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12 Incredible Things to do in Canyonlands National Park Utah

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When it comes to exploring the best scenes of nature in Utah, look no further than Canyonlands National Park. This expansive desert landscape is where you’ll find flat mesa’s, towering rocky pinnacles (called Needles) and Native American rock paintings.

Needless to say, there are plenty of things to do in Canyonlands National Park in Utah, you’ll be pleased you made a stop here.

We enjoyed two days exploring this national park, and feel we uncovered much of its top attractions and places to see.

In this guide, we share our top tips on the best things to do in Canyonlands National Park including the best hikes, scenic drives, how to get there, where to stay, and more!

Table Of Contents

Where is Canyonlands National Park?

Canyonlands National Park is one of five national parks in Utah. The closest town is Moab, which is situated about 30 miles away from the Islands of the Sky District, and 60 miles from The Needles District.

The added bonus of its location is that it is also near Arches National Park, which means you can cross off Arches and Canyonlands National Park which are two incredibly diverse national parks at the same time!

Canyonlands is a rugged, untamed land with mostly unpaved roads and primitive trails. If you seek adventure, you can find it in abundance here.

Directions to Canyonlands National Park

It takes just under an hour from Moab to get to the Islands of the Sky District. It takes over an hour (depending on where you depart from in Moab) to get to the Needles District.

Moab to Canyonlands is 30 miles and takes 40 minutes to drive. From Arches National Park to Canyonlands, it’s 26 miles and takes 30 minutes to drive.

3 Districts of Canyonlands National Park

woman standing on edge of cliff with canyon views
Islands in the Sky District view from Mesa Arch Trail

Canyonlands is unique in that it is separated into three districts stretching across 527 square miles.

These three districts are created by the Colorado and Green Rivers carving their way through the canyon.

They meet up at the confluence and continue moving down south.

The Green and Colorado Rivers form a Y through the national park creating:

  • Islands in the Sky in the north
  • the Needles District in the Southeast
  • and the Maze District in the Southwest.

There is no way to get over the rivers to move between each district from within the park, you have to drive through the backcountry. This adds a challenge to your visit as it means you have to go out and drive the long way around to get to either section.

The Maze Canyonlands is named for the puzzle the oddly shaped towers, aztec butte, craters, and mesas create.

Here you will find solitude, silence and plenty of adventure and challenges to overcome. In the Maze Utah, you’ll find Horseshoe Canyon which has some of North America’s most significant rock art at The Great Gallery.

So plan your trip accordingly.

woman taking photos of canyonland vista
The Needles District

Things to do in Canyonlands National Park: Islands in the Sky District

Below are some of the best things to do in Canyonlands National Park in the Islands in the Sky District.

1. Hike The Mesa Arch Trail

people looking at mesa view
  • Distance: 0.5 miles
  • Rated: Easy

One of the best things to do in Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky is the Mesa Arch hike. It’s only 0.5 miles return and is beautiful, interesting and easy!

I loved the arch and the view behind it into the canyon and towards the La Sal Mountains. Being popular, you may need to line up to get your photo taken in front of the arch – it’s one of the most popular Canyonlands hikes!

Be sure to safely lean over the rock for a sheer drop view into the canyon. To the right sits a large rock I recommend climbing up for views above and over Mesa Arch.

Sunrise at Mesa Arch is meant to be the thing to do. If you are camping at Canyonlands it will make sunrise at Mesa Arch easier.

2. Hike Grand View Point Trail

group of people looking at views of canyonland
  • Distance: 2 miles round trip
  • Rated: Easy

The Grand View Point Overlook Trail starts with close up views of the White Rim, which is a sandstone bench 1,200 feet below the Island.

Another 1,000 feet below this are the rivers. You won’t be able to see them shadowed by the canyon cliffs.

Be sure to step away from the edge and watch young children on the trail as there are no protective fences and you follow the mesa edge almost the entire way.

At the end of the trail you can see far away into the Maze and Needles district, making it one of the best Canyonlands National Park hikes to do!

We did this walk in the afternoon at the wrong time of the day so it was hazy with the sun right in our eyes. I’ve seen photos with the sun shining on the view and it is spectacular.

So the morning will probably be better, if you can time it that way!

3. Hike Visitor Center Overlook

family looking at canyon views

If there is one viewpoint not to miss when visiting Island in the Sky it’s the visitor center overlook.

Thankfully, it’s an easy one to check off at the start of your trip. Just walk across the road from the Canyonlands National Park visitor center and there it is. It’s a spectacular view!

4. See Buck Canyon Overlook

woman reading information board at canyonlands

Along the main drive you can pull over for a quick look at Buck Canyon Overlook.

You may get the feeling that all the views look the same. If you have time, it’s worth looking and seeing how each viewpoint has its own unique perspective.

5. Walk Schaffer Canyon and Trail Overlook

shafer canyon trail winding down the cliff face

I thoroughly recommend stopping to get a good look at the switchbacks of this famous four wheel drive road.

I don’t know why but it inspired us to come back another day and drive down it. The Beast (our F250 truck) just couldn’t be stopped.

6. Admire Green River Overlook

woman taking photos of river running through canyon

Green River is meant to be a great place to visit for sunset.

If you only have time for one sunset, I recommend skipping this and going to Dead Horse Point instead (see tip below).

Islands in the Sky, Canyonlands travel video

7. Drive The Islands in the Sky Scenic Drive

We only did one part of the Islands in the Sky scenic drive road as we ran out of time – we did the Grand View point section from the visitor center.

To do both scenic drives through Island in the Sky Utah is 34 miles in total. There’s also the 100-mile White Rim Road leading that around and below the Island in the Sky.

Be careful, someone went over the edge in their car while we visited. We were held up in the visitor center while the helicopter came in to rescue them.

Pretty scary stuff, as it’s a nice paved road.

Here are a couple of viewpoints we saw on the Islands of the Sky scenic drive.

8. Drive the Shafer Canyon Road

A car parked on the side of a rocky mountain

Driving down the Shafer Canyon switchbacks into the quiet of the canyon floor was an incredible experience.

If you have time, and an adventurous spirit, I highly recommend it as one of the top things to do in Canyonlands National Park!

Check conditions at the Visitor Center as you may need a 4WD. You could at least drive the switchbacks in a 2WD down to the bottom. I wouldn’t recommend taking the rest of the trail back to Moab in a 2WD though.

It can get pretty rough.

people walking in a canyon

Although, just after I commented about how quiet and serene it was once we reached the floor of the canyon, a convoy of kombis came roaring up the trail from Moab.

There were over 30 vans on an adventurous mission, recreating the experience of tours which ran tours through this area way back before it was a national park.

The 90+ year old original owner was leading the kombi lovers. We were okay with it breaking the serenity as it was super cool to see and hear about it.

Once you get down to the floor you can either return to the Shafer Canyon Viewpoint, drive deeper into Canyonlands National Park (permit required), or take the road along the rim to Moab.

I loved driving this road and coming out to Horseshoe Bend where only a couple of days before we sat above watching the sunset here. It’s a magnificent spot.

woman standing next to a canyon

We then drove past a random salt farm, whose bright blue waters was a contrast to the desert red. The road then spills out to the Colorado River which you trace back to Moab.

It took us about 3 hours to complete the Shafer Trail and that was with plenty of photography stops. The switchbacks at the beginning were a lot of fun and not as scary as I was anticipating.

We had done a similar switchback drive only a week or so before in the Valley of the Gods so felt a little better prepared.

Drive safely and watch for cars coming the other way you may have to pass.

Off road vehicles and bikes are permitted on the 100-mile White Rim Trail (permits needed) which is meant to take about 2 days to do.

Hot Tip: Plan your trip to Canyonlands Islands in the Sky for the afternoon. Then head straight to Dead Horse Point State Park for sunset!

Shafer Trail, Canyonlands Video

Things to do in Canyonlands National Park: Needles District

needle rocks in canyon

The drive to the Canyonlands National Park Needles District is quite beautiful beside huge orange and red mesas, and plateaus of the parks border.

Purple wildflowers were in bloom, cows were grazing in the emerald green valley, and in the distance there were even a few buttes rising up reminding us of Monument Valley and Valley of the Gods.

Be sure to look up at the escarpment walls on the way through – there are a few bodies crawling up those walls.

woman looking at a large rock

The drive then opens up and in the distance you see the white and pink pinnacles standing together that give the park it’s name – the Needles!

In Needles Canyonlands, you’ll find sculptured rock spires, arches, canyons, upheaval dome and potholes.

Names like Devil’s Kitchen, Whale Rock, Elephant Hill and Caterpillar Arch beckon you to come visit.

9. Walk the Slickrock Trail

A group of people standing in a rocky area
  • Distance: 2.4 mile loop
  • Rated: Moderate

The Slickrock Trail was a unique trail over the rock face along the rim of a canyon.

The depths into the canyon are nowhere near as deep as Islands in the Sky, but still take caution.

The trail follows cairns so be on the lookout for them as you walk. We saw loads of lizards along the way.

You get beautiful 360 degree views out over the canyons and across to the Needles in the distance on the way back, making it another one of the best hikes in Canyonlands National Park.

10. Hike Pothole Point Trail

people walking on rocks
  • Distance: 0.6 mile loop
  • Rated: Easy

This is a nice easy trail over slickrock and passing though diverse pothole communities.

There were only a couple that were filled with water. Be sure not to step in them as they are filled with microscopic forms of life.

I loved some of the rock formations to the right. You do get a closer view of the Needles from here, although still far away.

11. Cave Spring Trail

people standing on wooden logs
  • Distance: 0.6 mile loop
  • Rated: Easy

The kids will enjoy the Cave Spring Trail, especially if it is hot.

It’s a short loop that goes under the rock rim into caves, past an historic cowboy camp, and prehistoric rock paintings. It finished with two ladders up to the top of the caves for views out over the park.

Some of the other trails I’d love to do in The Needles District are:

  • Chesler Park Viewpoint and the Chesler Park Loop
  • Confluence Overlook.

12. Drive to Elephant Hill

The scenic drives continues for 6.5 miles beyond the visitor center ending at Big Spring Canyon Overlook.

There are several pullouts for trailheads, viewpoints, and one picnic area.

dirt road through a desert

We were a little unsure whether to drive the 2wd gravel Elephant Hill Drive after reading the park brochure that said “steep inclines and sharp switchbacks to test the skill of even the most accomplished drivers.”

How could a 2WD road be that extreme?

We nervously pressed on the pedal to find practically nothing extreme at all. There were a few narrow roads and blind corners, but it was a cinch.

I now realize the description was for the Elephant Hill 4WD track I mentioned above!!

You will take this tamer 2WD Elephant Hill road to get to most of the longer hikes in the park amongst the needles.

The drive is scenic and worth going to at least to get to the Needles.

I wish national park brochures had way better information. They are awful to be honest with barely any information in any national parks brochure on trails and what to expect etc.

I love writing these posts for you so we can help you plan a better trip.

We took the Elephant Hill drive not knowing what it was or where it went. There was no information in the brochure at all.

Most of the information is about the history, geology and flora and fauna of the park, but not the relevant stuff: what experience each trail and drive will offer and what you can do there.

If I had of known I would have gotten out of the car on that drive and walked a little more into the needles to explore them better.

I recommend you do that.

Is the Needles District worth exploring?

What I loved most about the Needles District is that it was so quiet. We barely saw another person, which is really not typical of America’s national parks.

If you want solitude, The Needles District Canyonlands is the place to come! It is more remote than the Islands in the Sky, which is why fewer visitors come here.

people standing on boulders

I was disappointed that we couldn’t really explore the needles themselves, only able to view them from afar.

The Needles Utah is what makes this part of the Canyonlands park special, so I think the ability to explore them makes it a worthwhile journey.

The problem is that the best hiking trails in Canyonlands National Park that explore the Needles area are 6-miles or longer, which is not good for families with younger children.

The roads in also require 4WD high clearance and a little expertise to drive. Even though we had experience a few days before rock crawling with a Jeep with a guide, we still don’t feel comfortable going on experienced routes yet on our own!

We did look at the start of the 4WD Elephant Hill Track, but saw the narrow road climbing up over the rock formations and said no – it is the most technical 4×4 road in all of UTAH. Wow!!

We really enjoyed the walks we did, the longest was 2.4 mile return, and it was pretty, but I’m not 100% sure it was worth it. I do not regret visiting The Needles though, which is always a good sign and therefore makes it worth a visit.

The Needles District, Canyonlands NP travel video

Tips for Canyonlands National Park

  • It can get very hot in Canyonlands NP in the summer. Be prepared for the heat and pack plenty of water. Do all your hiking early in the morning and don’t overdo it.Add in blurb about igloo and Hydro flask from Arches NP
  • Fill up your water bottles (put extra in the car) at the visitor center.
  • There aren’t a lot of fences so be careful near the edges of the canyon.
  • Protect yourself if a thunderstorm rolls through.
  • If you plan to visit other national parks, get the national parks pass. We have a National Parks Pass, which gives unlimited access to all federal lands. It has saved us a TON of money on entrance fees. Otherwise, there is an entrance fee of $30 per vehicle.
  • Rangers offer evening programs and overlook talks April through to October. Check at the visitor center for schedule.
  • There are no toilets in the national park.
  • Pack a picnic and head to White Rim Overlook picnic pavilions for a nice place to sit and eat with picnic tables.
  • Have your kids participate in the Junior Ranger Program. Pick up the booklet from the visitor center and return when finished to say the pledge and get your Junior Ranger badges.
  • Plan for 2 days to see it all. It will make for a very long day if you try to do it in the one day. Otherwise plan for a day (or half a day) exploring the Needles and Islands of the Sky separately. For intrepid explorers and experienced 4WD, you can visit The Maze separately.

Best Time to Visit Canyonlands National Park

people walking up rocks

The spring and fall months are the best time to visit Canyonlands National Park in terms of cooler weather and less visitors.

Snow is likely in the winter and temperatures will be cold.

Summer will be baking hot and the crowds will arrive making finding a spot in some of the small car parks difficult – start early if you visit during the summer.

Where to Stay at Canyonlands National Park

Camping in Canyonlands 

For Canyonlands National Park camping, the Islands in the Sky Campground is near Green River. The 12 sites are first come, first served. There are no water or hookups.

The Needles campground is in a gorgeous setting at the base of the rocks leading up to Elephant Hill.

For campgrounds near Canyonlands National Park, there are many options around the Moab area. See here and here. 

Hotels near Canyonlands

For hotels near Canyonlands National Park look no further than Moab. There are many options of places to stay in Moab at several price points. Here are some highly recommended places to stay:

Our Experience Visiting Canyonlands National Park

My first memory of mine and Craig’s trip to Canyonlands National Park Utah back in 2006 was dominated by one of the most epic natural experiences of my life.

It was so electric and vivid I can still feel and see it 13 years later. I am not exaggerating on the electric part either.

We arrived into the Needles District just as the dark storm clouds rolled in, the rain started to pelt, and the lighting began to strike!

It felt safe-ish in the car, but really weren’t too sure safe was a real word when talking about lighting strikes.

We headed straight to the Canyonlands Visitor Center to wait it out, but on the way there was when the most epic natural thing of my life happened.

islands in the sky canyonlands
Islands in the Sky District

About 100 feet off to the side of the car a lightning bolt struck the ground.

The air around us crackled and sizzled and lit up. We saw the bolt shoot off in different directions on impact, just as you see in animated shows. The energy of bolt went through the car into us (luckily we weren’t mountain biking).

What? Did that just happen? How could you be so thrilled and terrified at the same time?

The visitor brochure is not joking when it says, ““Lighting is a serious threat. If a thunderstorm is near, avoid overlooks, get back in your vehicle and close the windows!’

So, I was happy to go back and visit Canyonlands National Park – this time outside of storm season and with our kids.

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I hope this guide helps you plan your trip? If you have any questions, leave a comment below. We look forward to exploring more one day, and maybe even doing some white water rafting in Cataract Canyon!

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