Canyonlands sounds like the name of a playground (…or perhaps the name of a board game with enchanted walkways and gumdrop-studded canyons) – and its subsections, even more so.

Island in the Sky?! Yes, please.

Entering the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park

Although there were no gumdrop-studded canyons to be found, it definitely felt like a playground of epic proportions – although Island in the Sky was, unfortunately, firmly tethered to earth.

My second of Utah’s five National Parks, Canyonlands was a wonderland that I think I could very easily get lost in for months without getting bored or running out of nooks and crannies to explore.

Rivers divide the park into four (non-connected) districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the rivers. Island in the Sky is the district most easily accessed from Moab, and because of this receives the most visitors. The Maze is the least accessible district to visit, requiring 4-wheel drive, a good map, and a lot of time. There are no services in The Maze.

I visited Island in the Sky and The Needles, and hiked about forty miles between the two sections. It was mid October, but the days were still hot and the desert sun deliciously fierce.

My boondocking site outside Canyonlands National Park

Boondocking in National Parks is not allowed, and the fine for parking overnight on park property without being at a campsite with a proper permit is hefty. Thankfully, most national parks are surrounded by national forests or BLM land, which – for the most part – do allow boondocking. The only restrictions are that you must be out of sight from the main road and camp at a pre-established site (rather than making a new one.) I’ve gotten myself and my car into some pretty interesting situations over the past few months searching out campsites on national forest fire roads, but the end results are…usually…worth the effort.

Boondocking in the desert on BLM land can present a unique challenge because it is flat, which means you have to drive farther than you normally would to be out of sight from the main road, and also that you’re more exposed than you are in the forest or mountains. After a day hiking Island in the Sky, I set off down a bumpy fire road I’d heard about as the sun slid below the horizon and, after getting stuck in the sand a couple of times and nearly flipping on a vertical that was so sharp everything on the left side of my car flew over to the right side, found a spot that was hidden from the main road – just barely, but enough.

There was no one else on that particular fire road, and I got out of my car and turned in a circle, the desert stretching out flat on all sides as far as I could see.

I had an entire desert to myself that night, and it was magic.


Sunrise outside Canyonlands National Park

The setting sun creates a stunning silhouette outside the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park