Imagine wave after wave of deep canyons, towering mesas, pinnacles, cliffs and spires stretching across 527 square miles. This is Canyonlands National Park, formed by the currents and tributaries of Utah's Green and Colorado rivers. Canyonlands is home to many different types of travel experiences, from sublime solitude in the more remote stretches of the park to moderate hikes through the Needles district to the opportunity to create your own version of one of the West's most photographed landforms, Mesa Arch.
Located to the west of the town of Moab and a short distance from Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park is wild and wonderful and diverse in its landscapes and travel opportunities. Due to the park’s massive size, Canyonlands has four separate “districts,” including three land districts and the rivers themselves, each with their own characteristic landscapes and experiences.
Island in the Sky
The northernmost district, Island in the Sky is the most accessible area of the park and contains much of the park’s most dramatic and most iconic scenery. Island in the Sky also attracts the most visitors, many of whom combine a trip to Canyonlands with a trip to Arches National Park, only a few miles away or adjacent Dead Horse Point State Park.
The Park’s primary visitor center is near the park entrance and serves as a wonderful resource to acquaint you with the area. Be sure to fill up your water bottles. There is very little potable water at other locations throughout the park and during the summer.
Island in the Sky features majestic views from the top of the plateau down toward the Colorado and Green Rivers, close to 2,000 feet below. The famous Mesa Arch is only a short 5-minute hike from the parking lot and is one of the most heavily photographed destinations in the Western US and photographers often line up at sunrise to capture their own interpretation of this icon.
Grand View Point Overlook is a one-mile hike from your car to a panoramic viewpoint allowing you to look deep into Canyonlands’ wild places and beyond to the La Sal and Abajo mountain ranges. Though much has changed since John Wesley Powell made his expedition in 1869 down the Green River to the confluence with the Colorado, this area retains the same wild, rugged character and unspoiled beauty he marveled at in his day.
Throughout your time at Island on the Sky, you’ll look down at the intermediate plateau, the White Rim. A 100-mile long dirt road encircles the edge of the plateau and is popular as a multi-day mountain bike (a single day for the toughest endurance riders), motocross or 4x4 drives. Reservations are required for camping along the White Rim.
A hiker’s paradise, the Needles district is located approximately 90 minutes south and West of Moab along Highway 211. The drive to the Needles takes you past Newspaper Rock, a large panel of Native American pictographs and the world-famous Indian Creek climbing area. Just outside the park boundary, Needles Outpost has a small grocery store and gas station, giving the area a frontier-town vibe. But don’t be daunted, once inside the park, be sure to stop at the Visitor Center to fill up your water bottles and ask for trail recommendations.
Numerous hikes leave from the paved road at the Squaw Flat campgrounds and connect to a network of over 60 miles of trails allowing you to adjust your hike’s duration and difficulty to the time, energy and daylight available. An unpaved road, passable by passenger cars, leads you to Elephant Hill, which accesses the highest concentration of prime hiking trails. Strong hikers may want to consider a 10.4-mile loop on the Chesler Park & Joint trails which takes you into the heart of the Needles district.
Rugged, foreboding and remote, the Maze district is for intrepid travelers looking to escape civilization and explore the timeless solitude this area has to offer. Accessed via 2 1/2 hour drive from Green River, along Hwy 24, gaining access to the Maze requires a high clearance 4x4 and a lot of self-sufficiency. The National Park Service advises visitors that most visitors to the Maze spend at least three days and trips can often consume a full week.
The two rivers cutting through Canyonlands National Park, the Colorado and Green, both contain world-class whitewater rafting through some of the most remote terrain in the lower-48 states. Shorter day trips are available from Moab with multi-day trips being the standard method of accessing the rapids at Cataract Canyon. Check with a licensed Guide or Outfitter for trip planning and logistics information.
Visiting Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park Weather
Southeastern Utah can exceed 100 F in the summer and the high country desert plateaus will rapidly parch your thirst. Beat the heat by planning ahead, carrying sunscreen and extra water as well as playing in the morning and evening during the peak of summer. Of course, many believe that the best time to see Canyonlands is at sunset and sunrise. Temperatures begin to dip to freezing during the night by late November but winter is an extraordinarily beautiful time to visit Canyonlands National Park. Incredible "monsoon" season thunderstorms in the afternoon late in the summer can result in potentially dangerous flash floods.
Major entrances to the park are accessible from U.S. Route 191. Access to Island in the Sky is 35 miles northwest of Moab. The Needles District is accessible 22 miles north of Monticello. Canyonlands National Park is a little over 4 hours from Salt Lake City.
Gateways to Canyonlands
Moab and Monticello are popular base camps for Island in the Sky and the Needles, respectively, and each offers excellent accommodations. While Moab is known as an outdoor adventure destination and for its proximity to Arches National Park, Monticello is a high-elevation retreat with easy access to Monument Valley and the Four Corners region.
Camping and Lodging
Two developed campgrounds, one in Canyonlands' Needles District and one in Island in the Sky, are first come, first serve. Reserve permits for backcountry camping within the park or on BLM land in the Canyonlands environs. Moab and Monticello are popular base camps for Island in the Sky and The Needles, respectively, and each offer a range of accommodations and rates tuned to your experience, from RV parks, cabins and lodges to upscale hotels or multiperson condominiums.
Mesa Arch Hike
The Mesa Arch trail can be completed in 30 minutes, but go for sunrise and you'll want to linger awhile among amateur and professional photographers as the rising sun sets fire to the rock, drawing out the brilliant colors of Canyonlands. Perched on a cliff's edge, Mesa Arch frames the startlingly vast expanse of Canyonlands. The half-mile trip is a must-hike trail in Canyonlands.
Grand View Point Overlook
Stroll the 1-mile hike to the edge of the Island in the Sky mesa for powerful panoramas of the massive river-carved landscape that defines Canyonlands.
White Rim Trail
Grab Utah’s expansive backcountry by the handlebars and unlock the geologic secrets of Canyonlands. This 100-mile journey is a rite of passage to exalted mountain bikers. While especially burly riders can take on the trail in a day, most riders opt for support vehicles with gear and supplies for an extended adventure. Overnight camping permits are required.
At just over half a mile, this Canyonlands gem can be hiked in about 45 minutes, but still pack plenty of water as it doesn't take long to get thirsty in the hot, dry climate. Follow in the footsteps of cowboys and take to the slickrock on this well-marked trail, which is important to protect the cryptobiotic soil. Cattlemen settled the area in the late 19th century and Cave Spring offers a glimpse into their life in an area that once was incredibly remote. Petroglyphs point to even more distant history. There is little elevation change, and a couple of ladders are the only obstacle that smaller children may need to be carried up.
The Needles or the Maze Districts
More than 60 miles of trails make the Needles a top destination for all levels of hikers. With a permit, backcountry hikers may set out for overnight trips in the Needles or gear up for true solitude within the depths of the Maze district. Self-sufficient backpackers with wayfinding experience typically plan a minimum of three days for the Maze.
Arches National Park
Home to 2,000 natural arches, bridges and towers, Arches National Park, though only a few miles from Canyonlands National Park, is a very different experience. Much of the park is easily accessible by car, with numerous hiking trails leaving from the main road. Many visitors combine Arches and Canyonlands parks in a single day.
Moab’s reputation as an adventure center is well deserved. Hundreds of miles of hiking, mountain biking and Jeep trails emanate from the town. Moab’s restaurants, hotels, gear shops and amenities bring people back again and again to enjoy this outdoor recreation playground.
Dead Horse Point State Park
A broad peninsula of land jutting out over the spectacular White Rim of the Colorado River, Dead Horse Point State Park specializes in the type of sweeping, jaw-dropping views that make visitors run for their cameras to try and capture the area’s grandeur. In recent years, a tight network of fun singletrack trails has begun attracting mountain bikers who want epic views with moderate rides, increasing the popularity of the park.
Far less visited than either Arches or Canyonlands, the Fisher Towers lie 25 miles outside the town of Moab along scenic byway 128, more commonly known as the River Road. The rock here is very different from sandstone you’ll see elsewhere in the area, with the rock resembling candlewax or mud dripping from the tower. A pleasant out-and-back hike takes you from the parking lot out to the tallest tower, the Titan, with beautiful views back toward Moab.
Visitors to the Needles District of Canyonlands will want to stop and enjoy Newspaper Rock State Historical Monument, a large petroglyph panel with over 650 drawings. Archeologists believe ancestral Puebloans made the earlier carvings 2,000 years ago and the Ute culture added newer art. The Navajo nicknamed Newspaper Rock Tse’ Hane, meaning “rock that tells a story.” Images are in the rock’s “desert varnish,” a black manganese-iron deposit common on sandstone cliffs.
Past Newspaper Rock, you’ll enter Indian Creek Canyon, a wide valley between steep sandstone walls, world-renown by rock climbers for the quality of the cracks in the cliff walls. The climbing in this area, though not for beginners, is superb, and the area’s scenery heightens the allure.
At 337,598 acres, or 527 square miles (1,365 square kilometers), Canyonlands is Utah's largest designated national park.
Canyonlands was designated a national park in 1964, expanded in 1971 and has a human history dating back 10,000 years.
Short Description: Canyonlands National Park comprises three distinct land districts: Island in the Sky, the Needles and the Maze. Each district is increasingly more remote, more startling and more alluring. Luckily, there's always a trailhead nearby.
Canyonlands National Park | Moab Utah | Visit Utah