When you’re visiting Canyonlands National Park, it feels like you’re in the wild wild west! These are the best things to do in Canyonlands National Park.
About Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands is the largest National Park in Utah and one of the state’s 5 National Parks. It’s located in the southeastern part of the state and very close to Arches National Park. Canyonlands is a rugged and untouched landscape full of canyons and interesting rock formations.
The park has four districts; three land districts and one water district. They are:
- Island in the Sky
- The Needles
- The Maze
- The Rivers (the Green River and the Colorado River)
Most people only visit the Island in the Sky and The Needles. These have good road access and are easy to reach from the city of Moab.
Canyonlands National Park Visitor Information
This section contains practical information about Canyonlands National Park, like opening hours, entrance fees, and the best time to visit the park.
How to get to Canyonlands National Park?
The nearest international airports are in Salt Lake City (Utah) and Denver (Colorado). From both cities, it’s a 4-6 hour drive to Canyonlands. There is no public transportation to the park, you need a car.
Most people use the town of Moab as a base to visit Canyonlands National Park. Here are the directions from Moab to the three land districts in the park:
- Island in the sky: follow US 191 in the northern direction and go left at the intersection with UT 313. At some point, you can go left to Dead Horse Point State Park, but if you just keep on following the road, it’ll lead you directly into Canyonlands National Park. It is a 40-minute drive from Moab to the visitor center.
- The Needles: follow US 191 in the southern direction and take a right at UT 211. The drive from Moab to The Needles district takes about 1 hour and 30 minutes.
- The Maze: the most remote district of Canyonlands is only accessible with a high clearance four-wheel drive and you have to bring proper gear for self-rescue. To get to the Maze, you’ll first need to drive to the town of Green River. Keep on following the I-70 and go left at the UT 24. When you see the exit to Goblin Valley State Park, there’ll be a dirt road on your left. Follow this dirt road to the Hans Flat Ranger Station.
Please note: GPS won’t always work within the park. It is therefore smart to always bring a map with you, especially when you plan to visit The Maze. You can download a digital map on the website or buy a paper map on Amazon.
Canyonlands National Park is open 24 hours a day.
The main visitor center is located in the Island of the Sky district. This is open daily from March to December but has limited access during winter months. During the main season, the visitor center is open from 8 am to 5 pm. Check the official website for the opening hours during your visit.
$30 per car, $25 for a motorcycle, and $15 for hikers and bikers (prices 2023). Your ticket is valid for 7 days. You can get your ticket when you arrive at the park.
If you plan to visit more US National Parks within a year, it’s usually cheaper to get the America the Beautiful annual pass. This costs $80 and with this pass, you can visit more than 2000 federal recreation sites in the USA, including the National Parks. You can buy the annual pass in the park.
Best time to visit Canyonlands National Park
The best time to visit Canyonlands National Park is in spring and fall when the weather is mild and the park is not too crowded.
The most popular time to visit the park is during the summer months, but it can also get very hot and crowded. Winter is the quietest season, but some roads might be closed because of snow.
How much time do you need in Canyonlands?
The amount of time you need to spend in Canyonlands National Park really depends on your interests and the type of activities you plan to do. A general rule of thumb is to allow at least one full day to explore each district of the park (Island in the Sky and The Needles).
If you only plan to visit the Island in the Sky district, a single day will give you enough time to see the main highlights, such as Mesa Arch, Grand View Point, and Green River Overlook.
If you’re interested in hiking, you’ll want to allow more time. Some of the popular hikes include the Chesler Park Loop and the trail Upheaval Dome, which takes a couple of hours.
In summary, if you want to see the main highlights and do some short hikes, you’ll need at least 2-3 days to visit Canyonlands National Park. If you’re interested in more strenuous activities or backpacking, you’ll need more time.
Best things to do in Canyonlands National Park
This is an overview per district of the best things to do in Canyonlands National Park. Most of the trailheads and viewpoints have a dedicated parking lot.
Things to do in the Island in the sky district
If you’re short on time, the best place to visit is the Island in the sky district. It offers some spectacular views and some of the best hikes in the park.
Learn more about the park in the visitor center
To make the most of your visit, I would recommend stopping by the visitor center before you go out and explore the park. Here you can get maps, get information from one of the park rangers, find out about fun activities, and learn everything you want to know about the park. In addition, it’s also a great place to shop for souvenirs.
Hike to the Mesa Arch
This stone arch is one of the most iconic locations in the park. To see it, you have to go on a short and easy hike (0.5 miles round trip). The view is always amazing, but even better during sunrise.
Visit Upheaval Dome
Upheaval Dome is a unique geological formation that offers a challenging hike to the summit. It’s still a mystery how the crater originated. Some say it was a meteor, some say it’s erosion. It offers some of the best views of the park. The hike is about 4-6 miles round trip.
The Shafer Trail is a spectacular scenic drive into the canyon which takes about 1 hour to complete. It’s smart to do it with a four-wheel drive or you can go mountain biking. If you don’t feel like driving, it’s also fun to see the road from the Shafer Canyon Overlook.
White Rim Road
If you prefer a longer scenic drive, you can continue to the White Rim Road after you’re done with the Shafer Trail. This is a 100-mile loop road, and it takes about 2 to 3 days to finish it. Make sure to get an overnight permit before you head out. You can do it by bike or use a high-clearance vehicle. The White Rim Road offers spectacular views and driving it is a fantastic way to explore the park.
Tip! You can also explore the White Rim Road during a guided tour from Moab.
Hike to the White Rim Overlook
The White Rim Overlook is one of the best places to enjoy the incredible landscape. This is a relatively easy and short hike, a 1.8-mile round trip. From the overlook, you’ll have a fantastic view.
Check out the Green River Overlook
The Green River Overlook is one of the most beautiful viewpoints in Canyonlands. Here you can clearly see how the Colorado River has carved the canyons.
Buck Canyon Overlook
The overlook offers a spectacular view of Buck Canyon and the surrounding canyons. It’s a short and easy hike, only 0.5 miles round trip, with a low elevation gain.
Grand View Overlook
The drive to the Grand View Overlook is the furthest south you can drive on a paved road in Canyonlands. The view from Grand View Point is one of the most iconic and popular in the park and it’s a great spot for photography, especially at sunset or sunrise. You can see the vast expanse of the park from the viewpoint, including the White Rim, the La Sal Mountains, and the Abajo Mountains in the distance.
For an even better view, hike the Grand View Point Trail. Here you walk along the edge of the canyon and you can enjoy panoramic views. The trail is 1.8 miles, round trip.
Looking for the most incredible views of Canyonlands? Go on a Canyonlands National Park Airplane Tour!
Things to do in The Needles district
The second most visited district of Canyonlands is The Needles. Make sure to wear good hiking shoes and pack enough food and snacks because there are not that many facilities in this district.
Wooden Shoe Overlook
Since I’m from The Netherlands, this is a must-see for me! From the Wooden Shoe Overlook, you can see a rock that looks like a clog.
Hike to the Chesler Park Viewpoint
From here, you’ll have a great view of a great gallery of red towers. These are called the “Needles”, hence the name of the district. To get here, follow the popular Chesler Park Trail (5.8 miles, 3 to 4 hours).
Explore the Pothole Point Trail
The Pothole Point Trail is an easy hike that takes about 0.5 miles and offers great views of the park’s rock formations.
Big Spring Canyon Overlook
At the end of the paved road, after the Pothole Point Trailhead, you’ll find the Big Spring Canyon Overlook. This is one of the most beautiful viewpoints in The Needles district. It offers canyon views and views of brightly colored rock formations.
Explore the adventurous Elephant Hill Drive
One of the scariest and most spectacular scenic drives in Canyonlands is Elephant Hill Drive. It is very technical and it will lead you to a remote location in a fantastic landscape. To go here, you’ll need a day-use permit or a multi-day-use permit if you plan on staying longer.
Tip! Don’t want to do this drive yourself? Go on this guided Canyonlands Needle District 4×4 Tour from Moab and explore the most beautiful places in The Needles District.
Learn more about the history of the park
There are several places in The Needles where you can see how people used to live in this landscape. Hike the Cave Spring Trail (0.6 miles and you need to climb a couple of ladders) to see the remains of a cowboy camp and prehistoric rock markings.
Visiting the Maze
The Maze is the most isolated part of Canyonlands National Park. It takes quite some time to visit this part, count on at least three days. You should also make sure you have enough with you to save yourself if needed. This is the place to go if you’re loving for a remote location and want to practice your backcountry skills.
In The Maze, there are several great scenic drives, beautiful hiking trails, and beautiful views of the red rocks.
The rivers (Green River and Colorado River) divide Canyonlands into three districts, but this is also considered a district. The best thing to do on the rivers is rafting. You can book a rafting tour from the city of Moab.
Where to stay?
As you can see, there are a lot of interesting places to explore and fun things to do in Canyonlands National Park. It’s recommended to stay in or near the park for a couple of nights, so you’ll have all the time to see the highlights.
There are no hotels or lodges in Canyonlands National Park, but there are a few campgrounds. They are tent-only, RVs are not allowed. Staying on a campground in Canyonlands National Park is highly recommended. At night, you can do some stargazing and you might even see the milky way.
Willow Flat Campground
This is the only campground in the Island in the Sky district. It is located near the Green River Overlook and has some spectacular views. There are only 12 sites. $15 per night per site and it’s first come, first serve, so get there early. There is no water on the campground, but there are toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings.
The Needles District Campground
The only campground in The Needles is The Needles District Campground. It has 29 sites; 26 individual sites and 3 group sites. The fee is $20 per night per site and some sites can be reserved through this website. Other sites are first come, first serve. The campground has water (seasonal), toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings.
If you want to go backpacking or want to explore one of the park’s longer scenic drives, you can try to get a permit for backcountry camping. You can make a reservation online or ask for a walk-in permit at the visitor center. Leave no trace.
If you don’t want to go camping and prefer to stay in a comfortable hotel, the best place to stay for a visit to Canyonlands is the town of Moab. Make sure to make a reservation beforehand, Moab is a very popular destination. These are some of the places to stay in Moab:
- Moab Springs Ranch (3⭐) – This is a really nice resort just outside the city with cute wooden cabins, so you’ll have a lot of privacy. The rooms are nicely decorated with wood decor and there’s an outdoor pool.
- Sunflower Hill Inn – Would you like to stay in a cute small-scale bed and breakfast? Check out the Sunflower Hill Inn! It’s located in a quiet street next to the town center and has very comfortable rooms, a communal lounge, and a seasonal outdoor pool.
- Hoodoo Moab, Curio Collection By Hilton (4⭐) – Staying in a Hilton hotel is always good for those who seek more luxurious accommodation. The Hoodoo Moab is one of the most beautiful hotels in town. It has large modern rooms and is located in the center of town. From the rooms, you have a beautiful view of the surrounding mountains. It has many amenities, like a beautiful outdoor pool, a hot tub, and a gym.
Check Booking.com for more options, prices, and availability.
Book a trip to Utah
Are you excited to visit Utah and explore Canyonlands National Park? Book your trip now!
✈️ Plane tickets
Salt Lake City and Denver (Colorado) both have large international airports. From there it is a four to six-hour drive to get to Canyonlands National Park. Check WayAway to find the best deals on plane tickets.
🚘 Rental Car
Having a rental car is the best and easiest way to get around. Check Rental Cars or Discover Cars to find the best deals on rental cars.
💊 Travel insurance
Having good travel insurance will give you peace of mind. Check Insubuy to find the best travel insurance that fits your needs.
🎡 Tours and activities
Utah is a perfect destination for adventurous travelers. There are a lot of fun tours and activities, like whitewater rafting and off-road adventures. Check Get Your Guide to find the best guided tours and activities.
Read more about Canyonlands and Utah
Are you excited to visit Utah and Canyonlands National Park? These are some travel guides that can be used to book your trip:
Moon Arches & Canyonlands National Parks: Hiking, Biking, Scenic Drives
Fodor’s Utah: With Zion, Bryce Canyon, Arches, Capitol Reef and Canyonlands National Parks
I myself visited the US numerous times and went on multiple National Parks road trips. This is why you can read a lot about traveling in the United States on this website. If you liked this article, you might also like to read:
- Visiting Arches National Park: a must-see in Utah
- Visiting Capitol Reef National Park: Utah’s hidden gem
- 35 Best Books on National Parks + other gift ideas
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This article was published in January 2018. Last update with more fun things to do in Canyonlands National Park: January 2023.
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