Excited about my spring adventure, I flew to Salt Lake City, Utah to begin The Mighty 5 excursion hosted by Southwest Adventure Tours. With an expert driver and guide who knew the area like the back of his hand, we explored five breathtaking national parks: Canyonlands, Arches, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion.
These were the main stops on the Utah Mighty 5 luxury van tour. On a 6-day adventure into the beauty of southern Utah, we explored them all. Throughout the tour, we hiked, stopped at scenic viewpoints, dined at local eateries, discovered hidden gems, and were often surprised by our guide who took us off the beaten path. This is the first of a series of five articles about The Mighty 5®—Utah's five iconic national parks.
Along the Scenic Route to Canyonlands National Park
Our destination was Canyonlands National Park and a two-night stay in Moab, Utah. But first, we had to get there… wide freeways gave way to highways that climbed through snowy mountains. We stopped at a rest stop designed to look like a railway roundhouse. A real train, carrying passengers through the scenic high desert went by on the sandstone cliffs above us.
Our guide, Dennis, began one of his many mining stories as we took a detour through the town of Helper City, Utah. A stop there included one of those roadside attractions, a two-story miner statue known as “Big John.” I found out Helper was an important location along the Denver and Rio Grande Western Railway line in the 1880s. Helper was to be a freight terminal upon the changing of the line from narrow to standard gauge, which began in 1889. “Helper” locomotives would stand by to aid trains traveling up the steep grade to Soldier Summit, thus the name Helper.
In a short four hours, we arrived at Moab, enjoyed Sweet Cravings Bakery and Bistro’s Panini sandwiches, and then headed into Canyonlands National Park.
About Canyonlands National Park
As we traveled in our comfortable Mercedes van, we marveled at the ever-changing landscape, the layers of rock, and the intriguing formations. Canyonlands is part of a region called the “Colorado Plateau.” According to the National Park Service, about 20 million years ago, movement in the Earth's crust began to alter the North American landscape, creating modern landforms like the Rocky Mountains, Nevada's Basin and Range, and the Colorado Plateau. Geologists believe the plateau may have risen as much as 10,000 feet.
We saw the effects of erosion on this landscape—rivers and heavy rains created deep canyons across the raised plateau. Informational plaques at all overlooks and important sites detail the area's geology.
Rivers divide the park into four districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the rivers themselves. On a previous tour with Southwest Adventure Tours, we took a thrilling side trip with Navtec Expeditions into the backcountry of the Needles district via 4×4.
Discovering Canyonlands Island in the Sky Region
To get to Canyonlands Island in the Sky Region from Moab, we followed US 191 and took UT 313 south. As we drove into the park, we were awed by the vistas at every turn. We stopped at the Visitors Center situated on a large mesa. We chuckled at the restroom signs cautioning visitors to avoid standing on the toilets and to avoid going on the restroom floor!
Our hikes that day were brief—the first just across the street from the Visitor’s Center, another to impressive Mesa Arch, and finally one viewing the Upheaval Dome.
At Mesa Arch, actually a window into the vast canyon, there were quite a few people. Many wanted their photos in front of the arch. But when our turn came, we asked that our photo include no people…. just the grandeur of nature. The groups of sightseers complied and we got the photo!
We also stopped at Upheaval Dome, an odd geological feature. It’s a 1500 ft. deep crater with jagged rocks in the bottom. Some say it is the result of a meteor hit and the subsequent effects of erosion.
Another place we stopped to ooh and ahh was the Green River overlook, where the river created deep canyons. I think a Green River water trip out of Moab might be a fantastic way to see the canyons from the bottom, especially during hot summers. Sometimes on an overview trip like ours, you come away with great ideas for return trips. My list was already started.
Best of Our Canyonlands National Park Adventure
I'm embarrassed to say it, but the most memorable view for me that day was one that was easiest to access. The Island in the Sky Visitors Center is only a 40-minute drive from Moab. Across the street and with a short amble across the sandstone flats you’ll peer over the side and, as I did, gasp. The view from Grand View Point Overlook reaches from the depths of the Green and Colorado rivers to the mountaintops and above—and it’s breathtaking. The expansive vista rivals the Grand Canyon and, dare you look down, you’ll see a winding road with brave 4×4 drivers heading into the depths of the canyon. This was my wow moment of the day.
As I stood and looked out over the deep canyons, the snow-capped mountains were crisp against the ever-changing sky. Clouds floated above the mountains adding yet another layer to the stunning vista.
I stepped back a bit as I looked down and saw what looked like tiny cars descend into the canyon via the sharply curving dirt roads of Shafer Trail.
Where to Stay and Dine Near Canyonlands National Park
As we were on a pre-planned Mighty 5 tour, our hotel was selected and reserved for us. We were pleased to stay in the heart of Moab at the Greenwell Inn, a Best Western Plus property. The terracotta tiled roofs added to the southwest flavor of the property. They had a nice outdoor pool and a Chinese restaurant on site. It was comfortable and convenient to the shops and restaurants of downtown Moab.
Moab continues to build hotels to meet the increasing needs of visitors who come for outdoor adventure. River raft trips, 4×4 tours, mountain biking, and hiking fill the days of visitors. At night, restaurants cater to the casual, hungry throngs. We found just the place for our hungry group… Fiesta Mexicana, just down the street. Our guide told us he enjoyed it and that they had great margaritas. That was enough of a recommendation for us!
Fiesta Mexicana was a colorful, bustling place with waiters rushing to tables with huge trays of steaming Mexican-American food. Our group enjoyed fajitas, tacos, and enchiladas. The food was excellent, ideal after a day of touring and hiking. And, yes, the margaritas, served in large salt-rimmed goblets, were strong and refreshing. It was one of those fun places where they sing Happy Birthday wearing huge sombreros.
About Southwest Adventure Tours
Southwest Adventure Tours is a Utah-based business providing individuals and groups with scenic, photography, and adventure tours throughout the Southwestern US. Their specialty is small group experiences, usually between 14 and 25 passengers. They offer a wide range of multi-day tours and day tours from Las Vegas, Phoenix, Salt Lake City, and other local areas adjacent to the National Parks. Our group numbered six and we enjoyed the comfort of a new Mercedes touring van with driver/guide. Our guide took care of all the details and made sure everyone, no matter what their physical ability, had an enjoyable adventure along the way.
The next day we toured Arches National Park.
Note: As is common in the travel industry, the writer was provided with tour, accommodations and meals for the purpose of review. While it has not influenced this review, the writer believes in full disclosure of all potential conflicts of interest.