Utah is one of the country’s premier destinations for outdoor lovers. With five incredible national parks, there’s no shortage of amazing places to go and explore. One of those places is Canyonlands National Park, which is the largest national park in the state and is a vast, one-of-a-kind wilderness with plenty of space for play.
Why Visit Canyonlands National Park?
For me, the incredible views are the number one reason to visit Canyonlands National Park. Sure, there’s an endless supply of outdoor recreation, but while you can bike or hike pretty much anywhere, there’s not a lot of places with views and scenery like Canyonlands. The sky seems to stretch on forever, and the striking cliffs and valleys are truly remarkable.
Things to Do
With its immense size and harsh terrain, much of Canyonlands National Park is remote and isolated. Nonetheless, there are plenty of wonderful activities to easily enjoy while visiting the park. Here are some of the most popular and can’t-miss activities in the park:
Enjoy the Incredible Views
Driving to the scenic overlooks around the Island in the Sky Visitor Center is one of the best and easiest activities to enjoy in the park. The topography is truly incredible. The vistas of the dramatic cliffs and canyons will leave you feeling inspired and potentially a little scared if you’re afraid of heights.
A couple of the most scenic overlooks are the Grand View Point, Buck Canyon Overlook, Shafer Canyon Overlook, and the Green River Overlook.
Canyonlands is renowned for its superb mountain biking terrain. Most notably, the 100-mile White Rim Trail hosts bikers from around the world, eager to ride their way through the boundless openness while taking in the sweeping views.
Other top places to ride in the park are the Colorado Overlook Road and the Elephant Hill Road. Please note, a day or overnight permit is required to ride on any of these aforementioned roads. You can always ride on any paved road in the park without a permit. This is still an extremely enjoyable way to experience the park.
Canyonlands has hundreds of miles of hiking trails for all levels and abilities ranging from short (half a mile) to long (+20 miles). Many of the hikes offer panoramic views or explore the parks natural and cultural features. No matter which hike you choose, please remember to bring plenty of water.
If you’re venturing out to some of the park’s more remote hikes, carry food, a flashlight, and a topographic map. Also, always tell someone where you are hiking before you leave.
My favorite hike was the Mesa Arch hike. This is a very easy hike but the Mesa Arch is beautiful and the views were breathtaking. Some other popular hikes in the park: White Rim Overlook, Grand View Point, Upheaval Dome, Pothole Point, and Slickrock.
Canyonlands National Park is the place to be if you love offroading with your 4WD vehicle. There are hundreds of miles of unpaved roads that’ll take you to points of interest such as campgrounds, overlooks or viewpoints, and trailheads. The skill level required to navigate these roads successfully ranges from beginner to advanced.
For a hair-raising experience, take a drive down the Shafer Canyon Road. The scenery from this dirt road is incredible, but you’ll hardly notice because you’ll be scared to death the whole time! This road is intense. It’s steep and full of hairpin turns. In some areas, it’s not even wide enough for two cars to pass side-by-side! Oh, did I mention that there are no guardrails and one slip up could send you plummeting down hundreds of feet?
That being said, for experienced drivers looking for an exhilarating experience, Shafer Canyon Road is one of the most memorable drives you’ll ever take. A word of caution, don’t drive this road in inclement weather or if you’re not confident in your abilities.
When to Visit
Canyonlands National Park is open year round, but the conditions vary widely between seasons. The summers tend to be extremely hot, which makes taking proper preparations for exploring the parks remote areas important. The winter months are cold, but offer visitors fewer crowds and stunning scenery. Be aware, during the winter months, services are reduced and roads are often closed due to weather conditions.
The most popular times to visit the park are during the spring (April – May) and fall months (September – October) where temperatures are moderate and offer prime conditions for being outside and experiencing the parks natural beauty.
Where to Stay
Compared to other national parks, there are very few developed campsites within Canyonlands National Park. There are two limited developed campgrounds, one at Island in the Sky (Willow Flat) and one at The Needles (Squaw Flat). Willow Flat is first-come, first-served and Squaw Flat accepts reservations during the springs and fall.
With only a few sites that can only accommodate a maximum rig of twenty-eight feet, many visitors traveling by RV are better off staying outside the park. There are many free Bureau of Land Management (BLM) campgrounds nearby. Also, Moab is only a forty-minute drive from the Island in the Sky Visitor Center and has many campgrounds and RV resorts to choose from.
If you’re interested in backcountry camping, Canyonlands has tons of options. Backcountry camping is a great way to explore the expansive natural landscapes. Just remember that a permit is required for all backcountry campgrounds and there are no amenities.
Getting to and Around Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands is divided into three distinct sections or districts by the Colorado River and the Green River: The Needles, Island in the Sky and The Maze.
Island in the Sky is the most popular section of the park and is located in the northern part of the park, about forty minutes from Moab. The Island in the Sky Visitor Center is easily accessible via UT 313.
The Needles is accessible by paved road as well, UT 211, which connects with US 191 forty miles south of Moab. UT 211 is the only paved road in and out of The Needles.
The Maze is the least accessible area of the park and can only be accessed by high clearance 4WD vehicles. There are no services in The Maze so be prepared with all needed supplies including gas, water, and food.
The majority of the park is extremely remote and desolate. There are no bridges that cross the rivers to link the park’s areas or districts to one another. Even though they may appear close on a map, traveling between districts can take many hours. Therefore, travel between the districts in a single day is unusual. Most park visitors opt to visit one district per trip unless doing overnight camping excursions lasting several days.
Tips and Tricks Specific to Canyonlands National Park
Here are a few things to keep in mind when visiting Canyonlands National Park:
Multiple National Park Opportunities
Visitors to Canyonlands National Park have a unique opportunity to comfortably visit multiple national parks in a single day. The entrance to Arches National Park is only thirty-five minutes from the Island in the Sky Visitor Center so plan to visit both parks. Even though they’re close in geographic proximity, the parks are very different, and you won’t want to miss either one.
Hit the State Parks, Too
In addition, I recommend taking the time to visit Dead Horse Point State Park, which is also close by to Canyonlands. Dead Horse Point State Park has one of the most incredible views of the Colorado River and a beautiful campground that could be the perfect place to camp while visiting Canyonlands National Park.
How to Get That Mesa Arch Photo
As mentioned above, the Mesa Arch hike is one of the most popular things to do in the park. Also, Mesa Arch is one of the most popular things to photograph in the park. Catching the rising sun through the arch is the dream of many photographers, and thanks to social media, it’s the “must-capture moment” for anyone with a cell phone.
Therefore, the arch is extremely busy during most of the day, but especially at sunrise. If you’re there during peak season, you’ll want to be at the arch well before the sun rises to get prime real estate for taking the perfect photo.
For the latest info on visiting Canyonlands National Park, visit their website.
Have you been to Canyonlands NP? What tips can you share?