Article Overview: Best Things to Do at Canyonlands National Park
Planning an itinerary of the best things to do in Canyolands National Park? You’re in good hands. I’ve been to Canyonlands more times than I can count and know all the popular spots and even some hidden gems.
Canyonlands National Park is an increedible place famous for its breathtaking overlooks, deep canyons, famous sunrises, and colorful sandstone spires.
The layout of the park is fairly complicated so there are some things you should know about getting around.
Some of the best things to do in Canyonlands are fairly obvious like seeing the overlooks off the main park road but others are a bit more hidden.
In this article I’ll cover all of the best things to do in Canyonlands National Park, what to pack, what to expect, and how to make the most of your time.
Ready to get started? Let’s go!
Table of Contents: Things to Do in Canyonlands National Park
Things to Do in Canyonlands National Park
- Interesting Facts About Canyonlands National Park
- Canyonlands National Park Districts
- Things to Know Before You Visit Canyonlands National Park
- Things to Do at Canyonlands National Park
- Top 20 Best Things to Do at Canyonlands National Park
- Top 15 Things to Do at Canyonlands National Park
- Top 10 Things to Do at Canyonlands National Park
- Top 5 Things to Do at Canyonlands National Park
- Canyonlands National Park Itinerary
- Map of Things to Do in Canyonlands National Park
- Summary of Things to Do in Canyonlands National Park
Why Trust Us About Things to Do in Canyonlands National Park?
I’m Will Pattiz and along with my brother Jim, we’re collectively known as the Pattiz Brothers (and sometimes the Parks Brothers) and we absolutely LOVE the national parks.
You should probably know that we don’t just make this stuff up out of thin air. We’ve spent our entire adult lives exploring and filming America’s national parks and public lands.
We’ve worked with the National Park Service, the Department of Interior, USDA, and the U.S. Forest Service for years creating films on important places and issues. Our work has been featured in leading publications all over the world and even some people outside of our immediate family call us experts on the national parks.
Interesting Facts About Canyonlands National Park
- Location: Utah
- Acreage: 257,640 acres
- Visitation: 733,996 visitors in 2019
- Highest Elevation: 7,120 feet in the Needles District
- Lowest Elevation: 3,700 feet in the Big Drop Rapids section in Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River
- When Did It Become A National Park? On September 12, 1964 President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Public Law 88-590 establishing Canyonlands National Park.
For more check out our article: 15 Fascinating Canyonlands National Park Facts
Canyonlands National Park Districts
Canyonlands National Park is divided into four districts: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the rivers themselves. Each district has its own unique features and offers a range of activities for visitors.
The Island in the Sky district is located in the northern part of the park and is known for its expansive views and easy access. This district is a great place for first-time visitors to the park, as it offers a variety of short and easy trails that provide breathtaking views of the surrounding landscape.
The Needles district is located in the southeastern part of the park and is known for its towering sandstone spires and intricate network of hiking trails. This district is popular with experienced hikers and backpackers, who come to explore the park’s backcountry and camp in its remote wilderness areas.
The Maze district is the least accessible part of the park and is known for its challenging terrain and remote location. This district is only recommended for experienced hikers and backcountry enthusiasts, as it requires a high level of physical fitness and self-reliance.
The rivers themselves, including the Colorado and Green Rivers, are also part of the park and offer a range of activities such as rafting and kayaking. These rivers are a popular destination for water enthusiasts, who come to explore the park’s waterways and enjoy its beautiful scenery.
Things to Know Before You Visit Canyonlands National Park
Entrance Fees at Canyonlands National Park are $30 per vehicle OR if you plan to visit more National Parks within the next 12 months I suggest you go ahead and purchase the America the Beautiful Pass (which can be found at the entrance gates to most national parks). This pass gets you into all National Parks, Forests, Monuments, and more including 2,000 sites for free after a one time $79 fee.
Use it. Lots of it. Especially this one which I never leave the house without because it plays nice with our dear friend, earth 🙂
There are fuel options in Moab right outside of the park so fueling up at Canyonlands National Park is not much of a concern.
The Best Guide Book
This is the guide book I like best for Canyonlands National Park.
The Best Map
I like this map best for Canyonlands National Park.
The Best Time to Visit
The best time to visit Canyonlands National Park is during the fall to see less crowds. Spring is another great time to see Canyonlands as the desert is starting to warm back up but not yet blazing hot.
Things to Do at Canyonlands National Park
Top 20 Best Things to Do at Canyonlands National Park
Location: All districts
Starting off our list of the best things to do at Canyonlands, we look toward the heavens. Canyonlands is an internationally recognized location for stargazing.
As a matter of fact, in 2015 Canyonlands received its International Dark Sky Park status which is reserved for only the darkest skies. What this means for us is that the show above is pretty spectacular.
A few of the best spots to stargaze in Canyonlands National Park include Grand View Point and Green River Overlook.
In addition to the natural beauty of the night sky, Canyonlands National Park also offers ranger-led stargazing programs and other events.
These programs provide visitors with the opportunity to learn about the night sky and see the stars up close through telescopes and other equipment.
19. Camping at Canyonlands National Park
Location: All districts
What better way to enjoy Canyonlands National Park than spending a night underneath the stars – we’re talking camping.
Canyonlands has two main campgrounds: Island in the Sky (also known as Willow Flat) and The Needles.
Island in the Sky (Willow Flat) Campground is located in the northern part of the park and features just 12 first come, first served sites.
The Needles Campground is located in the southern part of the park and offers 29 more secluded camp sites.
Both campgrounds offer a variety of sites for tents and RVs, as well as group sites for larger parties. Reservations are recommended, especially during the peak season.
In addition to the campgrounds, the park also offers backcountry camping for more experienced adventurers. This type of camping allows visitors to explore the park’s remote areas and spend the night in the wilderness.
A permit is required for backcountry camping, and visitors should be well-prepared and experienced in wilderness camping.
18. Whale Rock
Location: Island in the Sky
The last time I visited Canyonlands National Park I finally paid a visit to the lesser traveled but always intriguing Whale Rock.
I figured it would be basically just be a whale shaped rock. It was.
You have to come up on it at just the right angle to really see the “whale” but it’s there, especially for those with more vivid imaginations.
Beyond the somewhat gimmicky outcropping, Whale Rock is a great area to get out, stretch the legs, and see the unique topography of the park.
17. 4WD Adventures
Location: All units
Four-wheel driving is probably the best way to explore the rugged terrain of Canyonlands National Park. The park’s network of dirt roads provide access to most of the park’s most remote and scenic areas.
Some of the most popular four-wheel drive roads in Canyonlands National Park include the White Rim Road, the Elephant Hill Road, and the Hardscrabble Hill Road.
These roads are challenging and require a high level of driving skill and experience. They are also typically only accessible to high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicles.
Before embarking on a four-wheel drive trip in Canyonlands National Park, it is important to be properly prepared. You should have a reliable four-wheel drive vehicle that is equipped with high-clearance and good traction.
Be sure to bring plenty of water and supplies, as well as a good map of the park and a GPS. It is also a good idea to let someone know your plans and to bring some method of communication in case of an emergency.
Four-wheel drive roads in the park can be affected by weather, maintenance, and other factors, and it is important to check the current road conditions before setting out.
16. Orange Cliffs Overlook
Location: Island in the Sky
Prior to visiting Canyonlands I had never heard Orange Cliffs as a recommended spot to see. Let me tell you, it’s worth the stop!
The Orange Cliffs are especially beautiful in the late afternoon as the sun starts to make its way toward the horizon and the cliffs are illuminated with a brilliant orange glow, thus the name.
Stopping here only requires about 10-15 minutes and is worth adding to your list of things to do in Canyonlands National Park.
Top 15 Things to Do at Canyonlands National Park
15. Scenic Drive on Grand View Road
Location: Island in the Sky
For folks with mobility issues or those of us just looking for a more relaxed day, add driving the scenic Grand View Road to your list of things to do in Canyonlands National Park.
Grand View Point Road begins at the park’s visitor center and winds 19 miles through the heart of the Island in the Sky district, providing access to several popular overlooks and trailheads.
Along the way, you can enjoy stunning views of the surrounding canyons and mesas, as well as many of the park’s most popular overlooks including Shafer Canyon, Orange Cliffs, Grand View, and more.
Grand View Point Road is a paved road that is suitable for all vehicles.
14. Backcountry Adventures
Location: All units
For those looking to explore the remote and rugged landscape, add backcountry adventures to your list of things to do in Canyonlands.
While hiking and backpacking are the top backcountry activities, rock climbing, mountain biking, and rafting are also popular. Most of the backcountry in Canyonlands is only accessible by foot, bike, or high-clearance 4WD vehicle, and some require a backcountry permit.
The park also has several designated backcountry campsites that can be reserved in advance. These campsites are located in remote areas of the park and offer a true wilderness experience.
To plan a backcountry adventure in Canyonlands National Park, it is important to be prepared and knowledgeable about the park’s rules and regulations which can be found on the park’s backcountry page.
It is also important to come prepared with all the necessary gear and supplies, as the park is a remote and rugged area with no services available.
13. Woodenshoe Overlook
Woodenshoe Overlook offers one of the most impressive, easy to access, overall views of the famous Needles District in Canyonlands National Park. From here, you can see the a pretty impressive array of the colorful sandstone spires this area is known for.
Getting to the overlook is fairly easy as it’s located right off the main park highway in the Needles district (Hwy 211).
12. Confluence Overlook
One of the most rewarding and most challenging hikes in Canyonlands National Park is the Confluence Overlook Trail. At 11 miles round trip the Confluence Overlook Trail only has 300 feet of elevation gain and requires about 5-6 hours to complete.
You should know that it’s exposed basically the whole way so lather up the sunscreen! Another important note is that the trail features a lot of uneven, rocky, sandy terrain.
Reaching the overlook makes the hike more than worthwhile as the views of the confluence below are really stunning.
Add this to your list of things to do in Canyonlands National Park if you’re looking for a hearty hike!
11. White Rim Road Mountain Biking
Location: Island in the Sky
White Rim Road is a popular mountain biking destination located in the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. The road is a 100-mile loop that winds through the heart of the park and offers stunning views of the surrounding canyon.
White Rim Road is a challenging mountain biking route that is best suited for experienced riders. The road is rough and rocky, with several steep climbs and descents, and can be very strenuous.
It is also a remote area, with no water or other services available along the route, so it is important to come prepared with all the necessary supplies.
There are several campsites along White Rim Road that can be reserved in advance, and many riders choose to spend a few days camping and biking along the route. There are also several guided mountain biking tours available that can help you navigate the route and provide additional support.
To ride White Rim Road, you will need a backcountry permit, which can be obtained at the park’s visitor center or online. You will also need to bring a mountain bike that is in good working condition and suitable for the rough terrain of the road.
Top 10 Things to Do at Canyonlands National Park
10. Chesler Park
Located in the Needles district of the park, Chesler Park is known for its colorful sandstone spires and cliffs and is a popular destination for hikers and rock climbers.
Add this to your list of more adventurous things to do in Canyonlands National Park.
To get to Chesler Park, you will need a high-clearance 4WD vehicle and a backcountry permit, as the park is only accessible by a rough, dirt road. The drive to Chesler Park from the nearest town, Moab, takes about 2 hours.
There are a number of trails in Chesler Park, ranging from easy to difficult. One of the most popular trails is the Chesler Park Loop Trail, a moderate 11-mile loop that takes hikers through the heart of the park and offers stunning views of the surrounding landscape.
Other trails in the area include the Joint Trail, which leads to a natural arch, and the Druid Arch Trail, which leads to a towering sandstone arch.
9. Horseshoe Canyon
Horseshoe Canyon is a beautiful and remote section of Canyonlands National Park in Utah. It is located in the western part of the park and is known for its striking rock formations and ancient rock art.
The main attraction in Horseshoe Canyon is the Great Gallery, a large rock shelter that contains some of the most impressive and well-preserved rock art in North America.
The rock art was created by the Barrier Canyon Culture, a group of Native Americans who lived in the area over 2,000 years ago.
The Great Gallery contains a number of impressive panels of rock art, including the famous “Hiking Man” panel, which depicts a human figure with elongated limbs.
In addition to the rock art, Horseshoe Canyon is also a popular destination for hikers and rock climbers. The canyon has a number of trails that range in difficulty and offer stunning views of the surrounding landscape.
The most popular trail is the Horseshoe Canyon Trail, which leads to the Great Gallery and is a moderate 7-mile round trip hike.
NOTE: To visit Horseshoe Canyon, you will need a high-clearance 4WD vehicle and a backcountry permit, as the canyon is only accessible by a rough, dirt road. The drive to the canyon from the nearest town, Green River, takes about 2 hours.
8. Elephant Hill
Let me start this one by saying Elephant Hill Road is considered one of the most technically challenging 4WD roads in the state of Utah. Still interested? Read on.
Reaching Elephant Hill itself requires a high-clearance, four-wheel drive vehicle and technical expertise on navigating “steep grades, loose rock, stair-step drops, tight turns, and tricky backing” according to the NPS.
On top of that, anyone thinking about taking this challenge on is required to stop off at a ranger station and pick up a permit.
Once you reach the trailhead, the trail to Elephant Hill is about 6.5 miles long. Once you reach Elephant Hill, you’ll be rewarded with stunning views of some of the most unique rock formations in Canyonlands.
The area is also home to a wide variety of plant and animal life, including pinyon pines, juniper trees, and desert bighorn sheep.
7. Maze Overlook
The Maze Overlook offers some of the most impressive views in all of Canyonlands National Park. The catch is getting to it which is not exactly easy.
Getting to the Maze Overlook requires an arduous backcountry drive down difficult 4WD only roads. If this sounds like your kind of adventure then add it to your list of things to do in Canyonlands as the payoff is great.
Sunrises from Maze Overlook are especially brilliant but sunsets are great as well. There’s a primitive campground located right at the overlook as well for folks looking to soak a night under the stars here.
6. Shafer Trail Viewpoint
Location: Island in the Sky
One of the most amazing views of Canyonlands National Park is that of Shafer Canyon Road from above. A common mistake folks make when trying to get the best view of the road is going to the similarly named Shafer Canyon Overlook.
While the views from there are nice as well, they’re not the best. Keep driving down the road about a mile until you see the signs for Shafer Trail Viewpoint.
This is the place to get the wildest views of the road leading down into the canyons of Canyonlands.
Top 5 Things to Do at Canyonlands National Park
5. Grand View Point
Location: Island in the Sky
Some folks list Grand View at the top of their list of things to do in Canyonlands National Park. Seeing it for yourself it’s easy to see why.
From the Grand View Point, you’ll be treated to sweeping panoramic views with epic perspectives of the Green River, the Colorado River, and the Island in the Sky mesa.
The Grand View Point trail is a short, easy hike that leads from the parking area to the overlook. The trail is well-maintained and accessible to visitors of all ages and abilities.
From the overlook, there are several other hiking trails that lead to other points of interest in the park. In addition to its stunning views, Grand View Point is also a popular spot for stargazing.
4. Shafer Canyon Road
Location: Island in the Sky
Located in the heart of Canyonlands National Park, Shafer Canyon Road is one of the top things to do at Canyonlands National Park (if you have the right vehicle!). This scenic dirt road winds its way through the park, offering stunning views of the surrounding canyons and mesas.
Despite its beauty, Shafer Canyon Road is not for the faint of heart. The road is unpaved and can be quite rough in places, with steep drop-offs and tight turns. It is only recommended for experienced drivers with high clearance vehicles.
If you do decide to take on Shafer Canyon Road, be sure to take it slow and watch for washouts and other hazards. It’s also a good idea to bring along a map of the area, as cell phone reception can be spotty in the park.
Once you’re on the road, there are plenty of places to stop and take in the views. The Shafer Trail Overlook, located near the beginning of the road, offers panoramic views of the canyon below.
Further along, you’ll come to the White Rim Road, a 100-mile loop that offers even more breathtaking views of the park.
3. Upheaval Dome
Location: Island in the Sky
Upheaval Dome is a really cool, somewhat mysterious, geologic feature located in the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park in Utah.
The “dome” part of Upheaval Dome is a large, circular depression in the earth’s surface that is thought to have been caused by a meteor impact or a collapsed underground salt dome.
There are two main trails around the dome: the Upheaval Dome Trail and the Syncline Loop Trail. Both trails are moderate in difficulty and offer stunning views of the surrounding canyon.
The Upheaval Dome Trail is a 3-mile round trip hike that leads to the rim of the dome. From the rim, visitors can see the circular depression and the rock layers that were disrupted by the dome’s formation.
The Syncline Loop Trail is a longer, more strenuous hike that circles the dome and offers even more impressive views of the surrounding landscape.
2. Sunset at Green River Overlook
Location: Island in the Sky
No list of things to do in Canyonlands is complete without a good sunset spot and me oh my is there an epic one at Canyonlands.
Green River Overlook is easily the best place to see sunset in Canyonlands National Park and one of the best in any national park.
Located just 8 miles (14 minutes) from the Island in the Sky Visitor Center, getting to the overlook parking lot is easy. From there, just a few hundred feet separate you from the stunning views.
At the overlook, you can see the Green River winding through the canyon below and distant mountains on the horizon.
Photographers, pack your zooms for the best shots like the one below as the most interesting parts of the canyons are somewhat far off.
1. Sunrise at Mesa Arch
Location: Island in the Sky
Odds are if you love the national parks then you’ve seen images of our top Canyonlands activity before. One of the most iconic images in all of the national parks happens comes from Mesa Arch at Canyonlands.
Mesa Arch is located on the edge of a mesa, hence its name, and is accessible from a short, easy hike that starts at the nearby Mesa Arch Trailhead. The trail to the arch is only about 0.5 miles round trip and is suitable for hikers of all skill levels.
From the arch, visitors can enjoy breathtaking views of the canyon and the surrounding landscape. The arch is particularly popular for photography at sunrise, when the natural light creates a beautiful contrast with the red rock of the canyon.
I recommend getting to the arch about an hour prior to sunset to get a good spot (especially if you’re trying to take a photo) and to see the full display of magic happen.
In addition to its natural beauty, Mesa Arch is also an important cultural site for the Ute tribe, who have lived in the area for thousands of years. The Ute considered the arch to be a sacred place and used it as a natural lookout point to survey the surrounding landscape.
Canyonlands National Park Itinerary
1 Day Canyonlands National Park Itinerary
- Start your day at Mesa Arch, which is located in the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park. It’s a beautiful natural arch that is located on a cliff edge and offers breathtaking views of the surrounding Canyonlands. Arrive at the arch early in the morning to catch the sunrise and see the colors of the canyon change as the sun rises.
- After enjoying the sunrise at Mesa Arch, head to the Island in the Sky Visitor Center to get a map and some information about the park.
- From there, take the scenic drive along the Rim Road to the Grand View Point Overlook, which offers panoramic views of the park and is a great spot for taking photos.
- After that, take the short hike to the Upheaval Dome, a fascinating geological formation that was formed by the impact of a meteor or other celestial object.
- For lunch, stop at the Green River Overlook, which offers beautiful views of the river and the surrounding canyons. You can picnic here or grab a bite to eat at the nearby visitor center.
- In the afternoon, head to the Whale Rock Trail, which is a moderate hike that offers great views of the park and the surrounding area.
- As the day comes to a close, head over to Green River Overlook to watch the sunset over the vast, finger like canyon areas
3 Day Canyonlands National Park Itinerary
Day 1 of 3: Canyonlands National Park Itinerary
Start your day by driving to the Island in the Sky district of the park. This is the most easily accessible part of the park and has some of the most impressive views.
Take the scenic drive along the Rim Road, which offers stunning vistas of the canyons and mesas below. Be sure to stop at the various overlooks along the way to take in the views.
Head to Mesa Arch, one of the most popular and iconic spots in the park. This natural arch is located on a cliff edge, offering breathtaking views of the surrounding canyons.
After taking in the views at Mesa Arch, continue on to the Grand View Point Overlook, which offers panoramic views of the canyons and the Green and Colorado rivers.
Next, visit the Green River Overlook, which offers views of the winding Green River and the dramatic canyons it has carved over time.
For lunch, head to the picnic area near the visitor center, where you can enjoy a picnic while taking in the stunning views of the surrounding landscape.
In the afternoon, explore the hiking trails in the park. There are many different trails to choose from, ranging from easy, accessible trails to more challenging hikes. Some popular options include the Upheaval Dome Trail, the Aztec Butte Trail, and the Grand View Point Trail.
As the day comes to an end, head back to the visitor center to learn more about the park’s history and geology, and to pick up some souvenirs from the gift shop.
Day 2 of 3: Canyonlands National Park Itinerary
Spend the day exploring the Maze district of the park. This remote and rugged area is only accessible by 4WD vehicle and is not for the faint of heart. The drive to the Maze from the Needles district takes about 3 hours.
Take a guided tour of the Maze, or if you have experience with 4WD and backcountry travel, consider exploring on your own. The Maze has a number of challenging 4WD roads and trails, as well as several backcountry campsites for those who want to spend the night in the wilderness.
In the afternoon, visit the Hans Flat Ranger Station to learn more about the history and geology of the park. The ranger station is located in the heart of the Maze and has exhibits and information about the park’s natural and cultural history.
After visiting the ranger station, consider camping in the Maze district for the night. There are several primitive campsites available on a first-come, first-served basis.
Day 3 of 3: Canyonlands National Park Itinerary
Spend the morning rafting or kayaking on the Colorado River. There are several companies that offer guided trips through the park. These trips can range from half-day to multi-day and can be tailored to your skill level.
In the afternoon, visit the park’s visitor center to learn more about the park’s history and geology. The visitor center is located in the Island in the Sky district and has a variety of exhibits and information about the park.
Take a short hike to one of the park’s many viewpoints, such as Upheaval Dome or Grand View Point, to take in the stunning views of the canyon one last time. Upheaval Dome is a moderate 3-mile round trip hike, while Grand View Point is an easy 0.5-mile round trip hike.
Map of Things to Do in Canyonlands National Park
Summary of Things to Do in Canyonlands National Park
- Mesa Arch
- Green River Overlook
- Upheaval Dome
- Shafer Canyon Road
- Grand View Point
- Shafer Canyon Overlook
- Maze Overlook Campground
- Elephant Hill
- Horseshoe Canyon
- Chesler Park (Needles)
- White Rim Road Mountain Biking
- Confluence Overlook
- Woodenshoe Overlook
- Backcountry Adventures
- Scenic Drive
- Orange Cliffs Overlook
- Aztec Butte
- Whale Rock
Pin Things to Do in Canyonlands National Park
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