Canyonlands National Park is less visited than nearby Arches National Park, but it’s well worth a visit. The park is located 40 minutes from the city of Moab, Utah. Canyonlands is a massive park, but the most popular area, Island in the Sky, is relatively small, so you can make a day trip of it and see some really nice scenery.
Canyonlands is the largest National Park in Utah by area, and it is divided into three major areas. The most popular is Island in the Sky. It’s easily accessible by car and has several hikes and overlooks. The other two areas of the park are the Needles and the Maze. If you’re feeling extra adventurous, you can venture into these less-visited areas of the park and get a more rugged backcountry experience. We visited Island in the Sky, so that’s what we’ll cover in this post.
Things to See
Mesa Arch Trail
0.5 miles round trip | Easy | Loop
Mesa Arch is a wide, low arch that looks out into a deep gorge. It’s a quick hike, only 0.5 miles round trip, and along the way we saw several different kinds of wildflowers and plants. The hike is easy and safe, but be cautious around the arch itself because it is on the edge of a cliff!
There are also some great views off to the right side of the arch, where we had some fun exploring.
Grand View Point Overlook
There are several beautiful overlooks in Island in the Sky. Grand View Point was our favorite. It is really impossible to capture the vastness of the park with a camera, both the beautiful panoramic views and the layers upon layers of rock and geologic history from the topmost mesa all the way down to the Colorado River. You really have to check it out for yourself!
An interesting bit of trivia: We thought that the overlook was named “Grand View” because the view is so “grand”. We learned from the ranger talk that the river used to be called the Grand River, but the name was changed to the Colorado River in 1921.
White Rim Overlook
From the White Rim Overlook, you can see the thick layer of white rim sandstone that caps the inner gorge of the Colorado River. You can also drive the rim itself on White Rim Road, but it is a 100 mile route with no facilities or water, so it is not for the faint of heart! You can visit the National Park Service website to learn more about the route and how to prepare.
Green River Overlook
Grand View Point Trail
2 miles round trip | Easy | Out & Back
There is a 2 mile round trip trail that starts at Grand View Point and takes you along the edge of the rim. While it is a beautiful hike, because the view along the route is similar to the overlook, we opted to use our time to hike to Upheaval Dome.
1.8 miles round trip | Moderate | Out & Back
Upheaval Dome is very different from anything else in Canyonlands. It is a large crater, and nobody knows how the it formed. The most likely theory is that it was caused by a meteorite. However, another theory is that it was formed by an underground “salt dome” that bubbled up and warped the rock layers around it, creating the rock formations that we see today.
The salt dome would have formed from the thick layer of salt that underlies the area from millions of years ago, when Utah and much of the western US was covered in water.
See the crater for yourself and decide which theory you think is most likely! The hike to the crater was 1.8 miles round trip and moderately difficult.
1 mile round trip | Easy | Out & Back
If you use your imagination, you can see a large sandstone whale in the desert. The Whale Rock trail is near Upheaval Dome and is about 1 mile round trip. Like everywhere in the park, there is beautiful scenery to enjoy. There is also plenty of bare rock to scramble on if you fancy yourself a climber but aren’t daring enough to climb up a cliff face (that’s us.).
2 miles round trip | Moderate | Out & Back
Aztec Butte is a 2 mile round trip hike to see an ancient granary where Natives once stored food and medicines. We didn’t make it this time, but it is on our list for next time we visit the park
Dead Horse Point State Park
Website | Open Daily 6am-10pm | $20 per vehicle
If you have time, Dead Horse Point is another popular and beautiful overlook. It’s great to do either on the way to Canyonlands or on the way back to Moab. It is a Utah state park, so it has a separate entrance fee. Visitor Center hours are 9am-5pm.