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Canyonlands National Park may not be the most visited national parks in Utah, but it is the largest national park in Utah. It’s also one of the best places to see canyons, mesas, and buttes. In this video and post, we’ll explore the “Island in the Sky” district of the park, explore things to do at Canyonlands National Park, and share some tips if you’re planning a visit.
Where is Canyonlands National Park?
Canyonlands is located in southeastern Utah along with many other popular national parks in the area like Zion, Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef, and Arches. Even though it only became a National Park in 1964, people have been visiting the area for over 10,000 years. Nowadays, the park attracts almost 800,000 visitors each year to view its beautiful natural landscapes.
Three districts in Canyonlands National Park
Island in the Sky
Canyonlands is split into three sections, also known as districts. These districts are a significant distance from one another and therefore not possible to cover all in one day. Island in the Sky, in the northern section of the park, is the district that we’ll cover in this post. It’s approximately a 40-minute drive, or 30 miles, from Moab. It’s called Island in the Sky since it sits on top of a 1,500-foot mesa, which gives visitors a panoramic view of the Canyon Country. Also, during certain times of the year, the mesa can be higher than the clouds, giving the appearance of an island in the sky.
The Needles and The Maze
The other two districts include The Needles and The Maze. The Needles is in the southeast section the park, while The Maze is in the western side of the park and consists mostly of unpaved roads and remote landscapes. Yeah, The Maze sounds just like something out of Westworld and is supposedly the most difficult and rugged of the three districts.
To give you an idea of the vastness of the park, it’s the largest in Utah and spans approximately 337,000 acres. Traveling between districts can take anywhere from two to six hours, which is why we settled on limiting our visit to Island in the Sky during this trip.
Our one-day itinerary to Canyonlands National Park
I’ll be reviewing our one-day itinerary for visiting the Island in the Sky, which is the most accessible section of Canyonlands, and sharing some tips in case you’re planning a visit. For context, we visited in late September 2019 during our honeymoon, which consisted of a road trip to six different national parks.
Also, this isn’t meant to be an exhaustive list of things to see, but is instead just a sample in case you’re planning a day trip as well.
Our first stop at Canyonlands National Park was the visitor center. As with every National Park we visit, we always stop at the visitor center to get the latest information about the park and useful insights from the park rangers. This is an easy stop, as it’s the first place you’ll see after driving through the park entrance.
Next, we drove about 11 miles from the visitor center to Upheaval Dome. From the start of the trail, it’s about a 1-mile roundtrip hike to the first overlook. We ended up hiking for another one and half miles along the rim of the dome. There are debates among geologists as to how this dome was formed. Some believe it’s a crater caused by the impact of a meteorite. Other scientists think that it’s the result of erosion from a natural salt dome. Either way, it’s an interesting sight to see and offers some beautiful views of the surrounding landscapes. A word of warning though: it does get pretty windy around the rim, so be sure to secure any loose items, such as hats!
Green River Overlook
We then backtracked about 5 miles along the same route to Green River Overlook. This short stop was a great place to see the views over the Green River below. This was a popular photo spot and offered a different landscape to the miles of canyons that we had seen so far in the park.
Grand View Overlook
We then drove another 6 miles south to Grand View Overlook. This area has several hiking trails, so we did a one-mile round trip hike along the rim and enjoyed more views of the canyons below. The scenic views from this area are spectacular and worth checking out.
We then backtracked toward the center of the park for our last stop, which was Mesa Arch. It’s an easy 0.7-mile round trip hike to an interesting pothole arch, and it is one of the most popular sites in the park. If you’ve been to Arches National Park, you might not find this as spectacular as some of the natural arches in that area, but it’s still worth the short hike. Parking can be tough in this area, so you may have to wait a little while for a spot to open up.
Additional stop: Dead Horse State Park
On our way back from the park, we stopped at Dead Horse Point State Park, which is a short distance from the park exit. Entrance to the state park isn’t covered by the national parks pass, so you should expect to pay $20 per vehicle if you’re planning a visit. There is a small visitor center, a few overlooks, and options for additional hikes in the area. We stopped for refreshments at the visitor center and enjoyed more of the surrounding views.
Lodging at and near Canyonlands National Park
If you want to stay inside the park, you have the option to camp at designated sites. Otherwise, you’re better off staying in the town of Moab. Moab offers many motel and hotel options and is a great base for exploring both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.
Our pick: Hyatt Place
We opted to stay at the Hyatt Place in Moab. In fact, when we booked it, we were able to get over 3.5 cents per point on our redemption, which was an awesome deal. For those of you into points and miles, we transferred Chase Ultimate Rewards points to Hyatt to complete the booking. The hotel is close to the park entrance and has an outdoor pool, laundry facility, and offers free breakfast. Though keep in mind that you can’t use a third-party site or travel portals like Expedia or Hotels.com to get the free breakfast; you have to book directly with Hyatt for that.
There are a lot of cool places in Moab. For lunch, we highly recommend the Sweet Cravings Bakery. They had a lot of interesting sandwich options, and they even offer a free sweet treat with every lunch purchase. For dinner, we recommend the La Sal House. We actually went there twice during our trip since we loved it so much. The food and ambiance are great!
Tips and considerations when visiting Canyonlands National park
If you’re planning a trip to Canyonlands National Park, here are some additional tips to keep in mind.
1. Decide on which section of the park you want to explore:
As I mentioned earlier, this video specifically covers the Island in the Sky district of the park. If you’re interested in exploring the other two sections, it’s worth putting in additional research and planning your stay accordingly, as it’s not possible to cover all three sections in one day. Also, keep in mind that if you plan to visit The Maze, you will need to drive a 4×4 vehicle.
2. Buy an annual National Park Pass:
If you’re planning on exploring Arches and Canyonlands, then an annual national park pass is definitely a worthwhile purchase. The America the Beautiful annual pass is $80 and is a great investment if you think you’ll be visiting multiple parks in one year. With park entrance fees ranging from $20 – $35, it doesn’t take many trips to make the investment worthwhile. Plus, you’re supporting a fantastic organization and mission.
3. Start early:
This goes for all national parks. The parking lots were much more crowded as the day went on (especially at the Mesa Arch trail), and it’s always a good idea to tackle the more strenuous hikes before the temperatures get too high.
4. Consider backtracking through the park:
Since a lot of people stop at the visitor center and get the same advice on where to stop in the park, you may want to consider starting at the end of the list and working your way backward through the park. We didn’t do this, but if I had to do it again, I would have used this strategy to avoid some of the crowds.
5. Carry water and snacks:
It probably goes without saying, but you’ll want to pack a lot of water before visiting the park. I also recommend using insulated water bottles that can keep your water cold. We didn’t see any water filling stations when we visited either.
We stopped at the City Market in Moab to pick up water and snacks before heading into the park. We also noticed the prices here were much more reasonable than the tourist stores, so we stocked up on lots of supplies. Our approach was to eat a large breakfast every morning at the hotel, snack throughout the day, and treat ourselves to a nice dinner in the evening.
6. Pack sunglasses, hats, and sunscreen:
Most of the trails and hikes in the park offer little to no shade. This means you’ll be getting a lot of sun exposure. You’ll want to keep yourself protected and comfortable by wearing sunglasses, a hat, and sunscreen.
Also, if you’re wearing sunglasses with brown lenses, you may find it a bit disorienting. Like in Sedona, the soil is red. Since brown lenses can often add more contrast to your vision, it can make the environment glow red. If you have a pair of grey or more neutral colored lenses, I recommend using those instead.
7. Wear appropriate attire:
Due to the elevation, the temperature can fluctuate quite a bit. I recommend wearing layers and also bringing a hat, sunglasses, and sunscreen. As an example, here’s a breakdown of what we wore during our trip in September 2019. Along with hiking shoes and a hat, we wore merino wool and sports fabrics. Merino wool clothing is especially useful, with its natural moisture-wicking and odor-resistant qualities.
8. Be aware of the weather:
You’ll want to be especially careful of lightning storms and rain. The area is prone to flash flooding, and the high elevation makes it a very dangerous spot for lightning strikes.
9. Pack hand sanitizer and wipes:
Many of the bathroom facilities do not have running water, so you’ll be much happier if you have some hand sanitizer or wipes with you. And since we are releasing this video during the pandemic, this is more important than ever.
10. Consider an adventure tour:
One of the highlights of our trip to the area was actually outside of the park itself. We booked a canyoneering tour with a local company called Red River Adventures. It was an incredible experience exploring the sandstone canyons of Moab, and we even rappelled down the canyon walls. In case you’re interested, we did the Rock of Ages Canyoneering tour, which is highly recommended. Our tour consisted of a 4-mile hike and three large rappels.
11. Avoid building cairns:
Cairns are small rock piles that are used to mark trails. While you may be tempted to build your own, I would advise against it, since it could mislead hikers off the main path.
12. Be careful of where you step:
This is so important! Canyonlands, as well as the many national parks in the area, have biological soil crusts. These areas are very noticeable, as they are often darker and sometimes have white spots among the texture. The soil in this area is alive and is home to organisms like fungi, algae, and bacteria. The plants in the area are dependent on this soil crust, and it takes generations for it to form. You don’t want to step into it. So stay on the trails and watch out for larger colors and textures on the ground.
Another thing to watch out for are ephemeral pools. These can look like potholes in the rock and can be either dry or filled with water. These pools are filled with organisms like freshwater shrimp. Even when dry, the organisms can become dormant until the next rainstorm. This means that you’ll want to avoid stepping in these areas.
Have you been to Canyonlands National Park, or are you planning to visit in the future? Also, do you have any additional tips for others visiting the park?