Island in the Sky Canyonlands

One Perfect Day in Canyonlands National Park

Julie United States 2 Comments

Canyonlands is an enormous National Park. Over 330,000 acres are filled with arches, buttes, mesas, canyons, hiking trails, dirt roads, campgrounds, and overlooks. It would take days, weeks even, to fully explore all that Canyonlands has to offer. However, if you only have one day in Canyonlands, you have just enough time to visit the highlights.

We spent two days exploring Canyonlands in late December. We took our favorite experiences and organized them into this one-day itinerary so you can see the best of the Island in the Sky district with just one day. Here’s how to do it.

About Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park is organized into three different districts.

Island in the Sky is the district closest to Moab and the most visited part of the park. Scenic drives, overlooks, and short hiking trails all make the list of the best things to do here. This article focuses solely on visiting Island in the Sky.

The Needles district features unique sandstone rock formations and some very cool hikes. However, to get here from Moab, it is an hour and twenty minute drive. If you have an extra day in your schedule, consider adding on a visit to The Needles.

The Maze is a remote area of Canyonlands that is only accessible by 4×4. In order to visit this part of the park, backcountry experience is necessary.

One Day in Canyonlands National Park

The overlooks and more popular hiking trails tend to get crowded midday. I designed this itinerary so that you visit the most popular places first, in order to see the highlights with low crowds and minimal parking hassles. However, it will be impossible to visit everything crowd-free, as the park is the busiest from 10 am to 4 pm.

If you are visiting during the summer months, be aware that it can get very hot in the park midday. Between the hours of 10 am to 5 pm, limit your hikes to short distances and make sure you bring lots of water and sunscreen.

Mesa Arch

Start here. When you first drive past the Visitor Center, you will be tempted to stop at the amazing Shafer Canyon Viewpoint, but don’t do it. The lighting will be better for photos later in the day and there are a few things we recommend doing before the park gets too crowded.

Mesa Arch is one of the most popular places to visit in Canyonlands. Its popularity, combined with a tiny parking lot, can make a midday visit here torture. Go here first. And if you can get here at or just after sunrise, you get to see the arch at the best time of day.

At sunrise, expect to share the view with many photographers who are trying to capture this iconic view of Canyonlands. As the sun rises, it illuminates the underside of the arch, creating a very beautiful scene.

If getting here at sunrise sounds too early for you, you can still get a similar effect up to an hour (and maybe a little more) past sunrise. We didn’t like the idea of getting here so early either, but that was because temperatures were in the teens at sunrise. About an hour past sunrise, this was our view. Plus, by this time, the photographers had packed up and left, and we shared the view with just one other person.

Mesa Arch

About the Visit to Mesa Arch: To visit Mesa Arch, you will hike 0.5 miles round trip. The entire visit takes 30 minutes, a little longer if you get here early to photograph the sunrise. From the Visitor Center, it’s a 10-minute drive to get here.

Grand View Point

From Mesa Arch, continue the drive down Grand View Point road to another very popular spot. The parking lot is larger here than at Mesa Arch but even so, it fills up fast.

Tim Rivenbark

While you are here, you can simply enjoy the view or choose to hike the Grand View Point Hike. This hike is 2 miles round trip and can take up to 1.5 hours (but keep reading…there are two more hikes to choose from this morning). If you only choose to visit the viewpoint, a visit here is fast, lasting only about 15 minutes.

From Mesa Arch, it takes 15 minutes to drive here.

Optional: Take Your Pick from Two Hikes

This is optional, but absolutely worth it if you want to go hiking in Canyonlands. Not far from Grand View Point are two trails to choose from.

White Rim Overlook is a 1.8-mile round trip hike that takes about an hour of your time. It’s totally flat and offers similar views as the hike from Grand View Point (so only do one…pick between Grand View Point Trail and White Rim Overlook). However, this trail is much less crowded and it was one of our favorite unexpected surprises in Canyonlands.

White Rim Overlook

White Rim Overlook

White Rim

Another view from the White Rim Overlook

The Gooseberry Trail is not so easy. It leaves from the same place but it has the notoriety of being the steepest hiking trail in the Island in the Sky district. You will hike from the top of the mesa down onto the White Rim.

Hike Canyonlands in Winter

Hike Canyonlands

It’s only 5.4 miles long, but because of the huge descent down onto the rim and then the incredibly steep hike back up to the parking lot, this trail demands a lot of time and energy. The average amount of time for this hike is 3 hours but it can take as long as 5 hours. It will take up a big chunk of your day but for some people, it may be worth it.


If you are curious, check it out: Hiking the Gooseberry Trail


Getting Here: The White Rim Overlook trail and the Gooseberry Trail share the same parking lot. Parking is extremely limited. As you travel north on Grand View Point Road, there will be a right 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 0.9 miles north of the Grand View Point parking lot.

Buck Canyon Overlook

As you drive north on Grand View Point Road towards the Visitor Center, you will get to Buck Canyon Overlook. Even if you hiked the White Rim Overlook Trail or the Gooseberry Trail, this is worth it.

Buck Canyon Overlook

From Grand View Point it is a 6-minute drive to get here. From the White Rim Overlook parking lot, it only takes 4 minutes.

Green River Overlook

From Buck Canyon Overlook, drive north on Grand View Point Road. Along the way, you will pass a very small turn-off labeled Candlestick Tower Overlook on Google Maps (there is no sign for this viewpoint from the road). It’s a nice view and worth a quick stop if the turn-off is empty. Here’s the view.

Candlestick Tower Overlook

Candlestick Tower Overlook

Continue north and then turn left onto Upheaval Dome Road. Take the left turn to Green River Overlook, park in the lot, and enjoy the view.

Green River Overlook

Green River Overlook

This view is very similar to Grand View Point, only this time you are looking out over the Green River. Two rivers carved the canyons that you see at Canyonlands National Park, the Green River, which you see here, and the mighty Colorado River, which also worked its magic and carved out the Grand Canyon.

Upheaval Dome

From the Green River Overlook, continue on Upheaval Dome Road until it dead-ends at another parking lot. From here, you can hike to two viewpoints over Upheaval Dome.

Upheaval Dome is a large crater that was most likely formed by a meteorite, although there are other theories about its creation. This is a unique spot to explore in Canyonlands because it looks much different from the canyons you see from the overlooks.

To get the viewpoints you will have to do some hiking. It’s an easy to moderate hike on well-marked trails. There are two overlooks and the second one was our favorite. The entire hike is 1.8 miles round trip and it takes 1 to 1.5 hours to hike the whole thing.

Upheaval Dome

Upheaval Dome Hike

A view along the trail

Best Hike Canyonlands

Aztec Butte or Whale Rock

Again, you have a choice. And if you are running out of energy or time, you can skip these.

There are two short hikes you can do along Upheaval Dome Road as you start to head out of the park.

Whale Rock

Whale Rock is a quick hike where you hike up a huge slab of slickrock for panoramic views over this side of the park. It is 1 mile round trip and takes 30 minutes to one hour. If you are here with kids, they will probably find this to be fun. The parking lot is only about a half mile away from Upheaval Dome.

Whale Rock

Whale Rock View

Aztec Butte

This is similar to Whale Rock in that you get to hike up onto slickrock but you also get to see ancient granaries. It’s 2 miles round trip and takes just over an hour. The parking lot is located on Upheaval Dome Road near the turn-off for the Green River Overlook.

Aztec Butte Hike

Tyler Hiking Canyonlands

Aztec Butte View

Shafer Canyon Viewpoint

Turn left onto Grand View Point Road and head back towards the Visitor Center. Just before you reach the Visitor Center you will come to two overlooks.

The first overlook is a tiny parking lot on the side of the road called the Shafer Trail Viewpoint. This gives you a close-up view of the switchbacks on Shafer Point Road. If this car park is filled, no big deal. Next up is the turn-off for the Shafer Canyon Viewpoint. This is a much larger parking lot and you get a similar view of the Shafer Canyon Road.

It’s a short walk out onto the wide plateau. From here the views are amazing, as you can look out across the White Rim and off in the distance is Dead Horse Point State Park (a state park that is well worth the visit and just as stunning as Canyonlands).

Best Things to do in Canyonlands

The plateau of the Shafer Canyon Viewpoint

Visitor Center Viewpoint

Before exiting the park, park at the Visitor Center, cross the street, and walk out to one final viewpoint. You’ll be glad you did. This was one of our favorite views while in the Canyonlands.

One Day in Canyonlands

Stretching out in front of you is a very similar view as from Shafer Canyon Viewpoint, although it seems more spectacular here, for some reason. The canyons, the mesas, the dirt roads, and the La Sal Mountains off in the distance really create a gorgeous view.

Nice way to end a visit at the Canyonlands, don’t you think? 🙂

From here, it is a 45-minute drive to get back to Moab.

With More Time

Don’t Miss Dead Horse Point State Park!

Dead Horse Point State Park is often overlooked by many people when they visit Moab. Since it’s a “state park” it doesn’t get the same recognition as the National Parks. But don’t let that fool you. This little state park is amazing!

Dead Horse Point

If you have time at the end of the day, consider stopping by Dead Horse Point State Park on the drive back to Moab. We were here in the morning but I hear it’s a great place to watch the sunset.

What a great day…sunrise at Mesa Arch and sunset at Dead Horse Point.

If you have extra time in your schedule, you can hike through Dead Horse Point in a half a day or less, depending on how far you go.

If you only have one day total for Canyonlands and Dead Horse Point, I think it’s worth saving time at the end of the day to at least see the main viewpoint in Dead Horse Point. With just a little more time (1 to 2 hours) you can even do a little bit of hiking. Just note that it costs $20 to pay the park entrance fee.

The Needles

If you have an extra day to spare, visit The Needles. We never made it here, choosing to spend two solid days in Island in the Sky, but the Druid Hill Hike is high on our list on a return visit to Canyonlands.

More Hikes in the Island in the Sky District

There are many more hikes to choose from in the Island in the Sky District. The Syncline Loop is another challenging, longer hike to consider. The Murphy Point Trail is another popular pick.

Arches National Park

Most likely this is already on your list, but Arches National Park is not to be missed.

Tips to Have the Best Experience

Get here as early as possible, no later than 7 am during the summer months if you really want to avoid the crowds (although getting here within an hour of sunrise is ideal). Not only will you avoid the crowds, you will also have a spectacular view of Mesa Arch. In the summertime, you’ll get started before the park really heats up.

It takes 45 minutes to drive here from Moab (33 miles).

There are no restaurants in the park. Pack a picnic lunch and eat it while at an overlook or as a break during a hike. Make sure you pack out whatever you bring into the park. Also make sure you bring a lot of water. If you are visiting during the summer months, bring at least 4 liters of water per person.

Don’t expect the cellular service on your phone to work.

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. Snow can close the roads and make hiking more difficult. Check the status of the roads on the official National Park Service website.

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.

Where We Stayed

We stayed at 57 Robbers Roost in Moab. This small building has five apartments of varying sizes to choose from. We stayed in apartment #5, the penthouse apartment with three bedrooms, three bathrooms, a full kitchen, and a living room. It was a little larger than what we needed but having the extra space and the kitchen was wonderful. We could cook breakfast before touring the parks and we had lots of space to spread out in after a day of hiking. This was perfect for us, especially because the sun set at 5:15 pm during our visit. On a return visit to Moab we plan to stay here again.


Are you planning a trip to Utah’s National Parks? Comment below if you have any questions or if you want to share your experience.

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Canyonlands One Day Itinerary

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