Explore Geology
geology fieldnotes title


National Park


cover of park brochure

park geology subheading
Photo of rock formations at Canyonlands
Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Canyonlands preserves an immense wilderness of rock at the heart of the Colorado Plateau. Water and gravity have been the prime architects of this land, cutting flat layers of sedimentary rock into hundreds of colorful canyons, mesas, buttes, fins, arches, and spires. At center stage are two great canyons, those carved by the Green and Colorado rivers. Surrounding the rivers are vast, and very different regions of the park:

block diagram

  • to the north, Island in the Sky;
  • to the west, the Maze;
  • and to the east, the Needles.

    The areas share a common primitive spirit and wild desert atmosphere. Each also offers its own special rewards. Few people were familiar with these remote lands and rivers when the park was established in 1964. Prehistoric Indians, cowboys, river explorers, and uranium prospectors had dared to enter this rugged corner of southeastern Utah, but few others did. To a large degree, Canyonlands remains untrammeled today. Its roads are mostly unpaved, its trails primitive, its rivers free-flowing. Throughout its 527 square miles roam desert bighorn sheep, coyotes, and other animals native to this land. Canyonlands is wild America.

    A Wilderness of Rock
    Island in the Sky
    Views from Island in the Sky reach from the depths of the Green and Colorado rivers to the heights of distant mountaintops and above. They stretch across canyon after canyon to the horizon 100 miles distant. A broad, level mesa wedged between the Green and Colorado, Island in the Sky serves as Canyonlands observation tower. From its many overlooks sightseers absorb overwhelming vistas of almost incomprehensible dimensions. Closest to the mesa's edge is the White Rim, a nearly continuous sandstone bench 1,200 feet below the Island. Another 1,000 feet beneath the White Rim are the rivers, shadowed by sheer canyon cliffs, and beyond them lies the country of the Maze and the Needles.

    Outside the park's boundary three jagged mountain ranges abruptly break the pattern of the flat-topped canyon landscape. To the east rise the La Sals; to the south, the Abajos; to the southwest, the Henrys. Rain that passes by the arid soil of Canyonlands keeps these mountains mantled in forests of pine and fir. On the Island, vegetation is much sparser. Open fields of Indian rice grass and other grasses and pinyon-juniper pygmy forests survive on less than 10 inches of rain a year. Coyotes, foxes, squirrels, ravens, hawks, and smaller birds share the food of these lands. Herds of cattle and horses once grazed these desert pastures, too; abandoned water troughs and fences are reminders of those bygone days. Rocky ledges that lead down to and below the White Rim are a favorite habitat for many of Canyonlands' desert bighorn sheep. From the Island mesa the sheep look like tan, fly-sized specks; only the sharpest observers will detect them. The many trails around the Island are good places to encounter wildlife, especially at dawn, at dusk, or during the cooler months.

    Trails also lead to striking vistas, arches, and other outstanding geological features. Geologists would probably single out Upheaval Dome as the oddest geologic feature on Island in the Sky. Measuring 1,500 feet deep, the Dome does not look like a dome at all, but rather like a crater.

      How was Upheaval Dome created?
    • One popular theory suggests that slow-moving underground salt deposits pushed layers of sandstone upward.
    • Another more recent theory suggests that the Dome was created when a meteor hit.

    Whatever the origin of the Dome, the present-day landform of a jagged-edged crater is the result of erosion.

    From U.S. 191 take Utah 313 south to the Island. A paved road continues across the Island. Facilities include: 4-wheel-drive roads; self-guiding and primitive trails; developed campground; primitive campsites (backcountry permit required); picnic areas; overlooks; roadside and trailside exhibits; ranger talks and evening campfire programs (seasonal); commercial tours from nearby towns. Reservations for White Rim primitive campsites are recommended and can be requested in writing; address inquiries to the White Rim Reservations Office in care of Canyonlands National Park; backcountry permits required. No water is available on the Island; an entrance fee is charged.

    The Maze
    The Maze country west of the Colorado and Green rivers is Canyonlands at its wildest. It ranks as one of the most remote and inaccessible sections in the United States. There is the Maze itself, a perplexing jumble of canyons that has been described as a "30 square mile puzzle in sandstone." Beyond are the weirdly shaped towers, walls, buttes, and mesas of the Land of Standing Rocks, Ernies Country, the Doll House, and the Fins. People come to this wilderness of broken rock, little water, and stunted junipers and find intangible resources hard to find elsewhere: solitude, silence, and challenges demanding self-reliance. The 600-foot descent to the bottom of the Maze is a plunge into the heart of this country. Until the park was created few individuals had explored these canyons.

    Even today there are few visitors each year. Many come to see the ghostly figures painted on the walls of Horseshoe Canyon, which were left by Indians at least 2,000 years ago. The haunting life-size forms are considered among the finest examples of prehistoric rock art in the country. They are a fitting reminder of the otherworldly spirit of this region, where people come and go, but never stay. When visiting take photographs, but leave no trace of your visit.

    From Utah 24 or 95 take 2- and 4-wheel drive routes east to the Maze. Facilities include: 4-wheel-drive roads; primitive hiking routes; primitive campsites (backcountry permit required); overlooks; commercial tours from nearby towns. No water is available.

    The Needles
    The contrasting names in the Needles country reflect the diversity of the land itself: Devils Kitchen and Angel Arch, Elephant Hill and Caterpillar Arch, Gothic Arch and Paul Bunyans Potty. The Needles is a startling landscape of sculptured rock spires, arches, canyons, grabens, and potholes. The dominant landforms are the Needles themselves rock pinnacles banded in red and white. Earth movements fractured the rock, and water, wind, and freezing and thawing eroded it into the jumbled terrain of today. Grassy meadows such as the 960-acre Chesler Park offer a striking contrast to the Needles' bare rock. And arches add a touch of the unusual to the region. Like Arches National Park to the northeast, the Needles country boasts a fascinating collection of natural rock spans. Angel Arch, located in a side canyon of Salt Creek Canyon, stands 150 feet high. The Wooden Shoe Arch, on the other hand, has just a small tunnel-like opening. Other arches are shaped like a caterpillar, a wedding ring, a horse's hoof. Most of the arches lie hidden in back-country canyons and are well-deserved rewards for those who make the long 4-wheel-drive trips or hikes to see them. The Grabens lie at the end of another long 4-wheel-drive journey. To reach these vertical-walled, grass-carpeted valleys requires negotiating infamous Elephant Hill. With steep, rocky inclines and sharp switchbacks, Elephant Hill tests the skills of the most accomplished 4-wheel-driver. Continuing past the Grabens, roads and trails lead to the Confluence Overlook, a point 1,000 feet above the meeting place of the Green and Colorado rivers. Throughout this country the Anasazi Indians - the Ancient ones - once ranged, growing corn, squash, and beans, hunting deer and bighorn, and gathering native seeds, fruits, and roots. This advanced culture was part of the same group of people who built the great stone pueblos of Mesa Verde in Colorado and Chaco Canyon in New Mexico. Traces of the Anasazi can be found in almost every canyon in the Needles. Many of their stone and mud dwellings and storehouses are remarkably well-preserved. Tower Ruin, built high on a cliff ledge in a side canyon of Horse Canyon, is an outstanding example of the Anasazi's architecture. They also left a record in the petroglyphs they etched and the pictographs they painted on cliff walls, as did the Archaic hunters and gatherers who were here centuries before them. The meaning of the many figures, faces, handprints, and other images remains largely a mystery. Unfortunately, many pots, tools, and other items crafted and used by these prehistoric peoples are gone, stolen by looters. Leave artifacts in place.

    From U.S. 191 take Utah 211 west to the Needles. The paved road continues into the park. Facilities include 4-wheel-drive roads; self-guiding and primitive trails; developed campground; primitive campsites (backcountry permit required); overlooks; evening camp-ground programs (seasonal); commercial tours from nearby towns. Water is available spring through fall. Entrance and camping fees are charged.

    The Rivers
    Explorer John Wesley Powell recorded the first impressions of the Canyonlands region as seen from the Green and Colorado rivers on his pioneering 1869 boat trip. "We glide along through a strange. weird, grand region. The landscape everywhere, away from the river, is of rock," he wrote. More than a century later the rivers still run wild here. Above the confluence, the Green and Colorado meander slowly through deep, sheer-walled canyons. Below the confluence, the combined waters begin a 14-mile rush and tumble through the rapids of Cataract Canyon. It is one of the country's most treacherous whitewater stretches, rivaling any in the Grand Canyon. The Jekyll-and-Hyde personality of the rivers satisfies those looking forward to a quiet float, those eager for a helter-skelter river run, and those who want both.

    As the only major water source in the midst of a dry expanse, the rivers attract a variety of wildlife. Deer, fox, beaver, bobcats, and migra-tory birds find shelter in the riverside cottonwoods, tamarisks, and willows. Hanging gardens of lush maidenhair fern, monkeyflower, and columbine cling to the 1,200-foot high cliffs along water seepage lines. A lazy pace is best suited for observing life along the rivers. As in other corners of the park, cliffside stone houses and rock art of ancient Indians are scattered along the rivers. Enjoy but do not destroy this cultural heritage.

    Boating is popular above and be-low the confluence. Permits are required for all river trips. River access is in and near Green River and Moab. Guided float trips are offered in nearby towns.

    park maps subheading

    The General park map handed out at the visitor center is available on the park's map webpage.

    View the park's map to create your own personal maps and images right here.

    For information about topographic maps, geologic maps, and geologic data sets, please see the geologic maps page.

    photo album subheading

    A photo album for this park can be found on the park's webpage.

    For information on other photo collections featuring National Park geology, please see the Image Sources page.

    books, videos, cds subheading

    Currently, we do not have a listing for a park-specific geoscience book. The park's geology may be described in regional or state geology texts.

    Please visit the Geology Books and Media webpage for additional sources such as text books, theme books, CD ROMs, and technical reports.

    Parks and Plates: The Geology of Our National Parks, Monuments & Seashores.
    Lillie, Robert J., 2005.
    W.W. Norton and Company.
    ISBN 0-393-92407-6
    9" x 10.75", paperback, 550 pages, full color throughout

    The spectacular geology in our national parks provides the answers to many questions about the Earth. The answers can be appreciated through plate tectonics, an exciting way to understand the ongoing natural processes that sculpt our landscape. Parks and Plates is a visual and scientific voyage of discovery!

    Ordering from your National Park Cooperative Associations' bookstores helps to support programs in the parks. Please visit the bookstore locator for park books and much more.

    geologic research subheading

    Information about the park's research program is available on the park's research webpage.

    For information about permits that are required for conducting geologic research activities in National Parks, see the Permits Information page.

    The NPS maintains a searchable data base of research needs that have been identified by parks.

    A bibliography of geologic references is being prepared for each park through the Geologic Resources Evaluation Program (GRE). Please see the GRE website for more information and contacts.

    selected links subheading

    NPS Geology and Soils Partners

    NRCS logoAssociation of American State Geologists
    NRCS logoGeological Society of America
    NRCS logoNatural Resource Conservation Service - Soils
    USGS logo U.S. Geological Survey

    teacher feature subheading

    General information about the park's education and intrepretive programs is available on the park's education webpage.

    For resources and information on teaching geology using National Park examples, see the Students & Teachers pages.
  • updated on 01/04/2005  I   http://www.nature.nps.gov/geology/parks/cany/index.cfm   I  Email: Webmaster
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