The Canyonlands National Park is so large that it is divided into four big districts. The Needles is the southernmost section and it is located in the lower elevations where the Colorado River and Green River converge. The Maze District covers the extremely inhospitable section in the western part of this park and the Rivers District covers the low ground where the two big rivers flow. The fourth district is the Island In The Sky, which is a high mesa in the northern section of this big National Park. The Island In The Sky extends almost 35 miles south into the rugged Canyonlands landscape and this high mesa is almost 20 miles wide in some places. The Island In The Sky towers over the deep canyons and rivers below, so the name of this majestic high mesa is definitely apropos!
Upon arrival, one of the best ways to become familiar with the Island In The Sky is to first take a little scenic drive on Utah State Road 313. SR 313 is better known as the Island In The Sky Scenic Byway. Very few roads in this world offer as many majestic scenic views as what can be found along this 33 mile long road and there is plenty of adventurous activities to experience on top of this vast high mesa.
Starting at the intersection of SR 313 and Highway 191, there is a classic tourist attraction that has a Jurassic Park theme, which definitely has a way of drawing attention. All it takes is driving a few hundreds yards further down the scenic byway to start seeing the roadside landmark placards. Official signage designates the Island In The Sky Scenic Byway and the placards in this area focus on ecosystem diversity and the geology of this area. There are some unique red rock formations in the first section of SR 313 and the names of these landmarks are mentioned on the roadside overlook signage so stopping to take a look will enhance the experience.
After passing through the barren red rock area, the top of the high mesa turns into a mountain meadows that stretches out to the canyon rim. The road to Dead Horse Point State Park can be found a little more than 14 miles down the road and a few Jeep trails can be found in this section too. One of the dirt roads goes to the Chisholm Trail Mountain Biking Staging area for the Navajo Rocks, Magnificent 7 and Horsethief biking trails.
When nearing the official Canyonlands National Park welcoming sign, a few more dirt road Jeep trails can be found. One of the 4×4 touring options is the Schafer Trail, which zig-zags its way down to the canyon floor. There are also a few dirt roads that go to the Mesa Campground, Horsethief Campground and the solitary BLM Campground before getting to the Island In The Sky Visitor Center. These are all fee area campgrounds and they are usually booked months in advance, so this is good to keep in mind when planning the trip. These dirt roads can be rough, so a high ground clearance vehicle or a 4x4 is recommended.
From the visitor center going south on the Island In The Sky Scenic Byway, it is nothing but one majestic scenic overlook and hiking trail after another till getting to the end of the line at Grand View Point. Each of the Canyonlands overlooks do require some hiking and the distances vary greatly. Both the Green River Overlook Road and the Upheaval Dome Road can be found near Grand View Point and these two paved roads go to places that offer a few more days worth of fun outdoor activities on top of this one of a kind high mesa!
This article primarily focuses upon what can be experienced on top of the Island In The Sky. The scenic overlooks along the Island In The Sky Byway are a bit more involved than the average roadside viewpoint, so they are better off featured in articles of their own. The Island In The Sky is the best place for setting up a basecamp, because there is so much to experience in this place. Touring the Island In The Sky Byway does take plenty of time, because there are so many natural attractions that will peak the interest!
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