Must-Do Canyonlands Guide
Hiking and Backpacking
For day hikers and backpackers, Canyonlands National Park is a dream come true. The Needles district has more hiking trails (about 74 miles) and a better variety of trails than the Island in the Sky and Maze districts. In addition, this area is, in general, set up and managed for hikers with lots of loop trails and a good selection of easy or moderate hiking options as well as backpacking opportunities. Most trails have sections of slickrock, so get used to following cairns.
In the Needles district, the most popular day hikes include Cave Spring, Pothole Point, and the Slickrock Foot Trail. One of the best backpacking trips is the ultra-scenic Chesler Park Loop, although opportunities for overnighters are also to be had on the Druid Arch Trail and Lost Canyon Trail.
Although the trail system at Island in the Sky is not as extensive as in the Needles, hikers can choose from a variety of well-maintained trails. Trails dropping off the mesa and going to the White Rim Road are for the serious hiker, but the area also has excellent short hikes on the mesa including Grand View Point, White Rim Overlook, Mesa Arch, Aztec Butte, Whale Rock, and the Upheaval Dome Overlook.
Longer day hike and backpacking opportunities at Island in the Sky include the Alcove Spring Trail, Syncline Loop, and Murphy Loop.
There are numerous hiking and backpacking opportunities in the Maze district. Most people have never been to a place as remote as the Maze. This network of twisted sandstone canyons is for rugged individuals who can take care of themselves and their vehicle. Be aware that when you venture in the Maze, you’re on your own. If you are interested in hiking and backpacking in the Maze, talk to the rangers at a visitor center.
There are two additional areas in Canyonlands National Park: the Horseshoe Canyon Unit, which is a detached section northwest of the Maze and features prehistoric pictographs in the Great Gallery; and the River District, which includes stretches of the Green River and Colorado River.
Regardless of where you are hiking or adventuring in Canyonlands, it’s always a wise idea to stop in at a visitor center and discuss your hiking plans with a ranger. That’s why they are there and you can be assured of receiving some valuable tips.
Two paved roads lead into the park: UT 313 from the north and UT 211 from the east. (There are also many dirt roads to explore for those who are equipped with four-wheel-drive vehicles and prepared for the rigors of desert travel.)
The well-marked turnoff for the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park is on the left at Highway 313, 6 miles north of the Arches turnoff on U.S. 191 north of Moab. A few miles along Highway 313, note on the right Monitor and Merrimac Buttes, looking like their namesake Civil War ships. Eventually you come to a prominent fork: left it is 4 miles to Dead Horse State Park, straight is 4.5 miles to Canyonlands/Island in the Sky. Dead Horse Point is, like Island in the Sky, an isolated promontory of stone jutting out over the deep gorge of the Colorado River. The overlook provides some of the most famous views in the region, especially of the Colorado River 2,000 feet below. It is well worth a side trip.
Island in the Sky, the name given to the elevated northern section of Canyonlands National Park, is almost precisely that: an isolated piece of land far above the deep canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers. And it certainly does have the airy and Olympian aura of a floating island, detached from the earth below. This narrow “peninsula in the sky” was, in fact, carved by the two great rivers as they flowed ever closer to their confluence at Cataract Canyon. The views from this height are spectacular in all directions, and several strategically placed overlooks offer fine panoramas and short, easy trails with interpretive signs describing the intricate maze of canyons below.
The Needles district of Canyonlands National Park has about 10 miles of paved roads. The longest branch of the paved road leads to Big Spring Canyon Overlook. Along the way are several stops at man-made or geological points of interest. You will drive in on the Indian Creek Scenic Byway; make sure you stop at Newspaper Rock before you get to Canyonlands. It is one of the better roadside rock-art viewing sites in Utah. A 50-foot-high sandstone face is covered with a variety of fine petroglyphs from several periods.
Camping in Canyonlands National Park is a great way to enjoy a fun family vacation and share an intimate experience with the landscape. Plus you’ll be out there in the early morning and late evening when the light is amazing, especially for photography enthusiasts.
Squaw Flat Campground is located 3 miles west of the Needles entrance station. The campground here has 26 sites available on a first-come, first-served basis for $15 per night. The campground has electrical hookups, drinking water, fire pits, picnic tables, tent pads, ADA sites, and flush and vault toilets. There are also three group campsites that accommodate up to 50 people and 10 vehicles. The cost is $3 per person per night, and the group sites are not open during winter. Reservations are accepted for group campsites, so book early. A few trees provide some shade, as do the various rock formations, at both of these campgrounds. Larger RVs should try for a space at Campground A, which will hold longer rigs.
Activities abound in the area. Though mountain bikes are not permitted on any of the trails, there are roads for bicycling. Four-wheel-drive vehicles can take advantage of the jeep trails. There are also multitudes of trails to hike, with one of the most popular leading to the green realms and magnificent Needle formations in and around Chesler Park.
The smaller Willow Flat Campground is located about 9 miles southwest of the Island in the Sky entrance station. Willow Flat has no water, so come prepared. There are 12 basic sites (first-come, first-served, $10 per night) with fire pits, picnic tables, tent pads and vault toilets. Junipers and piñon pines decorate this small campground, which is a good place from which to explore the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands National Park. A number of trails lead to striking vistas, arches, and other geologic wonders. There is also a great mountain bike loop trail that goes through this section of the park. Make sure you go to the Green River Overlook to check out one of the finest places to watch the sunset in the park!
Campers should also know that the terrain between Island in the Sky and Dead Horse Point is BLM administered public land. If all other camping options have been exhausted, those prepared for self-sufficient (and minimum-impact) camping might find decent primitive sites along dirt roads to the west of Highway 313 between Island in the Sky and the Dead Horse Point turnoff. Keep in mind that camping on public land at undesignated sites requires special diligence to maintain the pristine nature of the land. Use existing fire rings or do without your evening campfire, and remember that campfires are often prohibited by late summer.
There is also a campground at Dead Horse Point State Park, reached by turning east of UT 313 before you enter Canyonlands northern entrance. The campground here has electrical hookups and water, and, unlike the first-come-first-served national park campgrounds, you can use your credit card to reserve a site (go to www.reserveamerica.com or call 800-322-3770). If you don’t want to camp, there are plenty of hotels in nearby Moab.
Although there is no singletrack mountain biking in Canyonlands, the 100-mile White Rim Road at the Island in the Sky is a well-known challenge for mountain bikers. This classic bike tour takes riders below the steep cliffs at Island in the Sky and offer ever-changing scenery—some of the best in Canyonlands. Plan on taking two or three days to do the entire trip. It is recommended that you have a support vehicle with you to carry supplies and, especially, extra water. Support vehicles need to be four-wheel-drive and prepared for remote and rough desert terrain.
Multiday mountain bike trips are also possible in the Maze, but make sure your support vehicle is of the sturdiest variety because the roads here are very rough. Guided trips are available for many bicycle routes in Canyonlands, and hiring a guide would be a good idea if you want to venture into the Maze.
Primitive campsites are available along many of these bike routes. Permits are required for camping, although day trips do not require permits. White Rim Road in particular is very popular, so plan on making your reservations months in advance.
Road bikers will also enjoy Canyonlands National Park. Be aware that the roads are narrow, with no designated bike lanes, and you need to watch for vehicles. Ride single file and with the flow of traffic. Starting out very early in the morning is a good way to avoid some of the vehicle traffic.
For more information on cycling in Canyonlands National Park, including applying for permits, visit the cycling page on the park’s website.