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Geology of Canyonlands National Park

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Aerial View near Canyonlands National Park Sho...

Aerial View near Canyonlands National Park Showing “The Fins,” Just South of Moab. These Remarkable Formations Lie Beyond the Boundaries of the Park Itself, 05/1972 (Photo credit: The U.S. National Archives)

Canyonlands National Park is very much a park of districts, so really, it’s only right that we look at the creation of each district individually, well, as much as we can anyway. First and foremost though, it’s important to realize that the whole area has been carved out by water and gravity, cutting out the flat layers of sedimentary rocks and creating hundreds upon hundreds of canyons, buttes, mesas, spires, fins, arches. The two great canyons of Canyonlands National Park have been carved by the Colorado and the Green rivers, and at each side of the rivers there are very different districts of the park. Canyonlands National Park really is one of the few places in America that is totally wild with free flowing rivers, unpaved roads and primitive trails . . . bring it on!

Island in the Sky

This is the kind of ready made observation tower for Canyonlands National Park, offering spectacular panoramic views across canyon after canyon, you can see for 100 miles on a clear day. Geologically speaking, the Island in the Sky is a giant mesa wedged firmly between the Colorado and the Green Rivers. The White Rim is close to the mesas edge, a sandstone bench which can be seen almost 1,200 feet below the Island in the Sky, another 1,000 feet below that are the rivers themselves surrounded by the almost vertical, sheer cliffs of the canyon.  Vegetation is pretty spare on the Island in the Sky, but wildlife is plentiful. Foxes, squirrels, and coyotes share the land whilst ravens and hawks rule the skies. There’s also a thriving population of desert bighorn sheep which precariously travel along the rocky ledges below.

The Maze

To the west of the Green and the Colorado Rivers lies the Maze, the wildest district of the Canyonlands National Park. This is actually one of the remotest and most inaccessible sections anywhere in the United States. The actual Maze has been described as “30 square mile puzzle in sandstone” – so that should give you some idea. The descent into the bottom of the Maze is a 600 foot plunge into the real heart and soul of this wild country. This land of broken rocks, no water and very little by way of vegetation is a veritable utopia to those seeking silence, solitude and the challenge of nature.

The Needles

To the east of the Colorado River lies the area known as the Needles, and let me tell you, once you hear some of the names attributed to these Needles you’ll begin to understand the diversity of the place – let’s start with Devils Kitchen, Elephant Arch, Gothic Arch and Paul Bunyons Potty – yep, told you, this really is a pretty startling place filled with arches, canyons, spires and potholes. The Needles themselves are rock pinnacles colorfully banded in red and white, but there are also beautiful grassy meadows between the Needles (like Chesler Park) which just go to show the stark contrasts available in this beautiful landscape.

Amazing ain’t it? Absolutely amazing . . .

The Rivers

The Rivers in Canyonlands National Park still run wild and free, just like the rest of the wildlife actually. If you do take a river trip you’ll feel yourself in a strange land of sheer walled canyons, rushing and tumbling rapids and rocks . . . lots of rocks as far as the eye can see. The rivers are the only water source in the Canyonlands National Park making them a real draw to the abundance of wildlife living in the area. Watch out for deer, bobcats, beaver, fox . . . all heading down for a drink at dawn or dusk.  Boating is permitted on the rivers but you do need a permit.

What a trip.

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