Trail Scout: The Utah Canyonlands and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area
Routes are close to infinite in Canyon Country and we encourage you to explore within your capabilities. For this Trail Scout we will focus on a new classic that takes us through a very remote section of Canyonlands National Park, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, and the San Rafael Desert. Your trip may be shorter or longer depending on how you assemble the different pieces. This will hopefully serve as inspiration to plan your own adventure in this amazing section of one of our largest national parks.
After topping up with fuel at the Hite Marina, get off the tarmac via NP633 from Highway 95, less than a quarter mile north of the airstrip and the Colorado River. The fairly fast and smooth dirt road will be punctuated by small washouts, sand patches, and sandstone slabs as it curves gently towards the northeast towards The Maze District of Canyonlands NP. The Cove turnout to the north offers the best permit-free camping; it's approximately 15 miles from Highway 95. Anything farther north will require obtaining the proper paperwork. The trail winds around the drops of Rock Canyon and then across the Andy Miller Flats. The Orange Cliffs, Gunsight Butte, and the Chocolate Drops stand towering to the north and west. After some thirty-odd miles various junctions in the trail will head off to Sunset Pass, the Doll House, Beehive Arches and other worthwhile detours. Continuing on NP633 into the area known as Lands End will lead to the Maze Overlook junction. Back towards the southwest, the Flint Trail climbs up a tight, rocky series of steep switchbacks. Depending on the current trail conditions, this climb often presents the greatest technical challenge of the route; wet weather provides great excitement with limited traction and sheer drops around each bend. At the top of the Flint Trail we veer north through Gordon Flats to the North Point campground. The fork to the right on NP744 takes a path over a rockier trail for eight miles, ending in a “T” with Panorama Point a couple of miles to the south and Cleopatra's Chair almost the same distance to the north. After visiting one or both, return over the North Point road to the campground and turn right to the northwest in the direction of the Hans Flats Ranger Station. A large, graded road emerges from the lonely desert outpost and cuts to the north across Robber's Roost to Highway 24. If you follow the most direct route you will cover around 110 miles, though our experience with exploring side roads and other points of interest suggests your mileage will be closer to 250 miles over a 5-day period.
Canyonlands National Park is comprised of over 300,000 acres in southeast Utah and is divided into four districts: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the Rivers. The Glen Canyon National Recreation Area follows the western edge of the park and falls under its jurisdiction. The park was established in 1964 and is visited by nearly half a million people each year. Despite its popularity, the rugged topography of the park and its large trail network provide many opportunities for remote exploration, with ever-increasing isolation the farther one travels from the developed park facilities. The area is characterized by its widely varied sandstone features such as mesas, staircases, spires, domes, and cliffs. The landscape is vegetated by junipers and piñon pines, and much of the ground is covered by cryptobiotic soil. The Green and Colorado rivers join in a confluence in the approximate center of the park and then flow together into Lake Powell to the south in the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area. The remote Maze District only accounts for 3 percent of the 440,000 annual park visitors, approximately 14,000 persons per year.
Nomadic peoples are known to have existed in the Canyonlands area over 10,000 years ago. Later, the Ancient Pueblo peoples from the south and the Fremont from the west settled in the area more permanently. Visible traces of their communities remain today in the form of dwellings, granaries, pottery shards, pictographs and petroglyphs. In the last few thousand years the Utes, Navajos, and Paiutes hunted and gathered in the Canyonlands. Early European explorers largely circumnavigated the difficult terrain of the area, but hunters and trappers began to penetrate the area in the early 19th century. In 1869, Major John Wesley Powell mapped the Green and Colorado rivers and some of the surrounding canyons as part of his famous expedition from Wyoming to Arizona. Beginning in the 1880s, ranchers grazed livestock in the Canyonlands and were responsible for creating an early network of trails. Many of the same families worked cattle and sheep on the land until the 1970s. During the more lawless period of Western expansion, Butch Cassidy and The Wild Bunch absconded into the maze of intricate canyons now located in the park in their efforts to elude capture. The residence of notorious outlaws such as Butch Cassidy earned the place name “Robbers Roost” that is still used today. Government incentivized mining exploration for atomic projects in the 1950s provided funding for the first network of roads that laid the groundwork for recreational visitation.
A high clearance four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended for this route. Suitable off-pavement use tires and a full-size spare are advisable. Vehicle aids such as traction differentials or recovery tools may be needed depending on driver aptitude and ability. The distances covered are substantial and additional fuel supplies are a necessity for gasoline-powered vehicles. Travel time may vary from two to five days. Navigation is easily performed using paper maps. There is limited access to water in the elevations above the rivers and visitors should be self-sufficient. All backcountry considerations for health and safety should be applied as emergency resources are not close at hand.
When to go:
The weather is most accommodating in spring and fall when temperatures are moderate and precipitation is limited. Visitors are also more frequent during the summer travel season. Rain in the summer monsoon season and snow in the winter will make steep sections of the trail much more challenging.
There are many miles of trails and roads within Canyonlands National Park and Glen Canyon National Recreation Area, but the possible routes don't immediately present a conventional loop. It's best to approach the idea of traveling through the park with the expectation of a return visit. Don't try to see it all in one go: Seek out the destinations that most interest you and be prepared to backtrack or overlap as necessary. Photographic opportunities abound, but the strong Utah sun will limit the quality of midday camerawork. Utilize the golden hours after dawn and before sunset, and account for them in planning when you will cross the most visually interesting portions of the park. If you travel by vehicle, don't be afraid to visit some of it on foot when the engine isn't running. The complicated, overlapping terrain features often obscure discoveries that are very close at hand. Hiking over a hill or climbing down into a small canyon may yield spectacular results.
All overnight trips in the backcountry of Utah's Canyonlands require a permit. The Orange Cliffs Unit of Glen Canyon National Recreation Area shares Canyonlands' western boundary and is administered under the same backcountry management plan and permit/reservation system. Permits are issued seven days a week at district visitor centers and the Hans Flat Ranger Station, and can be reserved in advance (see below). Walk-in permits are only available the day before or the day of a trip, and are issued up to one hour before the close of business each day.
Current and specific park regulations can be viewed at: nps.gov/cany/planyourvisit/backcountryregulations.htm
Canyonlands shares a headquarters facility with the parks of the Southeast Utah Group
2282 SW Resource Blvd.
Moab, UT 84532