Canyonlands: Observation Deck of the World
The red fingers of stone beckoned to us, drawing us off the highway into a world where the rocks are shaped like giant hornos – the adobe bread ovens commonly used by the Native Americans. The gray-hatted La Sal Mountains rose to the right hinting at the sweeping views of Canyonlands National Park to come.
If you have limited time and need to choose between the Needles and Anticline Overlooks, veer left when the road forks and visit Needles. You’ll know you’re on the right track when you encounter a sandstone rock, sculpted to look like rippling waves.
Like a burlesque dancer, slowly removing clothes, each hill provides a partial glimpse of the vista. By the time you reach the parking area, you’ll be more than ready for the overlook to deliver on its promise. And deliver it does. Follow the trail to its end, to a chasm that seems to stretch as wide as the Grand Canyon.
How was Canyonlands created?
Over millions of years, sediment was deposited on the Colorado Plateau, forming flat layers of rock. Roughly fifteen million years ago, volcanic activity raised the Moab area to about 5000 feet above sea level. The Colorado and Green Rivers, along with ice, eroded the land, carving canyons that are up to two thousand feet deep. To complicate matters, the region sits on the Paradox Formation, a layer of salt below the rock, which shifts to create domes and valleys.
Layers of Rock
These layers of rock have fancy names. Here are the layers at Canyonlands, from youngest (nearest the top) to oldest.
- Navajo Sandstone
- Kayenta Formation
- Wingate Sandstone
- Chinle Formation
- Moenkopi Formation
- Cutler Group
- Hermosa Group
To give you an idea of how old these are, the newest two layers contain dinosaur tracks.
Backtrack to the turnoff for the Anticline Overlook, a seventeen-mile long, unpaved road. We managed it in a four-wheel vehicle and passed larger sedans driving without any obvious difficulty, but you might want to leave your Smart Car at home. The speed limit is 40 mph, which is optimistic bordering on delusion.
During the jarring drive, which tests how securely your joints are connected to your ligaments, you may notice herds of grazing cattle. Alternatively, you could just focus on not biting your tongue with each jolt – the first mile is by far the worst.
The overlook is located on a promontory and, as a result, the view stretches out in three out of four directions. The rocks are Chinese red, a color so named because it is commonly used on lacquered wood in China. The hue changes where a white line of sediment bands the canyons (the White Rim). Far below, the Colorado River twists, a green snake slithering across the earth. The La Sal Mountains are incongruous in the background, reaching up when the rest of the terrain plunges downwards.
This is a great option for anyone with mobility issues. The Anticline Overlook can only be reached by a scramble over some rocks, but the Minor Overlook allows you to drive a short loop around a rock that juts out over the canyons.
There are several designated viewing points on the side of the road nearest the drop-off – unless you’re driving British-style, it makes more sense to stop at these on the return journey.
The third viewing point allows you to see the Wineglass. Look up and to the right for the light shining through a gap in the rock – that’s the wineglass’ stem.
You won’t miss out by skipping the second viewing area, but take a moment to admire the first one, which reveals three buttes. In the afternoon, they seemed a hazy blend of gray, blue, and purple.
- The Needles Overlook Road is off the 191. Assuming you’re coming from Monticello and heading north, make a left approximately seven miles after the turnoff for the 211. From the start of the road, it is twenty-two miles on paved roads to the Needles Overlook and thirty-two miles to the Anticline Overlook (the last part is unpaved).
- The land surrounding the road is open range. There are numerous cattle guards, most of which are marked by signs decorated with black and yellow angled stripes. You do not want to miss said signs and travel over a cattle guard at speed.
- Roadside assistance is a long way off and you are unlikely to have a consistent cell signal.
What is your favorite Utah drive?