Canyonlands, Utah’s largest and least visited national park, is a hidden gem. Located right outside of Moab, this park protects a gorgeous desert landscape full of canyons, buttes, mesas, and arches created by the flow of the Colorado River. Often overlooked by Arches and Bryce Canyon, you’ll find less people here and solitude as you explore this diverse landscape.
When is The Best Time to Visit Canyonlands?
Canyonlands is located in the high desert of Southeastern Utah. This makes for this place a hot destination during the Summer months! Visiting during the Summer will give you temperatures of 90-100 degrees. There is very little shade to be found, so you will be soaking in the sun all day. Be sure to bring plenty of sunscreen and water- there is very little available at the park. You will also find a lot of crowds during the Summer, but not as much as you will find during the Fall and Spring.
During the fall, the temperatures will be a lot more mild and bearable. Ranging from 50s-70s, you will experience great hiking weather. Fall is a very popular season for the park, and the crowds can be troubling. You may struggle to find a place to park at the viewpoints and more popular trail heads. Camping is a popular activity during the Fall. You can also take advantage of the stargazing programs offered by the park rangers at Grand View Point during the fall and spring.
Visit this park during the Winter if you’re looking for solitude and to escape the heat. Temperatures range from 30-50 degrees, and the crowds by this time will be gone. Many visitor services will be closed at this point, so it is important to be self-reliant during the winter. Pack in everything you need, and don’t expect to be able to buy anything at the park. Canyonlands doesn’t get too much snow in the winter, but it still can cause road closures. Also, sandstone covered with snow can be very slippery, and cairns/trail markers can get covered, so it is important to take extra precautions while hiking. Nonetheless, it is incredible to see the desert landscape covered in a thin blanket of snow.
Spring is another busy period for the park, where people are looking to enjoy the mild temperatures before Summer hits again. Expect temperatures ranging from 60-80 degrees, and expect a lot of people crowded in the parking lots and viewpoints. Again, this is a great time of year to camp, hike, and to take advantage of the stargazing classes offered by the rangers at Grand View Point.
No matter what time of year, entrance fees are $30 per vehicle/$25 per motorcycle.
Fun Facts About Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park is located in the high desert in Southeastern Utah, near Moab. It is home to a variety of desert animals. The ones you will likely meet during the day time are lizards, snakes, hawks, eagles, and chipmunks. Many of the other animals living in this park have adapted to the hot temperatures and become crepuscular, where they only leave their shelter at dawn and dusk to avoid the heat. Some animals and insects alter their behavior depending on the season, and will only become crepuscular or nocturnal during the Summer.
The park itself is divided into four distinct regions divided by the Colorado and Green rivers. These four regions are called Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the rivers themselves. The most accessible and developed region is Island in the Sky, located 45 minutes from Moab. Island of the Sky is the best district for day trips, and you’ll get great views of the canyon from above.
The Needles is a more remote area of the park, best for overnight hikes and backpacking trips. Here is where you will find the ancestral Puebloan handprints and other panels of ancient rock art, as well as colorful rock spires. The Maze is an even more remote area, suitable for experienced hikers. Hikers tend to spend a few days finding their way out of the Maze. Any overnight trip requires a backcountry permit. Lastly, you are able to descend to the rivers themselves to kayak or canoe along the green, lively rivers. Below the Confluence where both rivers combine, you will find a world-class stretch of powerful white water.
Island of the Sky is a great base-point for visitors with a limited amount of time, and you will have more than enough time to see this entire section of the park in one day.
Top Things to Do in Canyonlands National Park, Utah
From Moab, you will have a 45 minute drive to get to Island of the Sky in Canyonlands National Park (if you’re looking for a tour, we definitely recommend either a flight tour or a car tour, depending on the time you have). Leave early in the morning to beat the crowds and get the most out of your day. The line at the entrance station can get long pretty fast, especially in the Fall and Spring.
Once you enter the park, you will have to drive 10 miles to the Visitor Center. This Visitor Center is open year-round, and will give you information on the park, as well as hiking guides and desert exhibits. You will also find food, water, and vault toilets here. Once you are good on supplies, head further down the road until you hit the Mesa Arch Trail.
Hike the Mesa Arch Trail
Make sure to get here early to beat the crowds. The best times to visit are at sunrise and sunset, to watch the sun shine through the arch. This is the most popular hike in the park, and the lot is nearly always full.
This easy, .6 mile loop will take you to some of the most gorgeous scenery in Utah. It’s suitable for any age, and is a great introduction to the park. The arch, perched on the edge of a cliff, acts as a frame for the La Sal mountains behind it as well as the Buck Canyon below it. This makes it a popular spot for photographers.
Check Out the Scenic Viewpoints
There’s enough time to stop at every viewpoint if you so desire, so take your time. The Shafer Canyon Overlook is one of the best views in the park, allowing you to view White Rim Road from the upper rim of the canyon. You are able to stand right by the cliff edge and get some awesome pictures!
The Green River viewpoint is another great place to stop for views of the Green River and some of the Maze section from up above. Bring some binoculars if you’d like to see the river from a closer angle. It is interesting to see how green and lively the land near the river is, compared to the desolate landscape surrounding it. This is an incredible perspective of the canyon.
If you want a good picture, check out Buck Canyon Overlook. The view will allow you to appreciate the landscape unfolding in front of you, which seems to go on forever. Here, you can admire the rock formations and panoramic views. It is the perfect spot for a picture of or in front of the canyon.
Grand View Point
Once you reach Grand View Point, the road will end and turn into a parking lot. Here, there are picnic tables where you’ll be able to enjoy a packed lunch or food from the visitor center. There are also vault toilets on-site.
The Grand View Point is exactly as described. It is considered the best, most panoramic viewpoint of the canyon below. You will have great views of the Colorado River here, as well as the White Rim of salt deposits that surround the canyon edges.
Also at this viewpoint is the trailhead for the Grand View Point Overlook. This 1.8 mile out and back trail takes you along the edges of the high Mesa. You walk along the rim, seeing open views of the canyon for over a mile of your hike. No matter how crowded, there is so much space to be secluded and enjoy the views in solitude. The trail ends at the Grand View Point Overlook, offering tremendous views of the canyon and of Junction Butte.
Drive to the Western side of Island in the Sky to Upheaval Dome. Upheaval Dome is the result of what some geologists estimate, a meteorite. Others refer to it as a salt dome. Nonetheless, the weird rock colors and formations are fun to admire.
The Upheaval Dome trail has two different viewpoints to hike to, letting you decide how far of a hike you’d like to go on. The first viewpoint is .3 miles from the trailhead, while the second viewpoint is .8 miles away. Neither are too difficult, but the trails can be hard to follow at times. The cairns used to mark the trails are sometimes knocked over making them hard to find.
Camp at Willow Flats Campground
Camping under the stars in Canyonlands is a magical experience. Willow Flats Campground is the only campground in the Island of the Sky section of the park, and there are 12 spots on a first-come, first-served basis. If you are lucky enough to get a spot before they are all reserved, nightly charges are $15 a night. Luckily, if you miss out on a spot in the park, there are campgrounds a few miles outside of the park along route 313. Wingate Campground is a comfortable place to camp with scenic views in nearby Deadhorse Point State Park.
Camping here is a surreal experience. The stars are very visible, and you will be able to see a lot of different constellations on a clear night, even with the naked eye.
Where to Stay Near Canyonlands National Park
If camping doesn’t sound fun, there are plenty of options in nearby Moab, from scenic resorts to budget-friendly hotels.
Hoodoo Moab, Curio Collection By Hilton
111 N. 100 W., Moab, UT 84532
For a more luxury option, Hoodoo Moab is a highly-rated, scenic resort located 32 miles from Canyonlands National Park. There’s even a pool to cool off after a long day of hiking through the desert, as well as free continental breakfast.
Moab Springs Ranch
1266 N Hwy 191, Moab, UT 84532,
The closest accommodations to the park is at Moab Springs Ranch. These rustic cabins are a bit costly, but can be worth it if you’re looking to be close to the park. So if you’re looking to get that sunrise photo, keep in mind that Moab Springs Ranch is 12 miles away from Mesa Arch.
168 North Main Street, Moab, UT 84532
For a cheaper option, Exhibition Lodge offers low-price, adventure themed rooms. By saving money, you’ll have to drive a little further, as Exhibition Lodge is 34 minutes from the entrance to Canyonlands.
Day Trips From Canyonlands National Park
Arches National Park
Arches National Park is just 30 minutes away from Canyonlands, located in Moab. It’s a very popular national park protecting over 2000 natural stone arches, as well as pinnacles, and giant balanced red rocks. It’s an alien-like landscape full of short hikes and viewpoints, perfect for a day trip. Keep in mind that there’s a timed-entry reservation system in this park, and you are required to have a reserved time-stamp to enter.
Moab is an interesting city to explore, full of natural red-rock beauty. While most of Moab’s tourist attractions are outdoors in the nature surrounding it, there’s also many cute tourist shops and restaurants to explore in Downtown Moab. If you’re looking for a break from the desert, get a bite to eat and pick up a few souvenirs in Moab!
Extra Tips For Canyonlands National Park
- Always bring more water than you think you will need! You will dehydrate fast in the dry environment, and it’s hard to find water within the park. Bring your own water jug to keep in your car so you’re able to refill your water bottles.
- Also, wear hiking boots or shoes with grip. Hiking along the sandstone and rocks can be very slippery, and having a good pair of hiking shoes will prevent you from slipping and injuring yourself.
- One last tip is to enjoy your time here in some of the most incredible scenery the world has to offer!
Make sure you have everything you need
What to pack for your next trip?
Make your next trip as simple and as enjoyable as possible by packing smart. It’s amazing how much stress top travel items can save you, so choose carefully.
Things like lightweight travel backpacks, for example, are ideal for short trips and allow you to move around with ease, and a passport holder will make sure you keep your documents safe at all times.
Check our travel checklist guide for 2021 to make sure you haven’t missed anything, and travel to your next destination in style and with maximum comfort.
Hannah Lehr is a travel blogger and freelance writer, passionate about creating content on less-traveled to destinations. She shares her work on her Linkedin (Hannah Lehr) where she is available for hire!