Best Adventures in Canyonlands National Park

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Canyonlands National Park is both the least visited and largest of Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks, recently welcoming about 750,000 visitors per year across its 528 square miles. The reason for this curious statistic possibly relates to Canyonland’s unique layout. Located in southeastern Utah, not far from the town of Moab, the park’s three main districts are divided by the Green and Colorado Rivers. Given the limited road access, and distances between districts, it can take several hours to drive from one district to the others.

Each district offers different types of adventures. The most accessible district is Island in the Sky, located about 30-40 minutes from Moab and Arches National Park. Here, the emphasis is on short hikes, lookouts over the Green River, and driving or biking a rough four-wheel-drive (4WD) loop called the White Rim Road. About 1.5 hours south of Moab, the Needles District is mostly about challenging, longer hikes through a series of startling geologic formations. And three hours southwest of Moab, the park’s most remote district, the Maze, is mostly about 4×4 touring through a stunning and remote landscape. Meanwhile, the park’s fourth district includes its two rivers, the Green and Colorado, where paddlers can tackle classic flatwater trips or a thrilling section of whitewater.

With such a wide variety of adventures available, choosing which sites to visit within Canyonlands National Park can be quite the challenge. But with a little information about each district, you can pick which areas are perfect for your visit.

island in the sky in canyonlands
Mountain bikers on White Rim Road. NPS/Neal Herbert

Island in the Sky District

Given its paved roadways and proximity to Moab, Island in the Sky is the most popular district, seeing over 75% of all visitors to the park. Those who visit tend to focus on three stunning viewpoints: Green River Overlook, Grand View Point Overlook, and White Rim Overlook.

Another highly popular site requires a short 0.25-mile hike, one-way, to Mesa Arch. This arch is particularly popular around sunrise, when photographers line up to capture the sun rising above the LaSal Mountains which are framed inside the stone archway.

Another popular trail leads to the two lookouts above Upheaval Dome, a suspected meteor impact crater. The lookouts are a 0.4-mile or 0.9-mile hike, one way. Nearby, Aztec Butte has a 1.0 mile, one-way, hike up a steep slickrock slope to several ancient granaries.

Camping in Canyonlands National Park can be quite challenging, and Island in the Sky only has one small campground, Willow Flat, with 12 sites, all first-come-first-served. Instead, most visitors camp outside the park or reserve lodgings in Moab. For more information visit www.discovermoab.com/.

Perhaps the most famous feature at this district is the White Rim Road. This is a 100-mile unpaved 4WD backcountry loop below the Island in the Sky mesa top.  Driving this route requires navigating rocky sections, steep switchbacks, cliffs, and deep sand. Highlights include Fort Bottom Ruin, the White Crack, and countless stunning views and unnamed rock formations.

A permit is required for all day and overnight trips on the White Rim Road, and campers must use designated NPS primitive campsites along the way. Also popular is mountain biking the White Rim Road, either as a self-supported bikepacking trip or as a vehicle-supported ride. Driving trips typically take 2-3 days and biking trips typically take 3-4 days.

canyonlands national park camping
Grand View Point. NPS/Neal Herbert

The Needles District

The Needles is the second-most popular district at Canyonlands National Park, seeing just over 20% of the total visitors. The main draw here is hiking, with a few shorter trails and a variety of longer and more challenging routes that penetrate deep into a desert backcountry filled with stunning geologic formations.

There are four short and easy hikes, including Cave Spring, a 0.6-mile loop that leads to a historic cowboy camp and some prehistoric pictographs. Other short trails include Roadside Ruin (0.3 mile), Pothole Point (0.6 mile), and the Slickrock Trail, which is 2.4 miles and leads to potholes and viewpoints.

But the real highlights at the Needles are the longer and more strenuous trails. One of the most dramatic day hikes is the Chesler Park/Joint Trail Loop. This 11-mile loop typically takes about 5-7 hours to complete, offering excellent views of the Needles formations and winding through narrow fractures and slot canyons in solid rock. Another popular hike is to Druid Arch, taking 11 miles and 5-7 hours to reach one of the most spectacular views in the Needles.

Other great loops in the 8-mile to 10-mile range can be created by combining canyons like Big Spring Canyon, Squaw Canyon, and Lost Canyon. Consult the district map or contact the visitor center to decide which trails are right for you.

There is only one campground inside the Needles District, which has 26 individual sites and three group sites. Just under half of the individual sites, and the group sites, can be reserved from around mid-March until mid-November. Because of the limited camping inside the district, most visitors to the Needles are staying at campgrounds outside the park or in lodgings in Moab or Monticello.

camping near bryce canyon
A Jeep navigates the White Rim Road. NPS/Chris Wonderly

The Maze District

The Maze is the most remote and rugged district in Canyonlands National Park. Seeing less than 2% of the total park attendance, visitors to the Maze are typically experienced with backcountry 4WD driving or they join guided tours. Visitors to the Maze need to have proper vehicles, ample water, food, fuel, and emergency supplies. Because of the challenging conditions when visiting the Maze, you’ll need to conduct your own research. Or, to join a guided trip, visit www.discovermoab.com/.

Nearby, Horseshoe Canyon is a satellite unit of the Maze District, which requires a moderately strenuous day hike to view some of the most significant rock art in the country. Reaching Horseshoe Canyon requires driving about 30 miles on unpaved roads that may have deep sand but are typically passable for most 2WD vehicles during normal weather conditions. Because of the remote location, visitors must be self-sufficient and carry all needed water, food, fuel, and emergency supplies.

bryce canyon national park utah
A dory floats the Colorado River through Canyonlands National Park. NPS/Neal Herbert

Colorado River and Green River

The park’s fourth unit includes its two rivers, which have three sections that can be boated. Permits are required for all boating trips in Canyonlands National Park.

The two sections above the confluence are flatwater and perfect for canoeing. One such section is class I-II Stillwater Canyon, on the Green River, running for 52 miles between Mineral Bottom and the confluence. Most groups take 3-5 days to float this section. Because there is no take-out at the confluence, boats must arrange a jet boat ride up the Colorado River to Moab. Currently, jet boats are operated by two companies, with listings and more information available here.

The other flatwater section in the park is Meander Canyon on the Colorado River. This run is typically 47 miles from Potash Access to the confluence. Similarly, it takes 3-5 days and extraction by jet boat must be pre-arranged.

The final river section in the park is Cataract Canyon, a class IV-V whitewater trip, which requires advanced skills or hiring an authorized outfitter. More information and a list of outfitters is available here.

Hopefully, you find these tips helpful when planning your trip to Zion National Park. There’s plenty more information to share, so if you have a comment or a tip, please leave it below!

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Cover photo: Chesler Park in the Needles District. NPS/Emily Ogden

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