Canyonlands National Park (which was established in 1964) is known for its dramatic desert landscape carved by the Green River and Colorado River. There are spectacular views from high above the canyons formed by the rivers, as well as pinnacles, arches and spires that punctuate this rugged landscape. Much of the vast park is best explored by 4WD (self-drive or one of the many tours out of Moab), but there are also opportunities for hiking, mountain-biking, camping and rafting.
Canyonlands is the largest national park in Utah at 136,621 hectares (337,598 acres) in size – four times bigger than the neighbouring Arches National Park – and has hundreds of miles of paved and unsealed roads. The park is divided into four areas:
- Island in the Sky
- The Needles
- The Maze
- and the rivers themselves (the Green River and Colorado River).
Island in the Sky gets the majority of visitors, with the (paved) road to Grand View Point Overlook passing many lookouts and the iconc Mesa Arch.
A wide range of tours out of Moab can take you into Canyonlands, including 4WD adventures that take you into some of the more remote areas.
Many Canyonlands tours explore the Islands in the Sky district, visiting a few of the many spectacular lookouts in the national park. You can also visit the lookouts along the sealed roads yourself, or if you have a 4WD the Shafer Canyon drive is a good half-day option.
A common loop uses the unsealed Shafer Canyon Road, which starts from the end of Potash Road (the road is also called Shafer Trail, the name originally used by Native Americans).
The road passes a potash plant, where heated brine is injected into the rocks to extract potash from underground ores, and the potash-rich brine is pumped to surface evaporation ponds.
After the potash ponds, the road enters Canyonlands National Park and reaches a viewpoint (Thelma and Louise Point) over the Colorado River about 900 feet (300m) above the water.
This is the location where the last scene of the movie Thelma and Louise (hence the unofficial name) was filmed, where they drive their car off the cliff.
Towering another 1000 feet (335m) above us is Dead Horse Overlook; you can just make out the shelter on top of the monolithic rock.
The road veers inland before re-joining the cliffs above the Colorado River at Gooseneck Overlook, where the river makes a 180-degree arc over a distance of four miles.
It’s just as spectacular as the famous Horseshoe Bend – with the advantage that there is no-one else here.
There’s more incredible scenery and rock formations along Shafer Canyon Road.
Shafer Canyon Road reaches a junction with White Rim Road: the 100 mile (160km) White Rim Road loops around and below the Island in the Sky mesa, and was constructed in the 1950s by the Atomic Energy Commission to gain access to uranium deposits in the area. It requires a permit for both day and overnight trips – and you often need to book 3-6 months ahead. Parts of the unsealed road are relatively well-graded – but some sections are very rough and a high-clearance 4×4 vehicle is mandatory.
White Rim Road winds around the edge of a steep cliff, before reaching Musselman Arch – a remnant of the sandstone layer that forms the white rim seen throughout Canyonlands.
Driving back along White Rim Road, the precipitious drop at the edge of the road can be better seen from the passenger side of the 4WD!
From the junction with White Rim Road, Shafer Canyon Road continues directly towards an enormous cliff.
Although it doesn’t seem possible for there to be a route to the top, the road winds its way steeply up through the Shafer Canyon Switchbacks.
At the top of the rim is Shafer Canyon Overlook, which is the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park. There’s spectacular views over the canyon and Shafer Canyon Road.
Hikes in Canyonlands National Park
There are over 75 hiking trails in Canyonlands, which in contrast to The Arches are generally longer and more challenging. They are spread over a much larger distance, and some require a 4WD to reach the trailhead.
Most of the hikes in the Island in the Sky district can be reached with a 2WD vehicle, except for a few along White Rim Road.
|Mesa Arch||0.6 mi / 1km||Easy||Stunning views. Most popular at sunrise|
|Upheaval Dome – First Overlook||0.6 mi / 1km||Easy||Short but steep trail with great views|
|Gooseneck Overlook [4WD access]||0.6 mi / 1km||Easy||Overlook of a meandering gooseneck bend in river|
|Whale Rock||0.8 mi / 1.3km||Easy/Moderate||Great views of Island in the Sky|
|Moses and Zeus [4WD access]||1.3 mi / 2.1km||Easy/Moderate||Great views of Taylor Canyon|
|Aztec Butte||1.4 mi / 2.3km||Easy/Moderate||Spectacular views. Two ancestral Puebloan structures.|
|White Rim Overlook||1.8 mi / 2.9km||Easy||Views to the east. Afternoon best.|
|Grand View Point||1.8 mi / 2.9km||Easy||Follows canyon edge. Panoramic views.|
|Syncline Loop – Upheaval Crater||3 mi / 4.8km||Moderate||Steep switchbacks, climbing & scrambling.|
|Fort Bottom Ruin [4WD access]||3.4 mi / 5.5km||Easy||Exposed trail to historic Puebloan structures|
|Murphy Point Overlook||3.4 mi / 5.5km||Easy||Panoramic views of Candlestick Tower & Green River|
|Gooseberry Canyon||5.4 mi / 8.6km||Hard||Steepest trail in this district down to White Rim bench|
|Neck Spring||5.8 mi / 9.3km||Easy/Moderate||Historic ranching features, springs, varied vegetation|
|Murphy Loop||10.8 mi / 17.4km||Moderate||Sweeping views from the Murphy Hogback|
|Alcove Spring||11.2 mi / 18km||Moderate||Wide canyon to base of the Moses and Zeus towers|
|Wilhite Trail||11.4 mi / 18.3km||Moderate||Primitive trail with steep switchbacks|
|Lathrop Trail||13.6 mi / 22km||Moderate||Views of La Sal Mountains and sandstone knobs|
The hikes in the Needles District are mostly longer and more challenging, with over 60 miles of interconnecting trails.The trailheads can all be reached with a 2WD vehicle via the sealed Needles Main Park Road.
|Roadside Ruin||0.3 mi / 0.5km||Easy||Short trail to indigenous storage structure|
|Pothole Point||0.6 mi / 1km||Easy||Potholes fill with water after rain|
|Cave Spring||0.6 mi / 1km||Easy||Historic cowboy camp & prehistoric rock art|
|Slickrock||2.4 mi / 4km||Easy||Great views|
|Big Spring to Squaw Canyon||7.5 mi / 12km||Easy/Moderate||Connects two canyons across varied terrain|
|Squaw Canyon to Lost Canyon||8.7 mi / 14 km||Moderate||Loop hike with some hard sections.|
|Confluence Overlook||10 mi / 16.5km||Easy/Moderate||Great views from end of trail|
|Peekaboo||10 mi / 16.5km||Moderate||Challenging route. Great views. Rock art at end.|
|Chesler Park / Joint Trail||11 mi / 18km||Moderate||Panoramic views of Needles district|
|Druid Arch||11 mi / 18km||Moderate||One of the most spectacular views in The Needles|
|Lower Red Lake Canyon||18.8 mi / 30km||Moderate/Hard||Steep descent to river. Overnight recommended.|
|Salt Creek Canyon||22.5 mi / 34km||Moderate||Archeological sites and arches. Overnight hike.|
The Maze is the least accessible district of Canyonlands, and generally more suited to multi-day hiking. Most trailheads can only be accessed with a 4WD vehicle (you can park at the North Point Road junction, which is about 2.5 miles / 4km southeast of the Hans Flat Ranger Station, and hike 15 miles to the Maze Overlook). You can also reach the Maze via a 2-hour jetboat shuttle from Moab, which takes you to Spanish Bottom on the Colorado River (a hiking trail climbs over 1,000 feet to the Doll House).
|Spanish Bottom to Dollhouse||2.8mi / 4.5km||Moderate||Steep climb up from river to rim. Great views.|
|Great Gallery||7 mi / 11.2km||Moderate||Some of the most significant rock art in North America|
|Maze Overlook Trail (map)||8 mi / 12.9km||Hard||4WD access. some Class 4 scrambling. Great views.|
|Chocolate Drops (map)||8.4 mi / 13.5km||Easy/Moderate||4WD access. Prominent landmarks in the Maze District|
Getting to Canyonlands
The Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands is accessed via the gateway town of Moab, which is the largest city and county seat of Grand County in eastern Utah in the western United States. The closest major airport is in Salt Late City (Utah), which is 235mi / 380km from Moab (about a 4 hour drive). There are some smaller airports a bit closer – Canyonlands Field Airport is 18mi / 25km north of Moab and Walker Field Airport (in Grand Junction, Colorado) is 110mi / 175km away – but flight options are fairly limited.
Accommodation near Canyonlands National Park
There’s no accommodation within Canyonlands; the closest town is Moab which has a huge range of places to stay – most of them are along the main road (US Highway 191). For something a bit different, Under Canvas (which was awarded one of the ‘Best Resort Hotels in Utah’ by Travel + Leisure magazine) offers luxury safari tents.
When to visit Canyonlands
As with many national parks in this area, summer is best avoided due to the extreme heat; winter can be a good time to visit with much lower visitor numbers – but ice and snow can make the roads dangerous and hiking more challenging. During the winter (December-February) the Island in the Sky Visitor Center offers limited services and The Needles Visitor Center is closed. The best time of year is spring and autumn/fall, when daytime temperatures are typically 60° to 80°F (16°-27°C) and the nights are cool.
- National Parks Service (NPS) – Canyonlands Hiking
- National Parks Service (NPS) – Canyonlands hiking maps & trail summaries [PDF] – Island in the Sky / Needles District
- Moab Adventures – Canyonlands map [PDF]
- Jetboat access to The Maze:
- Tex’s Riverways: (877) 662-2839 or (435) 259-5101
- Canyonlands River Tours: (800) 394-9978, (435) 259-5261