Canyonlands National Park, one of the Utah Mighty Five and a main attraction of the Moab region, is an endless desert area where rocks have been shaped by the tireless activity of two rivers, the Colorado River and Green River, which, over the centuries, have built wonders by shaping the rock into surreal shapes, forming vertiginous canyons, digging gorges and shaping mysterious arches.
In the following paragraphs, I will give you a general overview of Canyonlands so that you can easily choose the best way to visit it on your own. Finally, for those who want to enjoy the beauty of the park without having to make the effort to organize the visit, we will illustrate some possible guided tours of Canyonlands.
- A General Overview
- Districts and Areas of Canyonlands
- How to Visit Canyonlands If You Have Limited Time
- Where to Stay near Canyonlands National Park
- Moab to Canyonlands Park Tours
A General Overview
Canyonlands is the largest national park in Utah: it covers 540 mi² and is basically divided into 4 distinct natural areas: the Island in the Sky, Needles and The Maze Districts and the remote area called Horseshoe Canyon Unit. Both the Maze District and the Horseshoe Canyon Unit are very rarely frequented by American and international tourists. Because of the dry summer climate and the vastness of the territories, exploring Canyonlands thoroughly is a challenging task; it is virtually impossible for those with little time. Very important in any case is to plan the visit accordingly. Nothing should be left to improvisation, because the risk of wasting time at a certain stop is too great.
Although there is only one entrance fee for cars ($30, but you can use the USA national park pass), each of the 3 main areas of Canyonlands is independent of the other. The three entrances are very far from each other and there are no internal connecting roads. For this reason, it is a good idea to compare what each area has to offer, so as to make the most intelligent use of the time available. There are many differences between the various districts, so visiting one district is not the same as visiting the others.
Districts and Areas of Canyonlands
Here are the main features of the three districts of Canyonlands and Horseshoe Canyon Unit.
Island in the Sky
Island in the Sky is the closest district to Moab and the easiest to visit, as the points of interest are almost all scenic views and you don’t need to hike long distances to reach them. The district extends over a vast mesa that rises over the surrounding canyons. From the edge of the plateau, you can enjoy an incredible view of the park and beyond. The two available paved roads branch off for about 20 miles and you can easily find the various viewpoints, including Grand View Overlook, Buck Canyon Overlook, Shafer Canyon Overlook and Green River Overlook.
In our article about Island in the Sky, I gave all the tips you need for a thorough tour of the district, but here I mention two trails that you can do on foot, the Mesa Arch Trail and the Upheaval Dome Trail.
- Mesa Arch Trail: If you have little time to visit Island in the Sky, in addition to reaching the viewpoints by car, you could also take the short loop to Mesa Arch, a beautiful natural arch right on the edge of the mesa, the perfect sunrise setting. The trail is about 6 miles after the visitor center. The arch is considered the symbol of all Canyonlands, so you should definitely consider it.
- Upheaval Dome Trail: At the end of the Upheaval Dome Road, right where the road ends, there is another great trail, the Upheaval Dome Trail. A short but steep climb leads to an overlook above a huge crater caused by a meteorite. If you wish, you can reach a second viewpoint to see the huge hole on the northwest side of Island in the Sky from other perspectives.
How to Get There
Island in the Sky is very close to Arches National Park, a stone’s throw from Moab. To get there, take US Highway 191 to Highway 313 (10 miles north of Moab, or 21 miles south of I-70 if you’re coming from Green River or Colorado) and continue southwest for 21 miles. It takes about 40 minutes from Moab.
Definitely not a district you can get around as easily or as quickly, Needles occupies the area southeast of Canyonlands and must be approached differently than Island in the Sky. While the best part of the latter district is its viewpoints, Needles requires a bit more effort, physical fitness and time, and is, therefore, more suitable for hikers.
As you can tell from the name, Needles is famous for the dense presence of large pin-like sandstone pillars, as well as rock spires, buttes, mesas and other rock formations that make the district an open-air museum dedicated to the natural monuments of Canyonlands. As I mentioned above, the best way to explore this area is to take one of the many trails, but you need to calculate your travel time well.
Here are some trails:
- Cave Spring Trail: This trail takes 45 minutes to walk, for a total length of about 0.6 miles. The trail sticks close to Cave Spring Parking Area and on the trail, there is an old cowboy camp. Along the way, you can spot ancient pictograms and climb up the rocks with a wooden ladder that will lead you to a truly remarkable overlook of the park.
- Roadside Ruin Trail: A trail like this one is perfect if you want to take a short walk through the unique nature of Canyonlands. It is just 15 minutes on foot for a total of 1969-2297 ft. The trail takes you near the Roadside Ruin Parking Lot (it’s well marked), and will allow you to see the classic views of Needles and some artifacts of Native Americans, such as the ancient granary carved out below an overhang.
- Elephant Canyon – Druid Arch: This is one of the most famous trails in the park and also of the most challenging. 10.5 miles long, this trail offers one of the most spectacular views of Needles. You’ll have to walk long stretches of sand and rock, and you’ll find some steep climbs, but you’ll see truly unusual pillars and surrealistically shaped mountains, and the famous Druid Arch at the bottom of the canyon, with its unique structure that some believe resembles Stonehenge.
Minimum Time Needed to Visit Needles
“I’m in Moab, I want to visit Canyonlands, and I want to visit all of it!” That’s the phrase that often runs through the mind of people who come to this little town in Utah. Unfortunately, it’s not as easy as it sounds. If Island in the Sky – like Arches and Dead Horse Point State Park – is more within driving distance, Needles’ location is not the case.
The distance from Moab is not short. In fact, it takes about 1.30 hours to reach the visitor center without any stops, so when organizing the trip, you have to take into account the time for this trip, whether you return to Moab or continue your road trip south. Likewise, if you are coming from the south – for example from Monument Valley or Mesa Verde – looking at the map, you may be tempted to include Needles as a short stop, perhaps giving it a couple of hours in the afternoon before arriving in Moab. Well, be sure not to make that mistake!
The road to take, coming from any direction, is Highway US 191 to the junction with Highway SR 211. From the junction to the visitor center it’s about an 80-minute drive roundtrip on SR 211, a scenic drive – nice to drive – but still a connecting road. Well, if you have a couple of hours in all, you have very little time left to see anything else in the park or to go on a hike. So, in the writer’s opinion, the minimum time needed for the visit is 3 / 3.5 hours, including the return trip on the scenic drive.
How to spend the remaining 1.30/2 hours in the park? Use a map and follow the advice of the rangers as we do!
- Reach the Big Spring Canyon Overlook on the paved road, where you can easily see the classic rock pins.
- Walk one of the short Interpretive Trails in Canyonlands. We have pointed out the Cave Spring Trail and Roadside Ruin Trail up here, but the Pothole Point Trail is also quite easy to do and is quite satisfactory.
- If you still have time – or as an alternative to one of the two activities mentioned above – you can follow the signs to Elephant Hill, however, keep in mind that before arriving at the parking lot at the foot of the hill there are about 3 miles of dirt road (so ask the rangers if your car is able or if the terrain is in good condition). Once you’ve parked your car, you’ll find yourself at a crossroads (Elephant Hill Trailhead) from which several trails start, including the one to Chesler Park and the already mentioned Druid Arch Trail, which is very long and tiring. You, instead, can walk a section of the road reserved for off-road vehicles (you will see the sign at the beginning of a climb. The route is one of the most complex in the area!). You will reach the top of the hill, from where you will see the Needles from afar. The 4WDs can descend down the other side of the hill and enter the canyon, but you won’t have time, so turn around and get back on the main road.
How to Get There
Using the town of Monticello as your main landmark, about an hour’s drive away from Canyonlands. On US Highway 191, drive 13.6 miles north of the town, then take the SR-211 and drive about 35 miles west (about 40 minutes). If you are coming from Moab, drive 37 miles south of Moab on Highway 191 and then turn onto SR-211.
Where to Eat
If after the visit you stop in Monticello, I suggest you eat at Doug’s Steak & BBQ (496 N Main St, Monticello). The sign alone could make you fall in love with this place! You’ll eat barbecued meat, of course, and even if the portions are not outrageously large in proportion to the prices, you’ll come out full and satisfied. Here we discovered the Devastator, a beer from Wasatch Brewery, a brewery in Utah. It is a German-style Doppelbock lager with a very strong and creamy taste. Try it!
In order not to leave anything out, I’d also like to mention The Maze (within the Glen Canyon National Recreation Area), but it’s also worth mentioning that it’s a destination very rarely considered by tourists visiting Utah’s parks and one of the most secluded in the state. This area of Canyonlands is characterized by the presence of canyons and dirt roads that can only be traveled by 4×4 or along very remote, complex, long-distance trails.
Very complicated to get to, The Maze is located far away from Moab, west of the Green River, and it’s not worth visiting if you are not planning to spend at least 2 days there. Just to give you an idea, that the Hans Flat Ranger Station, the starting point for all the trails in the district, is 44 miles of dirt road from the junction with SR-24… and this is the only way to get there! From Hans Flat Ranger Station (see map) it takes an additional 1 to 5 hours by car to reach the points of interest, or perhaps some closer viewpoints.
Of course, some landscapes are exceptional. An example is Chocolate Drops, the rocks resembling chocolate bars, but the hikes in this area are time-consuming and require a suitable vehicle, proper gear, as well as a strong sense of orientation. Here is a detailed map of the trails in the Maze District.
Horseshoe Canyon Unit
Just as remote and perhaps more remote than The Maze, Horseshoe Canyon is an area of Canyonlands that extends beyond the three districts and is independent. Like The Maze, it is only accessible from SR-24, on the western side of the park. Hardly anyone considers visiting this canyon, and its reputation for being an impenetrable and dangerous place has been amplified by the film 127 Hours, which describes the misadventure of a hiker who was trapped right here, in this canyon, in total solitude.
The main attraction that can make it interesting to reach Horseshoe Canyon is The Great Gallery, a collection of mysterious rock carvings dating back to 8000 years. The path to the Great Gallery starts from the main parking lot and takes 4-5 hours to walk. Don’t rely on the GPS, but you should still use a map!
To reach the canyon you will need to drive on a dirt road for 30 miles from the junction with the SR-24 to the parking lot on the West Rim of the canyon.
How to Visit Canyonlands If You Have Limited Time
How long to visit Canyonlands national park? Hard question… as you may have guessed, this is not easy to do! Canyonlands is immense and many areas are difficult to access. So how do you visit it? What do you do if you’re short on time?
Usually, those who think of Canyonlands think of Island in the Sky. In my opinion, when visiting the beautiful landscapes in Moab and, more generally, when planning a West Coast itinerary, a visit to Island in the Sky can offer an eloquent taste of the great variety of natural landscapes in the park.
Where to Stay near Canyonlands National Park
If you want to sleep inside Island in the Sky, that be aware that there are no hotels inside the park. However, if you like the idea of camping, you can stay at Willow Flat Camping. Otherwise, you can find accommodations in Moab, which is the closest town, or in Green River, which is north of the park.
You can also camp in Needles. The name of the corresponding campsite is Squaw Flat Campground, but if you are not convinced, you can always stay in a hotel in Monticello or Moab.
Moab to Canyonlands Park Tours
Here is a selection of 3 tours to Canyonlands from Moab to make your visit to the Canyonlands an unforgettable adventure.
Canyonlands by 4×4: Short Tour of Island in the Sky
This tour is perfect for those who want to visit Island in the Sky with the 4×4, taking trails that would otherwise be impossible to tackle, reaching exceptional spots like Gooseneck Overlook (similar to Horseshoe Bend), Thelma & Louise Point and Musselman Arch, all located on Potash Road. Pickup and drop-off service from the hotel is included in the price.
- Price: Starting at $122 per person
- Duration: About 4 hours
Canyonlands 4×4 Tour: Day Tour of Needles
On this day tour, you can venture into the rock pillars of the Needles district. Starting from your hotel in Moab, you’ll board the 4×4 vehicle heading towards Chesler Park in the Needles district. You will visit some pristine areas of the park, such as Elephant Hill, Devil’s Kitchen, Devil’s Lane. After a buffet lunch included in the price, you can decide whether or not to drive the 5 mile Joint Trail.
- Price: Starting at $252 per person
- Duration: About 10 hours
Canyonlands 4×4 Tour and Rafting Experience
This tour offers you the chance to explore Island in the Sky in a 4×4. You’ll reach some places in Canyonlands that would be really difficult to visit otherwise. Then after lunch (included in the price), another great experience awaits you: rafting in the waters of the Colorado River! Don’t worry, the equipment will be provided by the tour staff. Pick-up and drop-off service from the hotel in Moab is also included in the offer.
- Price: Starting at $183 per person
- Duration: 8 hours