Nestled in the heart of Utah’s rugged desert, Canyonlands National Park is a place of breathtaking beauty and untamed wilderness. With its sprawling canyons, towering mesas and winding rivers, this remarkable destination is a haven for outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers. If you are in the market for great hikes, mesmerizing viewpoints, and endless adventure, you have come to the right place.
As the largest national park in Utah, Canyonlands offers a diverse range of landscapes, trails, and activities. The Colorado and Green Rivers divide the park into three distinct districts: the Island in the Sky, the Needles District, and the Maze.
This geological masterpiece has been shaped over millions of years by the mighty forces of water and wind. The most popular activities here are hiking and scenic drives, where visitors can immerse themselves in the park’s diverse ecosystems and untouched wilderness.
The Island in the Sky is famous for its short trails and panoramic views. You can visit this area in one day and all of the viewing platforms are fairly easy to access. The Needles District boasts a network of trails that wind through one-of-a-kind rock formations. This is a great place for moderate to difficult day hikes and multi-day backpacking trips.
The Maze District beckons experienced backpackers ONLY with its remote and untouched wilderness. Visitors must be prepared for self-sufficiency and have the proper equipment for self-rescue.
With all of that in mind, let’s get into the good stuff! Here are the best things to do in Canyonlands National Park in Utah.
Island in the Sky District
Perched atop a mesmerizing mesa, the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park offers a majestic vantage point of Utah’s desert landscape. With expansive views, towering cliffs, and captivating trails, this section of the park is perfect for nature lovers, photographers, and those short on time.
If you only have one day in Canyonlands, this is where you will most likely spend your time. The Island in the Sky is the most accessible district and the easiest to travel. This entire area can be explored in one full day.
Shafer Canyon Overlook
drive up access
After passing the entrance booth, the first stop in Canyonlands National Park is called Shafer Canyon Overlook. This viewpoint, located on the right-hand side of the road, does not require any hiking. There is a very small parking area with space for 2-3 vehicles at a time.
From this viewpoint, you can look down over the iconic Schafer Trail. This road descends 1,500 feet (457 m) down a massive sandstone cliff to the valley below.
1.1 kilometres & 27 m of elevation gain
The Mesa Arch is one of the most photographed places in Canyonlands National Park, especially at sunrise. As the morning sun peeks through the arch, it casts a golden glow on the surrounding canyons. This short and easy hike is a great way to stretch your legs along the drive and offer fantastic views.
Buck Canyon Overlook
drive up access
As you make your way down the road, Buck Canyon Overlook is another pull-off that showcases the rugged beauty and expansive vistas of the region. Perched high above the canyons, you can enjoy the gorgeous colours, dramatic cliffs, and a sense of solitude.
White Rim Overlook
2.9 kilometres & 50 m of elevation gain
This is one of our favourite places in Canyonlands National Park and we would highly recommend a sunrise visit! While the rest of the tourists were at Mesa Arch first thing in the morning, we hiked to White Rim Overlook and had it all to ourselves.
The sun coming up over the white-rimmed canyons, Colorado River, Monument Basin, and La Sal Mountains is 1000% worth the early morning wake-up call, we promise! There is very limited parking here so go early.
Grand View Point Overlook
2.9 kilometres & 22 m of elevation gain
Grand View Point lies at the southernmost end of the Island in the Sky scenic drive. From here, you can see across miles of corrugated canyons, the White Rim four-wheel-drive road, The Maze District, The Needles District, and distant mountain ranges. There is plenty of parking and space to spread out at this viewpoint.
Green River Overlook
drive up access
On your way back to the entrance of Island in the Sky, take a left just before the Mesa Arch Parking Area. After another lefthand turn, you will arrive at the Green River Overlook. This southwest-facing viewpoint is the best place in Canyonlands National Park to watch the sunset, boasting a fantastic view of the Green River.
The Needles District
Tucked away in the southeastern corner of Utah’s iconic Canyonlands National Park, this remote and captivating region is a haven for hikers and adventurers lovers. Known for its mesmerizing rock formations, towering spires and exhilarating hiking trails, the Needles District was our favourite place in Canyonlands.
This is a great destination for moderate to difficult day hikes and multi-day backpacking trips. Because it is slightly out of the way from the Island in the Sky, many travellers do not make it here. This means it is quieter and better preserved for those of us who chose to make the trip.
Druid Arch Trail
17.4 kilometres & 153 m of elevation gain
There are several hiking trails in the Needles District, but the Druid Arch Trail was by far our favourite. The path begins at Elephant Hill and winds you along a rocky trail with sweeping views of the area. From there, you hike through a narrow crevice and along a creek bed before climbing up into the spires that surround the Druid Arch.
Although this hike is over 17 kilometres long, the elevation gain is minimal making it a must-do in this area. We hiked here for sunset and had the entire place to ourselves. If you choose to do the same, make sure to bring a headlamp, lots of food and water, and an offline map as there is no service along the trail.
Chesler Park Loop Trail
15.4 kilometres & 547 m of elevation gain
The Chesler Park Loop Trail begins at the same parking lot as the Druid Arch Trail. It branches off partway through to bring you to one of the most beautiful areas in Canyonlands. Make sure to bring plenty of food and water, you will need it!
This stunning trail has a variety of terrain including scrambles, caves, slots, and wide open fields of wildflowers. We would recommend hiking counterclockwise. This will save you from enduring gruelling switchbacks at the end of your hike.
If you’re up for a challenge, you can combine the Chesler Park Loop with a stop at the Druid Arch for a hiking total of 22.5 kilometres & 776 m of elevation gain. We would only recommend this for experienced hikers or backpackers who are staying at campgrounds along the way.
The Maze District
The Maze is the least accessible district of Canyonlands. Due to the remoteness and the difficulty of roads and trails, travel to the Maze is only recommended for expert backpackers. Visitors must be prepared for self-sufficiency and have the proper equipment for self-rescue.
There are no services, food, gas, or potable water sources in The Maze. Visitors rarely spent less than 3 days at a time in this area and some stay up to 2 weeks. We did not visit this district and would recommend a guide if you choose to explore it.