Canyonlands National Park: The Complete Guide

The red sandstone cliffs and towers of Canyonlands National Park stretch into distance.

Michael Russell / Getty Images

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Canyonlands National Park

Utah, USA
Phone +1 435-719-2313

The southeastern corner of Utah is home to some of the most stunning landscapes in the entire American West. Towering rock formations surrounded by rolling hills and arid deserts create an otherworldly moonscape unlike any other. At the center of this unique ecosystem sits Canyonlands National Park, a place that is so starkly beautiful that it has beckoned to travelers and adventurers for decades, luring in visitors with its rugged, almost-primal vistas.

Canyonlands joined the national park system in 1964 after then-Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall spotted its mysterious and beautiful landscape while on a flight to Arizona. Since then, it has been a popular destination for hikers, backpackers, climbers, and other outdoor enthusiasts who come to marvel at the park's unique environments, which writer Edward Abbey once described by saying, "there is nothing else like it anywhere."

Park Activities

Over the years, Canyonlands has earned itself a reputation for being one of the premier outdoor playgrounds in the entire southwestern U.S. The park features excellent roads—both paved and jeep—for those who prefer to wander by motorized vehicle. But visitors looking to stretch their legs will find hundreds of miles of trails to hike as well. Most of those trails also be explored on horseback, making the park one of the top riding destinations in the region.

The 337,598 acres that make up the park are divided into four distinct districts, all of which have their own landscapes and activities to explore. For instance, the Island in the Sky region is known for its scenic drives and ease of access, leading to larger crowds and occasional traffic jams. The Needles offers backcountry hiking and more solitude on its four-wheel-drive roads, while The Maze is the most remote and wildest district, requiring more effort to reach. This area is only recommended for experienced hikers and backpackers, but the reward is a pristine backcountry that few travelers ever experience.

A backpacker hikes towards sandstone towers in the distance.

HagePhoto / Aurora Photos/Getty

The fourth district in Canyonlands National Park is The Rivers, spotlighting the waterways that played an important role in creating the landscapes. The Colorado and Green—along with their tributaries—continue to be the park's lifeblood while also offering excellent recreation opportunities. Whitewater and flatwater rafting, canoeing, and kayaking are popular activities, provided you don't mind getting a little wet on your outdoor adventures.

Each of the four regions has its own top hiking trails that offer a variety of experiences. For instance, test your legs on the Upheaval Dome Overlook route in the Island in the Sky district. While it's only 1.6 miles in length, the steep climbs will make you earn the terrific views at the top. For something a bit easier, give Grand View Point a try. The 2-mile route includes some stunning views of the gorges and canyons that give the park its name.

In The Needles region, Slickrock Foot Trail is 2.4 miles of geological wonder and fantastic views, while the Lost Canyon Trail is 8.6 miles long and features some of the best vistas in the entire park. The Maze is made up of a variety of routes, most of which are unmarked. The Maze Overlook Trail is one of the more prominent in the district, but it does require some basic climbing and scrambling skills to navigate. As already noted, the area is remote and wild, which is why a permit is required for anyone spending the night in the backcountry.

Even though The Rivers district is mostly focused on waterborne adventures, there are a few worthy hikes to be found there. For instance, the Indian Creek Falls Trail is 1.5 miles long and ends at a 20-foot waterfall. A half-mile-long trek through the Petrified Forest is worth a walk for anyone interested in the local geologic features, while the 1.3-mile Loop Trail is a bit more challenging, taking hikers up and over the rim of the canyon.

Climbers looking to make the most of their visit to Canyonlands will want to visit the Island in the Sky region. It has the best rock and most established routes, with plenty of opportunities for climbers of all experience levels. Permits are not required unless you intend to camp overnight in the area.

An RV drives through Canyonlands National Park


Food and Lodging

Unlike many other national parks, Canyonlands has no food or lodging facilities located within its boundaries. That doesn't mean that visitors can't spend the night inside the park; however, they'll simply have to do so by setting up camp somewhere.

The park does have two designated campgrounds for those looking for a place to stay. The Willow Flat Campground is found in the Island in the Sky district and has 12 total campsites available on a first-come, first-served basis. Open year-round, Willow Flat campsites fill up quickly, particularly between spring and fall. There is a $15 fee per night to stay there.

The Needles Campground is found in the district with the same name. It offers 29 total sites at a rate of $20 per night. Some of those sites can be reserved at between spring and fall, while most are on a first-come basis. Unlike Willow Flat, Needles Campground does have running water, flush toilets, and a few other amenities, including staff on-site most times throughout the year.

The third option for staying inside Canyonlands National Park is backcountry camping. Backpackers are allowed to pitch their tents just about anywhere, although a permit is also required. Permits are usually available four months in advance without any fees. Due to the rugged and remote nature of the park, it is recommended that campers be experienced and bring proper gear and supplies for the length of their outing.

If you would prefer not to camp during your visit to Canyonlands, lodges, hotels, and restaurants are available in nearby towns. Moab is the closest to the Island in the Sky district and the park in general, while Monticello is nearest The Needles. If you're exploring The Maze, Green River and Hanksville both make for good base camps.

Since there are no restaurants inside the park, it is important to stock up on food and drinks before entering. It is recommended that visitors pack a cooler with beverages, snacks, and lunch. If you're plan is to camp in Canyonlands, you'll obviously want to bring plenty of food for the length of your stay.

A lonely road stretches into the distance towards Canyonlands National Park

Mario Möller / EyeEm/Getty

Getting There

Getting to Canyonlands National Park is part of the adventure. If your plans include flying into the area, the two main airports to consider are Grand Junctional Regional in Colorado and Salt Lake City International. Both will require a car to reach the park itself. Nearby Canyonlands Field also provides access in Moab, but usually, the flights are a bit pricey.

Other options for reaching the Canyonlands region are to take a Greyhound bus along Interstate 70 to Grand Junction. Amtrak also offers train service to the Colorado city, where commercial shuttles can provide access to the park. There are no public transportation options, however, so plan accordingly.

When driving to the park, US 191 is the highway you'll want to access. You can head north on that road out of Moab to reach Island in the Sky or south to drive to The Needles. The roads to The Maze are unpaved, so bring an appropriate vehicle. The National Park Service warns that those routes can become impassable when wet.

The Milky Way shies above the Utah desert at night.

Anton Petrus/Getty

Tips for Your Visit

  • When to Visit: On average, Canyonlands National Park receives about 730,000 visitors each year. Most come during the spring and fall when the weather is warm and comfortable. The summer can also be quite busy, although the warmer temperatures will dissuade some travelers. The winter is the least crowded time in the park due to colder, less predictable conditions.
  • Entrance Fees: The cost of entering the park is $30 for a private vehicle, $25 for a motorcycle, or $15 per person on foot. The entry permit is good for seven days, however, allowing you to come and go as much as you want during that time. If you plan on visiting any of the other spectacular national parks in Utah, however, you may consider buying an $80 America the Beautiful annual pass.
  • Stay Hydrated: Canyonlands is an arid environment with few places to replenish your supply of drinking water. Bring plenty of water with you on your visit and take drinks regularly.
  • Allow Plenty of Time: The park's four districts seem close together when you look at them on the map, but the reality is that no roads link them. If you're going to travel from one region to another, plot your journey carefully and allow plenty of time.
  • Get Off-Road: Canyonlands has hundreds of miles of jeep trails to drive, making it a virtual paradise for off-roaders. If you own or rent a 4x4, you'll be able to escape the hustle and bustle of the paved roads and find some amazing vistas that aren't easily accessible by any other means.
  • Go Stargazing: Since the park is open 24 hours a day, plan on staying after dark for at least one night. The sky overhead is as crisp and clear as you'll find in the western U.S., making for some of the most amazing stargazing imaginable.
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Canyonlands National Park: The Complete Guide