12 Incredible Things to do in Canyonlands National Park Utah (for 1st time visitors)

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Planning a trip to Canyonlands National Park?

We enjoyed two days exploring this national park in Utah and down below are our top tips on the best things to do in Canyonlands National Park including the best hikes, scenic drives, how to get there, where to stay, and more!

My first memory of mine and Craig’s trip to Canyonlands National Park Utah back in 2006 was dominated by one of the most epic natural experiences of my life.

It was so electric and vivid I can still feel and see it 13 years later. I am not exaggerating on the electric part either.

We had driven from the Islands in the Sky District to the Needles District in Canyonlands Utah and a major storm was brewing. We were questioning our wisdom, but as we were so keen to see those spires of rock we decided to follow through with our plans.

I remember not being able to appreciate the stunning scenery around me on the drive because I was a little panicked by our decision.

We arrived into the Needles District just as the dark storm clouds rolled in, the rain started to pelt, and the lighting began to strike!

It felt safe-ish in the car, but really weren’t too sure safe was a real word when talking about lighting strikes.

We headed straight to the Canyonlands Visitor Center to wait it out, but on the way there was when the most epic natural thing of my life happened.

Islands in the Sky District

About 100 feet off to the side of the car a lightning bolt struck the ground.

The air around us crackled and sizzled and lit up. We saw the bolt shoot off in different directions on impact, just as you see in animated shows. The energy of bolt went through the car into us (luckily we weren’t mountain biking).

What? Did that just happen? How could you be so thrilled and terrified at the same time?

The visitor brochure is not joking when it says,

“Lighting is a serious threat. If a thunderstorm is near, avoid overlooks, get back in your vehicle and close the windows!’

So, I was happy to go back and visit Canyonlands National Park in 2019. This time outside of storm season and with our kids.

Where is Canyonlands National Park?

And what makes it unique?

Canyonlands National Park is one of four national parks in Utah.

The closest town is Moab, which is situated about 30 miles away from the Islands of the Sky District, and 60 miles from The Needles District.

The added bonus of its location is that it is also near Arches National Park, which means you can cross off Arches and Canyonlands National Park which are two incredibly diverse national parks at the same time!

Canyonlands is a rugged, untamed land with mostly unpaved roads and primitive trails. If you seek adventure, you can find it in abundance here.

3 Districts of Canyonlands National Park
Islands in the Sky District – view from Mesa Arch Trail

Canyonlands is unique in that it is separated into three districts stretching across 527 square miles.

These three districts are created by the Colorado and Green Rivers carving their way through the canyon.

They meet up at the confluence and continue moving down south.

The Green and Colorado Rivers form a Y through the national park creating:

  • Islands in the Sky in the north
  • the Needles District in the Southeast
  • and the Maze District in the Southwest.

There is no way to get over the rivers to move between each district from within the park.

This adds a challenge to your visit as it means you have to go out and drive the long way around to get to either section.

So plan your trip accordingly.

It will make for a very long day if you try to do it in the one day. Otherwise plan for a day (or half a day) exploring the Needles and Islands of the Sky separately.

The Needles District

For intrepid explorers and experienced 4WD, you can visit The Maze separately.

The Maze Canyonlands is named for the puzzle the oddly shaped towers, buttes and mesas create.

Here you will find solitude, silence and plenty of adventure and challenges to overcome. Be wild. Be safe. Be Bold.

In the Maze Utah you’ll find Horseshoe Canyon which has some of North America’s most significant rock art.

For this post though, we will focus on things to do in Islands in the Sky District and things to do in Needles District, which is where most people typically visit Canyonlands National Park.

Things to do in Canyonlands National Park
Islands in the Sky District
Best Hikes
Mesa Arch Trail

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One of the best things to do in Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky is the Mesa Arch hike. It’s only 0.5 miles return and is beautiful, interesting and easy!

I loved the arch and the view behind it into the canyon and towards the La Sal Mountains. Being popular, you may need to line up to get your photo taken in front of the arch – it’s one of the most popular Canyonlands hikes!

Be sure to safely lean over the rock for a sheer drop view into the canyon. To the right sits a large rock I recommend climbing up for views above and over Mesa Arch.

Sunrise at Mesa Arch is meant to be the thing to do. If you are camping at Canyonlands it will make sunrise at Mesa Arch easier.

Grand View Point Overlook Trail

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The Grand View Point Overlook Trail starts with close up views of the White Rim, which is a sandstone bench 1,200 feet below the Island.

Another 1,000 feet below this are the rivers. You won’t be able to see them shadowed by the canyon cliffs.

Be sure to step away from the edge and watch young children on the trail as there are no protective fences and you follow the mesa edge almost the entire way.

At the end of the trail you can see far away into the Maze and Needles district, making it one of the best Canyonlands National Park hikes to do!

We did this walk in the afternoon at the wrong time of the day so it was hazy with the sun right in our eyes. I’ve seen photos with the sun shining on the view and it is spectacular.

So the morning will probably be better, if you can time it that way!

Visitor Center Overlook

If there is one viewpoint not to miss when visiting Island in the Sky it’s the visitor center overlook.

Thankfully, it’s an easy one to check off at the start of your trip. Just walk across the road from the Canyonlands National Park visitor center and there it is. It’s a spectacular view!

Buck Canyon Overlook

Along the main drive you can pull over for a quick look at Buck Canyon Overlook.

You may get the feeling that all the views look the same. If you have time, it’s worth looking and seeing how each viewpoint has its own unique perspective.

Schaffer Canyon and Trail Overlook

I thoroughly recommend stopping to get a good look at the switchbacks of this famous four wheel drive road.

I don’t know why but it inspired us to come back another day and drive down it. The Beast (our F250 truck) just couldn’t be stopped.

Green River Overlook

Green River is meant to be a great place to visit for sunset.

If you only have time for one sunset, I recommend skipping this and going to Dead Horse Point instead (see tip below).

Scenic Drives – Islands in the Sky District
Islands in the Sky Scenic Drive

We only did one part of the Islands in the Sky scenic drive road as we ran out of time – we did the Grand View point section from the visitor center.

To do both scenic drives through Island in the Sky Utah is 34 miles in total. There’s also the 100-mile White Rim Road leading that around and below the Island in the Sky.

Be careful. Someone went over the edge in their car while we visited. We were held up in the visitor center while the helicopter came in to rescue them.

Pretty scary stuff, as it’s a nice paved road.

Here are a couple of viewpoints we saw on the Islands of the Sky drive.

Drive the Shaffer Trail

Driving down the Shaffer Trail switchbacks into the quiet of the canyon floor was an incredible experience.

If you have time, and an adventurous spirit, I highly recommend it as one of the top things to do in Canyonlands National Park!

Check conditions at the Visitor Center as you may need a 4WD. You could at least drive the switchbacks in a 2WD down to the bottom. I wouldn’t recommend taking the rest of the trail back to Moab in a 2WD though.

It can get pretty rough.

Although, just after I commented about how quiet and serene it was once we reached the floor of the canyon, a convoy of kombis came roaring up the trail from Moab.

There were over 30 vans on an adventurous mission, recreating the experience of tours which ran tours through this area way back before it was a national park.

The 90+ year old original owner was leading the kombi lovers. We were okay with it breaking the serenity as it was super cool to see and hear about it.

Once you get down to the floor you can either return, drive deeper into Canyonlands National Park (permit required), or take the road along the rim to Moab.

I loved driving this road and coming out to Horseshoe Bend where only a couple of days before we sat above watching the sunset here. It’s a magnificent spot.

We then drove past a random salt farm, whose bright blue waters was a contrast to the desert red. The road then spills out to the Colorado River which you trace back to Moab.

It took us about 3 hours to complete the Shaffer Trail and that was with plenty of photography stops. The switchbacks at the beginning were a lot of fun and not as scary as I was anticipating.

We had done a similar switchback drive only a week or so before in the Valley of the Gods so felt a little better prepared.

Drive safely and watch for cars coming the other way you may have to pass.

Off road vehicles and bikes are permitted on the 100-mile White Rim Trail (permits needed) which is meant to take about 2 days to do.

Hot Tip:

Plan your trip to Canyonlands Islands in the Sky for the afternoon. Then head straight to Dead Horse Point State Park for sunset!

Needles District

The drive to the Canyonlands National Park Needles District is quite beautiful beside huge orange and red mesas, and plateaus of the parks border.

Purple wildflowers were in bloom, cows were grazing in the emerald green valley, and in the distance there were even a few buttes rising up reminding us of Monument Valley and Valley of the Gods.

Be sure to look up at the escarpment walls on the way through – there are a few bodies crawling up those walls.

The drive then opens up and in the distance you see the white and pink pinnacles standing together that give the park it’s name – the Needles!

In Needles Canyonlands, you’ll find sculptured rock spires, arches, canyons, upheaval dome and potholes. Names like Devil’s Kitchen, Elephant Hill and Caterpillar Arch beckon you to come visit.

Most arches can be reached only through intrepid adventures in backcountry canyons.

The Wooden Shoe Arch can be seen from the roadside not too long after entering the park.

What I loved most about the Needles District is that it was so quiet. We barely saw another person, which is really not typical of America’s national parks.

If you want solitude, The Needles District Canyonlands is the place to come!

It is more remote than the Islands in the Sky, which is why fewer visitors come here.

Is the Needles District worth exploring?

That depends on how much time you have and how adventurous you can go?

I was disappointed that we couldn’t really explore the needles themselves, only able to view them from afar.

The Needles Utah is what makes this part of the Canyonlands park special, so I think the ability to explore them makes it a worthwhile journey.

The problem is that the best hiking trails in Canyonlands National Park that explore the Needles area are 6-miles or longer, which is not good for families with younger children.

The roads in also require 4WD high clearance and a little expertise.

Even though we had experience a few days before rock crawling with a Jeep in a group with a guide, we still don’t feel comfortable going on experienced routes yet on our own!

We did look at the start of the 4WD Elephant Hill Track, but saw the narrow road climbing up over the rock formations and said no.

Thankfully, as I later read, it is the most technical 4×4 road in all of UTAH. Wow!!

We really enjoyed the walks we did, the longest was 2.4 mile return, and it was pretty, but I’m not 100% sure it was worth it. I do not regret visiting The Needles though, which is always a good sign.

One thing I thought of later was perhaps walking on one of the day hikes into the Needles as far as we could go and then turn around.

Check with the visitor center to see which would be the most appropriate to do that with kids.

Best Hikes
Slickrock Trail

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The Slickrock Trail was a unique trail over the rock face along the rim of a canyon.

The depths into the canyon are nowhere near as deep as Islands in the Sky, but still take caution.

The trail follows cairns so be on the lookout for them as you walk. We saw loads of lizards along the way.

You get beautiful 360 degree views out over the canyons and across to the Needles in the distance on the way back, making it another one of the best hikes in Canyonlands National Park.

Pothole Point

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This is a nice easy trail over slickrock and passing though diverse pothole communities.

There were only a couple that were filled with water. Be sure not to step in them as they are filled with microscopic forms of life.

I loved some of the rock formations to the right. You do get a closer view of the Needles from here, although still far away.

Cave Spring

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The kids will enjoy the Cave Spring Trail, especially if it is hot.

It’s a short loop that goes under the rock rim into caves, past an historic cowboy camp, and prehistoric rock paintings. It finished with two ladders up to the top of the caves for views out over the park.

Some of the other trails I’d love to do in The Needles District are:

  • Chesler Park Viewpoint and the Chesler Park Loop
  • Confluence Overlook.

Scenic Drives – Needles District

The scenic drives continues for 6.5 miles beyond the visitor center ending at Big Spring Canyon Overlook.

There are several pullouts for trailheads, viewpoints, and one picnic area.

Drive to Elephant Hill

We were a little unsure whether to drive the 2wd gravel Elephant Hill Drive after reading the park brochure that said “steep inclines and sharp switchbacks to test the skill of even the most accomplished drivers.”

How could a 2WD road be that extreme?

We nervously pressed on the pedal to find practically nothing extreme at all.  There were a few narrow roads and blind corners, but it was a cinch.

I now realize the description was for the Elephant Hill 4WD track I mentioned above!!

You will take this tamer 2WD Elephant Hill road to get to most of the longer hikes in the park amongst the needles.

The drive is scenic and worth going to at least to get to the Needles.

I wish national park brochures had way better information. They are awful to be honest with barely any information in any national parks brochure on trails and what to expect etc.

I love writing these posts for you so we can help you plan a better trip.

We took the Elephant Hill drive not knowing what it was or where it went. There was no information in the brochure at all.

Most of the information is about the history, geology and flora and fauna of the park, but not the relevant stuff: what experience each trail and drive will offer and what you can do there.

If I had of known I would have gotten out of the car on that drive and walked a little more into the needles to explore them better.

I recommend you do that.

Tips for Canyonlands National Park

  • It can get very hot in Canyonlands NP in the summer. Be prepared for the heat and pack plenty of water. Do all your hiking early in the morning and don’t overdo it.Add in blurb about igloo and Hydro flask from Arches NP
  • Fill up your water bottles (put extra in the car) at the visitor center.
  • There aren’t a lot of fences so be careful near the edges of the canyon.
  • As mentioned, protect yourself if a thunderstorm rolls through.
  • Entrance fee is $30 per vehicle for a 7 day pass.  We have a National Parks Pass, which costs $80 for a year for our family and gives unlimited access to all federal lands. It has saved us a TON of money already.
  • Rangers offer evening programs and overlook talks April through to October. Check at the visitor center for schedule.
  • Have your kids participate in the Junior Ranger Program. Pick up the booklet from the visitor center and return when finished to say the pledge and get your Junior Ranger badges.

Best Time to Visit Canyonlands

The spring and fall months are the best time to visit Canyonlands National Park in terms of cooler weather and less people visiting.

Snow is likely in the winter and temperatures will be cold.

Summer will be baking hot and the crowds will arrive making finding a spot in some of the small car parks difficult – start early if you visit during the summer.

Tours of Canyonlands

If you don’t have the equipment or confidence to tackle all of the amazing things to do in Canyonlands National Park on your own, you can join one if the guided Canyonlands tours with company and experienced leaders.

Where to Stay at Canyonlands
Camping in Canyonlands 

For Canyonlands National Park camping, the Islands in the Sky Campground is near Green River. The 12 sites are first come, first served. There are no water or hookups and the fee is $15 a night.

The Needles campground is in a gorgeous setting at the base of the rocks leading up to Elephant Hill.

For campgrounds near Canyonlands National Park, there are many options around the Moab area. See here and here. 

Hotels near Canyonlands

For hotels near Canyonlands National Park look no further than Moab.

There are many options of places to stay in Moab at several price points.

Top rated picks on Booking.com include:

  • Budget: MainStay Suites and Sleep In & Suites
  • Mid-Range: SpringHill Suites by Marriott and Archway Inn
  • Top End: Hyatt Place and Sorrel River Ranch Resort & Spa

See all hotels in Moab on offer via our affiliate partner Booking.com

Airbnb in Moab

Looking for more of a home or apartment stay? You can often find great deals on Airbnb rentals for Moab.

Currently there are 300+ homes in Moab to book. 

Directions to Canyonlands National Park

It takes just under an hour from Moab to get to the Islands of the Sky District.

It takes over an hour (depending on where you depart from in Moab) to get to the Needles District

Moab to Canyonlands:

  • Distance: 30 miles
  • Time: 40 minutes

Arches National Park to Canyonlands:

  • Distance: 26 miles
  • Time: 30 minutes

Rental Cars and RV Rental

RentalCars.com is the world’s biggest car rental booking service that compares all the major brands like Hertz, Avis, Alamo, and Europcar.

For RV Rentals, check Outdoorsy, or RVShare if you want to rent a unique campervan or RV and explore further afield.

More Utah Travel Tips

Interested in other places to visit in Utah? Start with these posts:

  • 11 best things to do in Arches National Park Utah
  • Utlimate guide of things to do in Zion National Park
  • 15 amazing things to do in Monument Valley

I hope this guide helps you plan your trip? If you have any questions, leave a comment below. We look forward to exploring more one day, and maybe even doing some white water rafting in Cataract Canyon!

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