was added to the Canyonlands National Park in 1971.

According to the Köppen climate classification, the Canyonlands National Park experiences a cold semi-arid climate. This high desert region receives less than 250 mm of rainfall per year. Summers are typically arid with temperatures sometimes exceeding 37 °C, while the winters are cold with temperatures ranging from -1 to 10 °C, with relatively light snowfall.

Wildlife

Canyonlands National Park wildlife
Flowering cactus plants in Canyonlands National Park.

The Canyonlands National Park supports a variety of plants like pinyon pine, Utah juniper, tamarisk, Russian olive, Fremont’s cottonwood, net leaf hackberry, black brush, and Mormon tea, among others. In addition to this, about 11 species of cactus, 20 species of moss, grasses, wildflowers, and liverworts are found in the National Park. All plant life in the park is supported by the biological soil crusts (cryptobiotic soil), which help in providing moisture and nitrogen fixation for the seeds of the plants.

A lizard in the Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

About eight species of snake and 11 species of lizards are found in the Canyonlands National Park. Several amphibian species including the American bullfrog, Woodhouse’s toad, tiger salamander, and red-spotted toad have been observed in the park. About 273 avian species have also been recorded in the Canyonlands National Park. Some of these birds include the northern goshawk, red-tailed hawk, Swainson’s hawk, great horned owl, Mexican spotted owl, woodpecker, warbler, and bluebirds. Several faunal species like coyotes, black bears, pronghorns, desert bighorn sheep, mountain lions, kangaroo rats, and mule deer are observed in the National Park.

Brief History

Ancient petroglyphs in the Canyonlands National Park, Utah.

It is believed that the area which presently forms a part of the park’s Needles District was inhabited by the Indigenous ancestral Puebloans. Several rock arts in the form of petroglyphs have been found here. After seeing this area, Bates Wilson, then superintendent of the Arches National Monument, advocated for the creation of a new National Park in the early 1950s. His idea was supported by Stewart Udall, then Secretary of Interior in 1961. After several years of debate and discussions, the legislation proclaiming the establishment of the Canyonlands National Park was approved on September 12, 1964, by then US President Lyndon B. Johnson.

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