Island in the Sky: Scenic Road Trip through the Canyonlands

December 28, 2020 /
canyonlands island in the sky

Warning: Due to COVID 19 some information in this article (e.g. operating hours) may not be up-to-date.

Canyonlands is considered one of the biggest, most beautiful and important parks in Moab area and in all of Utah, but – because it is divided into three independent districts – visiting it in its totality is not easy at all. For this reason, many people, in order to see its beautiful landscapes, opt for the simplest choice, which is just to explore Island in the Sky, the national park district that is closest to Moab.

In this article, I want to give some practical tip about how to visit Island in the Sky, and mention the many must-see overlooks, short hikes you can walk and the most spectacular scenic roads.

What is Island in the Sky? Park Features

candlestick tower Overlook
Candlestick Tower Overlook

Compared to the other two Canyonlands districts (Needles and the other very remote district called The Maze) and the wild Horseshoe Canyon Unit, Island in the Sky is easier to visit not only because of its proximity to Moab, but also because of its particular geography. In fact, Island in the Sky is a “scenic drive park”, while the other sections may be more enjoyable for hiking enthusiasts.

This district is located at the top of a mesa raised above on the surrounding area, where the canyons dug by the Colorado River (east) and Green River (west) extend as far as the eye can see. Departing from the Visitor Center, you can follow the paved road to reach “the island itself”, passing the narrow land corridor called “The Neck”. This is the only way to reach the best overlooks of the entire Canyonlands area.

A classic tour of Island in the Sky will include driving along the main Grand View Point Road and the secondary Upheaval Dome Road, stopping at the various viewpoints or following short trails that lead to various different natural attractions, from the famous Mesa Arch, to the strange “cetacean” Whale Rock formation, to the Upheaval Dome crater.

Directions from Moab and Green River

island in the sky directions

Most people usually travel to Island in the Sky from Moab. Therefore, drive north on US-191 N for 11 miles to the junction with UT-313, continuing past Arches National Park. At the junction, turn left and continue driving for 22 miles until you reach the visitor center. There is also another way to get to Island in the Sky that is scenic and very complex. I will tell you about it later in the article.

If you are coming from the northwest, use Green River as a reference point, a town located right along I-70. At Crescent Junction, take Exit 182 and take US-191 N. The junction with UT-313 is approximately 20 miles away. From here the route is the same as above.

Click on this link for the coordinates of the Visitor Center, so that you may enter them into the GPS and get to your destination more easily.

Map and Attractions

Here are the best places of interest in the park:

Overlooks

Shafer Canyon Overlook
Shafer Canyon Overlook

As you drive on Grand View Point Road, I recommend you visit the following viewpoints adjacent to the parking lot. Visit the viewpoints in this order starting from the visitor center:

  • Shafer Canyon Overlook: A large viewing platform with a view of Shafer Canyon, on the east side of the park. This is perhaps the most beautiful view of the entire park. You can get closer to the edge, but be careful because there are no guardrails and the canyon is very deep.
  • Shafer Trail Overlook: Offers a beautiful view over the Shafer Trail, a scenic road that winds along the canyon wall. The observation point is located practically in the middle of the bottleneck called “The Neck”, next to a small parking lot.
  • Candlestick Tower Overlook: Unlike the other overlooks just mentioned, this overlook faces the western side of the park. The main figure of this view is the butte called Candlestick Tower, which rises up in the distance from the bottom of the canyon.
  • Buck Canyon Overlook: This viewpoint faces the same direction as the Shafer Canyon Overlook, but it shows a very different view. Compared to other canyons, Buck Canyon appears as a sudden break in the terrain, framed by the La Sal Mountains in the background.
  • Orange Cliffs Overlook: The second and final viewpoint on the Grand View Point Road facing west, Orange Cliffs Overlook is one of the viewpoints I liked the most because of the infinite vastness of the view and the unique colors.
  • Grand View Point Overlook: This is where the road ends, the southern end of the mesa past The Neck. From the parking lot, you can enjoy a wonderful view of the entire southern part of the Canyonlands, from Monument Basin to La Sal Mountains to Needles. There is also a second, even more exposed viewpoint, but you must follow a trail to get there, which I am going to talk about in the next point.

On Upheaval Dome Road there is the Green River Overlook, which can be reached by car via a well-marked short detour from the main road. This viewpoint overlooks the western side of the park, towards the Green River. You can see a bend in the river and the canyons it has created.

Hikes

island in the sky hikes

There are no long trails worth hiking during a visit to Island in the Sky. Here are some hikes that I recommend you consider.

  • Mesa Arch Trail: A very short trail (less than 0.5 miles round trip) that leads you to see the arch of the same name, overlooking the cliff of Island in the Sky. Mesa Arch is the symbol of Canyonlands, but in my opinion, it is not the most beautiful in the Moab area. You should definitely come here at sunrise!
  • Upheaval Dome Trail: Not many people know this, but hidden in Island in the Sky there is a huge impact crater called Upheaval Dome. The trailhead is located at the bottom of the Upheaval Dome Road, 5 miles from the junction with the Grand View Point Road. The trail to the first vista point starts from the parking lot; it is short but quite steep. In total it is 0.9 miles round trip. If you continue for another mile, you reach a second viewpoint looking over the crater.
  • Whale Rock Trail: Those who decide to take the Upheaval Dome Road can also choose to go on this trail. On the right side of the road coming from the visitor center, 3.7 miles after the junction with the Grand View Point Road, you can see a rock formation that can resemble a whale. Leave the car in the parking lot and climb to the top of the hill to see the canyons of the park in the distance. The trail is 1 mile round trip.
  • Grand View Point Trail: As I was saying, the south end of Island in the Sky can be reached by car and offers a beautiful view of Canyonlands all the way to Needles. However, you can also take a 2 mile (round trip) trail from the parking lot that leads to an even more exposed point on the edge of the canyon. It is recommended if you want an even “closer” view of the park.
  • White Rim Overlook Trail: This is another viewpoint on the eastern side of the park, more precisely towards the White Rim Overlook, which shows a section of the canyon where, in addition to the Colorado River, you will immediately see the vertical “pins” that characterize the Needles district. From the parking lot, you must walk 1.7 miles (round trip) to reach the edge of the canyon. Parking spaces are limited!
  • Murphy Point Trail: One of the longest trails in the park, it leads to one of the lesser-known viewpoints on the west side called Murphy Point. The trailhead, well-marked, is located 8.7 miles from the visitor center. It is at a clearing that serves as a small parking lot. The length of the hike is about 4 miles (round trip).

Scenic Drives

island in the sky scenic roads

Island in the Sky’s most famous scenic route is the Shafer Trail, which crosses Shafer Canyon and connects to Potash Road which then leads to Moab. At the beginning of the article, I mentioned an alternative route to Island in the Sky from Moab… well, this is it! We also talked about this amazing and breathtaking scenic drive in our article about Potash Road.

Equally adventurous but much longer and more complex is White Rim Road, a very long dirt road that branches off from the Potash Road and practically circumnavigates the entire Island in the Sky mesa. Due to challenges and the length of the route (it is necessary to break up the journey and stay overnight somewhere!), I suggest that you read carefully the advice of the rangers on the official website.

How long to spend at Island in the Sky?

canyonlands-mesa-arch
Mesa Arch Overlook

Unfortunately, there is never enough time to visit the myriad of things to see around Moab, so we must also ask ourselves how much time does it take to visit Island in the Sky?

Here is how I suggest to visit it in 2 or 3 or more hours.

In 2 hours

Walk the short trail to Mesa Arch and visit the following viewpoints along Grand View Point Road: Shafer Canyon Overlook, Candlestick Tower Overlook, Buck Canyon Overlook, Orange Cliffs Overlook and Grand View Point Overlook (limited to the view from the parking lot). The journey from the Visitor Center to the south tip of the park (Grand View Point) is 40 minutes (round trip), and you should spend 10-20 minutes at each point of interest, depending on the distance from the road and your personal  “level of interest”.

In 3 hours or more

In addition to the Mesa Arch and the scenic stops indicated in the previous point, you can visit the Green River Overlook, the White Rim Overlook and the more exposed part of the Grand View Point by following the trail from the parking lot to the end of the mesa. Also, I recommend choosing either Upheaval Dome (reaching the first overlook) or Whale Rock Trail. With half a day (or even more) available, you can do both of these two trails and also add the Murphy Point Overlook, which is considerably longer than the other trails in Island in the Sky.

What about Dead Horse Point State Park?

dead horse point

Due to its proximity, people often visit the scenic Dead Horse Point State Park in combination with Island in the Sky. In fact, Dead Horse Point has an overlook with a partial view of the canyons of Island in the Sky from east to west.

If your travel plans allow it, my advice is to reach Dead Horse Point State Park at sunset after you visit Island in the Sky. Here is how to get there.

Where to stay?

There are no hotels in Island in the Sky or in any of the other districts of Canyonlands, so you’ll need to seek accommodations in Moab. You can find our recommendations at the link below.

Where to sleep in Moab

Bernardo Pacini
Bernardo Pacini

I am an editor and copywriter and have published some poetry. Besides traveling, my interests include literature, experimental music and good food

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