A Visitor’s Guide of Things to Do in Canyonlands National Park
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This incredible park offers something for everyone, from strenuous hikes to relaxing river trips. In this guide, we will outline the best things to do in Canyonlands National Park, so you can make the most of your visit.
If you’re looking for an adventure, look no further than Canyonlands National Park. This park is located in southeastern Utah and is home to some of the most beautiful scenery in the country. Whether you’re interested in hiking, camping, or simply taking in the views, Canyonlands National Park has something for everyone. In this article, we’ll provide a visitor’s guide to the park and discuss some of the things that you can do there.
Canyonlands National Park is an American national park located near Moab, Utah. It was designated as such on September 12, 1964, by the United States Congress. With an area of over 520 square miles, it offers visitors a series of colorful landscapes shaped by the erosion of the Colorado River, upstream from Lake Powell and the Grand Canyon, and the Green River, in a semi-desert environment
History of Canyonlands National Park
In 1868, Major John Wesley Powell, professor of geology, set up an expedition whose goal was to explore the Green and Colorado rivers. The expedition started at the end of May and lasted until the end of August. In his diary, Powell describes a “unique” and “strange” region.
The Canyonlands lie north of the Colorado Plateau in Utah. They consist of:
- sandstone cliffs
- landforms: canyons, mesas, buttes
- three sectors: The Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze
The park is divided into three parts – Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze – bounded by the two waterways, which meet in the middle of the park. Each area has its own peculiarities; the first two are suitable for mountain biking and all-terrain vehicles, while the third requires professional equipment.
The first Native Americans to frequent the region lived around 10,000 years ago. These were nomadic groups of hunter-gatherers. Their survival depended on their ability to find wild plants and animals. The absence of permanent structures tends to prove that these groups never really settled in the region.
Nevertheless, they left traces of their craftsmanship and art. Thus, several petroglyphs have been found on the rock walls of Horseshoe Canyon, including what is now the Horseshoe Canyon Archeological District.
At the beginning of the Christian era, it seems that several Amerindian groups began to practice agriculture as well as small animal husbandry, forcing them to settle down. They belong to the Fremont people and the Anasazis. They grew corn, beans, and squash; they raised turkeys and dogs. They erected stone and adobe villages, comparable to those of Mesa Verde.
Several groups migrated from Mesa Verde to settle in Salt Creek around the 13th century. Several troglodyte dwelling sites are still visible today. From the fourteenth century, it seems that these Amerindian peoples migrated south, perhaps because of a deterioration in climatic conditions. The Pueblos, Acomas, Zunis, and Hopi Mesas are their modern descendants.
Getting to the Island in the Sky District from Moab Area
Take US 191 north of Moab (approximately 22 miles) to Utah 313 and then take the highway 22 miles to the entrance of the park.
Canyonland’s Island in the Sky district rests on a sandstone cliff, offers incredible vistas of the red rock wilderness, and has many great hiking trails to explore.
Canyonlands National Park is Utah’s largest park and is divided into 3 districts by the remarkably carved canyons of the Green and Colorado Rivers. The Island in the Sky district of the park is the most easily accessible of the three districts and offers incredible panoramic views and several easy-to-moderate trail systems. This district sits atop sheer vertical cliffs rising over 1000 feet above the river floor and literally looks like an island in the sky
Hiking on the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands
Hiking comes at the top of the list when looking for things to do in Canyonlands National Park! Looking for an easy hike? A short hike? Several short, day hikes are available on the Island. These hikes tend to offer little shade, no reliable water sources, and are extremely hot (100+ degrees) in the summer months. That means the best time for these hikes are in fall and spring or in the early morning during the summer months. No matter what time of year – make sure to bring sufficient water supplies and plenty of sunscreen.
Island in the Sky Trails and Roads [552k PDF]
Grand View Trail: The Grand View hiking trail is a fairly easy and flat hike that walks out to the end of Island View Mesa. The trail is 2 miles out and back and offers incredible spectacular views of thousands of square miles of the rugged wilderness below at the Grand View Overlook, making it the most popular hike in the park. Hike the trail at sunset for especially stunning and continually changing views of the dramatic panorama.
Aztec Butte Trail: The Aztec Butte Trail leads to ruins of ancestral Puebloan granaries. The 2-mile roundtrip trail requires a steep ascent up Slickrock to get views of the granaries and of nearby Taylor Canyon. I think it is one of the best hikes for a short walk and peek into history.
Mesa Arch Trail: This easy one-mile roundtrip hike through pinon, juniper trees, and cactus leads to the Mesa Arch, a sandstone arch hanging perilously on the cliff edge.
Backpacking on the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands
The backpacking terrain on the Island is for experienced backpackers only. Most overnight trips involve a descent of 1000 feet or more from the mesa top through a variety of talus fields and steep slopes. All backpackers must secure a backcountry permit for all overnight trips. There are very few reliable water sources so inquire at the backcountry office about water conditions before heading out.
Syncline Loop Trail: The Syncline Loop trail is the least strenuous of the backpacking trails. There is one designated campsite along the trail and it must be reserved in advance from the backcountry reservations office. The trail follows the washes on both sides of the Upheaval Dome, a giant crater that has been thought to be caused by a meteorite crash some 60 million years ago. The entire loop requires a descent of 1200 feet but could also be done as an out-and-back hike to the campsite. Be prepared for the elevation change.
Taylor Canyon Trail: This 20-mile roundtrip trail descends steep switchbacks from the mesa top to a wide, deep-walled canyon. A four-wheel drive road leads to the Green River and incredible views of the dizzyingly steep cliffs above. No specific campsites are available and four-at-large camping permits are available each night.
Camping in Canyonlands National Park
Campers in Canyonlands National Park in Utah have their choice of two established campsites and innumerable backcountry options with access to hiking and biking trails through wind-carved and eroded spires, arches, mesas, and canyons of the desert landscape.
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Canyonlands National Park encompasses more than 330,000 acres of the vast Colorado Plateau of southeastern Utah as well as the Colorado and Green rivers and smaller streams. The U.S. Park Service divided the park into four distinct management zones: Island in the Sky, Needles, the Maze, and the rivers themselves.
Campgrounds that accommodate recreational vehicles or trailers, as well as tents, have been established in the Needles and Island in the Sky districts, according to the Park Service website. All campers must obtain permits to use the sites.
Squaw Flat Campground in the Needles district includes 26 sites with fire grates, picnic tables, and tent pads, according to the Canyonlands National Park website. Water and bathrooms operate year-round. The popular campsite fills quickly in spring and fall. Squaw Flat offers access to popular day hikes including Druid Arch and Chesler Park.
Willow Flat Campground in the Island in the Sky includes 12 sites with picnic tables, fire grates, and vault toilets, but no water. It also fills quickly in spring and fall because of its proximity to Green River Overlook, a popular spot to watch the sunset.
Hundreds of miles of trails meander through the Island in the Sky and Needles areas, providing opportunities for day hikes from the campgrounds in both districts. The remote Maze area lends itself to overnight or multi-day backpacking.
Bicycling campers can use Squaw Flat as a base for riding the popular 100-mile White Rim Road. Trails in the Needles area may be too sandy or wet for mountain bike use, according to the park website.
The Park Service marks trails with small rock piles known as cairns and posts signs where trails meet, but remote trails may not be fully marked, according to the Canyonlands National Park website. The Park Service recommends all backcountry campers, hikers and bikers carry topographic maps.
- Roadside Ruin Trail [1 MB PDF]
- Cave Spring Trail [571k PDF]
- Pothole Point Trail [189k PDF]
- Slickrock Foot Trail [510k PDF]
The Park Service requires permits for backpacking and camping in the backcountry. Heavily-used areas such as the Needles have designated backcountry camping areas. Backpackers in more remote areas such as the Maze district can set up camp wherever they choose.
Water is scarce or heavily silted in streams throughout the park. The Canyonlands National Park Camping Guide recommends carrying at least one gallon of water for each day in the backcountry and repeatedly filtering any water taken from streams.
The Canyonlands National Park Camping Guide recommends all backcountry campers check in at a visitor center and talk to rangers about trail conditions and water availability before undertaking an overnight trip in the backcountry.
Campers should be prepared for wide swings in temperature in the desert. Summer temperatures in the park often reach 100 degrees Fahrenheit or higher with nighttime temperatures falling to 60 degrees or lower. Winter temperatures can reach highs in the 50s, but fall well below freezing at night with occasional snowstorms, according to the park website.
Canyonland Visitors Center
I love visitor centers and it should be on your list of things to do in Canyonlands National Park! The Canyonlands National Park Visitor Center is located in the Island in the Sky district. The center features interactive exhibits about the park’s history, geology, and ecology, as well as a bookstore. Rangers offer programs on topics such as stargazing, desert survival skills, and Leave No Trace camping techniques. The visitor center is open year-round and it is the only place in the park where you can get bottled water.
The Canyonlands National Park website recommends all visitors stop at a visitor center to obtain backcountry permits, talk to rangers about conditions, and ask about recommended hikes or activities. Rangers can also provide updates on road closures due to weather or rockfalls.
Needles Visitor Center
The Needles Visitor Center is open daily, spring through fall, and the hours but you need to check the hours as they vary by season. Here you will see cool exhibits, book and map sales, be able to get backcountry permits, a picnic area, and park rangers are on duty to answer questions. We love that you can watch a park orientation video but keep in mind that electric outlets are not available for charging your tech.
Hans Flat Ranger Station
The Hans Flat Ranger Station is located in the Needles district. The station is open seasonally from March to October and it offers interpretive programs, backcountry permits, and information about hikes and conditions in the Needles.
Just south of the Goblin Valley State Park turnoff, on the east side of the road is a dirt road. Follow this road 46 miles to the Ranger Station.
The Needles Trails and Roads [308k PDF]
There is a variety here:
- $80 Are you going to multiple parks over the year? This one is for you: America the Beautiful – National Parks and Federal Recreational Lands Pass is honored and also sold at Canyonlands. You can get it online also.
- $15 – Individual Entrance to Canyonlands – usually for bikers, hikers, walkers. This is per person and good for 7 days. 15 and under are free.
- $30 – Driving? The Vehicle Entrance to Park is for you and again, good for 7 days. You can’t have more than 15 people in your car.
- $30 – Motorcycle Entrance to Park. No discount for having only 2 wheels, sorry. Again, it is good for 7 days.
- $55 – Only checking out Utah parks? Try the Southeast Utah Parks Annual Pass. It is good for one year – on a rolling calendar. That means you buy it in August and it is good until next August.
- It allows for one (1) private, non-commercial vehicle or its pass holder to Arches and Canyonlands national parks, and Natural Bridges National Monument.
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Places To Stay Nearby
Canyonlands is one of the most unique and photogenic national parks. It’s huge, so you could easily spend a week here and not see it all. We highly recommend getting an early start to your days so you can hike when it’s cooler and enjoy the amazing sunset views.
Make sure to stop at one of the visitor centers to chat with a ranger and get recommendations on the best things to do in the park at the time of your visit. Remember to bring plenty of water, sunscreen, and snacks, as there are no services inside the park.
Canyonlands is one of our favorite national parks and we hope you enjoy your time here!