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The Complete Canyonlands Trip

A distant corner of Utah worthy of an extended, careful exploration

Exploring the Canyonlands Region
The Canyonlands Region of Utah combines the best of the Moab area's easy proximity to Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park's most accessible district with some of the United State's most remote and culturally significant landscapes.

While this itinerary will get you started on where to go, this is a region that blossoms with high-contrast desert beauty and powerful prehistory. Take your time to learn about this destination, hire local guides and pause whenever you can to appreciate the forces of nature that created this place.

Canyonlands is made up of three land districts (and the rivers that carved it), and this itinerary explores a couple of them as part of an expansive and awe-inspiring journey through the region.

Get up early and you can catch the first few rays of sunlight streaming through Mesa Arch and the dramatic view it frames of Canyonlands National Park from atop the mesa of the Island in the Sky district. Another short hike will take you to a 1,000-foot high vantage point above the Needles District and wide-open canyonlands. Or drive to Dead Horse Point State Park, an even higher vantage point above the Colorado River, as it curves steeply around the canyon wall.
First-time visitors should plan extra days for Arches National Park and an expanded Moab adventure. Otherwise, start the drive south on U.S. 191 toward a rugged and adventure-rich region with diverse voices as distinctive as the landscape. Criss-cross the land along the Trail of the Ancients Scenic Byway with stops in the Indian Creek and Shash Jaa units of Bears Ears National Monument, the Needles district of Canyonlands, Hovenweep National Monument and the gateway communities of Monticello, Blanding and Bluff.

Wrap up the region with a guided exploration of Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park and a trip to Natural Bridges National Monument. It's worth noting that the long, scenic roads back north tempt with detours to more of Utah's most beloved landscapes. In other words, it's worth taking the plus sign of this itinerary seriously.

Read these resources to learn how to travel thoughtfully and experience Utah most fully.

  • Start: From Salt Lake City, drive roughly three and a half hours southeast to Moab
  • Finish: From the Natural Bridges National Monument, head back to Salt Lake City
  • Hours of driving: 16+ hours, including travel between the region and Salt Lake City
Day 1 90 Miles
  • Mesa Arch
  • Filmed in Utah: Dead Horse Point
  • Grand View Point

Utah is an outdoor adventure mecca known for pushing people's limits. Today, however, acclimate to the high desert country on short trails to breathtaking views. Many get a very early start to capture one of the most-photographed sunrises around: Mesa Arch. Campers may try to get a site at Dead Horse Point State Park or Canyonlands National Park for quickest access to the sunrise spectacle. Of course, the sunrise over Utah’s Canyon Country is spectacular no matter where you are, and it’s also an ideal hour for photographing this amazing landscape throughout the park. Pick up additional photos and memories at Grand View Point, one of Canyonlands’ best overlooks. If you have come to get the heart rate up, Dead Horse Point offers more than 16 miles of singletrack with access to views that rival the Grand Canyon.

Where to Stay
In or near Moab, especially if you've planned time for Arches National Park.

Tips for Prepared Travelers
Soil Sleuth: Protecting Utah's Living Landscapes

Mesa Arch

This is a perfect trail for newbies to slickrock desert hiking, and one of Canyonlands National Park's most iconic and photogenic vistas. It’s easy and short, and a detailed display at the trailhead explains how to hike the trail. The payoff is huge, especially at sunrise.

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Filmed in Utah: Dead Horse Point

Many visitors find Dead Horse Point State Park to be even more captivating than the views at the Grand Canyon. A visitor center and art gallery provide a wonderful introduction to the park’s geology and key features visible from the overlooks. There are also mountain biking trails and reservable yurts.

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Grand View Point

Simply spectacular. Like Mesa Arch, Grand View Point is a short, rewarding hike with excellent interpretive signage. Grand View Point’s vantage is over the distant confluence of the Colorado and Green rivers. It’s perfectly clear from here why it’s called Canyonlands.

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Day 2 160 Miles
  • Needles Overlook
  • Indian Creek Corridor Scenic Byway
  • Cave Spring Hike

Traveling south from the Moab area, start with the side trip to the Needles Overlook for a bird's-eye view of the rugged and expansive southeastern district of Canyonlands National Park. The trip is about a 22-mile drive on C.R. 133 from U.S. 191, between Moab and Monticello. Give yourself time to walk the full length of the expansive overlook.

Continue the day with an exploratory drive through the Indian Creek unit of Bears Ears National Monument, on the Indian Creek Corridor Scenic Byway, including a stop at Newspaper Rock State Historic Site. Though ideally an overnight camping destination with extended hikes, the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park at the end of the byway has a couple of easier hikes to introduce you to the rugged red rock terrain.

Where to Stay
Camp in Needles Outpost or within Canyonlands or head to Monticello, Blanding or Bluff for lodging.

Tips for Prepared Travelers
Hiking Southern Utah with Younger Children: Tips for Family-Friendly Adventure

Needles Overlook

Not to be confused with the entrance to Canyonlands, the Needles Overlook is about a 22-mile drive on C.R. 133 from U.S. 191, between Moab and Monticello. Give yourself time to walk the full length of the expansive overlook for views to the north, west toward the Needles, and then south toward the Abajos. Several roads are visible below, including the very rugged, high-clearance-only Lockhart Basin Road for overlanding enthusiasts.

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Indian Creek Corridor Scenic Byway

Driving down Indian Creek Corridor Scenic Byway (a unit of Bears Ears National Monument) isn't just a way to get to The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park. Exploring the byway is an adventure in itself with a fascinating history, awe-inspiring views and some worthy stops along the way.

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Cave Spring Hike

Take a journey through the ancient past and slickrock flats on this small, family-friendly loop trail that goes by ruins of historic ranching operations and rock art of Ancestral Puebloans. A couple of safety ladders may make the trail unsuitable for smaller children. Photo courtesy Casey Schreiner / Modern Hiker

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Day 3 130 Miles
  • Edge of the Cedars
  • Mule Canyon's House on Fire and Cave Tower
  • Bluff Fort Historic Site

Your best introduction to Bears Ears might just be a stop at Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum, whose collection highlights artifacts and lifestyle of Ancestral Puebloan culture. Introductory hikes to the Shash Jaa unit of Bears Ears include House on Fire and Cave Towers, but an even more accessible and well-interpreted trail is the Butler Wash Ruins Overlook.

The eclectic town of Bluff offers great local dining, lodging and the Bears Ears Education Center, The season visitor center offers tips for visiting with respect and detailed information for safely visiting the monument, the United State's first monument created at the request of Native Americans. Visit Bluff Fort Historic Site to fill in the details of this area's pioneer past.

Where to Stay
Maintain your overnight base camp in Blanding or Bluff for lodging, or opt for the IDA-certified International Dark Sky Park Hovenweep National Monument for camping, stargazing and early start to tomorrow’s adventure.

Tips for Prepared Travel
The area is open to visitors, but please review our travel advisory page for respect and protect practices

Edge of the Cedars

Edge of the Cedars State Park Museum is a beautiful repository for ancient artifacts in the Four Corners region and is an excellent companion destination to Bears Ears National Monument. The museum showcases Ancestral Puebloan culture along with contemporary Native American items and the largest display of artifacts in the area.

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Mule Canyon's House on Fire and Cave Tower

In the rugged corridors of secluded Mule Canyon, you’ll not only find solitude but also a sense of mystery, as you scramble up rust-colored cliffs to examine the ruins of an ancient Native-American civilization that seemingly vanished into thin air.

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Bluff Fort Historic Site

Bluff is the terminus of the well known Hole-in-the-Rock Trail on which Mormon pioneers traveled from Southwestern to Southeastern Utah over a daunting route in one of the most extraordinary wagon trips ever undertaken. Portions of the original fort are interpreted at the Bluff Fort Historic Site.

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Day 4 90 Miles
  • Hovenweep National Monument
  • River House
  • Valley of the Gods

If you camped overnight in Hovenweep National Monument and the skies were clear, you’ll proceed starstruck to the well-interpreted trails of the monument to peer into the lives of an ancient culture who built astonishing multistoried towers on the edge of a canyon more than 700 years ago. Meanwhile, Bluff is a small town with a big personality and serves great local food and coffee while the nearby Twin Rocks Trading Post honors local Navajo artists with fairly priced, museum-caliber baskets and art. (Read: The Navajo Basketmakers.) The tour continues near the south end of Shash Jaa, with an easy stop at Sand Island petroglyphs and a more challenging visit to the River House Ruin, which showcases a confluence of ancient culture with Mormon pioneer culture.

Given enough daylight, plan the 17-mile tour along the gravel road through the geographically fascinating Valley of the Gods. With high clearance, you can also self-guide a portion of Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park, but the best tours are with a local guide. Half-day and full-day tours are available, as are nearby accommodations.

Where to Stay
Rest your feet after a long day at Goulding's Lodge, located just outside the park's borders.

Tips for Prepared Travelers
The Petroglyphs of Comb Ridge and Sand Island Petroglyph Site

Hovenweep National Monument

Hovenweep National Monument is an inspiring place that begs visitors to ask questions about the ancients. 700-year-old and older archaeological sites can be visited by paved and improved dirt roads, but hikes are necessary to fully explore the ruins.

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River House

Have you dreamed of setting foot in an ancient Southwestern dwelling, walking alongside walls of pictographs and rock carvings? Hiking the same desert landscape Native Americans and early pioneers? River House site offers visitors a true taste of southern Utah’s storied history — here’s how to make the most of your exploration.

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Valley of the Gods

Tour the 17-mile gravel backway through isolated mesas, buttes and towers carved from Cedar Mesa sandstone. There is hiking throughout the Valley of the Gods, but it’s more of an exploration in cross-country meandering, as there are no established trails.

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Day 5 100 Miles
  • Monument Valley Jeep Tour
  • Goosenecks State Park
  • Natural Bridges National Monument

Monument Valley Navajo Tribal Park awaits. Book a Jeep tour in advance to get the best access to the park. There are tours of varying lengths depending on how much time you want to spend exploring the Navajo art, artifacts, Western memorabilia and Navajo tacos of Goulding’s Lodge. Unless you're pulling a trailer or driving an RV, take the winding, unpaved switchbacks of the Moki Dugway up S.R. 261 towards Natural Bridges National Monument. Along the way, make the side trip to Goosenecks State Park, an excellent overlook of the San Juan River (that can also be picked up the day before with Valley of the Gods).

While the monument can be enjoyed from a scenic drive with overlooks, adventurous visitors can hike down to one or all three natural bridges, with an option to connect them all via an extended backcountry hike, time, preparedness and stamina permitting. This close to Bears Ears National Monument, Lake Powell and the Capitol Reef region, there's plenty more to see in this corner of Utah, otherwise enjoy the scenic Bicentennial Highway Scenic Byway (S.R. 95) back to I-70 and the road home.

Monument Valley Jeep Tour

Book a tour of Valley Drive (which you can also drive on your own if you have the right vehicle) or a longer trek such as Mystery Valley, accessible only with a licensed guide. A Jeep tour visits the iconic sites, but is accompanied by a Navajo narrative.

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Goosenecks State Park

Look down upon the San Juan River 1,000 feet below you and see the results of 300 million years of erosion. This one is worth lingering for the sunset. From this primitive state park, you can see the famous goosenecks and also enjoy a picnic and a campsite with great views.

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Natural Bridges National Monument

The amazing force of water has cut three spectacular natural bridges in White Canyon. Choose from the 9-mile scenic drive with overlooks to the bridges or moderate to difficult trails, some with metal stairs leading down to each bridge. A longer trail follows the stream bed beneath all three.

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