Lower Red Lake Canyon in Canyonlands National Park

Date hiked: 12/02/16

Mileage: 19.8 mi

Head Count (how many other hikers I saw): 0 groups.


While Canyonlands National Park may be known more for its sweeping vistas and one-of a kind landmarks, there are actually a number of access points throughout all three districts that eventually lead to the water. Most are within the Island in the Sky district, but my first experience came from the Needles district with Lower Red Lake Canyon.

There are two options at reaching Lower Red Lake Canyon. The first is from the Big Spring Overlook trailhead (20.8 miles), or this 19.8 mile approach from Elephant Hill.

From the Elephant Hill trailhead, the route heads west along the 4X4 road. 1.3 miles in, you’ll reach an intersection. Head left. At this point, you’ll be travelling with traffic along a one-way road, so keep an eye out behind you, especially on busy summer weekends.

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Veer left at this one-way sign. You’ll be going the same way as the motorized traffic.

Millions upon millions of years ago, as sea levels in the area dropped, a thick layer of sandstone covered the evaporated salt deposits that were left behind. As red sand and silt were deposited by rain and snowmelt, white sand also blew in, forming dunes. These geologic processes are still on display today in the alternating bands of red and white rock throughout Canyonlands.

During a period of tectonic unrest (which also formed the Rocky Mountains), these salt layers were pulled towards the Colorado River, causing a series of valleys (or grabens) to collapse.

The road follows a wash to where it empties into one of these grabens, and to far off views of the Needles.

Log the mileage, and 1.9 miles out you’ll reach a second intersection. Turn right, and after a short distance, you’ll come to your final turn at Devil’s Lane.

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The Needles.


Turn right towards Devil’s Lane.


Devil’s Lane. On the map, it looks as though the trail to Lower Red Lake Canyon should be straight ahead, but in reality, you’ll have to turn right at this three way intersection…

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…to where this trail veers off from the north side of Devil’s Lane.

To reach Cyclone Canyon (another graben), the trail transects a horst, or a raised fault block thrown upwards between grabens. It’s a truly amazing experience to see earth’s history up close and personal like this.


Standing on the horst, looking back on the Devil’s Lane graben.


Elaterite Butte in the Maze District of Canyonlands.


Looking down on Cyclone Canyon.

Once the trail meets up with Cyclone Canyon, the route then enters one last horst, funneling you into Lower Red Lake Canyon.

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Inside Lower Red Lake Canyon. The name could in part lend itself to the red sandstone, but it’s misleading as there’s not a lake in sight whatsoever.


After a quick scramble, the trail follows a dry wash to march steadily downhill towards the Colorado River. But dwarfed by the towering walls, the first glimpse at the water doesn’t come until the shoreline.


The wash empties across from Spanish Bottom, an anomaly among the sheer cliffs of the forty-six mile long Cataract Canyon. This flat, sandy plain is basically an ancient sinkhole where the rock it once supported collapsed.

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Looking south towards one of the most isolated and dangerous sections of the Colorado River. Fourteen miles of rapids, up to class V, and extreme water fluctuations due to runoff make for one treacherous whitewater rafting trip. I’ve never been whitewater rafting, but it’s something I’d love to do before my time is up.

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Looking north, The Confluence lies just 3.6 miles upriver. Tamarisk Brush grows thick along the shorelines.

Trail Map

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(From Moab): From Center Street, follow highway 191 south for 39.6 miles. Turn right onto UT-211. In 5.7 miles, pay at the fee station, then continue another 3.1 miles and turn left where 211 wraps north. Turn right towards Campground B and Elephant Hill after .3 miles, then take another right towards Elephant hill .2 miles beyond that. The parking lot is 2.9 miles further, just before the road becomes 4WD.

80.2 mi; 1 hr 45 min

Fees: $25/car to enter Canyonlands National Park

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