National Park Guide: Canyonlands National Park in Utah

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The entire Canyonlands National Park, located in the eastern part of Utah, covers over 337,000 acres of canyons, mesas, buttes, arches, and spires. The geology of the park includes over a dozen layers of various sandstones, ranging from Navajo Sandstone down to Cedar Mesa Sandstone. CanyonLands is home to several archeological sites with structures one thousand years ago and amazing star gazing, including the Milky Way. Canyonlands is a designated International Dark Sky Park for its impressive attention to preservation.

Canyonlands is divided into three sections: Island in the Sky, Needles, and The Maze, which are separated by the Colorado and Green Rivers. There is no direct route between Island in the Sky and The Needles, and it can take up to three hours to get from one section to the other section. Cairns (small rock piles) mark many of the routes on the popular trails throughout the park.There is little to no cellular service throughout the entire park and all restroom facilities are vault bathrooms (no running water).

The Island in the Sky is the most popular section (we explore this area) because it is the most accessible and offers almost 20 hikes and overlooks of varying degrees of difficulty. It is also the closest area of the park to the nearby town of Moab, Utah (a 30 minute drive). There is a very windy road to get to what literally feels like and “island in the sky”, but is actually a mesa resting on sandstone cliffs over 1,000 feet high.

According to the park website, The Needles section, in the southeast corner of the park, is named for the colorful spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone that can be seen throughout the area. There are over 60 miles of interconnecting trails, but most of them are more primitive than the trails in the Island in the Sky section of the park. We did not explore The Needles section of the park; more information on this area of the park, itineraries, and suggested activities here and information on the trails here. The Maze is a remote part of the southwestern part of the park; all roads are unpaved (visitors must drive a four wheel vehicle). This part of the park is recommended for experienced hikers- more information here if you’re in that category.

Note: Our recommendations and information focus on the Island in the Sky area of the park.

 Transportation and Parking Tips: There are parking lots at the Visitor Center and most of the major trail heads. Most lots have space for 20-30 cars.

Restrooms: Located in the Visitor Center and at some of the trail heads (Grand View Point, Green River Overlook, Mesa Arch, Upheaval Dome, and White Rim Overlook) but all restrooms vault bathrooms with no flushing or running water. 

Useful Maps: Island in the Sky map, Needles map, The Maze map,

Things to Do at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center: The Island in the Sky Visitor Center has a small gift shop and rangers who provide trail recommendations. Kids can grab a Junior Ranger booklet to earn a badge and get park passport stamps. An exhibit and short film “Wilderness of Rocks” showcase the history of the park are open. Closed for summer 2021. This part of the park website has great itineraries based on specific amounts of time in the park. Note that the Visitor Center is closed on Wednesdays and Thursdays in January and Thursday.

Information on The Needles Visitor Center can be found
here.

Best Activities for Families:

1. Hike to Mesa Arch. It is a half mile round trip hike (hike in on the right side of the parking lot and hike out on the other side (a little easier). The hike has very small inclines/declines, but most of the path is covered in large rocks. The arch frames the La Sal Mountains, Buck Canyon, Washer Woman Arch, and Monster Tower. We have heard it is amazing to see at sunrise. There is a parking lot for about 20 cars and some curbside parking available as well; two vault bathrooms at the trailhead.

2. Hike the Upheaval Dome Trail to the first overlook (there is a second overlook another ½ mile out). The hike is considered moderate because most of the path is covered in large rocks and some rock stairs; you’re literally hiking up the side of the hill. The views are beautiful. The trail, and parking lot, are at one end of the road (opposite direction of Grand View). The parking lot holds 20-30 cars with some roadside parking, and there are vault restrooms and picnic tables.

3. Hike the Grand View Point Trail. This is one of the most popular trails and has incredible views down into the canyons. It is an elevation of over 6,000 feet above sea level. The two mile trail is considered easy and there are a few parts of the trail that include rock stairs. However, there are very few railings or barriers, and sharp drops so pay attention! The trail offers incredible views of the La Sal Mountains, Colorado River Canyon, Monument Basin, Abajo Mountains, and even the Needles part of the park. The trailhead is located the opposite end of the park as Upheaval Dome. There is parking for 30-40 cars and some roadside parking, and there restrooms.

4. Attend a ranger led talk about a wide variety of topics. We enjoyed a talk about the bighorns that inhabit the area. Nighttime star gazing Be sure to fill out the Junior Ranger booklet to earn a badge.

Other Things to Do:

  • Hike White Rim Overlook, a 1.8 mile trail that features views of the Colorado River and La Sal Mountains. There is very limited parking and this trail is recommended for a late afternoon hike.

  • Climb Whale Rock, a one mile trail that leads up the side of a sandstone dome, in the shape of a rock. Pay attention- there are lots of steep drop offs.

  • Drive the entire mesa top, which is a 34-mile roundtrip scenic drive.

  • Stop at some of the other overlooks, such as Green River, Bucky Canyon, and White Rim Overlooks.

  • Camp at the 12 site Willow Flat campground at the Island in the Sky part of the park and the 29 site at The Needles.

Eating in the park and nearby: There are no dining options inside the park. The only place to get water is by the Visitor Center. Moab, the closest town, is about a 30 minute drive from the Island in the Sky entrance to the park, and has tons of dining options- check out this index. We enjoyed:

  • Moab Diner (plenty of delicious options; get a milkshake!)

  • Moab Brewery (with a microbrewery, tons of beers on taps, cans, and bottles, lots of great options including salads and burgers)

  • Giliberto’s Mexican Taco Shop (huge portions, especially the “kids” meals

  • Antica Forma for great Italian dishes, pizzas, and homemade mozzarella.

  • The Cowboy Grill at Red Cliffs Lodge (a super special resort about a 25 minutes away from downtown Moab- mile maker 14 on Route 128, a scenic route that follows the Colorado River. The views are beautiful and the resort is home to the Moab Museum of Film and Western Heritage. Make a reservation for dinner- great steaks and seafood options, and a children’s menu.) **Note: it is closed in January. 

Where to Stay: We stayed at the Fairfield Inn and Suites, which shares a resort area (pools, splash pads, fire pits, and lawn games with the adjacent Springhill Suites (both Marriott properties) which is the closest hotel to Arches National Park (5 minutes away). The Fairfield Inn opened in 2016 and the SpringHill Suites opened in 2018; both properties have approximately have 90 rooms. It is about a 35 minute drive from the entrance to Canyonland. We usually stay at Marriott properties when we travel (read more about why here) and enjoyed this hotel. Breakfast was included in our stay, the rooms are spacious, and it was relaxing to come back each afternoon and cool off in the pool; the kids loved all the water features.

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34 Comments

  1. My parents took my brother and I out there when we were growing up and I remember it being absolutely amazing. I hope one day I can give my kids the same adventures. It looks like your family enjoyed their time.

  2. My parents took my brother and I out there when we were growing up and I remember it being absolutely amazing. I hope one day I can give my kids the same adventures. It looks like your family enjoyed their time.

  3. My parents took my brother and I out there when we were growing up and I remember it being absolutely amazing. I hope one day I can give my kids the same adventures. It looks like your family enjoyed their time.

  4. What a cool place! Not going to lie, I’d never heard of it before. It is definitely going on the destination list!

  5. What a cool place! Not going to lie, I’d never heard of it before. It is definitely going on the destination list!

  6. What a cool place! Not going to lie, I’d never heard of it before. It is definitely going on the destination list!

  7. I would love, love to go to Utah! I’ve only been once and that was for work, not fun. lol What a great family trip. Thanks for all the great tips on what to do while you’re there!

  8. I would love, love to go to Utah! I’ve only been once and that was for work, not fun. lol What a great family trip. Thanks for all the great tips on what to do while you’re there!

  9. I would love, love to go to Utah! I’ve only been once and that was for work, not fun. lol What a great family trip. Thanks for all the great tips on what to do while you’re there!

  10. That grand view point looks absolutely amazing!! And your family pictures are so cute! I have never been to Utah, but it will definitely get into my bucketlist for future trips.

  11. That grand view point looks absolutely amazing!! And your family pictures are so cute! I have never been to Utah, but it will definitely get into my bucketlist for future trips.

  12. That grand view point looks absolutely amazing!! And your family pictures are so cute! I have never been to Utah, but it will definitely get into my bucketlist for future trips.

  13. Wow this looks like an adventure packed trip that’s a great fit for all ages! I love your recommendations you included outside the Park too – the brewery and the Marriott properties looks wonderful.

  14. Wow this looks like an adventure packed trip that’s a great fit for all ages! I love your recommendations you included outside the Park too – the brewery and the Marriott properties looks wonderful.

  15. Wow this looks like an adventure packed trip that’s a great fit for all ages! I love your recommendations you included outside the Park too – the brewery and the Marriott properties looks wonderful.

  16. This is such a beautiful destination. I hope to go on vacation soon. I would love to visit as I have never been to Utah.

  17. This is such a beautiful destination. I hope to go on vacation soon. I would love to visit as I have never been to Utah.

  18. This is such a beautiful destination. I hope to go on vacation soon. I would love to visit as I have never been to Utah.

  19. Sounds like a great trip! Definitely want to visit here in the next few years! I love all your recommendations and ideas for things to do, see, and eat!! Great job as always!!

  20. Sounds like a great trip! Definitely want to visit here in the next few years! I love all your recommendations and ideas for things to do, see, and eat!! Great job as always!!

  21. Sounds like a great trip! Definitely want to visit here in the next few years! I love all your recommendations and ideas for things to do, see, and eat!! Great job as always!!

  22. Looks like an outstanding family trip. We need to add Canyonlands to our "must-visit" list. The pool and large games at the hotel look really fun.

  23. Looks like an outstanding family trip. We need to add Canyonlands to our "must-visit" list. The pool and large games at the hotel look really fun.

  24. Looks like an outstanding family trip. We need to add Canyonlands to our "must-visit" list. The pool and large games at the hotel look really fun.

  25. Yess! I just did Canyonlands, and the rest of the Mighty 5 a couple of months ago! Looks and sounds like you enjoyed it just as much as I did 🙂

  26. Yess! I just did Canyonlands, and the rest of the Mighty 5 a couple of months ago! Looks and sounds like you enjoyed it just as much as I did 🙂

  27. Yess! I just did Canyonlands, and the rest of the Mighty 5 a couple of months ago! Looks and sounds like you enjoyed it just as much as I did 🙂

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