The Southwest is one of the most fascinating places in the United States. Geology and history combine with beauty and intrigue. Southwestern mystique permeates every corner and you are drawn in by its esoteric secrets.
There are many places to visit in the Southwest, but nothing compares to the great national parks. They are plentiful in the area, but some are more “Grand” than others. There are the mighty five of Zion, Bryce, Canyonlands, Arches and Capitol Reef in Utah and of course the Grand Canyon. They share the same geographical area, but they all have that special something that makes them worthy of their world famous designation.
Some seem very similar but have enough differences to make them both worthy of a visit. Take the Grand Canyon and Canyonlands for example. Both are canyons and both are gorgeous, but are they really all that equivalent? There are definitely similarities and differences between these two greats.
If you only have time to see one park and are deciding on the Grand Canyon vs. Canyonlands, you should choose the Grand Canyon as it is the better park to visit. The Grand Canyon is famous worldwide due to it’s sheer beauty. The Grand Canyon is an unforgettable vacation.
The Grand Canyon is at 7,000 feet in elevation. Daytime highs are in the 80’s during the day and in the 50’s at night in summer. The weather may be slightly warmer in Canyonlands, due to the elevation being about 2,000 feet lower in elevation. The highs are usually in the 90’s and the lows are in the 60’s in summer. This slightly warmer temperature can make it a little less comfortable in the hot sun. However, the nightly temperatures will always be pleasant at both parks, giving you ample time to sit around the fire or gaze at the stars.
The Grand Canyon is enormous. It is 277 miles long, 18 miles wide and around a mile deep to the Colorado River. In all, the park encompasses 1901 square miles. It is even larger than the state of Rhode Island. In comparison, Canyonlands is smaller at just 527 square miles. So, it’s scope is smaller, therefore it is easier to visit many parts of the park on your trip.
Both have different sections to see in the park
The Grand Canyon is separated into three distinct parts and one not so distinct. There are plenty of recreational opportunities in all four parts and some are busier and some are more quiet than others.
The South Rim is the most visited part of the park. In 2021, most of the 4.5 million patrons visiting came to the South Rim to enjoy the park. This is where you will find the Bright Angel Trail, which takes you to the bottom of the canyon, all of the luxurious hotel and lodges and many diverse restaurants to tease your palette. There are a plethora of recreational outfits to choose from as well at the South Rim, from helicopter rides, to mule rides to jeep tours.
As busy as the South Rim is, the North Rim is quiet and serene. Without the hustle, bustle and commercial trappings of the South Rim, the North Rim is all about the view and getting in touch with nature. If it is summer, you can hike into the canyon, but the winter time forces the North Rim to close its services, preventing the ability to get to the North Rim unless you cross-country ski and winter camp.
The West Rim is not a part of the national park system but is owned and operated by the Hualapai Tribe. However, it is still a part of the Grand Canyon. You will find the world famous Skywalk, helicopter rides and you can even zip line over the canyon.
The East Rim isn’t officially a part of the park but you can still find activities to do in the Grand Canyon, if coming from the east. The Grand Canyon was formed by the Colorado River whittling away at millions of years of creation. Therefore, white water rafting on the Colorado River is the most popular activity when in this part of the Grand Canyon. You can also access many other very interesting and scenic areas such as Antelope Canyon and Horseshoe Bend.
In contrast to the Grand Canyon, Canyonlands only gets about 800,000 visitors a year compared to the Grand Canyon’s 5 million visitors. But, it doesn’t mean that it isn’t gorgeous and interesting. Canyonlands combines some of the best parts of the beautiful Southwest all in one park. Like the Grand Canyon, Canyonlands is divided into four separate parts or districts . You can pick what kind of things you want to see and then tour that district of the park.
Islands In The Sky
The most popular part of the park is Islands in the Sky, due to its paved roads and magnificent scenery. Its proximity to Arches National Park makes this section very popular. Its sheer cliffs and fabulous panoramic views are reminiscent of the Grand Canyon and why people may compare the two so often.
The Needles District will take you down into the canyon amongst the spires and dramatic geology of the park. This is a perfect section to travel if you are interested in seeing the petroglyphs and pictographs of the ancient people of Moab. The sandstone formations and colors are similar to Bryce Canyon National Park, another of the “Big Five” parks of Utah. Jeep and ATV trails make this section easy to explore or you may choose to adventure on foot with all the hiking trails available.
This section is typically reserved for the serious backcountry camper that is looking for complete solitude and enjoys a three to seven day challenge in the midst of nothing but the natural world. Hiking or four wheel drive off-roading are the two options for seeing the needles, but only experienced drivers and hikers should attempt this section.
Canyonlands was formed by two rivers eroding through its ancient rock. The Colorado River lazily winds through as it gives green life to the canyon. Likewise, the Green River cuts through the sandstone until it meets the Colorado in a confluence that causes white water that is enjoyed by many thrill seeking enthusiasts of the park.
City Hubs for both parks
The Grand Canyon and Canyonlands are both pretty remote, but the Grand Canyon has managed to develop a city right outside its gates, while Canyonlands is a good distance from the amenities of a city. Both have there merits. It just depends on what kind of vacation you are looking for.
Tusayan isn’t a major city, but is on the map because of the South Rim of the Grand Canyon. Right outside the entrance to the park you will find restaurants, hotels of various levels of amenities and activity outfitters. There are also campgrounds for the tent and RV camper in Tusayan. If you need it or want it, you can find it in Tusayan. In addition to the city, there are ample luxuries within the South Rim of the park that you won’t see in many national parks.
Canyonlands is more remote than the Grand Canyon, but if you are willing to drive 30 miles, Moab is the perfect city to launch your vacation in Canyonlands. A medium sized city with Arches National Park in its backyard, Moab has all the conveniences that you would ever need. Moab is a mountain biking mecca, so if you plan to bike in Canyonlands, there are a vast collection of bike shops to add to your two wheel transportation. There are also accommodations of all types and gourmet restaurants that will please anyone in your crew.
The Grand Canyon and Canyonlands are both national parks that should be on the list of any appreciator of nature and adventure. Both parks are gorgeous and have a list longer than you could imagine of things to do. Taking a vacation to either park would be the right decision regardless of which you choose.