At Island in the Sky’s Grand View Point Overlook, sync your visit to an hour before sunset. As shadows play across a vast tectonic landscape of Jurassic period rock, you’ll feel the primeval pull of a land forgotten by time.
Launch out on a multiday, 100-mile mountain bike trek along the White Rim Trail or raft down otherwise inaccessible Cataract Canyon, plunging through some of the gnarliest class V rapids in North America.
If you’re up for a challenge, you can take a ranger-led hike into Horseshoe Canyon and stand face-to-face with shamanic life-size figures painted between 2000 B.C. and A.D. 500 by mysterious pre-ancient Puebloan nomads.
Pace your day along the Needles’ 6.5-mile-long Scenic Drive, stopping for four self-guided hikes as time permits: Roadside Ruin to see an ancient Puebloan granary (20 minutes); Cave Spring Trail to view an old-style cowboy camp next to an alcove spring with ancient pictographs (45 minutes); Pothole Point Trail to inspect ephemeral ponds teeming with micro-life (45 minutes); and a 2.4-mile loop on the Slickrock Foot Trail, your best chance for spying bighorn sheep in the Needles. (Tip: Look for their white rumps.)
In Island in the Sky, it’s a half-mile walk to the park’s greatest mystery, Upheaval Dome. Is the mile-wide crater the result of a collapsed salt dome or a meteor strike? (Among geologists, it’s a split verdict.) Explore Aztec Butte, a mile-long trail that begins with an easy saunter along a sandy wash then requires some steep friction walking on Navajo slickrock to reach the top. Look for several 800-year-old ancestral Puebloan granaries hiding beneath the rim.
In the Needles district, the classic hike is a six-mile round-trip route from the Elephant Hill trailhead to Chesler Park, a vast sage-scented meadow edged by the park’s namesake sandstone spires. The 10-mile round-trip Confluence Overlook Trail demands a bit more sweat equity. There’s scant shade hereabouts as you hike across Big Spring and Elephant Canyons but the payoff is spectacular: a yawning 1,000-foot chasm where the mighty Colorado and Green Rivers merge.
One of Utah’s few remaining native herds of desert bighorn sheep roams the park, never straying far from its water sources. Near rivers and streams, you’ll also find many of the park’s 273 bird species. Keep an ear out for the park’s songsters: canyon wrens in steep walled canyons, western meadowlarks in the grasslands, black-throated gray warblers in the piñon-juniper woodlands.
Wildflowers peak in May—orange globemallow, claret cup cactus, Indian paintbrush—as yellowy stands of cliff rose release a potent fragrance. The sego lily, Utah’s state flower, is a rare find. (Look for it hiding among the sagebrush). A second wildflower bloom unfolds in early fall depending on the rain. Moonlit walks reveal night-blooming wildflowers: sand verbena, evening primrose, and sacred datura.
Sunrise casts an orange glow on the underside of Mesa Arch, the park’s most sought after image. But you’ll have to arrive at least an hour before sunup to jockey for prime tripod space. The Needles’ most intriguing subject is imposing Druid Arch, an angular rock span evoking Stonehenge (hence its name). Given the 5.4-mile-long trail to get there, a dawn departure is required to arrive while optimum light still illuminates the arch.
SMART TRAVELER STRATEGIES
Don’t try to visit Needles and Island in the Sky the same day. You’ll waste two hours just driving from one district to the other. Instead, base out of Moab, an adventure-sports town that sits between the two areas. Visit I-Sky’s car-friendly overlooks on the first day for soul-stirring vistas of the Colorado Plateau. The following day, immerse yourself in the park by tackling the Needles’ network of rugged backcountry trails. Don’t even consider entering the backcountry-only Maze district unless you’ve got a respectable 4WD vehicle and plenty of backcountry cred.