Canyonlands National Park’s colorful landscape of deep canyons, massive mesas and spectacular rock formations is in southeastern Utah, about 30 min from Arches National Park and the city of Moab. The park is divided into four districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and The Rivers. And although each district may seem close on the map, there are no interconnecting roads inside the park. Traveling between the separate entrances will take you anywhere between 2 and 6 hours. Each district offers its own unique landscape and history, with endless possibilities for sightseeing and hiking. Each district is definitely worth a visit but with a park at over 337,000 acres, it’s probably not realistic to group districts into the same day. For the two-day itinerary below, you will visit both the Island in the Sky and The Needles districts.
Entrance Fee: $30 for a 7-Day Vehicle Pass. If you are visiting multiple parks, and are not traveling with a 4th grader, I highly recommend an America the Beautiful Pass. It covers the entrance fees for over 2,000 federal recreation sites, including all national parks. It also makes your entrance into most parks a little quicker😊
Lodging: Camping is the only lodging available on site. Island in the Sky Campground has 12 sites and does not take reservations. The Needles Campground has 26 sites and accepts reservations at Recreation.gov. The city of Moab has many lodging options. Moab is 32 miles from Island in the Sky, 76 miles from The Needles, 100 miles to Horseshoe Canyon and 133 miles to Hans Flat (access to The Maze via 4- wheel drive roads).
Dining: There are no food options in any of the park’s 4 districts. Island in the Sky and The Needles both have shaded picnic areas. The city of Moab has MANY food options, but I would recommend at least bringing lunch into the park with you.
Must Know Before You Go:
*Similar to Arches National Park, if you are traveling during the summer months, your biggest challenge will be the unrelenting heat in a park with absolutely no shade.*
1. Bring all kinds of sun protection- Sunscreen, hats, sunglasses, etc.
2. Bring plenty of water. There are water filling stations year-round at Island in the Sky Visitor Center and The Needles Visitor Center. There is also a filling station at The Needles Campground during the summer months. The park recommends 1 gallon per person, per day.
3. In the height of summer, I highly recommend planning your hikes as early as possible to avoid hiking during the hottest part of the day.
4. Carry plenty of water on your hikes- the park rangers repeatedly recommended 1 liter per hour per person when hiking.
5. With sand hiking and rock scrambling on many of the trails, and the risk of sudden storms in the summer months making the sandstone very slick, hiking boots are definitely recommended.
Cell Service: We did not have cell service anywhere inside the park. We always carry walkie talkies in case we are separated.
2 Day Itinerary
Day 1 (Island in the Sky)
Island in the Sky Visitor Center- The Island in the Sky Visitor Center is a great first stop. There is a short park film running to jump start your Canyonlands experience, several educational exhibits, and a small gift shop. They also have a water filling station if needed, before heading out for the day.
Mesa Arch- The first stop of the day is Mesa Arch. If you are staying in or close to the park, I highly recommend this as a sunrise hike, but it really is gorgeous at any time of day. The Mesa Arch Trail is a 0.7-mile, easy, loop trail that is perfect for all ages. The trail’s halfway point rewards you with a 27-foot, sandstone arch, backdropped with magnificent mountain and canyon views in the distance. Something to keep in mind- there are no railings near the arch, which is perched on the mesa top’s edge. If you are only up for one hike today- this is the one you can not miss😊
Upheaval Dome- From Mesa Arch, head south on the main road and then almost immediately turn right onto Upheaval Dome Road. It will be well labeled. The road will end in a large parking area with restrooms and shaded picnic tables at the trailhead. The first overlook is 0.7 miles roundtrip to a very cool view of what is either a massive salt dome or remnants of a meteorite collision. Either way it is a sight you do not want to miss. If you are interested in a little more hiking, head to the second overlook which will add another 0.5 miles roundtrip onto your hike. It is a steep, rocky climb up to the first overlook. Once at the top, you are on the cliff edge, looking down into the dome. There are no railings at the top, so watch little ones closely😊
Whale Rock- This is a 1-mile roundtrip, out and back trail that has you scrambling up rock in the shape of a whale. Follow the cairns to stay on the trail!
Holeman Spring Canyon Overlook- About 2 miles south of Whale Rock is the Holman Spring Canyon Overlook. It will be on the west (right side coming from Whale Rock) side of the road and is just a small pull off, with immensely beautiful views. There is not a sign I could see, but it is labeled on the park map.
Green River Overlook- This is a 0.2-mile roundtrip trail to a stunning overlook of the Green River. If you are not taking a trip to The Maze this visit, it is an opportunity to get a glimpse of it off in the distance. Our kiddos also loved the “shark fin” on the walk out to the overlook. This overlook is wheelchair accessible and stroller friendly.
Candlestick Tower Overlook- From the Green River Overlook, head south(right) on the main road. The Candlestick Tower Overlook will be on the west side of the road. It is a small pull off, so if the parking lot is full, you can stop on your way back. It is a short, rocky walk out to one of my favorite overlooks! Be careful with little ones, there is no railing and if you walk all the way to the end, you will be right on the edge of a very steep cliff.
Buck Canyon Overlook- From Candlestick Tower Overlook, continue to head south on the main road to Buck Canyon Overlook. This 0.2-mile roundtrip trail takes you to another lovely view of Canyonlands. These overlooks may seem repetitive, but I promise you, they are all unique and worth the stop😊
Orange Cliffs Overlook- Just before the Orange Cliffs Overlook is a picnic area, with shaded tables if needed. The overlook will be on the west side of the road, just before you get to Grandview Point.
Grandview Point Overlook/Trail- The Grandview Point Overlook is just after the Orange Cliffs Overlook. It is just a short walk out to the main overlook. From there you can take a 1.8-mile roundtrip trail to a second phenomenal overlook. This trail does hug the canyon edge the entire time, so little ones will need to be kept close. If you are short on time or your crew is done with the heat- this is the trail I would skip. It was lovely, but there is still plenty to see from the main overlook😊
Shafer Canyon Overlook- The Shafer Canyon Overlook is a 0.3-mile roundtrip trail out to unbelievable views of Shafer Canyon. It also gives you great views of White Rim Road if you are looking for your next adventure at Canyonlands😊 Just like most overlooks at Canyonlands, there are no railings, and you are on the cliff’s ledge so keep small kiddos close. Also, walk all the way to the end of the mesa to check out the little tunnel at the end! It is a great way to end your day at Island in the Sky!
*If you have time today, I recommend making a quick stop at Dead Horse State Park on your way home. If you have time for nothing else, make sure you drive to Dead Horse Point to check out the amazing views. If you have time for a whole day at Dead Horse State Park- post coming soon! Entrance to the park is $20.
Day 2 (The Needles)
The Needles Visitor Center- First of all, the drive into the park on UT 211 is worth the trip to this area of the park alone. Massive buttes trail both sides of the road the entire way. Every one of the 35 miles it takes to reach the visitor center was unbelievably beautiful. The visitor center has rangers on duty for any last minute questions, a short film running, several informative exhibits, and a small gift shop. It is also the last opportunity for a restroom stop. Make sure to grab a map if you did not get one at the entrance station, on your way in.
Roadside Ruin- On the main park road, shortly after the visitor center is the trailhead for Roadside Ruin. This is a 0.3-mile, easy loop trail. There is an informative trail guide to help you learn about the native plant life along the trail and information about the ancient storage structure and the people who once inhabited the Canyonlands area. The trail is well marked and easy to follow.
Cave Spring- Shortly after Roadside Ruin, there is a split in the main road. At the split, take a left and then take another left onto the unpaved road. The unpaved road will end at the Cave Spring Trailhead. The Cave Spring Trail is a 0.8-mile loop trail with amazing views, rock markings and a historic cowboy camp. The trail is flat but does involve climbing two ladders. I recommend picking up a trail guide so you and your crew can learn about some of the history you are passing along the way. It is easy to get lost on this trail. Make sure you take a map and follow the cairns if you see them, especially after climbing up the first ladder.
Wooden Shoe Arch Overlook- Coming from Cave Spring, you will be able to see the “Wooden Shoe” long before you get to the overlook. It is a sandstone arch that indeed looks like a wooden shoe. Our kids love finding shapes in the rocks, so they thought it was very cool, but the overlook really has stunning views of so much more as well😊
*On the way to Pothole Point is a nice, shaded picnic area if you are looking for a place to have lunch.
Pothole Point- Pothole Point is a 0.6-mile loop trail, that will have you feeling almost like you are walking on the moon. You are walking on rock the entire time so follow the cairns😊 This trail has horizon views almost the entire way.
Big Spring Overlook- This was one of my favorite areas of The Needles. The main road ends right into it. There are stunning views from the second you pull up, but it is 0.3 miles roundtrip to walk out to the farthest overlook point. It was a great area to explore!
Elephant Hill- At the turn off for the campground, head to Elephant Hill. If you had another day in this part of the park, this is the area I would explore for the entirety of that day. But, if you only have one day, drive to the end of the paved road. There is a large parking area, but it does fill up quickly. You can either take in the views from the lot and turn around, or hike as long as your crew would like, before heading back. The trail from the start is both rocky and steep but has stunning views the whole way.
Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument- After Elephant Hill, head back out to UT 211. About 22 miles from the Visitor Center is Newspaper Rock. Newspaper Rock is one of the country’s largest collection of petroglyphs. The 200 square foot, sandstone rock has hundreds of carvings in the rock that make it a truly remarkable sight.
The Needles Overlook- After Newspaper Rock, head back out to UT 211 and head north(left) onto US-191. About 7 miles up US-191, is the road to the Needles Overlook. It’s another 22 miles to the overlook from there. The Needles Overlook is a 0.5-mile loop trail with stunning 360 views the entire way. There are railings throughout the trail but not the entire way. You will want to keep little ones close the entire time. The overlook area does have restrooms. The trail is relatively flat the entire way and the views were breathtaking. It is a great way to end your time in Canyonlands!
Hope you have a wonderful adventure!