Canyonlands Utah: Itineraries, Things To Do, & Practical Tips

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I’ve always said that Canyonlands National Park is one of my favorite parks of the American South West. It’s one of the lesser-visited National Parks which means that on my trips to Canyonlands I don’t have to battle with crowds, like at more popular parks.

From Grand View Point overlook in Island in the Sky there are desert canyons as far as the eye can see. From this point it’s hard to imagine that the bustling little town of Moab is just 30 miles away. It feels like you are truly in the middle of nowhere.

What to know before you visit Canyonlands

Canyonlands is a National Park located in southeastern Utah famed for its unique desert landscape. Unlike the Grand Canyon which is one giant canyon, Canyonlands is a massive series of interlinking canyons carved into the landscape. The park is split up into 3 different areas known as Island in the Sky, The Needles and The Maze. These areas are split apart from each other by the Green and Colorado rivers. They are, in themselves quite large and spread apart from one another, with no roads to link them all. It is therefore impractical to visit more than one area in a day. 

In this post I provide a suggested itinerary for 1 day exploring Island in the Sky and 1 day hiking in The Needles. The Maze is very remote and can only be accessed by rough 4×4 roads and hiking trails, so I will not cover visits to that area in this post.

Where to stay around Canyonlands

For a visit to Island in the Sky, the best place to stay is in Moab. Accommodation options in Moab include well-equipped campsites, hostels, hotels, and lots of amazing Airbnb rentals.

Check out the best family-friendly Airbnb’s in Moab HERE.

If you are considering a trip to the Needles area, a good option is to camp in the park itself. The Needles District Campground has flush toilets and drinking water but no showers or electricity. It is also possible to stay in Moab and drive the 160 mile round trip to the Needles as a day trip.

Best time to visit Canyonlands

Canyonlands is open all year around although some facilities are closed during winter. Since Canyonlands is situated in the high desert area of the Colorado plateau, it gets very hot in the summer months and bitterly cold during winter. Temperatures can swing 40 degrees in one day, so it’s best to pack layers for your trips.  Check out our packing suggestions for Canyonlands, Moab, and Arches in any season.

To have suitable weather for your trip to Canyonlands NP the best time to visit is during spring (March – May) and fall (September – October). These are also the busiest times in the park.

How to get around

To visit Canyonlands National Park you will need to have a car since the park is incredibly spread out. Unlike some National Parks, there is no public transportation provided within the park.  While you do not need a 4×4 car to visit many areas of Canyonlands, there are several offroad trails, such as the popular Elephant Hill where they are necessary.

Island in the Sky – Perfect 1 Day Itinerary

The Island in the Sky district is a sandstone mesa located 30 miles from Moab. It is therefor the easiest area to visit for most travelers. The following itinerary is one I used whilst running my North America tours, and one I would suggest to anyone who has just one day to see Canyonlands National Park. The clients in my groups always loved their visit to Canyonlands and if you follow this itinerary I’m sure you will too!

This itinerary involves visiting the best areas along the Island in the Sky scenic drive and enjoying some short walks/hikes at each stop. Start early to avoid the high temperatures, and make sure to dress in layers as temperatures fluctuate a lot throughout the day. This itinerary will take most of the day. I’ve included all the stops you should take and the best order to visit them.

1. Visitor center

After entering the park stop at the Visitor Center to learn a little about the geology of Canyonlands National Park and to fill up on water for the day. There are no other water filling stations in the park so make sure you have enough for the whole day. I also recommend getting a large insulated water bottle to keep water cold throughout the day (this one keeps water ice cold for 24 hours even in a hot car).

2. Mesa Arch

If you search Canyonlands on Instagram you will always find a photo taken at Mesa arch amongst the top searches. It’s a really beautiful spot and a photographer’s dream at sunrise. Mesa arch itself is an incredibly perfect rock arch sat precariously on the edge of a cliff. Through the arch is a picture perfect view of endless canyons, valleys and rivers. It’s a must visit for any visit to Island in the Sky.

To visit Mesa Arch park at the Mesa Arch parking lot, then its a short 10/15 minute walk down a sandy trail to the arch. This spot is best visited at sunrise, where at certain times of year you can see the sunrise perfectly through the center of the arch. 

family in canyonlands national park mesa arch

3. Upheaval Dome

The hiking trail up to the first viewpoint over Upheaval Dome is very steep but quite short. At the viewpoint there are notice boards providing information about this mysterious crater. There are two theories put forward to explain the formation of this crater, my favourite theory being that it was formed from the collision of a large meteorite. To discover the second theory you’ll have to get out there and do the hike for yourselves!

There is a second viewpoint around the crater edge which adds an extra mile to this out and back hike.

4. Whale rock

This is a fun trail that runs up the side of a sandstone rock, shaped much like a big whale. The rock has a steep section but is grippy underfoot. Once at the top a panoramic view of the whole Island in the Sky district opens up before you. Be sure to keep the kids close though as there are steep drop offs on all sides of the rock and no railings or barriers. 

5. Grand View Point Overlook

This viewpoint has to be my alltime favorite point in Canyonlands National Park. From the car park, a 1 mile walk along the cliff edge leads you to a magnificent vista of this deserted wilderness. The walk in itself provides glimpses of what is on offer at the end of the trail. 

grand view overlook canyonlands

To access the final viewpoint, a little rock scrambling and some sure footedness is required to climb onto the large boulders. However once on top of the boulders you are rewarded with a view of the never ending network of canyons and buttes sprawled out in desert plateau below.

Visiting Dead Horse State Park

After a day spent visiting the highlights of Islands in the Sky, be sure to visit https://stateparks.utah.gov/parks/dead-horse/Dead Horse State Park. Since it is a separate State Park, an extra entrance fee of $20 is required and is not covered by the National Parks Annual Parks Pass.

There are several viewpoints here that are great for enjoying sunset and my personal favourite is Dead Horse Point.  From this viewpoint at the end of the road, you can get a 270 degree view of the canyons around you, making this one of the best lookouts in the area.  This park is lower in elevation so you are able to get a little closer to the canyons and rivers, plus colors here at sunset are really special.

The Needles District – Perfect 1 Day Itinerary

Whilst the Island in the Sky area provides breathtaking vistas of the canyonlands, if you want to get close to the rock formations you will need to visit the Needles district. The drive from Moab to the Needles Visitor center is 74 miles, which will take around 1.5 hours. So it is possible to visit the Needles from Moab as a day trip. 

Be sure to fill up your water bottles at the visitor center as there are no other water sources in the park (except at the Needles campground). It is then a further 5 miles to the Elephant Hill trailhead, which is the starting point for the Chesler Park hike. The final 3 miles of the drive to Elephant Hill is along dirt road but is fine for most road cars and RVs.

Hike Chesler Park and the Joint Trail

There aren’t many paved roads in the Needles so the best way to see the park here is by foot. As such there are many hiking trails on offer in the Needles, but a great half or full day option is Chesler Park and the Joint Trail Loop.  Chesler Park hike is mostly flat with a few steeper sections, which means it’s not too demanding. The end point of the hike is a grassy meadow surrounded by a ring of Cedar Mesa sandstone pinnacles. 

The initial hike from Elephant Hill trailhead to Chesler Park, through Elephant Canyon is 2.6 miles one way. If you’ve had enough at this point, simply turn around and retrace your steps. 

However, if you have the energy, I highly recommend continuing the extra 5.3 miles to include the Joint trail loop. The unique part of this hike is walking 1000 feet along the bottom of a vertical-walled ravine – a narrow fracture in the rock known as joints by geologists.

This ravine is much like a slot canyon, but instead of twisting and winding as they normally would, this fracture is unbelievably straight. The trail here is quite fun as at one point hikers have to walk down a log which has foot holes cut into it, and then clamber through a small pass to access Chesler Canyon beyond.

The start of the Chesler Park and Joint trail loop is at the Elephant Hill trailhead, at the end of the Elephant Hill Access Road. The total distance for this hike is 10.5 miles, with an elevation gain of around 1200 feet. The trail is mostly well used and signposted, with rock cairns providing direction at intersections. 

There is little shade along the route, apart from in the joint itself, and there are no water sources available. Start early in the day to avoid hiking too long in the hottest part of the day.

If you want to extend your time in The Needles, there are some amazing backcountry campsites in Chesler Park. These can be reached by driving the 4×4 trail over Elephant Hill or by hiking in.

elephant hill 4x4 trail
Elephant Hill 4×4 Trail

Places to visit near Canyonlands

While you’re in Utah, make sure to check out nearby Arches National Park (you’ll drive right by it), as well as head down to Monument Valley for some equally impressive desert landscapes. While you’re in Moab, check out our suggestions for 14 Awesome Adventures in Moab.

This article was contributed by Lou from the Wandering Welsh Girl. You can follow her adventures on her site Wandering Welsh Girl as well as on Instagram.

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