Canyoneering

Canyonlands National Park Visitor Guide

Canyonlands National Park is one of the most unique and beautiful parks in the United States National Park System.  It includes some of the most unique and breathtaking landscapes in the country.  With miles-upon-miles of beautiful slot canyons (created by both the Colorado and Green Rivers) and other amazing rock formations, there is no shortage of amazing views in this park.

Canyonlands is also a great place to do some back-country hiking and canyoning, as the park is filled with amazing back-country hikes and challenging slot canyons that will keep even the most experienced canyoneers on their toes.

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If you love rough and beautiful landscapes, then Canyonlands National Park should be near the top of your list of places to visit.  Within this visitor’s guide, I will outline all of the information you will need to make your visit to Canyonlands National Park a success.  With information on how to get to the park, the best times to visit, the top things to do and see within the park, and resources to make your visit a success, this guide is a one-stop resource for your planning needs.

How to Get There

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Canyonlands National Park is located in the Southeast corner of the State of Utah, just outside of the town of Moab, Utah.  It is just a short drive from Arches National Park, which we highlighted in our Arches National Park Visitor’s Guide just last year.

Because of the ruggedness and remoteness of the area, there are no major airports that are close to Canyonlands National Park.  This is why, if you want to visit Canyonlands or Arches National Park, I always recommend you make it a longer trip and see some of the other amazing national parks and public lands in this area.  There is so much to see and do in this area of the country that you won’t be short on options.

If you want to avoid a cross-country drive, or you are visiting from outside the United States, I have included a list of of major metropolitan cities with large airports in this area of the United States with distances to Canyonlands National Park below.

Salt Lake City, Utah 242 miles – 4 hour drive
Denver, Colorado 362 miles – 6 hour drive
Albuquerque, New Mexico 357 miles – 6 hour drive
Las Vegas, Nevada 465 miles – 7 hour drive
Phoenix, Arizona 459 miles – 7.5 hour drive

Canyonlands Area Map

Canyonlands National Park is broken up into three districts (four if you count the rivers themselves), separated by the Colorado and Green Rivers.  Each area offers unique landscapes for you to explore, so I would strongly suggest that you visit them all.  This isn’t a case where seeing one district means you have seen everything that Canyonlands National Park has to offer.

The Maze District

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The Maze District of Canyonlands National Park is the most remote, and therefore the least crowded, district in the park.  Here you will find miles-upon-miles of slot canyons that can be explored.  Because of its remoteness, the Maze District of Canyonlands National Park requires some back-country hiking to really do a lot of exploration.  However, if you want to get a quick view of this beautiful area, the Maze Overlook Viewpoint is definitely worth a stop.

The Needles District

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Located in the Southeastern section of the park, the Needles District has some of the best back-country backpacking trails in the park.  The terrain is comprised of many rock spires, or needles, that make it one of the most unique sections of the park as well.  If you are interested in history, there are also some fascinating Ancestral Puebloan petroglyphs near the Needles district that are worth checking out as well.

Islands in the Sky District

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If you like amazing vistas, then the Islands in the Sky District is the place you want to be.  The Sky district is the closest district to the town of Moab and includes some absolutely breathtaking views over the vast expanse of canyons inside Canyonlands National Park.  This is where you will find the beautiful Mesa Arch overlook and the equally stunning Green River Overlook, among others.

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When to Visit

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There are several different factors that you should consider before making a trip to see Canyonlands National Park and the surrounding area.  These factors include both the weather and the annual crowds that flock to see this amazing park.  I have included some month-by-month comparisons below to assist you in planning a visit that meets your needs.

Average Temperature (°F)

Because of its location, Canyonlands National Park can get quite hot during the summer months and rather chilly during the winter months.  Before planning your trip to see Canyonlands National Park, take into account the monthly temperature averages listed below.

As you can see by the chart below, the summer months of June thru August can be very hot, with temperatures reaching over 100 degrees Fahrenheit.  If you don’t like hot temperatures, you should avoid visiting during these months.  During the winter months of November thru February, the temperatures can be quite chilly, especially at night.  This can put a damper on your vacation if you don’t like cooler temperatures.

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Average Precipitation (Inches)

Nothing can ruin an adventure vacation quicker than bad weather.  Before you start planning your trip to Canyonlands National Park, you should understand which months see the highest average rainfall and which see the lowest.  This will help you reduce the chances of rain putting a damper on your vacation.

The Canyonlands area doesn’t get a whole lot of rain annually, but there are a few months that do get a fair amount of rain.  This is especially true for the month of October, which sees over an inch of rain on average every year.

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Average Visitors (1000 visitors Per Day)

Another variable that may play a factor in when you decide to visit Canyonlands National Park are the crowds.  Depending on the month of the year that you visit, and what you want to see in the park, there may be significant crowds at the park.  This is especially true for the infamous Mesa Arch viewpoint.  The picture below, taken by Steve Cochrane, shows just how crowded this viewpoint can get with photographers.  And this was taken during the winter months, not the busy summer months.

The chart below will give you a sense of which months of the year see the most visitors to Canyonlands National Park.  I pulled this data for the 2017 season and the chart represents the number of thousands of visitors the park saw each month.

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Other Things to See in the Area

There are a ton of things to see and do in the area surrounding Canyonlands National Park.  Below are just some of the many wonderful things you can add as side excursions when you visit the park.

Arches National Park Visitor’s Guide
Dead Horse Point State Park
Corona Arch
Wilson’s Arch

Resources

In order to make your trip to visit Canyonlands National Park a success, I have included a number of additional resources below that you can use to plan your trip.

Moab

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The closest city to Canyonlands National Park is the city of Moab, Utah, which sits just 30 miles to the Northeast and is just a 35 minute drive away from the park.  There is a wealth of things to do inside and around the city of Moab, including Arches National Park (which sits just outside of the city limits).  This makes Moab an ideal place to look for accommodations and use as a base camp as you explore the area.

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I have included a list of fun activities inside and around the city of Moab that you can consider when visiting.  Like I said, there really is a wealth of fun things to do in the area.  These are just some of the many amazing adventures you can find on TripAdvisor.

Top Things to See

Canyonlands National Park is filled with grand vistas and rugged landscapes.  That is what makes this park so incredibly beautiful.  The park is fairly big, so there is a lot to see.  Below are some of the top things I would recommend seeing when you visit.

Mesa Arch

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Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 0.6 miles (half hour hike)
Elevation Change: 62 feet
District:  Island in the Sky

Mesa Arch is to Canyonlands National Park what the Delicate Arch is to Arches National Park.  It is an incredibly popular stop within the park that sees hundreds of thousands of visitors a year.  Not only that, but it is a mecca for landscape photographers from around the world who want to get their own shot of this amazing viewpoint.

The hike to the Mesa Arch viewpoint is very short and easy, so it is a great stop for people of all ages and hiking ability, which adds to its popularity.  This should be the number one stop on anyone’s list when visiting Canyonlands National Park.

Arrive Early

I would strongly suggest that you arrive at the park early and make the Mesa Arch your first stop of the day.  This viewpoint gets extremely crowded, even in the winter months where park attendance is low.  As you can see in the photo that I posted above, it is not unusual to see a large crowd of photographers gathered at the viewpoint waiting to get a shot.

Photography Tip: The best time to photograph the Mesa Arch is at sunrise as the sun peaking up from the horizon thru the framing of the arch makes for an unbelievable shot.

Accessing the Trail

The Mesa Arch is located in the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park.  To get to the viewpoint, you will want to enter the park via highway 313 (Island in the Sky road) in the North, which turns into Grand Viewpoint Road at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center.  The Mesa Arch trail head is approximately 6 miles down the road from the Island in the Sky Visitor Center.

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Grand Viewpoint Overlook

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Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 1.8 mile out-and-back (hour hike)
Elevation Change: 173 feet
District:  Island in the Sky

If you want to get a true sense of why they call this park Canyonlands, then look no further than the Grand View Point.  You will be in awe of the massive expanse of canyons that fill your view.  It is truly breathtaking.

The Grand View Point Trail is a fairly flat and easy trail to hike, but many sections of the trail are not very well defined, so make sure you pay close attention to where you are going.  There are plenty of cairns to guide your way, but if you aren’t accustomed to hiking by cairns, you might want to take it slow.

Accessing the Trail

From the Island in the Sky Visitor Center, drive roughly 6 miles south on the Grand Viewpoint Road.  At the junction of Upheaval Dome/Grand View Roads, stay left toward Grand View Point for six miles until you get to the Grand View Trail head.

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Green River Overlook

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Difficulty: Very Easy
Distance: 0.2 miles (5-10 minute hike)
Elevation Change: 3 feet
District: Island in the Sky

This hike might have the highest distance to payoff ratio in the park, as the hike itself is incredibly short and the view from the lookout is absolutely breathtaking.  From the viewpoint, you can look down to see how the Green River has carved out miles of stunning canyons below.  This path is wheelchair accessible, so it is enjoyable for all.

Accessing the Trail

To get to the Green River Overlook, take the Grand View Point Road South from the Island in the Sky visitor Center for roughly 6 miles until you get to the intersection of Grand View Point Road and the Upheaval Dome Road.  Take a right on the Upheaval Dome Road and follow that road for roughly a quarter of a mile until you see the turn-off for the Green River Overlook Road.  The overlook is roughly 1.3 miles down the road.

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Slickrock Trail – The Needles

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Difficulty: Moderate
Distance: 2.4 miles (2 hour hike)
Elevation Change: 137 feet
District: The Needles

The Slickrock trail is such an underrated trail.  It is unique in that you are hiking mostly on slick sandstone rock (which is neat by itself), but you are also hiking past some of the most interesting rock formations I have seen outside of Bryce Canyon National Park.  The needles, or rock spires, create such an amazing landscape.  Couple that with the fact that you are hiking almost entirely on the slick rock, and it is a pretty incredible hike.

Accessing the Trail

From the Needles Visitor Center, drive 6.2 miles west on the main park road (highway 211), past Squaw Flat Road, until you get to the Slickrock Trailhead.

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Shafer Canyon Overlook

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Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 0.3 miles (10-15 minute hike)
Elevation Change: 45 feet
District:  Island in the Sky

One of the more popular viewpoints in Canyonlands National Park, the Shafer Canyon Overlook provides some of the most grand and spectacular views in the park.  From this viewpoint, you can get a real sense of where the name for the Island in the Sky district came from.  You absolutely feel as though you are in the sky looking down on this magnificent landscape.  Be aware, because it is one of the more popular and easy to access view points in the park, it can also be one of the most crowded.

Accessing the Trail

The viewpoint for the Shafer Canyon Overlook is very easy to locate.  From the turn-off to the Island in the Sky visitor center, continue down the Grand Viewpoint Road for an additional 0.57 miles and the Shafer Canyon Overlook turn-off will be on the left-hand side of the road.

Schafer Canyon Overlook

Roadside Ruin

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Difficulty: Easy
Distance: 0.2 (15 minute hike)
Elevation Change: 0 feet
District:  The Needles

This short, easy trail isn’t much of a hiking challenge, but it does reward you with a piece of really cool history.  The trail takes you to an ancient ancestral Puebloan granary built of stone and dried mud.  It’s fascinating to see history this well preserved in our parks, and is definitely worth checking out if you are in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.

Accessing the Trail

The trail head for the Roadside Ruin is located along the main access road (highway 211), just past the Needles Visitor Center.  The rock granary is built into the rocks just a short distance off the road.  There is a marked loop trail that takes you to the granary and back.

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Newspaper Rock

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Difficulty: Very Easy
Distance: 0 miles (roadside pull-off)
Elevation Change: 0 feet
District:  Outside the Park (near the Needles District)

Newspaper Rock isn’t technically inside Canyonlands National Park, but it might as well be as it is situated along the well-traveled access road that takes you into the Needles District.  It features a spectacular selection of Native American rock art.  This Petroglyph Panel has some of the most well preserved and fascinating Petroglyphs I have seen in the United States National Park system.

Accessing the Trail

If you are coming from Moab, you will want to take highway 191 South for approximately 39 miles, and then turn right onto highway 211 towards Canyonlands National Park.  You will stay on highway 211 for approximately 12 miles.  Look for signs along the side of the road for Newspaper Rock.  There will be parking available to pull off to see the Petroglyphs.

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Wooden Shoe Arch

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Difficulty: Very Easy
Distance: 0 miles (roadside pull-off)
Elevation Change: 0 feet
District:  The Needles

Wooden Shoe Arch is an interesting rock formation within the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park.  While it isn’t the most interesting rock formation within the park, it is a fairly well-known landmark within the park that is worth viewing should you be in the Needles District.

Accessing the Trail

To get to the Wooden Shoe Arch Viewpoint, take the main road (highway 211) South from the Needles District Visitor Center for approximately 2 miles.

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Photo Gallery

Canyonlands National Park is such an amazing place.  There are so many beautiful vistas and fascinating rock formations.  Here are just some of the pictures I have taken on my trips to visit this wonderful national park.

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