Favorite things to do in Canyonlands National Park
Updated: Aug 13
Canyonlands National Park is a remote and often overlooked splendor! The park has a variety of impressive natural features, hikes for all levels, and jeep roads galore. It is worth spending a night or two at each of its districts to truly appreciate it. If you have a high-clearance vehicle and you're looking for solitude, you'll find endless options in this park.
Below is a list of our favorite things to do and see in Canyonlands National Park.
Things to know about visiting Canyonlands National park
Here are the most important things to know about visiting Canyonlands National Park:
This park is HUGE! Canyonlands has a few entrances, separated by canyons. About 80% of park visitors only travel up Island in the Sky because it's the most accessible part of the park. But there's also the Needles District, Horseshoe Canyon, and the Maze.
Stock up on groceries prior to your trip. The nearest town to Canyonlands National Park is Moab, about 20 minutes away from Island in the Sky. It has hotels, restaurants, supermarkets, gas stations, and emergency services. If you're on the Mighty 5 road trip, Moab is your reliable pitstop for civilization.
It takes a long time to get here, but it's a beautiful drive from all directions! It takes just under 4 hours to drive to Moab directly from Salt Lake City or 6 hours from Las Vegas. The highlight is driving through the San Rafael Desert from Utah or the La Sal Mountains from Colorado.
Get a high-clearance vehicle, preferably 4WD, and add a few days to your journey. Canyonlands covers a huge area, but only a small section of it is accessible to regular passenger cars. There are dirt roads galore! For instance, look into the White Rim Trail, a dirt path that follows the canyon rims that give the park its name.
There's no cell phone service in the park. Even at the visitor centers, cell service is spotty.
Plan your water needs. Potable water is available only at the visitor centers at Island in the Sky and the Needles District. Always keep emergency water in your vehicle and fill up extra jugs if you plan to go deeper into the park. Spring water sources are unreliable.
Things to do in Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park
Viewpoints are worth short photo stops. If you need to stretch your legs, you can walk along the rim, but I would save your strength and enthusiasm for the following:
Viewpoints and short walks
This is the page you need to decide which walk is right for you. My favorites are the White Rim Overlook Trail (45 minutes) and Mesa Arch (20 minutes). I don't recommend any of the moderate difficulty trails.
Long and difficult hikes
Scroll down the same page to read about longer hikes in Island in the Sky. The only trail I think is worth the effort is the Murphy Loop. NOTE: This is a serious all day hike!
The White Rim Road
The White Rim Road a 100-mile moderately technical dirt road that follows the canyon rims below Island in the Sky. It takes on average 2-3 days to drive the entire loop, but if you only have one day, you can just drive in a short distance. My recommendation is to start at Potash Road near Moab and climb up Shafer Trail. Time, permitting, you can detour to Musselman Arch and beyond. Whether you go overnight or just for the day, you must first obtain a permit! You must also have a reliable 4WD high-clearance vehicle.
Things to do in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park
I recommend two long day hikes in the Needles District. Unlike Island in the Sky, the short walks of the Needles District pale in comparison. You can download trail maps from this link, but you should also pick up physical trail maps at the visitor center.
If you have a 4WD high-clearance vehicle and some technical driving skills, you can drive in closer and shorten the hikes. Of course you'll need a permit for that!
Actually, if you have a 4WD high-clearance vehicle and some technical driving skills then go to the Maze! I'm not getting into that part of Canyonlands in this post because it is way too extreme and remote for my doing.
Hiking the following trails will make you feel like you've seen every part of the Needles District and will leave you wanting more!
The confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers, though impressive, is not the highlight of this trail. Yes it's hard to explain why this trail is so cool. There is only one disappointing part to this entire hike: After walking downhill for nearly 6 miles, the end of the trail is anticlimatic. It's still beautiful, but it's not as gorgeous as you would expect. The positive side of it is that you get to turn around and hike back the way you came. In most instances, this would be a downside. But not here. This trail is awesome!
This is actually a combination of trails through the Needles and around a grassy flat clearing called Chesler Park. For a 20-mile day, combine Big Spring and the Joint Trail. If you get tired, you can take some shortcuts back to your starting point, though you'll still have a long day. Keep going as far as you can, to Devil's Kitchen and Elephant Hill, as long as you have energy and daylight. There's something new around every bend! The only part I would skip is Druid Arch.
Horseshoe Canyon - Canyonlands National Park
Horseshoe Canyon is technically in the San Rafael Swell, but it's administered by Canyonlands National Park. The canyon protects impressive pictograph panels, and the only way to see them is on foot or horseback.
If you time it just right, you should join a ranger-guided hike to truly appreciate what the canyon has to offer. It's best to hike here in winter, but if you're here in warmer months, get up early and carry lots of water.
You can get here in a regular sedan from Rt 24 on a well-maintained dirt road. Keep in mind that it will be bumpy and will take some time, but it's worth it. You can camp in the big parking lot at the trailhead. There's a pit toilet here, but no water. Remember to fill up a water jug before coming here!
Other bucket list places to visit near Canyonlands
The more you read about this area, the more days you'll want to add to your trip. Between Moab and the San Rafael Swell, there's plenty to add to your bucket list!
Arches National Park
In contrast to Canyonlands, Arches National Park is pretty small. The park entrance is about 5 minutes from the town of Moab, UT, and you can visit all its highlights in just one day.
Dead Horse Point State Park
Just a few miles from Island in the Sky you'll see the entrance to Dead Horse Point State Park. It isn't necessarily a must-do because, in reality, it's just a very big and overpriced viewpoint. But if you can't get enough of the Island in the Sky viewpoints, then you'll appreciate this park. There's also a really nice campground here, in case you're looking for a place away from Moab.
Newspaper Rock and Indian Creek (Bears Ears National Monument)
On the way to the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, you will pass Newspaper Rock, a huge boulder decorated with ancient petroglyphs. Definitely stop here for 2 minutes if you're driving down this road! Soon after this rock, the topography opens up to reveal massif red sandstone cliff faces. This area, popular with rock climbers, is called Indian Creek. It is now part of the Bears Ears National Monument.
Moab Area Hikes and Outdoor Pursuits
Here's our post about things to do around Moab. Hike to Fisher Towers, Corona Arch, and Morning Glory Arch. Mountain bike Slickrock Trail. Raft the Colorado River. Join a Hummer tour to Hell's Revenge Trail. Board a hot air balloon. Jump from a plane. Horseback ride. Should I keep going?
San Rafael Swell
I-70 cuts right through a huge desert called San Rafael Swell. To the south, along Rt 24 between Hanksville and the interstate, you should detour toward Goblin Valley State Park (just a 15-minute stop) and continue to hike Little Wild Horse Canyon. To the north of I-70, check out Buckhorn Wash and the Wedge.
Canyonlands National Park is a year-round destination with breathtaking geology, panoramic views, and endless remote wide open desert spaces. If you'd like more information on any of the destinations mentioned above, please don’t hesitate to contact us.