Canyonlands National Park is a massive canyon region of Utah divided into four districts where the Green and Colorado rivers converge. Visitors exploring the national park can experience hiking to overlooks, camping, 4x4ing, picnicking, whitewater rafting, helicopter tours, and much more. Whatever you choose to do in its borders, Canyonlands National Park is a must-visit because it offers a lifetime of exploration possibilities and unique experiences.
From the moment you enter the park, you are welcomed by a massive wilderness and natural elements which are currently divided into four parts: Island in the Sky, The Maze, The Needles, and the Colorado and Green rivers. When standing at any of the park’s countless overlooks, you’ll see miles of colorful landscape, which is home to canyons, arches, mesas, and buttes that were carved by the Colorado River.
Canyonlands National Park is a hidden gem and despite being Utah’s largest national park, the main reason why many people visit the park is for the breathtaking arches, landscape views, and scenic drives. Below, we have put together some of the fun and best things to do in Canyonlands National Park.
- Best overall hiking trail – Aztec Butte Trail
- Best activity for kids – Cave Spring Trail and Pothole Point
- Best activity for adults – 4×4 Adventure Tour
- Best sunset views – Mesa Arch
- Best place for a picnic – White Rim Overlook
- Best area for camping – The Needles
- Best all-around accommodation – Homewood Suites by Hilton Moab
Fun & Best Things to Do in Canyonlands National Park
1. The Needles District
The Needles District is nestled in the park’s southeast corner and derives its name from the colorful spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone that dominate the area. This park area has winding hiking trails spanning over 60 miles, offering plenty of opportunities to see amazing landscapes and experience overnight trips at the campground. Both foot trails and four-wheel-drive roads provide access to park features, including the Tower Ruin, Confluence Overlook, Chesler Park, Joint Trail, and Elephant Hill.
Additional information is available from the Needles District Visitor Center, which is open daily from spring through fall. The center, run by the National Park Service, has exhibits, backcountry permits, picnic areas, general information, and book and map sales for planning scenic drives. Park rangers are also on duty during these months.
Those interested can partake in various Ranger-led programs on most nights from March through October at the campground. But, if you’d prefer to explore on your own, we recommend a self-guided driving tour of the park, which includes directions and a stop at The Needles.
See Related: Best & Fun Things to Do in Ogden, Utah
2. The Maze
If you are looking for an adventure, consider adding The Maze to your list of things to do when visiting the park. Unfortunately, this area is one of the least accessible districts because it is very remote. Adventurers wanting to explore and experience the wonder of The Maze need at least three days to explore, while some claim to be able to spend more than a week experiencing the magnificence of this park area.
The Hans Flat Ranger Station in this area is open year-round, and there is a small area where you can purchase books and maps. Guided hiking tours run by the National Park Service are also available most weekends during the spring and fall from the ranger station. The Maze is accessible by foot or four-wheel-drive trails, and it is highly recommended to bring a map because GPS devices often fail and can lead you astray.
Editor’s note: There are no services, food, gas, or potable water sources in The Maze.
3. Colorado and Green Rivers
The Colorado and Green rivers created most of the Canyonlands National Park as they wound their way through the area, cuddling deep into the layered sandstone. The areas along the rivers are bright, green, shady, and full of life, making them perfect for exploring and experiencing various watersports, including whitewater rafting, kayaking, and canoeing.
The rivers are not easily accessible, but if you don’t mind a bit of a hike, you can enjoy the rivers starting at the Confluence or in Cataract Canyon. Cataract Canyon is one of the most visited areas of the park among boaters and whitewater rafters. Most visitors typically launch their boats onto the Colorado River from the Potash or Moab ramps and make their way via the water to the remainder of the park.
Several tours are available along the Green River, but some of the more highly recommended tours are along the mighty Colorado River. Enjoy a Colorado River guided boat tour during a 3-Hour Jet Boat Tour to Dead Horse Point State Park.
But if you prefer a more adventurous experience along the Colorado River, then we recommend this Canyonlands 4×4 Drive and Colorado River Rafting tour for a more thrilling experience.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Salt Lake City, Utah
4. Island in the Sky
Island in the Sky is a mesa with sheer sandstone cliffs rising more than 1,000 feet above the surrounding landscape. Every overlook in this park area provides spectacular views and a unique perspective. This region of the national park is one of the easiest accessible areas and is perfect for those looking to experience the park for a short time. Hiking trails and four-wheel-drive roads are available for visitors wanting more of a backcountry experience.
The Island in the Sky Visitor Center is open year-round, with limited winter operation days, featuring backcountry permits, a picnic area, wireless internet, exhibits, books, and maps for sale, and park rangers on duty. Ranger-led programs are also available, sharing information about the natural and cultural resources of this park.
Camping is available at the Island in the Sky Campground (Willow Flat), which is open year-round with easy access to the Green River Overlook. The campground provides visitors with access to toilets, fire rings, and picnic tables; however, there is no water available, which is available nearby at the visitor center. If you’re looking for one of the best things to do in Canyonlands National Park, I can recommend this highly-rated and popular Canyonlands National Park Half-Day Tour from Moab. The tour takes visitors through the most popular places in the park, including the Island in the Sky area.
5. Grand View Point Overlook and Trail
The hike to the Grand View Point Overlook is perfect for first-time visitors and those wanting an easy hike to access the fabulous views of the landscape. Once you arrive at the Grand View Point Overlook, you will be in awe of the beautiful vistas with gorgeous red rock formations set in the high desert terrain. Because the hiking trail is fairly easy, this is also the perfect hiking experience for families and allows kids to get out of the vehicle, burn off some energy, and hike to a beautiful overlook.
Grand View Point Road also leads to the Shafer Trail Viewpoint, where you can stop for a bit and explore while taking a scenic drive in the northern part of the park. Experience hiking to the Grand View Point Overlook and other fabulous locations throughout the park by taking this immersive Canyonlands National Park all-day hiking experience.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Orem, Utah
6. Horseshoe Canyon
If you want to see some of the most significant rock art in North America, take time to explore Horseshoe Canyon, which includes The Great Gallery. This area is well-preserved, with life-sized figures made using intricate designs. This park area is also the place to go for impressive views of spring wildflowers, mature cottonwood groves, and sheer sandstone walls nestled along a stream at the canyon’s bottom.
Hiking through the Horseshoe Canyon ranges from easy to challenging, and it is best to be prepared to walk over uneven terrain and some steep rocky areas. The hike through this area is about seven miles roundtrip, and Ranger-led hiking programs are available in the spring and fall. The trails do not allow dogs, but horses, mules, and burros are permitted.
After a long day exploring, head back to your hotel in nearby Moab. Homewood Suites by Hilton Moab offers a great place to relax and regain energy before another day of exploring the park.
7. White Rim Road
White Rim Road offers a backcountry experience when biking or driving through the park. This 100-mile road loops around Cataract Canyon and below the Island in the Sky mesa top and offers explorers wide-ranging and awesome views of the area.
A high-clearance vehicle with four-wheel drive is best for navigating this road. Before exploring White Rim Road, check the weather and with the NPS ranger station because sometimes the road is underwater, which makes it impossible to experience the entire loop. Permits are required to explore this area and stay overnight along the White Rim.
Permits are available at visitor centers throughout the park or can be purchased online the day before your arrival. Driving along White Rim Road is included in this popular Canyonlands National Park backcountry 4×4 adventure from Moab.
See Related: Best Hot Springs in Utah & Resorts to Visit
8. Gooseberry Trail
Gooseberry Trail is not for everyone, but if you are up for the steep, rocky climb, then you can follow this trail to incredible views of the area. If you are up for a rigorous hike and are not afraid of heights, this is the hiking experience you want to enjoy.
The trail is short, so it does not take too much time, but it still manages to take you to breathtaking viewpoints along the upper rim of the canyon. This hike is among the most rewarding and perfect for those who want to get back to see the rest of Canyonlands National Park.
Staying at the Hyatt Place Moab places you about an hour from the park, providing you the perfect place to stay, relax, and have easy access to return to the park to explore the various trails, including Gooseberry Trail.
9. Murphy Trail Loop
The Murphy Trail Loop is a fantastic full-day hike atop the Murphy Hogback and White Rim Road. The terrain can be rough and has a lot of up-and-down rocky hills, but it is worth the experience if you can endure the hike. Hiking the Murphy Trail Loop is considered by many as one of the best things to do in Canyonlands National Park and you can hike to the Buck Canyon Overlook or to the Murphy Hogback Campground.
Exploring the Murphy Loop Trail is perfect for someone looking for just a short walk or to go mountain biking. Though this is one of the more difficult trails in the national park, you will have a blast hiking to a remote area and enjoying the scenery. Don’t forget to bring plenty of water with you because no water is available until you get back to one of the visitor centers in other areas of the park.
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10. Wilhite Trail
The Wilhite Trail is a primitive trail with steep switchbacks dropping 1,600 feet into a long, sandy wash, which you can follow to the White Rim Road. The trail is another strenuous one that can get rough and uneven, requiring walking up and down rocky hills and stone steps. During the winter, this trail can get slippery and experience snowy and icy conditions, so it is recommended to wear the necessary traction devices when hiking.
As one of the more challenging trails and things to do in Canyonlands National Park, you will be rewarded by the impressive views of the area and the scenic drive it takes to get there. Do not miss out on this hiking experience that begins at Upheaval Dome Road and continues down toward the Green River, providing panoramic views of the Holeman Spring Basin and the Upper West Basin.
11. Alcove Spring Trail
Alcove Spring Trail starts a bit strenuous, but plenty of steps are installed to help make hiking down and climbing back up to the Island in the Sky easier. Plus, the last four miles of the trail are very easy “wash walking.”
This hike is one of the more spectacular hikes taking you along massive cliffs, overlooking an amphitheater-like alcove. The last mile has the most spectacular view, where you can see the spires known as Zeus and Moses on the north horizon.
See Related: Best Day Trips from Salt Lake City, Utah
12. Syncline Loop Trail
Explore the canyons around Upheaval Dome as you navigate steep switchbacks and climb through boulder fields along the Syncline Loop Trail.
The Syncline Loop Trail is one of the most challenging trails in the area, so before heading out to this trail, make sure you can physically make the trek and have all your supplies packed. This hiking trail is more for the avid hiker and does not necessarily provide spectacular views around the Upheaval Dome area. But, if you are up for it, it is a rewarding hike that winds through diverse terrain, including rock, stone, dirt, and loose sand.
When looking for a place to stay near Canyonlands National Park, we recommend staying at Hoodoo Moab and making it your base of operations during your vacation.
13. White Rim Overlook
The hike to the White Rim Overlook is similar to that of the one at Grand View Point but is less challenging and does not have steep drops. The east-facing overlook provides fantastic views of the Colorado River, the La Sal Mountains, and the Monument Basin.
This hike is best enjoyed in the afternoon, just before the sun sets. A popular tour is the Arches and Canyonlands 4X4 Adventure from Moab, which includes a stop at the White Rim Overlook.
14. Chesler Park
Chesler Park is a large circular meadow surrounded by the tallest rocks in the area, displaying the magnificent red and white colors of the Cedar Mesa Sandstone found throughout the national park. Chesler Park can be reached by hiking a few miles along one of many trails. The shortest path to this park is from Squaw Flat Campground, which can get hikers to the elevated viewpoint of the edge of the park in about 2.6 miles.
Hiking is best enjoyed during cooler times of the year because it can be challenging with little shade available during the summer months. Multi-day hiking experiences are available by getting permits from the National Park Service and are available at several locations of Chesler Park, especially along the eastern edge.
See Related: Best National Parks to Visit in November
15. Mesa Arch
If you are traveling with small children or are a novice hiker, hiking to the Mesa Arch is a great choice when visiting the Island in the Sky area. Mesa Arch is one of the most iconic views in the park, and it is easy to get to via a short hiking trail. Plus, the sunsets at the Mesa Arch are spectacular and a must-see when visiting the national park.
Once you have made the half-mile trek, you will have views of the arch, which is nestled on a 500-foot cliff, providing a keyhole view of White Rim through the arch. Be careful when hiking near the arch because there is no fence to prevent a fall.
When admiring the Mesa Arch, you can see the Green River off in the distant background, which offers many opportunities to take breathtaking photos. This half-day sunset scenic tour of Canyonlands and Dead Horse State Park includes a stop at the Mesa Arch, where you can enjoy the fantastic sunset views.
16. Whale Rock
Set within the Island in the Sky area, Whale Rock is one of the more fun structures at the park to climb, with handrails to help you reach the top of the rounded, eroded sandstone fin. Though there are handrails, many people enjoy free-climbing the rock and making it to the top.
When you climb to the top of the rock, you will be impressed by the fantastic views of the Upheaval Dome. Plus, from above, many say this rock resembles a beached whale in the middle of the arid landscape.
17. Aztec Butte Trail
The Aztec Butte Trail is a moderate hiking experience at the park with a grade that does steepen and becomes narrow as it ascends along the ledges toward the top of the butte. Steep rock and a tall ledge are near the top, requiring you to tackle them before accessing the fantastic view.
If you are not an experienced hiker or are afraid of heights, hiking the Aztec Butte Trail may be challenging. However, once you reach the top of the butte, you will have a unique birds-eye view of the red rock canyons and the Abajo Mountains. When hiking the Aztec Butte Trail, do not enter any ruins or granaries nestled in the sandstone alcoves below the rim, and please do not touch the fragile walls as you hike by.
See Related: Fun & Best Things to Do in Moab, Utah
18. Upheaval Dome
If you want to explore and experience one of the most puzzling geological features in Canyonlands National Park’s Island in the Sky District, make your way to the Upheaval Dome. The hike to get to the overlooks at the dome is about 1.7 miles, and when you get to the top, you will be overlooking a 1,000-foot-deep crater.
Geologists have two theories about how the dome was created. The first is the new-fangled meteorite theory dating back 60 million years ago, and the second is the more traditional salt dome theory, which has the dome developing more than 300 million years ago.
Though scientists are more convinced now that a meteor created the Upheaval Dome, the salt dome theory is still a possibility many believe in. Regardless of its origins, the Upheaval Dome is a fantastic place to explore and a must-visit when exploring the national park. If you have a picnic lunch, this is a great place to take a break from exploring and enjoy lunch looking out at the fantastic views.
If you are looking for a unique adventure when visiting the Canyonlands National Park, you will want to check out this Canyonlands National Park airplane tour for amazing views of the park, including the Upheaval Dome.
How many days do I need to visit Canyonlands National Park?
Most visitors only need one day to explore the park, mainly if they are sticking to only visiting the overlooks and the shorter hiking trails. However, if you want to experience and explore the longer trails, take tours, or explore the off-road trails, you may prefer to have two to three days at the park.
When is the best time of the year to visit Canyonlands National Park?
For the most pleasant weather conditions and to avoid large crowds, visiting Canyonlands National Park is best during spring and fall. Weather conditions can make visiting the park challenging, especially during the winter months, though it’s far less crowded this time of year. On the other hand, the summer can get extremely hot, and visitors flock to national parks, such as this one, making it very crowded and challenging to find a parking spot.
Is there food available in Canyonlands National Park?
Unfortunately, no food, lodging, or gas is available within the national park. The nearest location for these items is about 32 miles from the Island in the Sky Visitor Center in Moab, Utah.
What is the best part to visit in Canyonlands National Park?
Like with other national parks, what you do when visiting Canyonlands National Park depends on what interests you. Most people enjoy the Island in the Sky or The Needles, which offer shorter hikes, and fantastic views, and are popular among first-time visitors and families.
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