Utah’s Dark Skies: Canyonlands National Park

Take in the skies while floating and hiking in Labyrinth Canyon. Sights include towering canyon walls, remnants from early river runners and unobstructed views of the night sky. 

The majority of Americans are not able to see the stars and planets because of the swaths of electric lights that blanket their surroundings—the gem-like sparkle of constellations and galaxies is simply no match for harsh manmade illumination. But if you are ever fortunate enough to experience an unspoiled night sky, you will be bowled over by its magnificence–its gleaming, glitter-like colors; captivating shapes; and unbounded vastness.

The good news is you don’t have to have a ton of astronomy knowhow, be an experienced stargazer, own a state-of-the-art telescope or leave the planet to feel closer to the stars. You just need to go to the right place. One such place is just north of Utah’s Canyonlands National Park where dark-sky seekers can paddle the Labyrinth Canyon by day and see some of the most stunning views of the sky by night. Some tour guides have even planned entire trips around the best places to see the cosmos. Holiday Expeditions is one example. They create dark sky stargazing trips through canyons and over rivers with hiking, biking or kayaking to locations that during the day will make your jaw drop and at night, are some of the most magnificent vistas on earth and beyond.

Their Green River Labyrinth Canyon Stargazing guided tour is one  of seven specialty dark sky trips. And while you can plan your own expirations into the wilderness, a guided tour may be one of the best ways to take a trip through the cosmos while having your feet planted firmly on the ground. You can follow a similar itinerary on your own, but you’ll want to be sure to plan and prepare very carefully—hiking and rafting in the Canyonlands wilderness presents many challenges, especially for novices.

Goblin Valley State Park
Goblin Valley State Park near Canyonlands. Photo credit: @thatdadblog.

Dark Sky Stargazing Trip Through Labyrinth Canyon—May-September

Accompanied by a knowledgeable nature guide and astronomy expert from Salt Lake City’s Clark Planetarium, Holiday Expeditions’ 5-day, fully outfitted trip in Utah’s Labyrinth Canyon—one of the most serene places on the planet—starts out on a calm section of the Green River (tour participants first meet up in Green River, Utah). In the mornings, you’ll hike in one of the intriguing side canyons: Crystal Geyser, McCarty Bottom, Trin-Alcove Bend, The River Register, Hey Joe Canyon, Hell Roaring Canyon or to the saddle at Bownot Bend with its breathtaking panoramic vista. 

In the afternoon, you’ll hit the river in an oar-driven raft and, however relaxed you feel paddling on or swimming in these placid waters, the beauty of the adjacent soaring red, orange and gold canyon walls is sure to make your heart skip a beat. They’re primarily composed of Navajo and Wingate Sandstone—you’ll be tempted to count their variegated hues.

Other amazing sights that’ll have you gawking: the Gambel’s oak tree groves, inscriptions carved into the rocks by early river runners (Norm Nevills, Buzz Holmstrom, the Kolb brothers and Denis Julien), 1940’s-era uranium boom artifacts and incredible wildlife, such as blue herons, beavers, bighorn sheep and deer.

But nighttime is when you’ll really grasp just how rare this trip is: You’ll be floating along, then resting on a sandy beach, looking up at one of the deepest, darkest patches of sky and very best places to stargaze in the entire U.S. In the total absence of light pollution and modern-life distractions, you’ll give your undivided attention to the trip expert and your pre-bedtime rituals will include listening to stories about the constellations, using binoculars and a laser pointer to locate the Andromeda Galaxy, and mentally mapping the endless sky.

After traversing 68 river miles, the trip will conclude with a spectacular drive up a series of steep switchbacks from Mineral Bottom back to Green River.

Note: The above trip details describe a typical tour, but Holiday Expeditions prides itself on the flexibility of its tours and responsiveness to participant interests. Put another way, you can work with the guides to make the trip unique and utterly unforgettable.

What to Know About Taking This Trip Without a Guide

Travelers who prefer a more autonomous approach to a stargazing vacation may want to set out on their own or with a group of companions of their choosing. The guided Labyrinth Canyon to Mineral Bottom excursion described above is suitable for beginner hikers and rafters, but only very experienced and well-prepared travelers should attempt to take on a self-guided version of the trip (4 days minimum).

Labyrinth Canyon may be described as the best calm, flat-water float in the U.S., but every river is unpredictable, and this remote backcountry wilderness has no services whatsoever, including cell phone service. Consider the meaning of the word ‘labyrinth’– this canyon is a hidden wonderland, but one that comprises a complicated network of passages that make it hard to find your way. If you get lost on the journey between your kitchen and living room, then leave the pathfinding to the pros and hire a guide.

Prior to your trip, turn to the Bureau of Land Management to get suggestions, maps, instructions, directions and the required Labyrinth Canyon permit. It’s essential that you know how to read a river map before undertaking this trip without a guide since there are no makers or mileage designations along the way. In addition to your gear, plan to carry all your drinking water (the water there is too salty to be filtered; carry 1 gallon per person per day, along with ½ to 1 gallon per meal for cooking). This means taking out a river vessel that is large enough to hold the water, such as a canoe. 

There are no designated campsites along the river—you’ll be choosing your camping spots and will get wet and muddy. And bear in mind that the rugged roads and switchbacks leading to and from the river make the drive in and out quite challenging.

If you’re up to the demands of taking this kind of wilderness trip without a guide, you’ll reap rewards that go well beyond a sense of accomplishment. You’ll experience an untouched, strikingly beautiful desert landscape; a restorative sense of solitude; and spectacular views of stars and galaxies that will not only let you own the night but also your place in the universe.      

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