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Canyonlands National Park Itinerary – A Favorite

canyon lands sunset

If you can’t already tell from the name, Canyonlands National Park has some of the most scenic canyons in Utah. It’s a destination that you’ll want to add to your Utah bucket list. The views from the canyon rim are breathtaking, and you’ll indeed feel the thrill of hiking to the park’s famous landmarks like the Mesa Arch. 

While you’re planning to visit Canyonlands National Park, here are a few ideas for what you can do each day in the park.

canyonlands tree
A lonely tree in Canyonlands National Park

About Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park is part of the Big Five national parks near Moab in Utah. It’s a region covered with several canyons that feature natural arches and other rock formations. It’s one of the best places to see massive canyons aside from the Grand Canyon. A visit to the park gives some of the most picturesque scenery you’ll experience in the state. The national park centers around the Colorado Plateau that was carved out into multiple canyons by the Colorado River and the Green River. The unique landscape makes it a popular destination for recreational activities.

Hiking, mountain biking, backpacking, and kayaking are just a few of the things to expect during your visit. Hike the Mesa Arch trail to watch the sunrise or venture into the remote wilderness for backcountry camping. And you’ll undoubtedly encounter lots of wildlife like cougars, bighorn sheep, bobcats, black bears, and coyotes.

There are hundreds of thousands of acres to explore, divided into three sections: Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze. Each area offers exciting things to do and see that you won’t want to miss. Island in the Sky is the most visited area of the park, but if you have time during your trip, there are some pretty cool sights in each.

Here are a few itinerary ideas for visiting Canyonlands National Park.

canyonlands stars
A view of the stars in Canyonlands National Park

Day One – Island in the Sky

Island in the Sky is the most visited area in Canyonlands. If you only have one day in the park, it’s where you’ll find most of the famous attractions. The area is located in the park’s northern section that offers some of the best views of the landscape. Most of the attractions are situated atop the canyon, so you’ll have incredible views at the overlooks, scenic drives, and short hikes to landmarks.

The Island in the Sky visitor center that you’ll get lots of information about the park. You can pick up a few maps before venturing into the park or find guided tours. Don’t forget to check out the Visitor Center viewpoint right across the street. It will be your first official view of the canyon and a preview of the amazing sights to come.

Most of the best overlooks are within the Island in the Sky district. You can drive to many of the overlooks and find nearby parking, so they are very accessible.

The Grand View point overlook and Buck Canyon Overlook are considered the best viewpoints for views of the Colorado River. Some of the other worthwhile viewpoints are the Shafer Canyon Overlook, Green River Overlook, and the White Rim Overlook.

The overlooks give a broad perspective of the scale of the canyon. There are also several fun hikes to do in the section to find the famous landmarks.

Mesa Arch is the most visited site in the park. It’s a uniquely formed arch that has views peering beneath it. The hike is approximately a half-mile round trip, and it’s a frequent sunrise or sunset viewing spot.

Whale Rock is another must-see. The smooth rock is perched on a cliff summit that gives panoramic views of the park at the top. One of the unique sites is the Upheaval Dome, a crater rumored to be formed by a meteorite impact.

One of the last things to check out in the section is the Aztec Butte. You’ll get to see preserved structures from Native Americans used for housing and storing food.

If you’re up for a challenge, attempt the Shafer Trail, an off-road drive through the Shafer Canyon that also passes by the Dead Horse Point State Park for a cool viewpoint.

canyonlands rocks

Day Two – The Needles

The Needles is the second-most popular area of the Canyonlands National Park, but it gets significantly less visitor traffic compared to Island in the Sky. Although the two sections are adjacent, Needles is only accessible via highway outside the park. Visitors already in the park have to exit and re-enter. For that reason, most people split the sections into different days.

The Needles gives drastically different views than Island in the Sky. The section is named for the towering sandstone rock formations that resemble needles. The park section has some of the best hiking trails for exploring the unique rock formations and seeing cool sights along the way.

When you first arrive, stop by the Needles Visitor Center. It’s where you can pick up a map for your upcoming hikes and check out the exhibitions on display in the center. You can find the schedule for ranger programs and picnic areas. Backcountry permits for hiking and camping are found here.

There are more than 60 miles of hiking trails around the section. The trails always reward you with fantastic views when you reach the end. Some of the easier hikes are Past at Cave Spring and Roadside Ruin that explore the area’s archaeological sites. You’ll encounter an old cowboy camp, see rock paintings and preserved indigenous structures.

If you’re up for a challenge, The Needles has plenty of strenuous hikes. The trail to Confluence Overlook is one of the most popular, where you’ll reach a must-see viewpoint overlooking the meeting point of the Colorado and Green Rivers. The Druid Arch Trail is another hike that provides the best views of the Needles structure.

There are full day hikes and hikes to accomplish multiple short hikes within the day. There are multi-day hikes available, like the Salt Creek Canyon. It’s 22-miles long, where you’ll see arches, archaeological sites, and more. Camping permits are required for overnight stays.

canyonlands-overlook

The Maze

Most visitors to Canyonlands National Park have no idea about the park’s Maze section. It’s the third and least visited part of the park. The Maze is known for being the most remote district of Canyonlands consisting almost entirely of wilderness. Entrance to the Maze is highly regulated and requires special permits to visit. But if you’re up for the adventure, it’s definitely worth checking out.

The Maze is a destination for backpacking and off-roading. It’s recommended to be self-sufficient when attempting to explore the region. You’ll need your own equipment, food, water, and overall physical ability to sustain in the conditions. Plan to spend a few days exploring The Maze. Most of the trails are very long and take a couple of days to complete. Some people plan the entire trip around the Maze and spend upwards of a week.

The undeveloped trails make hiking in The Maze much more unpredictable than in the other sections. Be prepared for uneven land, obstacles, climbing, and more to complete the hikes. The most popular hike is Horseshoe Canyon. The canyon is famous for rock art – you’ll see the Great Gallery, which has life-sized figures. Seasonal guided hikes are available for the canyon.

An alternative to hiking is off-roading. You must have an appropriate vehicle before permitted to enter the park. Go on a thrill drive through the canyon as you navigate the rough terrain. Motorbikes and bicycles are also allowed.

To support the long trails, there are many backcountry camping sites available. The campsites offer room for tents and vehicle parking. There are no visitor facilities at the sites. Stay overnight in the camps and wake up to continue to trek.

Keep in mind that there is no visitor center in the Maze. There is a small Ranger Station that provides maps and tour access.

Save the Maze for the last part of your trip if you have time. Although a challenge, the scenic landscape and thrill make it worth it.

Tips for Visiting Canyonlands National Park

If you’re looking to make the most out of your visit to Canyonlands, here are a few insider tips to get you started:

Take advantage of the visitor centers. Whether it’s your first time visiting a national park or a seasoned expert at Canyonlands, you can always find helpful information inside the visitor center. A center is each of the park’s sections that provide maps, updated park info, exhibitions, ranger programs, and more.

Research trails before hiking. Canyonlands has a diverse landscape with trails expanding around the entire park. The hiking routes range in difficulty – distance, obstacles, elevation, etc. It’s best to take a look at the route before hiking to see if it’s suitable.

Arrive early to beat crowds. Canyonlands receives over 700,000 visitors every year. You can almost guarantee that you’ll have other groups hiking on the same trails, especially in the Island in the Sky section. If you want the best views of Mesa Arch or fewer crowds, start the hikes early in the day.

Visiting The Maze. The Maze is the most remote area of the park. Although open to the public, it’s reserved for people that are self-sufficient. Since many of the hikes last multiple days, you’ll need to have everything with you before you arrive.

canyonlands rv

How Long to Stay in Canyonlands National Park?

Your time in Canyonlands National Park depends on how much of the park you want to see. You can do one hike to say you visited it, or you can spend a few days to truly get the most of what it has to offer. Not to mention having time to check out the other nearby parks like Arches National Park or Dead Horse Point State Park.

For most people, one or two days in the park is sufficient. Island in the Sky is a must-see area where you can check out a few hikes and landmarks within the day.

The park sections are vast, so it’s hard to do more than one in a day. You should plan for a few days in the park if you’re visiting The Maze since many of the trails are multi-day with camping.

Travel Resources

If you’re ready to book your trip, check out the resources below. Make sure to shop around between the different platform to compare prices and find the deal

  • Airbnb – I’ve always had a great experience with airbnb. Make sure to check the reviews and the final price before booking.

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