Planning a visit to see the arches, spires, mesas, and multicolored canyons of Canyonlands National Park? The expansive landscape in this park offers so many incredible views, hiking trails, and historical relics.
But, where do you even start? This Canyonlands National Park Itinerary will help you plan your visit to the two main districts of the park, Island In The Sky and The Needles Districts.
Canyonlands National Park Itinerary – Island In The Sky and The Needles Districts
Canyonlands National Park holds a special place in my heart because my inlaws lived and worked in the Needles District of the park for several years. We were able to visit them and explore the park with the ultimate guides, Canyonlands National Park Locals. I know, there aren’t many of those!
This Canyonlands National Park itinerary is a culmination of many visits to the park over the years.
Our son Eli has joined us on our latest adventures in Canyonlands. So, this is a great Canyonlands itinerary for families with kids too!
Best Time To Visit Canyonlands National Park
The weather in May, September, and October is absolutely beautiful in Canyonlands National Park. But, if you want to avoid the crowds, visit the park in March or November. We’ve had some beautiful days in both March and November but, we’ve also had some cold days. So, keep in mind that you run the risk of not-so-ideal weather if you visit the park in the early or late spring.
Canyonlands is busy in the spring but mainly on the weekends. If you can plan your visit during the week in the spring, the park won’t be as crowded.
Daytime temperatures get into the 90’s in the summer but you can get out early to avoid the heat of the day. That being said, Canyonlands (like every National Park in the United States) is extremely busy throughout the summer. There isn’t much of a difference in the crowds on the weekend vs weekdays during the summer.
Which Is Better – Island In The Sky Or Needles District?
Island In The Sky and The Needles are the two easily accessible districts in Canyonlands National Park. You can get to either district driving on a paved road. The Maze and The Rivers districts are only accessible by boat or a four-wheel-drive vehicle.
It’s hard to say which is better -Island In The Sky Or Needles Districts, because they both offer such different views, trails, and experiences.
Island In the Sky is the most visited district in Canyonlands because it is only 32 miles from the town of Moab where most people stay when visiting Arches and Canyonlands.
Island in the Sky is situated on a mesa with steep cliffs overlooking the incredible canyons that go on for miles and miles. There are great hikes, views, and an incredible arch.
The Needles District is 75 miles from Moab and the drive takes about an hour and a half. The needles district offers fascinating historical sites, colorful spires, and great hikes.
If you have limited time, the Island In The Sky district is your best option just because it is easier to get to. But, if you have two days, I would suggest visiting both districts if at all possible.
How Much Time Do You Need To See Canyonlands National Park?
You should allow yourself a full day for each of the two main Canyonlands districts. If you have just one day, pick which district interests you and spend the day there. It is impossible to really explore both districts in one day.
Planning to visit Arches National Park? You’ll want to read about these 7 Awesome Easy Hikes In Arches National Park before you go.
Island In The Sky District
Your first views of the vast canyon from the high mesa of Island in the Sky will be something you will never forget.
Why Is It Called Island In The Sky?
The Island In The Sky district is located on a high mesa surrounded by steep walls that drop 1,000 feet to the bottom of the canyon. The mesa, situated high above the canyon floor, appears to be an island.
How To Get To Canyonlands National Park – Island In The Sky District
From Moab, head north on US-191 for 11 miles (you will pass the entrance to Arches National Park). Turn left on UT-313 and head west for 14 miles.
What You Don’t Want To Miss in Canyonlands Island In The Sky District
The three things you don’t want to miss in the Island In The Sky District are Mesa Arch, the Green River Overlook, and the Grand Viewpoint Overlook.
Best Easy Hike In Canyonlands Island In The Sky District
If you only do one hike, don’t miss the half-mile hike to Mesa Arch. It is easy and well worth your time.
One Day Itinerary Canyonlands National Park – Island In The Sky District
This itinerary will take about five to seven hours depending on how much time you spend at each stop.
The first stop we always make when visiting any National Park is the visitor center. It is interesting to learn about how the unique landscape was formed as well as the history of the people who lived in the area.
If you are traveling with kids, the Junior Ranger Program offered through the National Parks makes a stop at the visitor center well worth your time.
The park orientation film is also a must-do. Unfortunately, since the beginning of the COVID pandemic, many National Parks have closed their auditoriums. Luckily, you can now access many of these films online. You can watch the Canyonlands orientation film “Wilderness of Rock” on The National Park Website.
Shafer Canyon Overlook
Shafer Canyon Overlook is the first overlook you will come to after the visitor center. In fact, you can leave your car at the visitor center and walk across the street to access the viewpoint.
After Shafer Canyon Overlook, your next stop will be Mesa Arch, five miles away. The hike to Mesa Arch is only .5 mile roundtrip so it is a really easy hike. It is also very rewarding! The view of the canyon through the arch is absolutely incredible.
Green River Overlook
Green River Overlook is about a mile from the Mesa Arch trail. Turn right on Upheaval Dome Road and then left onto Green River Overlook Road. The Green River Overlook parking lot is huge so finding parking shouldn’t be a problem even on the busiest of days.
From the Green River Overlook, views of the river snaking through seemingly endless miles of canyon are stunning.
Upheaval Dome For Lunch
Get back on Upheaval Dome Road and drive for about four miles for the perfect lunch spot complete with shaded picnic tables. There are also several hiking trails that go from Upheaval Dome.
*Bring your own lunch, there is nowhere in the park to buy food.
It’s always nice to have a cooler to pack lunch or shacks when you are out for a day at a National Park (or the beach). On our last trip to Alaska, we used a wheeled cooler as our checked bag so we could bring back salmon and halibut. It was also nice to have a cooler to pack our lunch in every day. Read – Why a Wheeled Cooler Makes A Great Checked Bag
Grand Viewpoint Overlook
After lunch, drive until you come to Grand Viewpoint Road and take a Right. The drive from Upheaval dome to the Grand Viewpoint is about ten miles. Grand Viewpoint is my favorite part of the Island In The Sky district.
Grand Viewpoint lives up to its name. The views of the colorful canyon seem to go on forever. Grand Viewpoint hike goes along the rim of the canyon for 2 miles roundtrip. We found that it was really crowded at the beginning of the hike but not many people made it all the way so we had the trail mostly to ourselves after the first quarter of a mile.
If you don’t want your day to end here, you can stop at the Orange Cliffs, Buck Canyon, and Candlestick Tower Overlooks on your way out of the park.
Canyonlands National Park Itinerary – The Needles District
With fewer crowds, historic artifacts and pictographs, and incredible rock formations, The Needles District is well worth the long drive to get there.
Why Is It Called The Needles District?
The Needles District is named after the hundreds of colorful sandstone rock formations in this area of the park.
How Do You Get To Canyonlands Needles District?
From Moab, head South on US-191 for about 40 miles. Then, turn right to go west on UT-211 for another 35 miles and you will arrive at the Needles District of Canyonlands.
What You Don’t Want To Miss In Canyonlands Needles District
The three things that you don’t want to miss in the Needles District of Canyonlands are the views from Pothole Point Trail, Newspaper Rock (not in the park but a quick and worthwhile stop on the way there), and if you have the time, the Chesler Park Viewpoint or Loop Trail.
Best Hike In Canyonlands Needles District
The most incredible hike in all of Canyonlands National park is the Chesler Park Loop/Joint Trail. This scenic hike is 11 miles roundtrip and is considered strenuous. I did this hike years ago with my mom and getting close to the rock spires in Chesler Park is surreal. It is a difficult hike especially towards the end when the trail goes through the sand.
Because the hike takes five to seven hours, I didn’t include it in my itinerary. But, it would be a great option if you have another day to go back to the Needles District and do the hike, or if you are camping in the park.
One Day Itinerary Canyonlands National Park Needles District
This One day Needles District itinerary should take about 7-9 hours including round-trip driving time from Moab.
You will arrive at the first stop, Newspaper Rock before you even get into the National Park. With over 650 symbols and drawings, Newspaper Rock is one of the largest discovered sites of petroglyphs in the United States. The 200 square-foot rock wall is covered with well-preserved petroglyphs, some of which are 2,000 years old! It is so interesting to look at the different pictures and try to guess their meaning.
Newspaper Rock State Historic Monument is right along UT-211, 15 miles from the turnoff on US-191.
Although the introduction film and Junior Ranger Program are the same at both The Needles and Island In The Sky Districts of Canyonlands, it is still worth a stop at the visitor center. The Rangers are knowledgeable and will tell you interesting things that you can’t find anywhere else. On our last visit, we learned about the tiny tadpole shrimp in the potholes…. read on for more.
Pothole Point Trail
Five miles from the visitor center is Pothole Point Trailhead. This hike is just over half of a mile and offers great distant views of the needles. The hike is on the sandstone so the trail is marked by rock cairns.
If it has rained recently the potholes (natural bowls in the sandstone that collect water) will be full of water. Look closely and you might see tiny tadpole shrimp swimming in the puddles. We were pleasantly surprised to find the potholes full of water and tadpole shrimp when we visited the Needles District in May.
Big Springs Canyon Overlook
After hiking Pothole Point, drive for another mile and a half to check out Big Springs Canyon Overlook at the end of the road. The views from this point are worth the short drive.
Lunch At The Picnic Area
Head back towards the visitor center and look for the picnic area just after Pothole Point. This is the only picnic area in the Needles District and a great place to stop for a picnic lunch.
*There is no food available for purchase in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park so make sure to bring your own lunch, snacks, and drinks.
Cave Springs Trail
When you are done with lunch, keep driving towards the visitor center and look for signs for the Cave Springs Trail. The Cave Springs Trail is just over half a mile roundtrip. It is an interesting trail because it includes 2 ladders, artifacts from an old cowboy camp, and prehistoric rock paintings.
Exploring the Cave Trail is the perfect way to end your day in the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park.
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