A view of a river curving between canyons

NPS/Angela Sowa

"...the carved and eroded basin is characterized by deeply entrenched rivers and intermittent streams that have created a labyrinth of canyons on three distinct levels..." - Canyonlands National Park Wilderness Recommendation, 1974


Although there is no federally designated wilderness within Canyonlands National Park, most of the park is recommended wilderness. According to National Park Service Wilderness Management Policies, recommended wilderness is managed as designated until it is either officially designated, or removed from consideration, both of which require an Act of Congress.

It is important to recognize that within wilderness, humans have existed for thousands of years. We respectfully acknowledge that Canyonlands National Park, its recommended wilderness, and nonwilderness areas are on the ancestral homeland of bands of the Ute and Paiute, the Navajo, Hopi, and Zuni people. As a migratory route, this land is also traditionally and ceremonially important to many other peoples.

We recognize that our management of public land, including wilderness areas, should be informed by the traditional knowledge held by these groups. Wilderness character is comprised of five tangible qualities, one of which values cultural and historical connections to a landscape.

Backcountry vs. wilderness

Canyonlands has both backcountry and wilderness, but how are they different? Sometimes these words are used interchangeably, but there are distinct differences. As stated in the Superintendent's Compendium, "all lands, including four-wheel-drive roads and the Shafer Trail below the Shafer day-use parking area, and waters within the boundaries of Canyonlands National Park are designated as backcountry..." Exceptions include two-wheel-drive roads, adjacent areas to those roads, and administrative buildings. The 1995 Backcountry Management Plan, 1984 River Management Plan, and Superintendent's Compendium provide guidance on backcountry management strategies to protect natural resources, maintain high quality visitor experiences, and be flexible as condition changes arise.

In contrast, recommended wilderness areas within Canyonlands are "more or less defined by park roads." Wilderness boundaries are set back either 300 ft from the centerlines of major roads and 150 feet from the centerline of other roads, including those in the backcountry. The recommendation of this wilderness supports the park's purpose “to preserve striking geologic landscapes and associated ecosystems in an area encompassing the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers possessing superlative scenic, scientific, and cultural features for the inspiration, benefit, and use of the public.” The park follows the Wilderness Act of 1964 for guidance on wilderness management and preserving wilderness character.

Sun beam and rain over desert stone spires
The Maze, Canyonlands

NPS/Bryce Delaney

Wilderness character

Canyonlands National Park recommended wilderness is a place where intricate canyons, sculpted hoodoos, and jagged buttes carved out of massive sandstone exhibit a colorful and bewildering variety of forms; where powerful rivers surge through colossal canyon walls; and where seeps and springs emit water that sustain an astonishing diversity of life in the desert heat. Ancient communities of pinyon, juniper, blackbrush and yucca thrive here. Cultural connections create a fabric that unites the diverse landscapes that comprise the Canyonlands wilderness.

Canyonlands National Park recommended wilderness is natural, untrammeled, undeveloped and provides outstanding opportunities for solitude and primitive, unconfined recreation. It also contains numerous cultural and historical resources. These five essential qualities of wilderness character form the foundational setting from which a broad spectrum of wilderness values is derived.

A hiker looks out over a large canyon
A Wilderness Character

Learn about wilderness and visitor experiences here in Canyonlands in this digital exhibit.

Person with a red backpack stands hiking into a canyon
Visitors can backpack for one or multiple nights in the recommended wilderness

Photo courtesy of Avery Sloss

Experiencing wilderness

The arduous access into much of Canyonlands magnifies its wilderness character. It can be a vast and unforgiving environment. This is a place where visitors can fully exercise their intuition and outdoor skills; a landscape where travel can be extremely dangerous, a place not for the faint of heart. Full awareness of self and surroundings, as well as a strong measure of caution is essential. These challenges evoke a connection between people and nature that is unparalleled. Learn about recreational opportunities in the backcountry which overlap with, or provide access to, the wilderness.

For those who do not wish to venture as far, wilderness can be seen from numerous overlooks off the paved scenic drives and reached on foot by day hikes. Intangible qualities of wilderness - connection, inspiration, relaxation - can be felt during sunrise at Mesa Arch, sunset at Pothole Point, or under the darkest night skies around.


Last updated: April 11, 2024

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