Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park is a 527 square miles of the high desert shaped by water and wind into deep canyons, towering mesas, pinnacles, arches, and spires. The Colorado and Green rivers run through the park splitting it into four distinct and disconnected districts – Island in the Sky, the Maze, the Needles, and rivers. Island in the Sky is the area between the rivers, the Maze is on the west side of the rivers and the Needles is on the east side. It takes between two to six hours by car to travel between these districts.
Island in the Sky is only 32 miles from Moab and the most easily accessible district. Sitting atop a massive mesa it offers stunning, panoramic views that stretch out over 100 miles as you drive along the scenic drive.
The Maze is the most remote and untamed red rock jungle of dead-end canyons. This district is for experienced and self-sufficient hikers with excellent route finding skills. Roads require high-clearance four-wheel-drive. There are no amenities – no food, no water, no gasoline. There is no entrance fee here but permits are required for overnight trips. Make sure to download maps and keep a paper topography map with you.
The Needles is about one and a half hours from Moab and 30 minutes from Monticello. It is a jumbled landscape of massive red and white sandstone spires. It also has several arches, domes, narrow canyons, and Native Americans ruins and rock-carvings. Plan to spend a couple of days at the Needles for an intimate and immersive desert experience.
Best time to visit
Regardless of the district, you choose to visit, avoid summer when the sun beats down mercilessly. Spring and Fall are pleasant times to visit Canyonlands National Park. We visited it at the end of September and it was still hot to hike. Winter is also a great time to visit Canyonlands National Park, just be prepared for cold especially during nights.
Where to Stay and Eat
There is no lodging facility inside any district. Island in the Sky and the Needles districts have a campground each with basic facilities. Reservations for both the campgrounds are highly recommended.
Moab is the gateway town for Island of the Sky, and this vibrant, outdoorsy town has a variety of accommodation options and wonderful restaurants.
Monticello is the gateway town for the Needles. It is a small, laid-back town with decent options to stay and eat.
Hanksville is a quirky town about an hour and a half from the Maze Ranger Station. It has some limited options for accommodations and eating out.
In case you don’t have America the Beautiful annual pass for all the national park ($80), you may consider buying a one week pass for $30 or Southeast Utah Parks Annual Pass for $55. This pass is valid for Arches and Canyonlands national parks, and Natural Bridges National Monument.
Check the National Park Service website for more details, roads, and trails conditions.
Park Visitor Centers
Canyonlands National Park has one visitor center at Island in the Sky and one at the Needles. Both the visitor centers have excellent exhibits to help understand the geology and fragile ecology of the park. Drinking water is available only at the visitor centers, make sure to top off your water bottles.
The Maze has a Ranger Station for general information with no services, food, or potable water.
If you are planning to explore the park by biking or four-wheel driving, make sure to check with rangers about day-use permit and backcountry permit if you are heading for a multi-day adventure.
It is located northwest of The Maze with well preserved stunning Native American rock art panels. It can be accessed from the Maze district.
Dead Horse Point State Park
Stand 2,000 feet above a gooseneck in the Colorado River to marvel at the rock layers created by the deposition of sediments by ancient oceans, freshwater lakes, streams, and windblown sand dunes.
Goblin Valley State Park
Explore surreal Mars-like landscape eroded into interesting shapes, somewhat resembling goblins.
Arches National Park
What do I write about this iconic park? This is one of my favorite parks in Utah. It is close to Canyonlands National Park but it is not a side trip. To explore it in the true sense, you may need at least 3-4 days.
Things to do
Whether you want to take it easy or seek a thrilling adventure, Canyonlands National Park has a lot to offer to every visitor. If you spend some time in this park, this desolate and dry landscape slowly sneaks up and takes root in the heart forever.
Island in the Sky Drive is a 34-mile round trip with numerous overlooks and short walks offering spectacular views of the canyons below as well as the other districts.
A short scenic drive at The Needles starts near the visitor center ending at Big Spring Canyon Overlook.
Canyonlands National Park has excellent backcountry roads to truly experience the ruggedness of the park by mountain biking, motorbiking, or four-wheel-drive vehicles. You may rent the vehicle of your choice at the Moab. Check road conditions with rangers at the visitor center before venturing out.
White Rim Road
It is a 100-mile narrow dirt road in Island in the Sky district. It descends a level below and gives a new perspective of Island in the Sky. The most exciting and hair-raising section is Shafer Canyon switchbacks. Make sure to carry lots of water and top of your vehicle’s fuel tank. We drove about 30 miles down White Rim Road and back, it was a memorable adventure. A free day-use permit is required for all trips, and an overnight permit if you are planning to camp along the drive. Bicycle trips usually take three to four days which are usually supported by a team.
This backcountry dirt road in the Needles district has everything for thrill-seekers – steep grade, hairpin turns, loose rock, multiple ledges, stair-step drops.
It is one of the most technical four-wheel drives and challenging for mountain bikers in Utah. You need a permit – single-day or overnight to use this road.
Backcountry roads in The Maze are extremely remote, very difficult, and should be attempted only by experienced drivers. Most of the roads are sandy making it extremely difficult for mountain biking.
Looking up the landscape from the river gives a unique perspective. Above the confluence, both the rivers offer miles of flatwater ideal for paddling. Below the confluence, rivers spill down with joint force into Cataract Canyon creating a fourteen-mile stretch perfect for Class III-V whitewater. Backcountry and river permits are required and are available online as well. Overnight permits must be requested online at least two days before the start of the trip. There are several outfitters in Moab that offer single-day to multi-day paddling trips.
Horses, mules, and burros are allowed on Horseshoe Canyon and other backcountry roads. A permit is required, which may be obtained at the Hans Flat Ranger Station in the Maze district. Check with rangers for current conditions and recommended destinations.
After a day full of exploration above and below the Canyonlands, turn your gaze towards the sky for a spellbinding display of our universe. I will highly recommend staying at least one night in the campground to witness the star-studded sky and maybe capture some photographs.
Hiking and Backpacking
Island in the Sky and the Needles offers many hiking trails ranging from short walks to backpacking trips. The Maze is a backpacking district for seasoned backpackers. You may want to read these useful tips to start hiking with kids to share outdoors with them.
Island in the Sky
It is a short half a mile walk to the iconic cliff-edge arch. Mesa Arch is a famous structure in the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. It is a classic sunrise spot and is popular among photographers.
Grand View Point
An easy two-mile round trip trail with the most impressive sweeping scene that sprawls out before your eyes from the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers all the way to the La Sal Mountains. No wonder it is called Grand View Point! It has several interpretive signs along the trail. Sunset is the best time to hike this trail.
Take a short and steep trail to get a view of the mysterious crater from this short trail.
Some geologists call Upheaval Dome “the most peculiar structural feature in southeastern Utah.” The origin of the dome is debatable. The two most common theories are the salt dome theory and the meteorite impact theory that is explained in the exhibits at the end of the trail.
Some longer hikes to consider are the Syncline loop trail (8.3 miles) and Alcove Spring trail (11.2 miles)
Chesler Park Loop
If you have time for only one hike, the Chesler Park loop is the hike to choose from. This 10.4-mile loop passes through the most otherworldly rock formations and broad, grassy meadow.
Lost Canyon Loop
Another spectacular 10-mile loop hike that will take you through three scenic canyons, offering an intimate view of the weird and wonderful world of sculpted sandstone monoliths, rock spires, fins, and knobs. Read this backpacking gear guide to select the right gear for your backpacking trips.
Read more about hiking in Canyonlands National Park on the National Park Service website.
We did not get an opportunity to explore the Maze district during our Canyonlands National Park visit, hopefully, we will visit it in the future.
Things to remember while visiting Canyonlands National Park
Stay on the trails all the time. Bumpy, clumpy, blackened soil crust is fragile and crucial to control erosion. Biological soil crust holds and retains water promoting plant life. In turn, sustaining animals in the desert. It takes decades for the biological soil crust to take hold, be very mindful of your steps while enjoying the park.
Carry plenty of water with you in your vehicle and with you while hiking. There is no water available in the park except at the visitor centers.
Being a high desert with little to no vegetation the sun exposure may damage your skin. Pack extra sunscreen to reapply it several times while in the park.
These narrow roads can get dangerous in wet conditions. Make sure to check weather and road conditions before heading out on your bike or four-wheel-drive vehicle.
Enjoy your Canyonlands National Park visit. Here is a fun National Parks Quiz for you.