Canyonlands is the Rodney Dangerfield of national parks: it gets no respect!
I believe this is one of the hidden gems of Utah (if it’s possible for a national park to be a hidden gem) because it gets overshadowed by its more famous and likable neighbor Arches National Park, as well as its similar but more famous relative – the Grand Canyon.
I’ve spent a lot of time exploring the park, and I’ll be exploring more soon. There’s a certain pull bringing me back to this magnificent wonder.
The Top Attractions of Canyonlands
Canyonlands National Park is a breathtaking wonderland with unique rock formations, panoramic vistas, and rich history. With more than 337,598 acres of land to explore, Canyonlands offers endless opportunities for adventure and discovery.
Unfortunately, most people skim it and move on. Don’t make the same mistake. Give it some time, and it will give back.
Here are my favorite attractions, as well as a few others you should know about that I haven’t done…yet.
- Don’t miss The Best Viewpoints In Canyonlands National Park!
Mesa Arch Sunrise
Watching the sunrise at Mesa Arch is a must-do activity for anyone visiting Canyonlands National Park. Located in the Island in the Sky district, Mesa Arch is an interesting natural arch that is attached to the canyon wall and spans over 90 feet. Watch as the sun rises over the distant horizon, casting a beautiful glow across the arch and the surrounding landscapes.
The sunrise at Mesa Arch is one of the best I’ve ever seen, rivaling sunrises at Grand Teton and Bryce Canyon.
Grand View Overlook
This is the tip of the triangle-shaped Island in the Sky, a huge mesa that was carved by the Green and Colorado Rivers. Grand View Overlook offers sweeping views of the canyons below with the Needles and the La Sal Mountains in the distance.
Upheaval Dome is a crazy geological feature. It’s a massive crater-like structure that was likely formed by a meteorite impact or a salt dome collapse. It’s a short hike to view the collapsed dome. It’s been called Utah’s Belly Button (which is apparently an “outie”).
The Aztec Butte is a hidden gem located in the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park. It consists of two large sandstone buttes that rise up out of the desert floor, offering incredible panoramic views of the surrounding landscapes. The scrambles to the top of each butte provide ancient Puebloan ruins, including granaries and living quarters.
Needles Scenic Drive
The Needles Scenic Drive is a 20-mile route that winds through the bottom of Canyonlands in the Needles District. The drive to the Needles goes through a wonderful valley with canyon walls and pointy red rock formations called the Six Shooters. In the distance, you can see the cliffs of the Island in the Sky District as well as the pointy Needle formations.
Cave Spring Trail
The Cave Spring Trail is a short, easy hike in the park’s Needles District that offers a glimpse into the area’s rich cultural history. The trail takes you to a small, historic cowboy camp complete with a spring-fed water source, a rock corral, and even a small cave where cowboys used to store food and supplies. You’ll see Native American rock art before climbing two short but fun ladders to the top of the rock formation that provides great 360-degree views of the Needles District.
The Shafer Trail is a possibly terrifying 4×4 drive that winds down the steep cliff faces of the Island in the Sky mesa, offering incredible views of the surrounding canyons and mesas. The trail is not for the faint of heart, but it’s a must-do activity for adventure seekers who want to experience the park’s rugged beauty from a unique perspective.
I haven’t done this yet because the last time I was there it snowed and the park closed the road.
Chesler Park Trail
The Chesler Park Trail is the most famous and popular activity in the Needles District. This is a challenging 10-mile trail and provides the “easiest” way to get into the actual Needles formations.
I haven’t done this yet, but it is tops on my bucket list of hikes.
The new mantra for many national parks is “half the park is after dark.” I can’t say I agree with this saying, but we have really enjoyed stargazing, especially in the remote parks of Utah, where the skies are incredibly clear. The best way to do it is with a park ranger as a guide. Canyonlands offers ranger tours, and so does nearby Dead Horse Point State Park.
Brief History of Canyonlands
Canyonlands has a rich and fascinating history that spans thousands of years. The area has been inhabited by various Native American tribes, including the Ancestral Puebloans, Fremont, and Ute peoples, for thousands of years. These early inhabitants left behind a rich legacy of rock art, pottery, and other artifacts that can still be seen in the park today.
In the 1800s, the first European explorers began to venture into the area. One of the most famous of these early explorers was John Wesley Powell, who led an expedition down the Green and Colorado Rivers in the late 1800s. Powell was struck by the area’s rugged beauty and recognized its potential as a national park. The John Wesley Powell Museum, located nearby in Green River, Utah, tells this story.
Cattle grazing has also played a significant role here. In the late 1800s and early 1900s, cattle ranchers began to use the area for grazing. This led to conflicts between ranchers and the park’s early conservationists, who were concerned about the impact of grazing on the area’s fragile ecosystems. Signs of cattle grazing can be found throughout the park, such as the Shafer Trail and Cave Spring Trail.
Uranium mining has played a role in the history of Canyonlands National Park. In the early 1950s, uranium was discovered in the area around the park, and a mining boom began. Thousands of mining claims were filed in the region, and mining operations quickly spread throughout the area. Though it ultimately was not that profitable, the mining operations built roads that made the future national park more accessible to visitors.
A man named Bates Wilson has the title “Father of Canyonlands National Park.” Wilson was the superintendent of the then Arches National Monument and was enamored with the Canyonlands area. He labored to get it protected and became the first superintendent of Canyonlands National Park.
Today, Canyonlands National Park receives about a million visitors per year. Of the five Utah national parks, it is the least visited. Due to its rugged nature, some of its best features are only accessible for advanced hikers or off-roaders. But don’t let that scare you away. There are still plenty of great things to see for the average visitor.
Warning: once you visit, the backcountry adventures will lure you in.
- Read our tips for Hiking in the Desert: 11 things to know before you go.
The Four Districts of Canyonlands
There are four districts to the park. These are all separated by a driving distance of at least 2 hours, and they all offer very different experiences.
The average tourist only visits the Island in the Sky and the Needles Districts.
Island in the Sky
The Island in the Sky district is the most popular and accessible area of Canyonlands National Park. It is located at the northern end of the park and is basically the mesa top, providing sweeping views of the surrounding landscape. While the scenic drive isn’t all that scenic (due to it being a flat plateau), the various overlooks are jaw-dropping. You can also explore several interesting hiking trails that lead to great viewpoints, such as Mesa Arch and Upheaval Dome.
- Visit Mesa Arch: The Most Famous Feature in Canyonlands and The Very Strange Upheaval Dome in Canyonlands National Park.
The Needles district is located in the southeastern part of the park and is known for its colorful sandstone spires and tall rock formations. The area is popular among hikers and backpackers, with several backcountry trails that lead to remote campsites and hidden canyons, but for the average tourist, this is an underrated district. The scenic drive here is much nicer than the Island in the Sky because you’re at the bottom of the canyons, with views of the Needles formations and the canyon walls in the distance. Short hikes – more like walks – provide interesting variety, views, and history.
- Don’t miss Pothole Point: An Easy Trail in Canyonlands and Slickrock Trail in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.
The Maze district is the most remote and rugged area of Canyonlands National Park. It is located in the western part of the park and is accessible only by high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles. The Maze is characterized by its intricate network of narrow canyons, towering cliffs, and hidden arches. Visitors can hike, backpack, or bike through the area’s challenging terrain and experience the true wilderness of Canyonlands National Park.
Horseshoe Canyon is located outside the main boundaries of Canyonlands National Park but is still considered a part of the park. It is known for its stunning rock art, including some of the most well-preserved examples of ancient rock art in North America. Visitors can take an 8-mile roundtrip hike to see the Great Gallery.
- Read all about my experience Hiking Horseshoe Canyon In Canyonlands.
Flying or Driving
Canyonlands is most often visited in conjunction with a trip to Moab, Utah, or on a Utah Mighty Five road trip.
Though there is a small airport in Moab, I’ve never heard of anyone using it. Most people fly in or out of Salt Lake City, Las Vegas, or Denver, and drive to Moab.
Others might visit Canyonlands on a big road trip through the Southwest, including places like Monument Valley, Mesa Verde, and the Four Corners Region.
The Island in the Sky and the Needles Districts are accessed via Moab, Utah. The Island in the Sky District is 45 minutes away from Moab. The Needles District is 1.5 hours away. The closest town to the Needles is the small town of Monticello, but most people who visit stay in Moab due to the many other attractions located near Moab.
The Horseshoe Canyon and the Maze Districts are accessible from Hanksville, Utah, or Green River, Utah, located on the other side of the Colorado River. Both of these require driving for many miles on dirt roads. Because the Maze is so far into the backcountry, you’ll most likely need to get a backcountry camping permit.
- Looking for more to do? Learn Things To Do Along Scenic Potash Road In Moab, Utah.
Park Hours and Fees
The park is open year-round, 24 hours a day, but visitor centers and other facilities have different hours of operation depending on the season.
Entrance fees are $35 per vehicle, $30 per motorcycle, and $20 per person for those entering on foot or by bicycle.
Annual “America the Beautiful” passes are also available for $80, which provides entry to all national parks and federal recreational lands for one year. You might qualify for a free annual pass if you have a fourth grader, if you’re a veteran, or if you’re disabled.
You can also get a lifetime America the Beautiful pass for a one-time purchase if you’re a senior.
Do You Need Reservations, Tickets, or Permits to Visit Canyonlands?
No reservations are required to visit Canyonlands. Many parks are turning to reservations or ticketed-entry systems to handle overcrowding issues. Luckily, Canyonlands doesn’t have this issue!
However, you will need reservations, or maybe even a permit, to camp in the park (see below).
In addition, you will need backcountry permits if you plan to do any of the following activities:
- River Rafting
- Backcountry Hiking
- Mountain biking
- Day driving on certain rough dirt roads, such as the White Rim Road and Elephant Hill.
Where to Stay
There are NO lodging facilities inside Canyonlands National Park. The most common cities to stay in while visiting Canyonlands are Moab, Utah, and Green River, Utah.
- See our recommendations of where to stay in Moab, Utah.
- Booking.com is a great resource to use when you want to compare prices and ratings all in one place.
Note that Green River is too far away to visit the Needles District. If you want to visit the Needles, plan on staying in Moab, Monticello, or Blanding. Blanding has quite a bit to offer itself, including the Edge of the Cedars State Park and easy access to Bears Ears National Monument.
Where to Camp
There are two main campgrounds in Canyonlands. The others are backcountry campgrounds that require permits. There are also many others nearby run by the Bureau of Land Management (BLM).
Willow Flat Campground
Willow Flat is the only campground in the park’s Island in the Sky district. The campground has 12 sites, each with a picnic table and fire ring, and can accommodate both tents and RVs up to 28 feet in length. The sites are first-come, first-served and often fill up quickly, especially during peak season.
Located in the park’s Needles District, the Needles Campground is a larger campground with 26 sites that can accommodate both tents and RVs up to 28 feet in length. The campground has picnic tables, fire rings, and flush toilets. The sites are first-come, first-served, but reservations are recommended during peak season.
For larger groups, Canyonlands National Park also offers several group campsites that can accommodate up to 50 people. The group campsites are located in the park’s Needles and Island in the Sky districts and offer picnic tables, fire rings, and vault toilets. Reservations are required for group campsites and can be made up to six months in advance.
The Needles Outpost
The Needles Outpost campground is located just outside the entrance to the Needles District. It is a privately-owned campground offering tent, RV, and even tipi sites.
Backcountry Camping in Canyonlands
There are many other campgrounds in all four districts of the park, but these are all backcountry campgrounds that require a permit and orientation with the park before camping.
Camping near Canyonlands
There are many public and private campgrounds near Canyonlands and Moab, including luxury glamping businesses as well as sites managed by the BLM. There are too many to list here.
Where to Eat in Canyonlands
There are NO restaurants in Canyonlands National Park.
Due to its remote location (at least an hour away from Moab), you should pack a picnic lunch for your days visiting Canyonlands. It’s ALWAYS safe to pack food and water while traveling in this desolate part of the country anyway.
There are a ton of good restaurants in Moab. For most visitors, Moab is a great place to relax and get a hot meal after a long day of exploring Canyonlands.
If you’re visiting the Needles, the closest restaurants are located in Monticello, Utah (named after Thomas Jefferson’s MontiCHello, but pronounced MontiSello). Monticello is about an hour away from the Needles District.
How Much Time Do I Need to Visit Canyonlands?
Though some people only spend an hour or two visiting Mesa Arch, if you really want to do Canyonlands properly, plan on spending two rewarding days in the park: one to explore the Island in the Sky, and one to explore the Needles District.
It may not take a full day to do each of these, but Moab has so many other wonderful things to offer to fill in the gaps. We even provide you with a detailed itinerary for all of this in our Moab guide.
When is the Best Time to Visit Canyonlands?
The best times to visit Canyonlands are March and November.
The park is open year-round, but the weather and crowds can vary significantly throughout the year. Generally, the most popular time to visit is during the spring and fall when the weather is mild, and the crowds are smaller.
Spring (March to May) is an excellent time to visit for mild temperatures, wildflowers, and seasonal waterfalls. Fall (September to November) is also a great time to visit for cooler temperatures, changing foliage, and fewer crowds.
Summer (June to August) can be hot with temperatures reaching over 100 degrees Fahrenheit, but it’s a great time to visit if you’re looking for river activities such as rafting or kayaking. Plus, the sunsets are stunning during this time of year.
July and August used to be lesser visited months due to the unbearable heat, but multiple residents in Moab have told me that the European tourists, who don’t seem to mind the heat, are filling in those months.
Winter (December to February) can be cold with snow and icy conditions, but it’s a beautiful time to visit if you’re looking for solitude. Don’t forget to pack your coat!
Avoid visiting during the Easter Jeep Safari, when Moab is overrun by thousands of offroaders.
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What to Pack for a Visit to Canyonlands
Because Canyonlands offers such a wide variety of activities, from simple viewpoints to major offroading adventures, a packing list will also vary depending on your trip. Here are some things to consider:
- Comfortable hiking shoes: With many easy and difficult trails to explore, comfortable and sturdy hiking shoes are always a must-have.
- Weather-appropriate clothing: Pack layers! The weather can vary significantly in the park. If visiting in the shoulder season, it will be cold in the morning but gorgeous during the day.
- Sun protection: The sun in Canyonlands National Park can be intense, so be sure to pack sun protection, including sunscreen, sunglasses, and a hat.
- Water and snacks: This is a desert! It’s essential to stay hydrated while exploring the park, so bring plenty of water and snacks to keep your energy levels up.
- Camera: Canyonlands National Park is a photographer’s dream, so don’t forget your camera to capture the stunning views and landscapes.
- Binoculars: You might spot some wildlife, but more likely, binoculars will give you a better feel for what you’re looking at in those panoramic vistas. They can also be helpful to look at petroglyphs that are farther away.
- Maps and guidebooks: You’re often off the grid in this part of the country. I always carry a road atlas in my vehicle just in case. You should have a guidebook for visiting attractions because you can’t plan on the fly on your phone. Download my Moab guidebook and print it so you’ll always know where to go.
- First-aid kit: Pack a basic first-aid kit with bandages, antiseptic wipes, pain relievers, and any prescription medications you may need. You’re so far away from help if an accident happens.
- Gasoline: Just make sure your car is filled up before you leave for the day. On separate occasions, my parents and I almost ran out of gas in the park. Always check your gas tank before heading into Canyonlands!
Check out our recommended gear page for more!
Things to Do Near Canyonlands
You could spend a lifetime exploring the unbelievable area surrounding Canyonlands.
Dead Horse Point State Park
Just a few miles from the Island in the Sky, Dead Horse Point State Park offers breathtaking views of the Colorado River and Canyonlands National Park. Hike one of the many trails, or take a scenic drive to enjoy the stunning views.
Gemini Bridges are two massive stone arches that are joined together, creating a unique formation that spans over 200 feet across. To get there, you can drive a calm dirt road, a technical off-road, or a mountain bike.
Arches National Park
Arches National Park is easily the most popular thing to do in the Moab area, and it receives about twice the number of visitors as Canyonlands. It’s full of interesting formations and fun hikes.
Grand Staircase Escalante
Located on the west side of Canyonlands, Grand Staircase offers other-worldly adventures deep into the backcountry of Utah. It’s well-known for its slot canyons, hikes, and scenic drives.
Goblin Valley State Park
Also located on the west side, Goblin Valley is one of the quirkiest and best places to scramble around on rock formations.
- Check out The Perfect 3-Day Road Trip Through the San Rafael Swell & Central Utah (Helper, Goblin Valley, Price, & More!)
Bears Ears National Monument
Bears Ears is lesser known, and due to its ever-changing boundaries, is kind of a confusing place to figure out where it is. But it offers scenic drives and great Indian ruins.
Monument Valley is located a few hours south, on the border of Utah and Arizona. This is an absolute must-see. Those buttes and mittens are just an awesome site!
What Else Do You Need To know?
Between Moab, Arches, and Canyonlands, there is so much to see and do. How do you know where to start? You need help! Don’t miss out on the best things.
- Moab, Arches, and Canyonlands Itinerary
- Canyonlands Trip Planner Page
- Moab Trip Planner Page
- Things To Do Along Scenic Potash Road In Moab, Utah
- Aztec Butte: Great Little Hike in Canyonlands
- Cave Spring – A Fun, Short Trail in Canyonlands
- Newspaper Rock: Amazing Rock Art Panel in Utah
- White Rim Overlook Trail: The Best Viewpoint in Canyonlands
- Is the Needles District in Canyonlands Worth Visiting?
- How To Hike Horseshoe Canyon In Canyonlands
- 9 Great Places to Stay When Visiting Arches, Canyonlands, and Moab
- Best places to eat in Moab, Arches, & Canyonlands
- The Perfect 3-Day Road Trip Through the San Rafael Swell & Central Utah (Helper, Goblin Valley, Price, & More!)
- Hiking in the Desert: 11 things to know before you go
- Canyonlands National Park Website