Looking for the best things to do in Utah’s largest national park? Well, you’ve come to the right place. In this guide, we unpack some of the best things to do in Canyonlands National Park, where to stay, and give you some practical tips for your trip.
Canyonlands is the largest national park in Utah, spreading over a whooping 257,640 acres. Despite this, travelers usually forgo Canyonlands for more prominent things to do in Utah, like visiting Zion and Bryce Canyon National Parks.
And that’s quite unfortunate because plenty of breathtaking natural splendors and landscapes await at Canyonlands. If you don’t know what to expect, or you want some practical info to inspire your trip, read on to uncover the magical things to see in Canyonlands National Park.
Top Tip: If you’re wondering where to stay when visiting Canyonlands National Park, look no further than Hoodoo Moab, Curio Collection By Hilton, to experience the red mesa in luxury.
Top 5 Things to Do in Canyonlands National Park
Watch the Sunrise at Mesa Arch
Watching the sunrise at Mesa Arch is a must-see in Canyonlands National Park. Perched atop a hill, this pothole arch is the most photographed in Utah, giving you stunning views of the rocky landscape.
The early light illuminates the rocky formations with red and orange hues that transform the overlook into a scene from a western movie. If you visit in spring or winter, you may spot the snow-capped La Sal Mountains in the distance.
Hike to the Green River Overlook
We owe the formation of the Canyonlands to the Colorado and Green Rivers, so hiking up this overlook point is a way to appreciate the majesty of these two Utah streams.
It’s only a short 0.19-mile out-and-back trail, making it a great place to start exploring the Canyonlands.
Grand View Point Overlook
Grand View Point Overlook is perhaps the most popular scenic spot in Canyonlands National Park. Sitting at the edge of Island in the Sky mesa, this viewpoint offers expansive canyon vistas.
The 1.8-mile trail is relatively easy, with steps at the steep points, and takes about 41 minutes to complete.
Bike or Drive Down the Shafer Trail
At first glance, the Shafer Trail looks challenging, and it is. But the 19.6-mile trail is equally thrilling. Traveling down this road will take about eight hours and 45 minutes to complete, as you’ll have to drive or ride with caution throughout.
In the mid-20th-century, the Shafer trail was a road that uranium miners used to transport ore extracted from the Triassic Chinle Formation. Today, the exhilarating, winding path is excellent for a scenic drive where you can enjoy solitude during quieter times of the day.
Top Tip: Shafer Trail Road’s closure from Mondays through Thursdays from October 24th to November 10th for routine maintenance. The road reopens for public use at 4 pm each Thursday and stays open through the weekend, closing again at 7:30 am Monday.
Visit the Island in the Sky Visitor Center
As with every trip, stopping by the visitor center is one of the most important things to do at Canyonlands National Park. On top of getting access to park maps, backcountry permits, and restrooms, you’ll also get to marvel at the breathtaking Island in the Sky.
This orange and red mesa sits atop a sandstone cliff rising 1,000 feet above the terrain. The Island in the Sky is the most accessible Canyonlands attraction to visit for a brief time. It offers plenty of pull-outs with scenic viewpoints along a paved road.
Brilliant Things to See & Do in Canyonlands National Park
Drive to the Grand View Point Overlook
The Grand View Point is one of the most epic things to see in Canyonlands. The scenic spot is a top contender for the best view of the Island in the Sky.
You’ll get jaw-dropping views of the Monument Basin (some say it resembles a giant dinosaur footprint). On a clear day, you may spot the Needles District on the horizon.
The overlook lies at the very end of the Island in the Sky scenic drive. You’ll find a spacious parking lot, and after a short 10 to 15-minute walk, you’ll stumble upon the picturesque outlook.
Note: This is a popular spot in the park, so you will find the parking lot full if you’re not there early enough.
Stop by the Buck Canyon Overlook
Along Grand View Point Road, you’ll find several overlooks and scenic spots, one that deserves mentioning is the Buck Canyon Overlook. While others may debate that you won’t see any variation between this overlook and others, we strongly disagree.
The Buck Canyon Overlook gives you a different perspective of Canyonlands National Park. At the south fork of Buck Canyon, you’ll see panoramic views of the canyons carved by the Colorado River.
The La Sal Mountains create a striking contrast against the red canyon rock, and you even catch a glimpse of the river too. The hike from the parking lot is relatively easy, taking about two minutes to complete.
Hike to Whale Rock
Kick things up a notch by trekking the short but strenuous hike to the Whale Rock summit. Hiking up a giant bare Slickrock dome where sweeping views of the canyons await is a dream come true.
You’ll take the Upheaval Dome Road off-ramp on Grand View Point Road to get here. You can park at the small parking lot before Upheaval Dome and begin your 30-minute trek.
Take a Short Trip to Dead Horse Point State Park
Dead Horse Point sits 2,000 feet above the Colorado River at the end of the mesa and on the edge of Canyonlands National Park.
Here, you’ll see stunning river views as it zigzags through the terrain below — a much-photographed vista.
This state park is famous for its conducive mountain biking, hiking, and camping landscape. You’ll find a series of short trails with varying degrees of difficulty. The Intrepid Trail System provides 16.6 miles of these hiking and biking trails.
Drive the White Rim Road
Unlike the 18-mile Bryce Canyon scenic drive, White Rim road is about 100 miles long and unpaved. But similarly, the thrilling ride gives you stunning views of red rock formations, narrow cliff edges, towering buttes, and the Island in the Sky from below.
You can tackle this road clockwise or counter-clockwise; either way, you’ll pass through plenty of must-see Canyonlands attractions and sparsely located campsites.
Visit The Maze District
Often called the “thirty-square-mile puzzle in sandstone”, the Maze is the least accessible district of the Canyonlands.
This remote area is only reachable via 4×4, and you may need a couple of days to explore the vast region.
Hiking in the Maze can be hazardous, so come well prepared. Stop by the Hans Flat Ranger Station for some expert advice and maps.
Top Tip: Pack adequately for the weather and carry lots of water and snacks.
Hike the Roadside Ruin Trail
Roadside Ruin is a beginner hiking trail and the perfect introduction to the Needles District. The short 0.3-mile loop is easy and takes about five minutes to complete.
You can use this hike to stretch your legs in preparation for the more strenuous hikes.
Here, you’ll find ancient ancestral Puebloan granaries built using stone and mud. These storehouses belonged to the maize agriculturalists and farmers who lived across the northern Southwest until the Spanish arrived.
See the Remnants at Cave Spring
Cave Spring is a historic cowboy camp with prehistoric rock markings and two ladders to access a higher viewpoint of the park. The trailhead begins at the Cave Spring parking lot and is 0.6 miles from the camp.
The hike is generally easy and takes about 45 minutes to complete. You’ll find archeological sites with ancient artifacts, tools, and rustic furniture at the camp. You’ll also stumble upon giant boulders with rock markings and pictographs.
Top Tip: Entering, touching, or climbing the archeological sites is strictly prohibited. You must view the structures from a distance for your protection and that of the fragile walls.
Hike to Elephant Hill
Elephant Hill is one of the most technical four-wheel-drive roads in Utah.
This boulder-filled region requires excellent skill and lots of caution. It’s ideal for avid hikers and mountain bikers.
f you want to explore one of the best things to see in Canyonlands National Park, hike or drive 6.4 miles to Confluence Overlook, where the Colorado and Green Rivers meet.
Explore The Needles District
Towering red and white zebra-striped Cedar Mesa Sandstone dominate the Needles. This part of the park is less visited, but it has some of the best hikes in the Canyonlands.
Although small, the Needles offer several short trails like the Slickrock Trail. And if you wish to go further, the Chesler Park Loop and Druid Arch are great hikes with so much natural splendor.
Unique Things to See & Do in Canyonlands National Park: Hidden Gems That are Off the Beaten Track
Hike to Angel Arch
Angel Arch is the largest natural arch in Canyonlands National Park. Getting here will be challenging but equally as rewarding.
The strenuous hike is about 25 to 26 miles long and takes about eight to nine hours to complete. Angel Arch is a popular spot for hiking, backpacking, and camping. You can access the hiking path via the Salt Creek Trail.
Explore Aztec Butte
Aztec Butte is a dome-shaped butte that offers one of the most unique hikes in Canyonlands National Park.
The 1.7-mile out-and-back trail is a moderately challenging route, with a few steep spots and Slickrock scrambling, and it takes about 46 minutes to complete.
The path leads you to several ruins of the ancestral Puebloans. You’ll spot granaries tucked into the alcoves beneath the butte and have some of the best views in Canyonlands National Park.
Marvel at the Upheaval Dome
This crater is perhaps the most enigmatic geological feature of the park.
The 6.2-mile-diameter crater has two theories attached to it. One says the crater results from a meteorite impact, and the other suggests it’s a salt dome.
Either way, Upheaval Dome is a striking sight. The dome serves as a protected geologic laboratory where people can learn about and get inspired by the mysteries of mother nature.
Things to Do in Canyonlands National Park: Practical Tips for Your Trip
Get there early. This will help you avoid crowded parking lots, trails, and viewpoints.
Stop by the Visitors Center to get a map of the park and some hiking advice from the knowledgeable staff. You’ll also find restrooms and benches here.
Brings plenty of water. Canyonlands National Park can get very hot.
Wear weather-appropriate clothing. Some of the hikes can get quite intense, and the wrong attire and shoes will only weigh you down.
If you’re visiting in summer, bring your SPF sunscreen and a hat or cap to protect your skin from the sun.
Canyonlands National Park has four districts; The Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and The Rivers. You can see one of the regions in a day, but If you’d like to explore the entire park, you’ll need about three days.
Fall or spring is the best time to visit this park, especially for hiking enthusiasts. During this time, average daytime temperatures hover from 60° to 80°F, and the nights are cool.
Where Should I Stay in Canyonlands National Park?
Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Moab (Mid-Range)
Perfectly placed between Arches and Canyonlands National Park, this gorgeous hotel provides all the amenities you need for an epic Utah national parks road trip. Spend time lounging at the resort-style pool, surrounded by the towering red mesa.
Check Rates and Availability for Fairfield Inn & Suites by Marriott Moab on Booking.com
Hoodoo Moab, Curio Collection By Hilton (Luxury)
Experience the best of Utah with luxury at your fingertips at Hoodoo Moab. From the stylish modern on-site restaurant to the fully-equipped fitness center and the gorgeous neutral-colored furniture, you can’t go wrong with Hoodoo Moab.
Check Rates and Availability for Hoodoo Moab, Curio Collection By Hilton on Booking.com
Recommended Tours in Canyonlands National Park
- From Moab: Full-Day Canyonlands and Arches 4×4 Driving Tour
- From Moab: Canyonlands 4×4 Drive and Colorado River Rafting
- Moab: Canyonlands National Park 4×4 White Rim Tour