Among rust-colored mesas and spiky hoodoos, you’ll find a host of outdoor adventures, scenic drives, and breathtaking scenery in Canyonlands National Park. Unlock the full experience with our guide to the best of the area.

By: Mark Barnes | Published: 31 Jan 2023 | Last update: 27 Jan 2024

Canyonlands National Park is one of the most overlooked gems in the US National Park system. Situated just a short distance from Arches National Park, it boasts some of the most breathtaking scenery found anywhere in the country.

Carved by the Green and Colorado Rivers, Canyonlands is defined by two majestic canyons, marking the climax of their natural journey through the sandstone of the Colorado Plateau.

The result is a spectacular landscape featuring towering mesas, dramatic buttes, and winding canyons.

Here, ethereal scenery serves as a captivating backdrop to an array of thrilling activities, impressive viewpoints, and glorious hikes.

IN THIS GUIDE

GUIDE TO CANYONLANDS, UTAH

Our guide includes a detailed overview of the park’s layout, an explanation of the four distinct districts, and a journey through all the best things to do in Canyonlands.


LAYOUT // MAP // WHAT TO DO // ENTRANCE & PERMITS // WHEN TO GO? // WHERE TO STAY?

IS CANYONLANDS WORTH VISITING?

Canyonlands is an unforgettable place to visit on a Utah road trip.

Breathtaking views, wide-open skies, stunning rocky landscapes, and dramatic hiking trails, make it a destination well worth visiting.

What sets Canyonlands apart is the unique two-stage canyon formation. The outer canyon drops 1,200 feet from the top of the canyon rim to a wide, flat sandstone bench. From there the inner canyon drops another 1,000 feet from the bench to the two winding rivers below.

This creates a canyon within a canyon, with flat mesas, cone-shaped buttes, and spiky hoodoos. Although it’s only half as deep as the Grand Canyon, it’s equally awe-inspiring and a perfect destination for both photographers and adventurers.

LAYOUT OF CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK

The Green and Colorado Rivers naturally split Canyonlands National Park into four different districts:

  • Island in the Sky
  • The Needles
  • The Maze
  • Horseshoe Canyon

Each district offers a remarkably different experience for visitors. You need to choose which to visit as driving between them takes a long time.

ISLAND IN THE SKY

Easily accessible from the town of Moab, Island in the Sky is a well-paved road that winds around the top of the mesa with several breathtaking overlooks along the way.

Why go? – The most popular section of the park, Island in the Sky offers the best overall views of the canyon. Most of the viewpoints are just a few minutes’ walk from the parking lots, making it a very accessible way to experience the park. Islands in the Sky is marked in red on the map below.

THE NEEDLES

Whereas Island of the Sky is set on the flat canyon rim, The Needles area is deep in the canyon. Coming here allows you to get up close to the buttes, mesas, and multi-colored spiky hoodoos.

Why go? – While the views here are less expansive than those at Island in the Sky, The Needles area offers some of the best hiking trails in Canyonlands. In fact, in our opinion, it’s some of the best hiking you’ll find anywhere. The Needles are marked blue on the map below.

THE MAZE

The Maze is a wild, remote, and rugged place – a true backcountry with almost no facilities. All roads are unpaved, and it requires a 4×4. Hiking trails are primitive and can be difficult to follow.

Why go? – To experience the solitude of the desert landscape in Canyonlands, The Maze is the place to go. However, you must be an experienced hiker and 4×4 driver, and a permit is required to enter the area. The Maze is marked in green on the map below.

HORSESHOE CANYON

Horseshoe Canyon was added to Canyonlands National Park because it contains a series of intriguing pictograph panels painted by the Ancient Pueblo People. The highlight is the “Great Gallery” featuring life-sized figures and intricate designs.

Why Go? – It’s not as easy to get to as other parts of Canyonlands, but historical art buffs may want to make the effort. Horseshoe Canyon is brown on the map below.

CANYONLANDS MAP

Canyonlands National Park is located in southeastern Utah in the western United States. It’s situated near the town of Moab and covers over 337,598 acres of land, including deep canyons, towering mesas, and winding rivers.

Our map includes all the areas listed above as well as the must-see attractions covered in this guide.

How to use this map / Click on the top left of the map to display the list of locations, then click on the locations to display further information. Click on the top right corner of the map to open a larger version in a new tab or the star to save to your Google Maps.  


THINGS TO DO IN CANYONLANDS

Here are the park’s must-visit attractions and top things to do in Canyonlands, organised by region.

ISLAND IN THE SKY

1. ISLAND IN THE SKY VIEWPOINTS

The Island in the Sky sits on a broad mesa, and its rim has the best views of Canyonlands National Park. An easy-to-drive paved road winds around the edge of the cliffs with numerous parking lots offering excellent views.

There are too many to mention, but here are some of our favorites.

SHAFER CANYON VIEWPOINT

This dramatic viewpoint overlooks the Shafer Canyon. On the opposite side, the dramatic switchbacks of the White Rim, descend the canyon walls to the sandstone bench below.

MESA ARCH

Mesa Arch has become an Instagram favorite. The arch frames wonderful views of the canyon and the scene is best at dawn. Come here about 30 minutes before sunrise to find your spot. Mesa Arch is a 0.6-mile round-trip hike from the parking lot.

GREEN RIVER OVERLOOK

Nowhere else are the unique features of Canyonlands more apparent than at the Green River Overlook. The outer and inner canyon – two distinct levels of sandstone – descend to the Green River as it winds its way a few thousand feet below.

BUCK CANYON OVERLOOK

Buck Canyon is a great viewpoint where a jagged finger of the inner canyon stretches towards your feet in a stunning panoramic view of the area.

GRAND VIEWPOINTS OVERLOOK

Perched at the furthest end of Island of the Sky, this is the most expansive viewpoint in Canyonlands. Sweeping views of the Needles and the Maze can be seen in the distance. It’s an easy 1.8-mile round-trip walk to the viewpoint from the parking lot.

WHITE RIM OVERLOOK

The view from the White Rim Overlook is similar to the Grand View, so you may decide not to make the 1.8-mile round-trip walk to the official viewpoint. But the views from the promontory just a couple of minutes from the parking lot are excellent.

VISITOR CENTRE VIEWPOINT

Enjoy a 360-degree view of the expansive landscape from the Visitor Centre and get a sense of the scale and diversity of the park’s geological formations.

ISLAND IN THE SKY

2. UPHEAVAL DOME

In general, the hiking in the Island in the Sky section of the park is not as good as The Needles. All the best views can be seen from overlooks near the road and it’s hard work hiking down into the canyon with little reward.

However, there’s one short walk worth the effort – Upheaval Dome.

While most of Canyonlands are layers of sedimentary deposits laid down by ancient seas and shaped by rivers and wind, Upheaval Dome is different. Here the rocks have been pushed up into a circular structure forming a dome.

Geologists believe it may be the impact crater of a meteorite that landed some 60 million years ago.

Upheaval Dome Hike – It’s a short but steep walk to the two viewpoints overlooking the dome. Allow 1.5 hours for the 1.2-mile round-trip hike.

upheaval dome canyonlands utah
UPHEAVAL DOME

ISLAND IN THE SKY

3. DEAD HORSE POINT

Just next door to Island of the Sky is Dead Horse State Park. It is not officially in Canyonlands, but it’s worth exploring. The views from Dead Horse Point over a big bend in the Colorado River are magnificent.

Visitor Information – Dead Horse State Park is not a US National Park, but a Utah State Park. Neither the Canyonlands entrance permit nor the ’America is Beautiful’ pass is valid here.

Cost – Entry to Dead Horse State Park is $20 per vehicle for up to 8 passengers.

THELMA & LOUISE VIEWPOINT


Dead Horse Point looks over the viewpoint where Thelma and Louise drove to their cinematic end in the 1991 classic film.

ISLAND IN THE SKY

4. WHITE RIM ROAD

The most famous 4×4 route in Canyonlands is the White Rim Road.

Descending from the top of the Island of the Sky mesa, switchbacks contour the wall of Shafer Canyon to the flat sandstone bench below. Over the course of 100 miles, it follows the cliff edges of the inner canyon passing viewpoints of the Colorado and Green Rivers.

The journey is not for the faint-hearted, but it’s an exhilarating ride.

White Rim Road Requirements – You will need a high clearance 4×4 (not an AWD) and a backcountry permit from the park authorities.

How long does the White Rim Road take? – Allow 2 to 3 days to complete the trip. Mountain Bikers will find it even tougher requiring 3 to 5 days to complete the route.

ISLAND IN THE SKY

5. SHAFER CANYON & POTASH ROADS

If you don’t want to take on the White Rim Road, the next best option is the Shafer Canyon Road and Potash Roads between Canyonlands and Moab.

This is a great adventure that you can complete in a couple of hours, and it does not require a permit.

It starts by descending the Shafer Switchbacks then heads east past Gooseneck Overlook and Thelma and Louise Point to Moab.

Shafer Trail Requirements – The park authorities recommend a high-clearance 4×4 but in most conditions, a high-clearance AWD SUV should be fine. A permit is not required.

Jeep hire – If you don’t have a 4X4, you can rent a jeep from Moab Adventure Center for the day.

a 4x4 on the Shafter trail in canyonlands national park
SHAFER CANYON ROAD

ISLAND IN THE SKY

6. CANYONLANDS BACKCOUNTRY TOUR

One of the easiest ways to see the backcountry is on an organized tour, which takes all the stress away from self-driving. Here are a few we recommend.

Canyonlands Half Day 4×4 Tour – This well-rated tour includes the Shafer Switchbacks, Gooseneck Overlook, and Thelma & Louise Point over an exciting half day.

Full Day Canyonlands & Arches Tour – This tour includes a small section of the White Rim Trail as well as Shafer Trail and Tower Arch.

cars on the potash road in canyonlands national park
THELMA & LOUISE POINT

ISLAND IN THE SKY

7. RAFTING & KAYAKING ON THE RIVER

Exploring the unique scenery of Canyonlands, it can be easy to forget the rivers that formed it. Disappearing and reappearing behind canyon walls, the Green and Colorado rivers flicker amongst a sea of red rock.

The best way to get up close to them is to join a boating trip. There are many options from gentle rides along the river to multi-day white-water rafting adventures. The most exciting section is Cataract Canyon, a series of Class III and IV grade rapids set below the confluence of the two rivers.

Most tours leave from Moab or from the White Rim and Potash Roads in Island of the Sky.

Jet Boat Tour // This thrilling ride down the calm section of the Colorado River includes Dead Horse State Park, the Thelma and Louise location.

All-Day Tour // Spend the morning on a 4×4 excursion in Canyonlands and the afternoon rafting grade I and II rapids in the Fisher Towers section of the Colorado River (upstream from Canyonlands).

Multi-Day Rafting // Experience the Green and Colorado Rivers, including Cataract Canyon, on a 2–5-day rafting adventure.

rafting canyonlands
RAFTING IN CANYONLANDS

THE NEEDLES

8. US ROUTE 211 VIEWPOINTS

The Needles section of Canyonlands is set below the canyon rim but above the two rivers.  It’s accessed using Route 211 – one of the finest drives in America – which heads beneath the outer canyon walls, past a series of needles, buttes and mesas.

The vistas all along the road are magnificent, but here are a few to check out.

WOODEN SHOE ARCH OVERLOOK

The visually descriptive name of Wooden Shoe Arch is hard to miss. This overlook looks across to a unique rock formation that really does look like a wooden clog.

wooden shoe arch canyonlands
WOODEN SHOE ARCH

BIG SPRING CANYON OVERLOOK

Set amongst rocky spires and white, pink, and red sandstone layers, a spring has enabled a slither of green in the otherwise desolate Big Spring Canyon.

CONFLUENCE OVERLOOK

An outstanding viewpoint looking over the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. It is one of the easier 4×4 drives in the area, but it still takes an hour to cover the 5.5 miles from the Visitor Center. The last 1.5 miles is the worse part of the road, so you can always park the car and walk from there.

Visit all the Route 211 sights on our Southwest USA Road Trip or as an excursion from Monument Valley.

THE NEEDLES

9. HIKE IN THE NEEDLES

The best thing to do in the Needles is to undertake a day hike.

Walking along slick rock trails through red rock canyons and multi-colored hoodoos is a breathtaking experience. There are a host of hiking trails all of which are accessible by 2WD.

Here are the most popular.

SLICKROCK TRAIL

Distance – 2.4 miles | Duration – 1.5 hours | Start – near Big Spring Canyon Overlook

A good short introduction to hiking in The Needles, this trail heads across slickrock and uneven surfaces while providing 360-degree views.

CHESLER PARK LOOP

Distance – 10.7 miles | Duration – 6 – 7 hours | Start – the Elephant Hill Trailhead

If you only do one hike in The Needles, make it the Chesler Park Loop. This wonderful day hike goes into the heart of Needle country where multi-colored hoodoos rise above a wide flat meadow. Halfway around the path heads through the Joint Trail – a long narrow fracture between two towering rocks. The views in all directions are excellent.

DRUID ARCH

Distance – 10.8 miles | Duration – 6 – 7 hours | Start – Elephant Hill Trailhead

Ending at Druid Arch, one of the most impressive sights in the Needles, this hike initially follows the same route as the Chesler Park Trail before branching off and heading down the wash of Elephant Canyon. The last section is steep with one ladder and some scrambling.

CONFLUENCE OVERLOOK

Distance – 11 miles | Duration – 5 – 6 hours | Start – Big Spring Canyon Overlook

This hike explores the open country to a cliff overlooking the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. The walk is less interesting than the others but, when conditions are right, the views of the mixing of the green and brown waters of the two rivers is beautiful.

TIPS FOR HIKING IN THE NEEDLES

  • There are no facilities on the trails so take plenty of water and food for the day.
  • Avoid walking in high temperatures as there is limited shade.
  • Do not attempt to hike during or after rain as the slickrock trails can be dangerous.
  • Hiking maps and advice can be picked up from the Visitors Centre.

THE MAZE

10. GET LOST IN THE MAZE

The Maze should only be visited by experienced backcountry travelers. This wild and rugged place needs high-clearance 4x4s and a knowledgeable driver just to get around.

Trips here take at least three days and you’ll need a backcountry permit and bags of determination. We didn’t make it this time, but hopefully on our next visit.

11. SCENIC FLIGHTS OVER CANYONLANDS

From the ground, it’s hard to appreciate the sheer magnitude of Canyonland’s 337,598 acres. With so much of the park beyond easy reach, the only way to see it all is on a scenic flight.

Only one provider is allowed to fly directly over Canyonlands National Park, and they offer a few different tours covering different sections.

Canyonlands Scenic Flight – 1-hour tour flying over Island of the Sky and The Needles sections.

Canyonlands and Arches Scenic Flight – 80-minute tour flying over Island of the Sky, The Maze, the Needles, and Arches National Park.

canyonlands grand viewpoint
ON ROUTE TO WHITE RIM OVERLOOK

HORSESHOE CANYON

12. THE GREAT GALLERY IN HORSESHOE CANYON

Horseshoe Canyon includes some of the most significant rock art in North America.

Added to Canyonlands National Park in 1971, the Horseshoe contains a series of pictograph panels painted by Ancient Pueblo People. The highlight is “The Great Gallery” featuring life-sized figures painted in red, white, and brown and surrounded by depictions of animals and birds.

However, seeing them involves a long drive and a long hike.

HOW TO GET TO THE TRAILHEAD?

The trailhead is a 1-hour 30-minute drive along a dirt track south of the town of Green River (around 1 hour from Moab). The dirt track is 30 miles and it’s usually passable in a 2WD.

A more challenging 4×4 dirt track runs east from Hanksville but it’s slower going and takes about 2 hours and 20 minutes.

How long is the hike to the Great Gallery? – The hike from the trailhead to the Great Gallery is 3.6 miles each way taking about 5 to 6 hours for the return trip. Route information.

When to do the hike? – The Great Gallery trail should not be hiked in the summer months when temperatures often exceed 100°F. It’s best in spring and fall but be sure to take plenty of water.

Guided hikes – If you want to see the pictographs but don’t want to hike on your own, Ranger Guided hikes go most weekends April/May and September/October.

CANYONLANDS ENTRANCE & PERMITS

OPENING HOURS

Canyonlands is open 24 hours a day.

CANYONLANDS VISITOR CENTRES

There are two main Visitor Centres at Canyonlands where you can buy maps, and backcountry permits. They also sell a few essentials and free drinking water is available 24 hours a day.

  • Island in the Sky Visitor Centre – 8 AM to 5 PM (April – September) | 9 AM to 4 PM (January – March)
  • The Needles Visitor Centre – 8 AM to 5 PM (April – September) | restricted hours in winter

ENTRANCE FEE

Entrance to Canyonlands is $30 for private vehicles and $25 for motorcycles. The fee is payable at the visitor centres and last for 7 days.

canyonlands national park 2
ON ROUTE TO WHITE RIM OVERLOOK

VALUE

AMERICA THE BEAUTIFUL PASS


If you are visiting several National Parks, the America the Beautiful annual national parks pass is excellent value. It’s only $80 and covers over 2,000 parks.

It’s perfect if you’re doing our 2-week Utah & Arizona Road Trip.

CANYONLANDS PERMITS

For some activities, permits are required. Permits can be purchased through the Recreation.gov website. The more popular activities are often very competitive, so it helps to book well in advance.

No permit is required to explore the top of the mesa in Island of the Sky, to drive the Shafer Switchbacks or Potash Road, or to undertake day trips and hikes in The Needles.

  • Day Permits – Day permits are required for driving the White Rim Road (very popular) and the rough 4×4 tracks in The Needles.
  • Overnight Permits – Overnight Permits are required for any overnight trips into the backcountry.
  • River Permits – River Permits are required for all-day or overnight trips on the rivers, although if you are taking a tour these will be taken care of by the tour company.

You can find a complete list of required permits on the National Park Service website.

BEST TIME TO VISIT CANYONLANDS

The best time to visit Canyonlands is in spring and fall when temperatures range from 60°F to 80°F and nights are cool.

In summer temperatures can exceed 100°F bringing thunderstorms in the afternoon and making hiking difficult. In winter any snow or ice can quickly close the 4×4 trails making some sections inaccessible.

CANYONLANDS IN 1 DAY

If you only have 1 day in Canyonlands, tour the viewpoints in Island of the Sky making sure to include Mesa Arch. Then either drive along the Shafer Canyon and Potash roads or join a tour.

CANYONLANDS IN 2 DAYS

If you have 2 days in Canyonlands National Park, complete day one as above. On the second day take a day trip on Route 211 to The Needles and do the Chesler Park Loop hike.

chesler park hike
HIKING IN THE NEEDLES

WHERE TO STAY?

The best place to stay to visit Canyonlands is Moab which is perfectly located and has plenty of facilities. From Moab it is a 40-minute drive to Island of the Sky and 1 hour and 30 minutes to The Needles.

MOAB / VALUE

MAINSTAY SUITES MOAB

An affordable and well-appointed hotel in the center of Moab, MainStay Suites has a pool, 24-hour fitness center, and free parking.


MOAB / RANCH

MOAB SPRINGS RANCH

Wonderful bungalows and cabins just north of Moab. Moab Springs Ranch is well-equipped with a swimming pool, gardens, and an onsite café.


overlook green river canyonlands
GREEN RIVER OVERLOOK, CANYONLANDS

OUR PICK

MOAB / BOUTIQUE

GRAVITY HAUS MOAB

Great boutique hotel in the heart of Moab. Gravity Haus has a smart modern design with great facilities including an outdoor pool. It’s a short walk to the center of Moab.


MOAB / LUXURY

HOODOO MOAB CURIO COLLECTION BY HILTON

Luxury modern hotel with an outdoor pool, full-service spa, and an interior design paying homage to the surrounding Western landscape.


white rim road 1
SHAFER SWITCHBACKS

WHERE NEXT?

Canyonlands is part of an amazing area of landscapes spread across Utah and northern Arizona. They can be explored on a wonderful 2-week US road trip that includes Utah’s Mighty 5, Monument Valley, and Las Vegas. 

Here are our recommendations on how to see it all: