Julie United States 7 Comments

Canyonlands National Park is an underrated park located near Moab, Utah. Compared to its smaller and more popular neighbor Arches National Park, Canyonlands feels more rugged, more remote, and a whole lot larger. Island in the Sky, the most popular section of Canyonlands, is filled with jaw-dropping vistas and short but sweet hiking trails. Here are the best things to do in Canyonlands National Park.

About Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park is enormous in size. Over 330,000 acres are filled with canyons, arches, buttes, mesas, dirt roads, hiking trails, campgrounds, and overlooks.

Most visitors barely scratch the surface of what there is to see and do in this park. With literally hundreds of miles of hiking trails and dirt roads that are only accessible by 4×4, you can spend weeks here exploring the backcountry.

There are four districts in Canyonlands National Park.

Island in the Sky

This is the most visited section of Canyonlands National Park. Filled with stunning overlooks and a nice mix of easy and difficult hiking trails, the Island in the Sky district gives visitors a nice overview of the park.

One day is just enough time to visit the best overlooks and hike a few of the shorter trails. More time lets you hike some of the longer trails or drive part or all of the White Rim Road.

This article focuses solely on the Island in the Sky district.

The Needles

“Just around the corner” from Island in the Sky is The Needles. Uniquely shaped sandstone rock formations create stunning landscapes. Go here for great hikes, more scenic views, and to escape the crowds that flood Island in the Sky.

Getting Here: The Needles is less visited than Island in the Sky because of its location. It sits right next to Island in the Sky, but access is from US-191. From the Island in the Sky Visitor Center, it is a 2-hour drive (106 miles). Moab is a little closer, but it still takes an hour and twenty minutes to drive here (74 miles).

The Maze

The Maze is a remote area of Canyonlands that is only accessible by 4×4. To explore this area of the park, backcountry experience and self-sufficiency is a must.

Colorado and Green Rivers

The Colorado and Green Rivers carved out the canyons of Canyonlands National Park. You can canoe or kayak the rivers north of Confluence. Both rivers merge at the Confluence and below this, you can go white water rafting in Cataract Canyon. 

Best Things to do in Canyonlands

It’s easiest to think of the Island in the Sky having two distinct sections: (1) the overlooks, short hikes, and scenic drive on top of the mesa and (2) the area below the mesa, which you can get to by hiking or by driving the White Rim Road.

The majority of visitors will spend most, if not all, of their time on top of the mesa. And that’s great. The views from the overlooks are incredible. But if you have the time and the energy, I recommend going below the rim, to fully experience the beauty of this national park. 

I organized this list into three categories: best overlooks, best hikes (some which go below the rim), and the White Rim Road.

Let’s start with the overlooks.

Best Overlooks in Canyonlands

Visitor Center Viewpoint

Canyonlands wastes no time trying to impress first-time visitors. One of the best views in Island in the Sky is located just across the street from the Visitor Center.

White Rim Road Canyonlands

From the parking lot, cross the street and follow the trail to the wide overlook. Stretching out in front of you is your first jaw-dropping view. Shafer Trail Road clings to the cliffs just below you and farther off in the distance is White Rim Road.

And we’re just getting started.

Shafer Canyon Viewpoint

Located just past the Visitor Center, this is another amazing view. It is similar to the view at the Visitor Center, but it is still well worth your time.

From here, you can see the crazy switchbacks on Shafer Trail Road. These switchbacks are the start (or the end, depending on the direction taken) of the White Rim Road. 

Shafer Canyon View

Things to do in Canyonlands

Getting Here: Just past the Visitor Center is a turn-off for the Shafer Canyon Overlook. Park here and walk down to the wide plateau that offers views of the Shafer Trail, a dirt road that is only accessible if you have a 4×4.

There is a second viewpoint called Shafer Trail Viewpoint. Park in the very small parking lot on Grand View Road to get an even closer view of Shafer Trail.

Shafer Canyon Road

Grand View Point

Aptly named, this overlook is a top contender for the best view in Island in the Sky. Stretching out in front of you is Monument Basin,  a deep canyon that was carved out by the Colorado River. Does anyone else think this looks like a giant dinosaur footprint on the ground?

Grand View Point Canyonlands

Getting Here: Grand View Point is located at the very end of Grand View Point Road. Park in the large parking lot and then it is just a short walk on a paved trail to the viewpoint. This is a very popular viewpoint so it might be difficult to find an empty parking space.

Buck Canyon Overlook

From the edge of the mesa, get panoramic views out to the canyons formed by the Colorado River. See if you can spot the White Rim Road, the 4×4 road that winds its way along the plateau.

Buck Canyon Overlook things to do in Canyonlands

Buck Canyon View things to do in Canyonlands

Getting Here: This overlook is located on Grand View Point Road. Park in the parking lot and it is a very short walk to the overlook.

Green River Overlook

It took two rivers to carve out the canyons that create these amazing landscapes in Canyonlands National Park. At this viewpoint, you look out over the Soda Spring Basin, which was formed by the Green River.

Green River Overlook

Getting Here: The turn-off for Green River Overlook is located on Upheaval Dome Road, just past the junction with Grand View Point Road. There is a large parking lot here (and restrooms). It’s a short walk on a paved trail to the viewpoint.

Best Hikes in Canyonlands

Mesa Arch

Distance: 0.5 miles round trip
Length of Time: 30 minutes

Best Things to do in Canyonlands

Mesa Arch

Mesa Arch is one of the most photographed spots in Canyonlands National Park. Famous for its unique lighting at sunrise, this is a very popular spot for tripod-wielding photographers first thing in the morning. However, this is also a busy spot all day long. This parking lot always seems to be filled whenever we drive past it.

This “hike” is really just a short, easy walk on a graded gravel and dirt trail to get to the arch. A visit here lasts 30 minutes, longer if you are here to photograph the sunrise.

Getting Here:  There is a car park located right on Grand View Point Road. From the Visitor Center, it is a 10-minute drive to get here (6 miles).

Grand View Point Hike

Distance: 2 miles round trip
Length of Time: 1 to 1.5 hours

 things to do in Canyonlands Grand View Point Trail

From the Grand View Point Overlook, you can walk along a trail that travels along the edge of the mesa. It is an easy walk that offers spectacular views across the canyons.

Getting Here: The trailhead is located at the Grand View Point.

White Rim Overlook

Distance: 1.8 miles round trip
Length of Time: 45 minutes to 1 hour

View from White Rim Hike

things to do in Canyonlands

This is our favorite short hike in Canyonlands National Park. Why? It’s short, it’s easy, and you get one of the best views in the park.

The views from Grand View Point and Buck Canyon Overlook are amazing. White Rim Overlook takes these two views and combines them into one jaw-dropping viewpoint. From the tip of the mesa, you get panoramic views of both Monument Basin and Buck Canyon, two of the canyons carved out by the Colorado River.

And since you have to hike to get here, there are a lot fewer people than at Grand View Point and Buck Canyon Overlook. Worth it? Absolutely!

Getting Here: Parking is extremely limited. As you travel south on Grand View Point Road, there will be a left turn for a picnic area. Turn here and then park at either a picnic area or at one of the limited parking spaces near the trailhead. This turn off is located 11 miles from the Visitor Center. It is located 0.9 miles north of the Grand View Point parking lot.

Upheaval Dome

Distance: 1.8 miles round trip
Length of Time: 1 to 1.5 hours

There are several theories as to what left this crater in the ground. Most likely it is an impact crater formed by a meteorite but some theories suggest this crater was formed when a salty dome pushed its way up through the sandstone rock. Either way, this is a unique spot to explore in Canyonlands since it looks vastly different from the canyons you see from the overlooks.

To get here, it is an easy to moderate hike. The trail is well marked. Expect to hike up and down several small hills. The first overlook gives you a nice view of the crater. If you just hike to the first overlook, it is 0.8 miles round trip.

Upheaval Dome

Upheaval Dome Overlook

As you hike to the second overlook, you have the option to detour to the top of a giant rock. From here, the views really open up. Not only can look down into Upheaval Dome but you get panoramic views of this side of the park.

Hike Upheaval Dome things to do in Canyonlands

Slickrock

This is the detour. The trail continues to the left but we hiked up this giant chunk of rock for the best views of this hike.

 

Canyonlands in December

The view over Upheaval Dome is nice but I love this view! The snow adds a nice touch.

Getting Here: Park in the parking lot at the end of Upheaval Dome Road.

Whale Rock

Distance: 1 mile round trip
Length of Time: 30 minutes to 1 hour

Whale Rock Canyonlands

This quick hike features panoramic views and the chance to hike on bare slickrock. It’s a short but strenuous climb to get to the top of the rock but once there you have great views across the park.

Getting Here: Park in the small parking on Upheaval Dome Road. The parking lot is located just before the parking lot for Upheaval Dome.

Aztec Butte

Distance: 2 miles round trip
Length of Time: 1 to 1.5 hours

Canyonlands Granary

Aztec Butte things to do in Canyonlands

Hiking Aztec Butte

The cairns (the stacked stones) mark the trail up Aztec Butte.

 

Aztec Butte View

Similar to Whale Rock, this hike features more slickrock and panoramic views. Along the way, take the short spur trail to see ancient granaries.

Getting Here: The parking lot is located on Upheaval Dome Road.

Syncline Loop

Distance: 8.5 miles round trip
Length of Time: 5 to 7 hours

The Syncline Loop is sometimes called “the premier trail” in Canyonlands National Park. This tough hike is known for its outstanding views, and due to the primitive nature of the trail, it is only recommended for experienced hikers. 

Maybe our expectations were too big, but Tim and I did like this hike as much as I thought we would. Yes, there are some great views along the way. Yes, the route finding is fun. We saw a total of two people on the trail, so the solitude you get on this hike is incredible.

It’s a long, tough day and I think there are better ways to spend your time in Canyonlands (make sure you do everything else we list above and if you still have time, then hike the Syncline Loop). However, if you are an avid hiker and want to experience solitude and unique views of the Island in the Sky district, this is a nice hike to consider.

Get the full details in our post about the Syncline Loop.

Gooseberry Hike

Distance: 5.4 miles
Length of Time: 3 to 6 hours

Hiking Canyonlands in December

Gooseberry Hike in December

Gooseberry Trail

Journey below the level of the rim and hike out to the edge of one of Gooseberry Canyon, which was formed by the Colorado River. This hike features a crazy steep descent to get down to the level of the plateau. And since this is an out and back hike, you will have to climb back up the steep wall of rock. However, the views are gorgeous on the way down and there is something special about journeying below the rim in the Island of the Sky.

Getting Here: The trailhead for the Gooseberry Hike shares the same trailhead for the White Rim Overlook hike

White Rim Road

The White Rim Road is a 100-mile dirt road that makes a loop around the Island in the Sky mesa. You can either drive or bike this road. Trips by 4×4 take two to three days and for those who prefer to bike the White Rim Road, expect the journey to take between three and five days. Advance planning and permits are necessary to drive and camp overnight on the White Rim Road.

If you don’t have the time or the desire to drive the entire 100-mile loop, you can drive a short section of the road, but a day-use permit is required. Learn more on the national park service website.

We drove the White Rim Road in November 2020. Not only is it our favorite experience in Canyonlands National Park, it’s one of our favorite US national park experiences of all time. Yes, it ranks right up there with the Zion Narrows and hiking from rim-to-rim in the Grand Canyon.

Shafer Trail Road

Shafer Trail Road

 

Canyonlands Island in the Sky

At times, the White Rim Road runs right along the canyons. Monument Basin is to the right. Grand View Point is on top of the mesa.

 Things to do in Canyonlands

Driving down Hardscrabble Hill.

 

White Rim Road

If this sounds like something you would like to do, or if you just what to see photos from the drive, we have two articles about the White Rim Road:

How to Drive the White Rim Road: Map, Photos & Driving Tips

White Rim Road: Detailed Planning Guide & Checklist

Things to do in Canyonlands: On a Map

How to Use This Map: Click the tab in the top left hand corner of the map to view the layers (best overlooks and hiking trails). You can click the check marks to hide or show layers. If you click the icons on the map, you can get more information about each point of interest. If you click the star, this map will be added to your Google Maps account. To view it on your phone or computer, open Google Maps, click the menu button, go to “Your Places,” click Maps, and you will see this map on your list.

List of the Best Things to do in Canyonlands

Here is a list of the best things to do in Canyonlands National Park, beginning with our top recommended experiences.

  1. White Rim Road
  2. Grand View Point & Hike
  3. Mesa Arch
  4. Shafer Canyon Viewpoint
  5. White Rim Overlook Hike
  6. Visitor Center Viewpoint
  7. Buck Canyon Overlook
  8. Upheaval Dome
  9. Green River Overlook
  10. Hike Whale Rock
  11. Aztec Butte Hike
  12. Gooseberry Hike
  13. Syncline Loop

Learn how to plan your time in our article One Perfect Day in Canyonlands National Park.

About Our Visits

We have visited Canyonlands National Park multiple times. Our two most recent visits were in 2018 and 2020.

We spent two days in Canyonlands at the very end of December 2018. It snowed the day before our visit so some roads and trails were covered with snow. Since it was a holiday week, parking lots were often filled but even so, it didn’t feel overly crowded.

Daily high temperatures hovered in the mid-20’s during our visit. We wore winter coats, hats, and gloves and with the cold weather gear we felt fine. Since we did a mix of overlooks and short hikes, we would warm up in our car during the short drives through the park.

More recently, in November 2020, Tim and I returned to Canyonlands National Park. On this visit, we spent more time off-the-beaten-path. We hiked the Syncline Loop, spent a day hiking the Needles, and drove the White Rim Road. The White Rim Road is our favorite experience in Canyonlands National Park and we highly recommend it, if you have a few extra days and are looking for a unique adventure.

Soda Springs Basin

Soda Springs Basin (seen from the White Rim Road)

Things to Know Before You Go

Getting to Canyonlands Island in the Sky: The Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park is located in southeastern Utah. The closest town is Moab. From Moab, it is a 45-minute drive to get here (33 miles).

Best Time to Go to Canyonlands: The spring and fall months are the best times to visit. Weather conditions are pleasant and you can avoid the big crowds that flood the park in the summer. During the summer months, expect soaring temperatures, large crowds, and difficulty finding parking at many viewpoints. During the winter months, it is much less crowded, but temperatures get below freezing and snow is likely.

Entrance Fees: It costs $30 per vehicle to enter the park and this is good for seven days. For $55 you can purchase a Southeast Utah parks pass, which also gets you into Arches National Park. You can also purchase an annual National Parks pass (called the America the Beautiful Pass) for $80. With this pass you can visit over 2,000 federal recreation sites. This is worth it if you also plan to visit more of Utah’s Mighty 5, including Arches, Capitol Reef, Zion, Bryce Canyon, or any other US National Park within the year.

There are no restaurants in the park. If you plan to stay all day you will need to pack a picnic lunch. However, there are restrooms at many of the main viewpoints and trailheads inside of the park.

Don’t expect the cellular service on your phone to work. Occasionally we got a weak cellular signal on our phone but for the most part they were useless until we started the drive back to Moab.

Don’t Miss Dead Horse Point State Park

Dead Horse Point State Park has all of the ingredients of a perfect outdoor destination: easy but fun hiking trails, low crowds, and a jaw-dropping view that just may be better than anything you would get in the nearby national parks. Plus, its small size makes it easy to explore if you are short on time.

Dead Horse Point State Park

You can visit it at sunrise or sunset, but if you have a little more time, a half-day is all you need to get the full experience here. Get the full details of what there is to do in here, plus recommendations for a fun, short hike with views that rival those in Canyonlands: 

Best Things to do in Dead Horse Point State Park


Where to Stay

The best place to stay is in Moab. This small town has many hotels and restaurants, as well as gas stations and grocery stores.

UPSCALE: Hoodoo Moab. This is one of the newest hotels in Moab and this is where we stayed on our most recent visit. I have mixed reviews about this hotel. The location is great, right in the heart of Moab with a walk or short drive to most restaurants. The hotel is gorgeous. The décor and the layout are impeccable and our room was very comfortable. However, the walls are paper thin. We could clearly hear our neighbor’s conversations and they weren’t being overly loud. If you are a light sleeper, you might want to consider staying in a different hotel. But if a little bit of noise doesn’t bother you, and you want to stay in the nicest hotel in Moab, stay at the Hoodoo.

MID-RANGE: Red Cliffs Lodge. This property gets rave reviews. Every room has a patio with views of the river. Onsite is a restaurant, bar, pool, tennis courts, winery, museum, and horse corral. Red Cliffs Lodge is located outside of Moab, on Highway 128, in a beautiful setting along the Colorado River. It’s just a short drive into town and Arches National Park.

MID-RANGE: Homewood Suites. This is another property that gets excellent reviews. All suites have kitchenettes and some suites can accommodate up to six people. There is a small indoor pool and gym onsite.

MID-RANGE: Hyatt Place Moab. This is a newer hotel in Moab and very highly rated. It is located on the north end of town, so from here, it is a very quick drive to enter Arches National Park.

BUDGET: MainStay Suites Moab. Rooms come equipped with a kitchenette. Some suites can accommodate up to six people so this is a great budget choice for families.


Are you planning a trip to Canyonlands National Park? If you have any questions, or  if you want to share your experience, comment below!

More Information for Your Trip to Utah:

Read all of our articles about Utah in our Utah Destination Guide.

You Might Also Like:

 

Canyonlands National Park Travel Guide

Canyonlands National Park Bucket List
Best Things to do in Canyonlands

 

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Comments 7

  1. Hi Julie! From another Julie! Your site is absolutely wonderful, and I’m always excited to find this kind of travel information when I’m planning a trip, so a big THANK YOU!

    My husband and I will be spending five days in Canyonlands next week. We’re staying near Monticello so we’ll spend most of our time exploring the Needles District, but plan to spend at least one or two days in Islands of the Sky. Your “perfect day” post was very helpful and we’ll probably follow that pretty closely. I am curious about your Syncline experience – so many other posts rave about it, like you mentioned. Is it really worth skipping?

    1. Post
      Author

      Hello Julie. 😊 The Syncline Loop is a good hike, if you have the right expectations. You don’t see Upheaval Dome on this hike, and you don’t get sweeping views from the rim like you do from the overlooks and other short hikes on Island in the Sky. Basically, it’s a tough hike around a crater. Tim and I just thought that with the opportunity for so many fabulous views from the rim of Island in the Sky, this hard hike was a bit of a letdown. We both liked the Gooseberry Trail a lot more. With that being said, the Syncline Loop isn’t a bad hike, I just think there are better things to make sure you do first.

      In the Needles, hike the Chesler Park – Joint Trail hike. It’s awesome and our favorite hike in Canyonlands. There are a few other short trails in the Needles that are nice, too. Slickrock Foot Trail is great and the Pothole Trail is really short and kind of nice. And hike Druid Arch. We didn’t do it because we didn’t have enough time but it looks so cool.

      If you do the above hikes in the Needles, do our one day in Island in the Sky, and still have time, then do the Syncline Loop. But I think everything else is a better experience.

      I was going to wait, but today and tomorrow I will work on publishing our posts about the Syncline Loop and Chesler Park so you can learn more and see our photos and determine if you think the Syncline Loop is worth it. So check back later this week to read them.

      Have a wonderful time in Canyonlands. It’s one of my favorite parks…for me, it’s like Disney World.

      Cheers, Julie

      1. Thanks so much for this response! Your detailed write-up of the Gooseberry Trail clearly showed how much you enjoyed that one, so we were leaning towards that anyway. I like your point about expectations – having been to Deadhorse a few years ago, I’ve always thoughts Canyonlands was all about the sweeping views of this unique place. We’ll definitely stick to the Deadhorse and White Rim Overlook Trails. And Chesler Rock – Joint Trail and Druid Arch are definitely both on the list for the Needles District!

        We’re really excited to explore the area – we’re only about three hours from the park in Pagosa Springs, but haven’t spent much time there since we usually opt for places we can bring the dog 🙂 Hoping some of this snow we just got sticks around for a bit. We were in Moab three Christmases ago for one of their biggest storms ever on record, and Deadhorse and Arches were absolutely incredible with a white coat!

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          Author

          That sounds amazing! This is such a pretty place with the snow.

          I just went through my photos of the Syncline Loop for the first time since our trip, and it looks like an amazing hike, despite the fact that we didn’t love it. The Syncline Loop post will be published later today. If you decide to hike it, I’m curious what you think, too.

          Cheers!

  2. Your website has been very informative. Great info on hike times and distances; where to park.
    Also the type of Hike (easy or difficult).
    We are planning now for the Utah parks in May of 2021 (provided the virus settles down).
    We have a motorhome and plan to make reservations; and then cancel if necessary.

    If we have questions, can we send emails?

    Thanks,
    Pat

    1. Post
      Author

      Of course you can send us an email if you have any questions…we will be glad to help. 😊 By the way, we are in Utah right now and heading out to Moab/Canyonlands tomorrow. We will have new information coming soon. Canyonlands is an amazing park and May is a great time to visit. Cheers, Julie

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