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Planning a trip to Canyonlands National Park

Planning a trip to Canyonlands National Park

With insider tips from real park rangers

Have you ever found yourself thinking, “I wish I could visit the Grand Canyon but with about 5 million fewer people?” If you have, Utah’s Canyonlands National Park heard you. Carved by the mighty Colorado River, this national park might not be as well-known as its Arizona counterpart, but the views are no less stunning. 

With gorgeous canyons, buttes, and mesas, along with epic mountain biking terrain and winding waterways that are perfect for rafting, kayaking, and paddleboarding, Canyonlands offers three distinct districts full of seemingly endless opportunities for exploration.

Written for you by park rangers

Written for you by park rangers

Who knows a national park best? Yep, the rangers who live and breathe its fresh, clean air every day. That’s who we turned to for help in creating this guide. Roadtrippers has partnered with the Association of National Park Rangers and convinced its rangers to spill their secrets for your benefit.

Your Canyonlands National Park map

Here’s a map of all the highlights in this guide. Use it to plan your trip to make sure you don’t miss anything.

How to get to and around Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands is located in southeastern Utah, just outside the town of Moab, which is widely regarded as an outdoor recreation lover’s paradise. Most visitors to the region fly into Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC), which is located approximately 4 hours from the most popular entrance of Canyonlands, Island in the Sky. Colorado’s Grand Junction Regional Airport (GJT), which is serviced by several airlines, offers a closer option as it’s about a 2-hour drive from the park. While Moab does have its own airport, Canyonlands Fields Airport (CNY), flights are extremely limited, often operating just once a day to and from Denver.

Ranger Tip
Ranger Tip

Visitors looking to explore the other national parks in Utah, such as Zion, Bryce Canyon, and Arches, should consider purchasing tickets that fly into Las Vegas (LAS) and out of Salt Lake City (SLC), or vice versa.

Canyonlands National Park

When’s the best time to visit Canyonlands National Park?

Southeastern Utah is part of the Colorado Plateau, a high desert region that experiences wide temperature fluctuations, with winter offering lows well below freezing and summer highs that surpass 100 degrees Fahrenheit. With its striking desert landscape, the park offers a variety of worthwhile experiences year-round.

Ranger Tip
Ranger Tip

The chance for precipitation remains low all year, and you can typically feel safe leaving your rain gear at home.

Spring
Spring is one of the most temperate, and popular, seasons to visit the park, with daytime highs averaging between 60 and 80 degrees and lows averaging between 30 and 50 degrees Fahrenheit. This is also peak season for viewing the park’s prickly pears, which bloom in May and early June.

Summer

Summer temperatures often exceed 100 degrees, making strenuous exercise difficult. Visitors should pack plenty of water and sunscreen and take frequent breaks in the shade or air conditioning.

Ranger Tip
Ranger Tip

Travelers visiting in late summer should exercise caution as the monsoon season brings violent storm cells that often cause flash floods.

Fall

Mid-September through October offers an ideal time to visit the park as temperatures begin to subside, making for some of the best conditions for exploration.

Winter
Winters are cold, with highs averaging between 30 and 50 degrees, and lows averaging between 0 and 20 degrees. Though large snowfalls are uncommon (except in nearby mountains), even small amounts of snow or ice can make local trails and roads impassable. Visitors should pay close attention to weather forecasts before heading into the park.

Island in the Sky at Canyonlands National Park
Ranger Tip
Ranger Tip

Those planning to visit the Maze should choose a vehicle with four-wheel drive and high clearance to reach the canyon’s viewpoints.



Things to do at Canyonlands National Park

The park offers a bounty of activities ranging from hefty hikes for adventure seekers to paved trails suitable for travelers seeking spectacular sights with minimal effort. Head to the park’s Island in the Sky region to find the most popular, and most photographed, attractions.

Mesa Arch

Though Canyonlands gets its name from its signature canyons, perhaps the most iconic spot in the park is a sweeping arch. For those arriving by car, Mesa Arch makes a great first stop to stretch your legs and take in the views. The hike to see Mesa Arch is a relatively easy half-mile trek that is an especially appealing sight at sunrise.

Ranger Tip
Ranger Tip

Early morning and late in the day are the best times for photos of Mesa Arch as it’s one of the busiest spots in the park come midday.

Upheaval Dome at Canyonlands National Park.

Grand View Point Overlook

The Grand View Point Overlook is another popular park location, offering an easy-to-reach viewpoint along a 100-yard wheelchair-accessible paved trail. Ranger talks frequently occur here, with topics generally covering the park’s geology. This is also the starting point of a 1.9-mile out-and-back trail with minimal elevation change. 

White Rim Road

The White Rim Road is a 100-mile dirt road loop that allows you to make the most of your vehicle’s four-wheel drive. But this route offers more than just a wild ride. There are numerous trials and archaeological sites of note, and visitors can easily spend at least 2 to 3 days exploring it all.

The road is also a popular choice for mountain bikers, who can complete the route, which loops around the Island in the Sky mesa top and provides impressive views of the surrounding area, in 3 to 4 days.

Before making the trek by car or bike, be sure to secure a free permit online.

Stargazing

Canyonlands National Park is a certified Dark Sky Park. With the lack of light pollution and the limited rainfall within the park, this remote destination offers incredible stargazing opportunities. Backcountry camping within the park provides the ideal environment for searching the night sky for constellations as even the light of small campfires is not permitted.

Ranger Tip
Ranger Tip

While venturing along White Rim Road, consider stopping to hike the Moses and Zeus Trail, which takes you out to the base of two massive sandstone spires.



Where to hike at Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands offers a range of hikes for every level of explorer. Those looking for easy to moderate hikes will find the best options in the Island of the Sky region, while the Needles region offers more strenuous experiences.

Easy to moderate hikes

Aspiring geologists will love Upheaval Dome. This moderately strenuous journey is a 1-mile round-trip hike to the first overlook, while the trek to the second overlook adds another mile to the trail. Unlike the Grand Canyon, which features distinctly layered colored rocks within the canyon walls, Upheaval Dome has a far less symmetrical appearance. Instead of well-organized level bands of rock, here you’ll see a clump of layers mixed together by what’s believed to be an asteroid impact. 

Ranger Tip
Ranger Tip

The history and appearance of Upheaval Dome is widely debated among geologists. Consider engaging in one of the Ranger talks in this area to join the discussion.

For those seeking an easy, flat journey, the longer 3.6-mile Murphy Point Trail offers panoramic views and takes approximately 1 to 2 hours to tackle.

Strenuous hikes

More adventurous hikers will enjoy the strenuous Syncline Loop Trail, an 8.5-mile loop found in the Island in the Sky region of the park. Here you’ll find steep switchbacks, rock scrambling, and impressive views circling Upheaval Dome.

The 11-mile Chesler Park Loop Trail features varying terrain and elevation that makes for a strenuous hike. Often considered one of the best hikes in the Needles formations, this loop trail offers a mix of easy rock scrambles, sweeping views of the La Sal Mountains, and pathways that crisscross between the region’s namesake sandstone needles. Add on the Joint Trail, which takes you through a stunning slot canyon, including some pretty narrow rock fractures that will give claustrophobics a scare.

Ranger Tip
Ranger Tip

Dogs are not allowed on the trails within Canyonlands National Park. For their safety, and the safety of the natural environment, please find a secure, cool spot for your pets to stay while you visit the park.

Syncline Loop Trail

Where to stay in and around Canyonlands National Park

As there is no lodge located within Canyonlands National Park, visitors will need to plan ahead to secure a camping spot or nearby hotel accommodations.

Camping
The park offers two small campgrounds:

  • The Willow Flat Campground in Island in the Sky is open year-round; however, with only 12 first-come, first-served spots available, this campground can prove difficult to get into, especially during the busy seasons. RVs are allowed, with a maximum length of 28 feet, but there are no electrical hookups and water is only available outside the visitor center from spring through fall. 
  • Unlike Willow Flat, the 26-site The Needles Campground does allow for reservations via recreation.gov during the peak spring and fall seasons. A bathroom and drinking water are available from spring through fall. There are no showers on site, and the campground is closed in the winter. RVs are allowed with a maximum length of 28 feet, but there are no electrical hookups.
Ranger Tip
Ranger Tip

In addition to the two main campgrounds, the park offers dispersed camping in several backcountry campgrounds. Permits for these are available at the park’s visitor centers.

The surrounding area also offers numerous privately-owned campgrounds, including the full-service Sun Outdoors Canyonlands Gateway near the Islands in the Sky entrance of the park and the Needles Outpost & Campground, located closer to the Needles region. Upscale glamping accommodations can also be found at Moab Under Canvas.

Nearby hotels

Moab, Utah, is the closest town, situated approximately 45 minutes from the Island in the Sky Visitor Center, and offers many hotel options. The Springhill Suites by Marriott, which opened in 2019, is one of the newest. It’s located just outside nearby Arches National Park on the banks of the Colorado River. 

Moab, Utah, is the closest town, situated approximately 45 minutes from the Island in the Sky Visitor Center, and offers many hotel options. The Springhill Suites by Marriott, which opened in 2019, is one of the newest. It’s located just outside nearby Arches National Park on the banks of the Colorado River. 

For a truly remarkable stay, head 14 miles up the Colorado River from Moab on Highway 128 to the scenic Red Cliffs Lodge. Located near the river’s best whitewater rapids at the foot of dramatic red rock cliffs, this resort was a filming location of numerous Hollywood films, including Rio Grande with John Wayne.

Camping at Canyonlands National Park

Where to eat around Canyonlands National Park

There is no food available within Canyonlands National Park, and dining options are extremely limited in the surrounding area, so visitors will need to fuel up on a hearty breakfast before making the drive into the park. However, foodies will find lots to love in Moab, which features an eclectic collection of restaurants offering a variety of international cuisines.

A local favorite, Bangkok House Too, was recently renovated and expanded to accommodate travelers. Popular menu items include the pad thai and Vegas roll. If you enjoy a little spice, try the crab rangoon, which features curry powder for an extra kick of flavor.

Other well-reviewed dining options include Pasta Jays, an Italian restaurant that features outside seating, and Sultan Mediterranean Grill, which offers large portions of gyro meat and other Middle Eastern specialties. The local microbrewery, Moab Brewery, offers a laid-back setting for refreshments after a long day of exploration.

How many days should you plan to spend in Canyonlands National Park?

Visitors often plan just a single day to explore Canyonlands, and while there is much to be seen in one day, longer itineraries allow the chance to get off the beaten path and explore the more remote regions of this sprawling national park.

One-day itinerary

If you only have one day to visit Canyonlands, dedicate your time to the Island in the Sky region of the park. Enter via Highway 313 as the viewpoints here are close to the road, allowing you to see a lot quickly. Begin with a stop at the visitor center, which you’ll pass as you make your way along the main road, to collect park maps, hiking guides, and information on daily ranger talks. 

Ranger Tip
Ranger Tip

Those traveling with kids should also pick up a Junior Ranger booklet to complete throughout the journey. Young adventurers can turn in their handiwork in exchange for a complimentary badge that honors their achievement.

From there, head to the park’s most popular offering, Mesa Arch Trail, before continuing down the road to Canyonlands’ scenic overlooks, including the White Rim Overlook, which boasts views that rival the Grand Canyon, and Buck Canyon Overlook, a wheelchair-accessible overlook that offers incredible views of the 1,000-foot-tall cliffs that form the mesa.

If time allows for hiking, tackle one of the park’s shorter exertions, such as the flat Murphy Point Trail or the moderate Upheaval Dome. For those looking for even more of a challenge, try the steep 2-mile Aztec Butte Trail, which takes approximately 2 hours to complete and culminates in stunning views of the area. 

Ranger Tip
Ranger Tip

While in the area, take a short detour to nearby Dead Horse Point State Park, which showcases stunning 2,000-foot vertical cliffs carved by ice, water, and wind. This highly photographed place has been featured in movies such as Thelma and Louise and Mission Impossible II.

Longer itineraries

The voyage to Canyonlands National Park is not a short one for most travelers, and visitors who make the journey will find lots to enjoy during a longer stay. For those who have the time, the park’s longer backcountry trails make for a unique and memorable experience for adventurers.

A boat trip along the Colorado and Green rivers provides a unique view of the park’s towering canyons, which were carved and shaped by these waterways. The rivers offer miles of calm, flat water perfect for canoes, kayaks, and paddleboards. Below where the rivers meet, the combined flow of both rivers spills down Cataract Canyon, creating class III to V whitewater rapids that present a thrilling journey for adventure seekers.

Ranger Tip
Ranger Tip

Outside tour companies offer a variety of options for those looking to take the stress out of seeing Canyonlands by boat. Consider Canyonlands by Night, which hosts a highly reviewed dinner and light show cruise.

In addition to allocating time to explore the park in its entirety, visitors should also allow several days to explore Arches National Park, which is located just 30 minutes from Canyonlands. Boasting hundreds of impressive rock formations, Arches is home to some of the most notable views in the state.

Ranger Tip
Ranger Tip

Planning to visit more than one national park while in Utah? Purchase an America the Beautiful Pass for the greatest savings on access to each of the state’s “Mighty Five.”



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Discover the most incredible people, places, and experiences worth the detour. Click below to start your trip to Olympic National Park or enter a starting point.Click below to start your trip from to Olympic National Park.


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