Where the Colorado and Green Rivers Meet: Canyonlands National Park

The Colorado River is a major waterway of the western U.S. It is 1,450 miles long and flows through five states. The Green River is the Colorado River’s chief tributary. Beginning in the Wind River Mountains of Wyoming, the Green meets the Colorado in Canyonlands National Park. We spent three days exploring the park, including a hike to the confluence of these two rivers.

Canyonlands National Park, created in 1964, is divided into four districts. We ventured to two of them: the Needles and the Island in the Sky. The Needles section is located east of the Colorado River and gets its name from the red and white pinnacles that dominate the skyline. We tried to get a spot in the one small campground there but had to settle for a site in the BLM camp just outside the park’s border.

There is just one paved road in the Needles section, so we chose two long hikes to explore as much of the area as we could. Our first hike, to the confluence overlook of the Colorado and Green Rivers, was challenging for us. In place of a trail, much of the hike was on and over rock, only marked by occasional cairns. At times, we had to climb up and slide down steep sections, slowing our progress. There was even a ladder to negotiate on one sheer rock face.

Darren climbing up a steep slope


Sandy sliding down the rocks

Even with all the obstacles, the beauty of the hike kept us going. We climbed in and out of several stunning canyons and saw very few people.

Climbing between canyons (note the trail below)

After one final ascent, we reached the overlook and gazed upon the spectacle of the darker Colorado River meeting the lighter Green River. Across the confluence was the park’s Maze district, which is the least accessible of the four units. It was cold and windy so we ate a quick lunch before returning the way we came, making the hike a total of 11 miles.

The confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers

The next morning we started a hike into the heart of the Needles district with the goal of reaching Druid Arch on an out and back trail.  We had a couple of challenges to contend with as we walked. The weather forecast called for rain, so we kept a close eye on the sky. The planned distance was 10.8 miles, and we wanted to turn back if things took a turn for the worse. My knee was also bothering me from all the steep trail ascent and descent of the previous day.

The hike took us into the heart of the Needles with some of the most breathtaking scenery that we had ever seen in all our years of hiking. We found the trail to be less challenging than the previous day, but as we continued down a wash along Elephant Canyon, we began to encounter some very rocky sections. Moreover, the sky began to darken. We took a short break and decided to turn back with about a mile to go before the arch. We had about 4.5 miles to go back to the car and didn’t want to chance getting caught in a rainstorm.

Darren hiking in Elephant Canyon


Rocky section in Elephant Canyon

About halfway back to the trailhead there was a fork to a path to Chesler Park, where there were excellent views of the Needles. It was only .8 miles each way from where we were standing and the weather looked better, so we turned off on that trail. Unfortunately we missed a turn and arrived just short of our goal, but still got some great photos of the Needles pinnacles. We retraced our steps, joined the main trail, and made it back to the trailhead ahead of any significant rain. Our hike ended up being 9.6 miles in total. As we left the Needles District we made plans to come back someday to embark on longer backpacking trips.

Sandy hiking toward Chesler Park

In 2016 the total number of visitors to Canyonlands was about 776,000 people, an increase of 22% from the previous year, and making it 26th in park visitation. The northern Islands in the Sky district is the most popular section of Canyonlands, attracting about 75% of its total visitors. We made camping reservations at the nearby Dead Horse Point State Park and used this as our base for exploration. Like Island in the Sky, which is a mesa between the Colorado and Green Rivers, Dead Horse is also a mesa that overlooks the Colorado River. We visited that viewpoint before continuing west into the park.

Dead Horse Point Overlook into the Colorado River

While in Island in the Sky, we visited some viewpoints and completed several short hikes. There are differing opinions as to how Upheaval Dome was created. The most recent theory is that the three mile diameter crater is the result of a meteor strike. We walked to two viewpoints that peered into the hole.

Viewpoint into Upheaval Dome

We hiked 3.6 mile roundtrip to Murphy Point, where we had commanding views of the Green River as it weaved through the canyon below.

Green River from Murphy Point

A one mile hike each way along the Grand View Point Overlook provided several views of the Colorado River canyon. We could even see the Needles district 12 miles in the distance.

Grand View Point Overlook Rim Trail

Our last stop was Mesa Arch. A short hike took us to its base, and even though the best lighting is at sunrise, we were still able to take decent photos of the arch with the La Sal Mountains in the background.

Mesa Arch

Canyonlands is the largest of the five Utah national parks, and we enjoyed the three days we spent exploring the Needles and Island in the Sky districts. So much so that we both agree that it is now one of our favorite parks. It was somewhat fitting that our last stop in Canyonlands was at Mesa Arch. We will be visiting many more of these as we travel to Arches National Park just a short distance away.

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