Canyonlands National Park is a sprawling park that is located near Moab, Utah. This national park is made up of five sections and each of them offer a very different experience. In this post about the best things to do in Canyonlands, we cover the top experiences for all five areas of the park.
Most first time visitors spend their time at the Island in the Sky district, visiting the overlooks and hiking the short trails on top of the mesa. But so much beauty and adventure lies beyond the sights on top of the Island in the Sky mesa.
Don’t get me wrong…the Island in the Sky is awesome! But what I hope to show you, in this post, is that there is much more to Canyonlands than Mesa Arch and the Island in the Sky overlooks.
The Needles, with its zebra-striped sandstone spires, is a hiking and backpacking wonderland. The Maze is the place to go to explore the desert landscapes in a 4WD vehicle. And if you want to spend some time on the river, go white water rafting in Cataract Canyon or drift along the Colorado or Green Rivers.
And in the Island in the Sky district, some of the very best experiences lie below the rim of the mesa…either by hiking below the rim or driving the spectacular White Rim Road.
Interesting Facts about Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park preserves the canyons, buttes, mesas, and arches that have been carved out by the Colorado and Green Rivers. This park also contains rock art of the Ancient Pueblo peoples.
The park covers 337,000 acres, making it the largest national park in Utah. It is also the least visited park in Utah. In 2019, there were 733,000 visitors. Arches National Park, its nearby neighbor, had almost 1 million more visitors!! And these two parks are just 45 minutes apart. If you ask me, those 1 million people had no idea what they are missing.
A Quick Geography Lesson
Canyonlands is made up of five different areas. Below is a map from the national park service. I labeled four areas of the park for more clarity (Island in the Sky, The Maze, The Needles and Horseshoe Canyon). The Colorado and Green Rivers (the fifth area) can also be seen on the map. I also highlighted Moab (the best place to stay when visiting Canyonlands) and Arches 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.
For a full list of things to do in Island in the Sky, and many more photos, read our post Best Things to Do in Island in the Sky.
The view from Shafer Canyon Viewpoint.
“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 the busier Island in the Sky district.
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 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 are a must.
Colorado & 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.
Horseshoe Canyon is a very small section of the park. It is located north of The Maze. It is here that you can see the rock art of the Ancient Puebloan peoples.
Best Things to do in Canyonlands National Park
Here are the top 10 things to do in Canyonlands. This list covers all five areas of the park.
1. Visit the Island in the Sky Overlooks
Location: Island in the Sky
For first time visitors and those with limited time, visiting the overlooks on Island in the Sky is one of the best things to do in Canyonlands National Park. The Island in the Sky district is easy to get to from Moab, the road is paved, and to visit most overlooks you will only have to walk a few steps.
How to Get to the Island in the Sky: To get here, it is a 45-minute drive (33 miles) from Moab. Take US-191 north and then turn left onto UT-313. The first part of the drive on UT-313 is beautiful, as you climb to the top of the mesa.
There are two paved roads on the Island in the Sky mesa: Grand View Point Road and Upheaval Dome Road. Along these two roads are overlooks and viewpoints.
From these overlooks, you are standing on the edge of the Island in the Sky mesa, with panoramic views over the canyons that were carved out by the Colorado and Green Rivers. The views are spectacular!
Here is a list of the must-see overlooks:
- Visitor Center Viewpoint
- Shafer Canyon Viewpoint
- Shafer Trail Viewpoint
- Grand View Point
- Buck Canyon Viewpoint
- Green River Overlook
- White Rim Overlook
Grand View Point
Visitor Center Viewpoint
Green River Overlook
Shafer Canyon Viewpoint
White Rim Overlook
On this list, it is just a short walk to each overlook, with one exception. To get to the White Rim Overlook, it is a 1.8 mile round trip walk that takes about an hour. From this viewpoint, you look out over Buck Canyon and Monument Basin. Since it’s a short hike to get here, most likely you will share this spot with just a few more people, making this one of the best viewpoints on Island in the Sky.
2. Hike Below the Rim of the Island in the Sky Mesa
Location: Island in the Sky
Most visitors to Canyonlands stick to the top of the Island in the Sky mesa, visiting the overlooks and hiking the short trails to Aztec Butte, Whale Rock, or Upheaval Dome. But for those looking for more adventure and to journey beyond the main tourist trail, you can hike from the top of the mesa to the White Rim.
The White Rim is the layer of rock that sits right below the Island in the Sky mesa. It gets its name because this layer is made up of White Rim Sandstone.
It’s an awesome view, to be on top of the mesa, looking out at the canyons and basins. But there is something extra special about standing on the White Rim. Not only do you get to look up at the massive Island in the Sky mesa, but you can also get a close-up view of the canyons that were carved out by the rivers.
There are several hikes that start on the mesa and end on the White Rim. These are challenging hikes. It’s a steep descent to get down to the White Rim (roughly 1,400 feet), and then a hefty climb to get back up onto the Island in the Sky mesa.
If you are a hiker, I highly recommend adding one of these hikes to your to-do list.
Gooseberry Trail: 5.4 miles. This trail is famous for being the steepest in Canyonlands National Park. This hike starts near the White Rim Overlook, steeply descends down the mesa, and ends with a view of Gooseberry Canyon. It’s a tough hike but it’s one of our favorites in Canyonlands. Learn more here.
Murphy Trail Loop: 10.8 miles. This trail starts on Grand View Point Road and ends near Murphy’s Hogback, once of the steepest, most challenging hills on the White Rim Road.
Lathrop Trail: 13.6 miles. This hike starts near the Island in the Sky visitor center and ends near Lathrop Canyon.
Wilhite Trail. 12.2 miles. This hike starts on Upheaval Dome Road and ends at a horseshoe bend of the Green River.
Alcove Spring Trail. 11.2 miles. This hike starts near Whale Rock and ends at the Moses and Zeus towers.
Syncline Loop: 8.5 miles. This is the most challenging hike in Island in the Sky and the hike with the most rescues by the national park service, so it is not to be underestimated. There is a section of this trail that is primitive, so route-finding skills are a necessity. This hike gets a lot of rave reviews but we liked the Gooseberry Trail a lot more. Learn more here.
3. Hike the Chesler Park Loop
Location: The Needles
If you want to get an up-close look at the “Needles,” the sandstone spires that make the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park so uniquely beautiful, put Chesler Park on your list.
The Chesler Park Loop has a little bit of everything…easy rock scrambling, trails that criss-cross between the orange and red sandstone needles, and sweeping views out to the La Sal Mountains and the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park. Throw in a cave and a narrow slot canyon and you have a wonderful adventure in Canyonlands National Park.
View from Chesler Park Viewpoint
The Joint Trail
If you do the full loop, the hike is just under 11 miles long and takes about 5 to 7 hours. You can shorten this hike, turning around at the Chesler Park viewpoint, for a total distance of 6 miles.
LEARN MORE: How to Hike the Chesler Park Loop
4. Explore The Maze District
Location: The Maze
If you like the idea of leaving the crowds behind and exploring the park in a 4WD vehicle, put The Maze on your to-do list.
This is the least accessible part of Canyonlands National Park. This area is rugged, remote, and some of the roads are extremely difficult to drive. Prior experience on rough 4×4 roads is a must if you plan to visit The Maze. You will also need to have at least 2 to 3 days of time, since this area is large and it takes quite a bit of time to get around.
To visit The Maze, you will need a permit if you plan to camp in the backcountry. A high-clearance, low range, four-wheel drive vehicle is required by the national park service. Learn more on the national park service website.
5. Watch the Sunrise at Mesa Arch
Location: Island in the Sky
Mesa Arch is one of the most photographed sights in the park and it is one of the best things to do in Canyonlands, especially on your first visit.
One of the best times of day to visit Mesa Arch is at sunrise. For roughly one hour, the rising sun illuminates the bottom of the arch, creating a spectacular view.
Photographers will line up with their tripods in the early morning hours, so if you plan to join the group, get here well before sunrise. However, the unique lighting lasts about an hour, so if you can’t get here right at sunrise, you should still be able to capture a similar shot on your camera (my photo was taken one hour past sunrise).
To get to Mesa Arch, it’s a short, easy walk…just a half mile round trip, so this is doable for all ages and ability levels.
6. Spend Some Time on the Green or Colorado Rivers
Location: The Rivers District
The Green River is located west of the Island in the Sky mesa. The Colorado River is located to the east of the Island in the Sky mesa. They meet at the Confluence, which sits to the south of the Island in the Sky mesa. Below the confluence, the combined forces of the two rivers flow into Cataract Canyon, creating an awesome destination for white water rafting.
Above the confluence, the rivers are wide and slow moving. This is a great place to go canoeing or kayaking.
Below the confluence, you can go white water rafting on Class III to V whitewater. There are numerous local outfitters who can take you on a white water rafting trip, whether you have half of a day or want to spend multiple days on the river.
Get the full details on the national park service website.
7. The White Rim Road
Location: Island in the Sky
This is our favorite experience in Canyonlands National Park.
If you are looking for adventure, solitude, incredible views, and a totally different way to experience Canyonlands National Park, put this drive on your list.
Shafer Trail Switchbacks
At times, the road heads right along the edge of the canyons.
The White Rim Road is a 100-mile dirt road that makes a loop around the Island in the Sky mesa. There are several different ways to experience the White Rim Road.
For the ultimate experience, drive the full 100 mile loop. This typically takes 2 to 3 days, camping along the route. Two days gives you enough time to slow down, drive the detours, hike a trail or two, and gaze up at the sky at night (the view of the Milky Way on a clear night is jaw-dropping!).
For those who are very adventurous and active, you can bike the entire loop. This usually takes three to five days and can be done with a guide.
If you are short on time, you can drive part or all of the White Rim Road in one day.
Learn More about the White Rim Road
8. See the Rock Art at Horseshoe Canyon
Location: Horseshoe Canyon
This is one of the best places to see Rock Art in North America. The Great Gallery contains life-sized figures and petroglyphs that are very well-preserved. Some of this artwork is over a thousand years old.
Getting here is tricky and this visit will take a full day of your time. It takes about two and a half hours to drive here from Moab, and 30 to 47 miles of this drive (depending on the route you choose) will be on a gravel road. Then, it is a 7-mile strenuous round trip hike to get to the Grand Gallery.
9. Hike One (or More) of the Short Trails in Island in the Sky
Location: Island in the Sky
If you want to get out and stretch your legs, but you don’t feel like doing a challenging hike, you have several great options.
The White Rim Overlook, mentioned earlier, is an easy 1.8 mile round trip hike to a viewpoint that offers sweeping views.
The Grand View Point Trail skirts along the edge of the mesa. On a clear day, you will be able to see the hundreds of sandstone spires in The Needles. This hike is 2 miles round trip.
Whale Rock is only 1 mile long. You will hike up a giant slab of slickrock for panoramic views over the park.
Go a little farther on the trail to Aztec Butte. The views aren’t quite as good as from Whale Rock but you do get to see ancient Puebloan granaries. This hike is 2 miles long.
Cave along the Aztec Butte Trail
I highly recommend the 1.8 mile round trip hike to the Upheaval Dome overlooks. You get a great view, not only of this unusual crater, but also panoramic views of the west side of Island in the Sky.
10. Spend Some Time Exploring The Needles
Location: The Needles
If you are staying in Moab, the idea of driving an hour and a half to get to The Needles might not sound all that thrilling, but it is worth it.
Once here, this part of the park is very small and easy to visit. You can take your pick from several short trails (we really liked the Slickrock Trail). Or go farther, hiking to Chesler Park (mentioned earlier) or to Druid Arch.
The view from the Slickrock Trail. Off in the distance you can see the Island in the Sky mesa.
A view of the Needles from the Slickrock Trail.
If you have a 4WD vehicle, drive Elephant Hill and/or drive out to the Confluence Overlook, where you can see the point where the Colorado and Green Rivers meet.
For those with more time, go backpacking in the backcountry.
The Needles is a uniquely beautiful spot and a visit here is one of the best things to do in Canyonlands National Park.
How Many Days Do You Need in Canyonlands National Park?
Ideally, you need at least two days in Canyonlands National Park. With two days, you can visit both Island in the Sky and The Needles. Each additional day you add gives you more time for some epic adventures, such as the White Rim Road, white water rafting, backpacking in The Needles, or exploring The Maze.
With one day in Canyonlands, visit the overlooks on Island in the Sky and hike one or more of the trails. You can return to Moab by driving Shafer Canyon Road to Potash Road or stop by Dead Horse Point State Park on the drive.
With two day in Canyonlands, follow the recommendation above on your first day. On day 2, visit The Needles.
With three days in Canyonlands, follow the suggestions above and drive part of the White Rim Road or spend a day white water rafting.
With four days in Canyonlands, you can visit the Island in the Sky mesa, The Needles, and spend two days on the White Rim Road.
With five or more days, you can add in a visit to the Maze or go backpacking in The Needles.
On the White Rim Road. The Island in the Sky mesa and Grand View Point are in the background.
Where to Stay
There is no lodging inside of Canyonlands National Park. There are several campgrounds in the different districts. Learn more here.
The best place to stay is in Moab. This small town has many hotels and restaurants, as well as gas stations and grocery stores. It also makes a handy home base to explore Arches National Park.
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.
Frequently Asked Questions
When is the best time to visit 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.
What is the best part of Canyonlands to visit?
That really depends on your interests. For first-timers, I recommend the Island in the Sky, for its big views, easy access, and short hiking trails. But if you like hiking and want a less crowded experience, go to The Needles. It’s worth the extra drive.
Can I drive the Shafer Canyon switchbacks?
Yes, you can, weather permitting. During the winter months, Shafer Canyon Road can close due to snow. To drive Shafer Canyon Road, you will need a high-clearance 4WD vehicle. A permit is not required for this drive. Learn more here.
Shafer Canyon Road
How Much Does it Cost to Visit Canyonlands National Park?
The park entrance fee costs $30 per vehicle and is valid for 7 days. This entrance fee covers all areas of the park.
What Else Do I Need to Know Before Visiting Canyonlands?
I recommend getting updates on the national park service website as you plan your trip and immediately before your visit, to avoid any unfortunate surprises. Road closures and hiking trail closures do occasionally happen and the best place for up-to-date information is on the nps website.
We also have a lot more information about the park in our articles about Canyonlands:
ISLAND IN THE SKY: Best Things to Do in Island in the Sky
ISLAND IN THE SKY: One Perfect Day in Canyonlands National Park
ISLAND IN THE SKY: How to Hike the Syncline Loop
ISLAND IN THE SKY: How to Hike the Gooseberry Trail
SHAFER CANYON ROAD: How to Drive Shafer Canyon Road & Potash Road from Canyonlands to Moab
THE NEEDLES: 12 Amazing Things to Do in The Needles
THE NEEDLES: How to Hike the Chesler Park Loop
WHITE RIM ROAD: How to Drive the White Rim Road: Map, Photos & Driving Tips
WHITE RIM ROAD: White Rim Road: Detailed Planning Guide & Checklist
WHITE RIM ROAD: How to Drive the White Rim Road in One Day
Where Are You Going Next?
If you have plans to spend some time in Moab, then most likely Arches National Park is already on your to-do list. Don’t miss nearby Dead Horse Point State Park, which you can easily add on to a visit to Island in the Sky. If you have plans to road trip through Utah’s Mighty 5, you can add on Little Wild Horse Canyon and Goblin Valley State Park onto the drive between Moab and Capitol Reef National Park.
If your visit to Canyonlands is part of a bigger road trip through the American Southwest, here is more information to help you plan your trip.
- ROAD TRIP IDEA: Two Week American Southwest Road Trip: Grand Canyon & Utah’s Mighty 5
- ROAD TRIP IDEA: The Ultimate Utah National Parks Road Trip Itinerary
- UTAH’S MIGHTY 5: Utah’s Mighty 5: Travel Guide & Road Trip Itinerary
- ARCHES: 15 Amazing Things to Do in Arches National Park
- ARCHES: One Perfect Day in Arches National Park
- DEAD HORSE POINT: Best Things to Do at Dead Horse Point State Park
- GOBLIN VALLEY: Goblin Valley State Park: Best Things to Do with Limited Time
- LITTLE WILD HORSE CANYON: How to Hike Little Wild Horse Canyon
- CAPITOL REEF: Best Things to Do at Capitol Reef National Park
- BRYCE CANYON: One Perfect Day at Bryce Canyon National Park
- ZION: Zion Itinerary: How to Spend 1 to 6 Days in Zion National Park
We have TONS more information about Utah in our Utah Travel Guide.
If you have any questions about the best things to do in Canyonlands National Park or how to plan your visit, let us know in the comment section below.
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