Discover the Pristine Canyonlands National Park in Utah

Explore the jaw-dropping rock formations of Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Explore the jaw-dropping rock formations of Canyonlands National Park, Utah | © Witold Skrypczak / Alamy
Chloe Thrussell

Production Assistant

Canyonlands is the largest national park in Utah and preserves a startling desert landscape of arches, buttes, fins, craters and spires chiseled by water and wind. The Colorado and Green rivers carve the park into three distinct areas: Island in the Sky, the Needles and the Maze. Here are the top things to see and do in Canyonlands National Park.

Headed to this remote region of Utah? Join Culture Trip’s eight-day off-road adventure to Colorado and the Beehive State, where a Local Insider will guide you through red-rock deserts, alpine landscapes and a canyoneering expedition.

Island in the Sky

Island in the Sky is a large, flat mesa in the northern part of the park

Aptly named, the Island in the Sky is a large, flat mesa in the northern portion of the park, 33mi (53km) southwest of Moab. Being the closest to town, this is the most-visited portion of Canyonlands, drawing crowds throughout the year to its many overlooks – including Shafer Canyon, Buck Canyon and Green River – and loop hikes – from Grand View (2mi or 3km) to Syncline (8.5mi or 13.5km). The weather is milder and the park is less crowded in spring and fall. You can rock-climb here, or stargaze – Canyonlands was awarded International Dark Sky Park status in 2015.

1. Mesa Arch

Natural Feature

Sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, Utah

This easy, 30-minute hike is just a half-mile (1km) round trip and takes you to the most popular attraction in the park. Mesa Arch rests on the eastern edge of the Island, offering vast canyon views toward Monster Tower, Washer Woman Arch, Airport Tower and the La Sal Mountains in the distance. The best time to visit is at sunrise, when the early-morning light illuminates the arch from behind. It’s the most-photographed spot in Canyonlands, so you can expect it to be busy.

2. White Rim Road

Architectural Landmark

Vehicle at a campsite in Canyonlands National Park, Utah

For those with more time and a venturesome spirit, White Rim Road awaits. It takes two or three days in a 4×4 to drive this 100mi (161km) loop around the Island in the Sky mesa; dirt roads, hairpin bends and bumpy patches add to the thrill – as does the extreme solitude. You’ll need a permit for single- or multi-day visits. It’s also a popular loop for cyclists. Those with less time can admire the winding road from the White Rim Overlook Trail, a 1.8mi (2.9km) loop that will take you 45 minutes to walk.

The Needles

The Needles comes second on the list of most-visited Canyonlands districts, but as there’s no direct road link to Island in the Sky, you’ll find far fewer people here. It takes 90 minutes to reach the Needles from Moab, but the scenic drive along Highway 211 is worthwhile – stop at Wooden Shoe Arch and Big Spring Canyon overlooks for the best vantage points. En route you’ll also find Newspaper Rock, a striking display of 2,000-year-old petroglyphs carved by Ancestral Puebloans. The district gets its name from its unique clusters of striped sandstone spires.

3. Slickrock Foot Trail

Hiking Trail

A woman hiking in the Needles area of Canyonlands National Park, Utah

For an easier hike, opt for this 2.4mi (3.9km) lollipop loop that’ll take around two hours to complete. Slickrock is one of the best hikes in Canyonlands National Park, as, unlike most trails here, it keeps you high above the canyon – providing panoramic views of the entire region and its major landmarks. These include Ekker Butte, the Sixshooter Peaks, the snow-capped La Sal Mountains and, of course, the Needles themselves.

4. Chesler Park

Natural Feature

Rock spires in Chesler Park in the remote Needles area of Canyonlands National Park, Utah

For a half- or full-day hike, take the trail out to Chesler Park. This large circular meadow is enclosed by towering red sandstone, and the hike takes in the best sights of the Needles. Take the short trail (6mi/10km; four hours) to a viewpoint on the edge of Chesler Park, or the longer, more strenuous hike (11mi/18km; six hours) through the meadow and onto the unforgettable Joint Trail, a path through a vertical-walled ravine.

The Maze

The Maze is the remotest region of Canyonlands

As the remotest region of Canyonlands – it can take up to three days for help to reach you, should anything go awry – the Maze is only for experienced trekkers. You must have a high-clearance 4×4 to reach the trailheads, and the trails are steep and minimally maintained. But if adventure calls, the Maze will reward you with an astounding puzzle of interwoven dead-end canyons, hidden springs and dry-wash trails. It’s common to spend at least three days here; if you stick around, don’t miss the Golden Stairs Trail, which passes the twin red-rock pinnacles known as Mother and Child.

5. Harvest Scene

Historical Landmark

Harvest Scene pictographs in Canyonlands National Park, Utah
© Whit Richardson / Alamy

This day hike takes you to an impressive, 2,000-year-old rock art site called Harvest Scene. Beginning at the Chimney Rock trailhead, the challenging, 9.2mi (14.8km) loop eventually drops down into Pictograph Fork, continuing past the famous pictograph panel before circling back up. You’ll glimpse the large Chocolate Drops formation on the canyon rim along the way. Be on the lookout for cairns as you make your way along ridges and through two pristine canyons, but be warned – there are some tricky turns and steep scrambles.

The rivers

The Green River canyon is lush and full of life, in contrast to the desert above

Lush, shady and full of life, the Colorado and Green river canyons are in stark contrast to the hot desert above. Both rivers are calm upstream of the confluence, ideal for canoes and kayaks; with a flatwater boating permit, launch from Ruby Ranch or Mineral Bottom on the Green, or the Potash or Moab ramps on the Colorado. Downstream of the confluence, the river flows combine, surging down Cataract Canyon to form a powerful stretch of roaring white water, and a dramatic entrance into the Canyonlands.

A scenic rafting adventure down the Colorado River is included in Culture Trip’s specially curated eight-day trip, taking in the very best of Utah and Colorado.

6. White-water rafting through Cataract Canyon

Natural Feature

Rafting through Cataract Canyon on the Colorado River in Canyonlands National Park, Utah

You’ll need a white-water permit if you plan to continue to this 50mi (80km) section of river, and no canoes are allowed. Cataract swells with legendary Class III and IV rapids; drops along the way include Capsize, Ben Hurt, Little Niagara and Satan’s Gut. After the rapids, you’ll arrive on the slack water of Lake Powell. From Spanish Bottom at the start of Cataract, you can easily access the Dollhouse – a spectacular and remote section of the Maze that features a labyrinth of hoodoos and ancient ruins.

Where to stay

Canyonlands has two campgrounds: one in Island in the Sky (12 sites) and one in the Needles (26 sites, as well as three group sites nearby). Both campgrounds are small, no-frills and booked on a first come, first served basis – so arrive early if you’re hoping for a night of stargazing. No water is available in either campground, but both come equipped with picnic tables, fire rings and toilets.

7. Under Canvas Moab

Camping, Camping

Glamping tent at Under Canvas Moab
Courtesy of Under Canvas Moab / Expedia

For something in between bare-bones camping and Moab-sheltered luxury, opt for a glamping stay with Under Canvas Moab. Just 7mi (11km) north of Moab, these tents offer king-size beds, ensuites, private decks and wood-burning stoves. The Stargazer tent even boasts a viewing window above the bed. You can recharge your devices here, too, thanks to the bedside USB battery packs. Live music, firepits and morning yoga add to the appeal, while experienced coordinators are on hand to advise you on your next adventure.

8. Hoodoo Moab, Curio Collection

Chain Hotel

Exterior and pool at Hoodoo Moab, Curio Collection
Courtesy of Hoodoo Moab, Curio Collection / Expedia

If you’re hoping to contrast the great outdoors with some indoor luxury, Hoodoo Moab is the perfect base. As one of the best hotels near Canyonlands National Park, expect four-star features such as a heated outdoor pool, full-service spa, fitness center and on-site restaurant. Copper textiles and metallic finishes pay tribute to the gold and rust of the surrounding landscapes, which you can admire in all their sandstone splendor from the private balcony and floor-to-ceiling windows in your room.

This is an updated version of an article originally by Alexia Wulff.

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