Nearly everyone on the continent (maybe the world?) has either been to, or at least seen a picture of, the largest canyon in the world, the Grand Canyon. The title of “the biggest” has garnered it much attention since it became an official national park in 1919. Throngs of visitors come from all over the world to take in that boundless beauty firsthand. It certainly is grand. Indeed, “the one great sight which every American should see1” seems to attract more and more tourists year after year. And, unfortunately, along with those tourists come kitschy gift shops, theme motels, heavy traffic, and high prices on everything. Many of us seek out these national parks for their unspoiled wilderness, thinking we will “get away from it all” only to hit a massive traffic jam near the entrance to the park. On a weekday. In the off season. Working your way through the masses of people can be a frustrating endeavor and leave you feeling a bit disillusioned.
Fortunately for us, roughly 420 miles northeast of the north rim lies Canyonlands National Park! 515 square miles of dry, craggy cliffs and endless expanses will certainly tickle your canyon fancy without leaving you wishing you had gone to the big one. The terrain and scenery is more varied, with plenty of beautiful vistas that easily rival that of the Grand Canyon. Much of the park is open to dirt bikes, Jeeps and other off-road vehicles, should you be looking for a desert joyride. You can mix it up with hiking trails, or just drive straight through the park until you come to a section that piques your interest. There are literally countless canyons and mesas to explore. Kayaking and other water recreational activities are also possible as the Green and Colorado rivers pass through this park. With less than half the annual tourists of the Grand Canyon, the park is better suited to the avid adventurer. The nearby Mars colony-like town of Moab can be expensive, but it is oriented more towards outdoor enthusiasts rather than tourists, making it vastly more interesting and entertaining than the GC push-off towns of Page or Tusayan. As an added bonus, you also have Arches National Park just outside of Moab, for added fun. Both parks can easily be visited in the same day.
Less widely known than the Grand Canyon, Canyonlands National Park presents an opportunity to experience the american desert canyon environment in a much more raw and unfiltered manner. It’s vibrant and diverse landscapes provide all the natural beauty and even more activities than the world famous Grand Canyon, with half-sized crowds. So next time you find yourself adventuring in the American southwest, split between visiting Moab or the Grand Canyon, skip the tourist traps and take the road less traveled. You won’t regret it.