6 Best Hikes in Canyonlands National Park
From the park’s most photographed arch to a challenging journey in the Maze, these trails showcase the best of this Utah park.
Canyonlands National Park is home to towering sandstone arches, maze-like canyons and sweeping views of some of the prettiest country in the United States. It’s the perfect place to lace up your hiking boots and hit the trails. From easy and flat strolls to epic, all-day excursions, these are our favorite trails in this desert park.
Is Island in the Sky, Needles or the Maze Better for Hiking?
Canyonlands is divided into three distinct districts: Island in the Sky, Needles and the Maze. All three offer incredible hiking opportunities. Island in the Sky is closest to Moab. It’s approximately a 40-minute drive from this outdoorsy town. On a mesa high above the canyons, this is the place to go for expansive views of the park. The Needles District is southwest of Moab, approximately an hour and a half drive. If you want to hike inside the canyons and get a taste of history, this is a great choice. The Maze is the most remote district and isn’t recommended for first time visitors. If you’re staying in Moab, this area is a several hour drive and hard to get to. If you’re coming from the west, near Hanksville, it’s easier to access. There are few good day hikes in the Maze. It’s a better destination for seasoned backpackers, but there is one Maze day-hike option on this list.
What’s the Best Season to Hike in Canyonlands?
Like most of the desert, spring and fall are the best times to hike in the park. Summer temperatures often exceed 100℉ and summer storms bring the risk of flash floods. If you have to visit in the summer, choose short trails, aim to hike in the morning, before the heat of the day sets in, and pack plenty of water for every person in your group. While snow and freezing temperatures do occur in the winter, days can often be mild and perfect for hiking.
Do I Need Hiking Boots for Canyonlands?
Many of Canyonlands’ trails are uneven and can be slick or sandy. Hiking boots are a great choice for the desert since they’ll protect your toes and give you good traction and ankle support. If you don’t have hiking boots, a tennis shoe with good grip is another suitable choice. Avoid sandals or footwear with slippery soles like skate shoes.
Desert sun can be intense, so you’ll also want to pack sun protection. A brimmed hat, sunscreen and a lightweight sun shirt will help shield your skin from sunburn. Layers are a great idea as well, as mornings can be chilly before days turn hot.
It’s extremely important to carry plenty of water even on the shortest hikes in Canyonlands. Each person should have a minimum of two liters of water for short hikes when the weather is cool. For longer or hot weather hikes, bring at least a gallon of water per person. That’s 3.7 liters, or four Nalgene bottles. Water isn’t available on the trails and the hot and dry climate, mixed with being at high elevation, can quickly lead to dangerous dehydration.
Best Trails in Canyonlands National Park
Location: Island in the Sky
Total Distance: 0.6 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 75 feet
This short and sweet hike located in Island of the Sky brings you to one of Canyonlands’ most photographed views: Mesa Arch. While it’s a worthwhile destination any time of the day, it’s especially stunning at sunrise when the rising sun peeks through the arch, scattering sunbeams across the landscape and lighting the red rock aglow with morning warmth.
Start from the Mesa Arch Trailhead, 6.3 miles south of the Island in the Sky Visitor Center. While not difficult, the 0.6-mile loop does cross uneven ground and a few stone steps. Once you get to the 27-foot-long arch, keep an eye on children as it’s positioned on the edge of a cliff with a huge drop-off below. If you plan to visit the arch at sunrise, be sure to bring a headlamp to navigate the trail in the dark.
Grand View Point
Location: Island in the Sky
Total Distance: 1.8 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 73 feet
Hike a flat and easy 1.8-mile roundtrip trail to be treated to expansive and mesmerizing views. Find the trailhead at the very end of the Island in the Sky Scenic Drive. A short, paved trail will bring you to the first viewpoint, but continue on as the now dirt trail follows the canyon’s rim, providing pretty views the entire length of the hike. At the end of the path is a second viewpoint, with views across the park including White Rim Road, The Maze, Needles District, the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers and mountain peaks in the distance.
If you’re traveling with small children, be sure to keep them close as the drop-offs aren’t fenced off.
Total Distance: 0.6 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 67 feet
Rating: Easy (but includes ladders)
While only a little more than half a mile in length, this trail includes tons of history and stunning views. Park at the trailhead in the Needles District, off of Cave Spring Road. At the first intersection, head left to hike the loop clockwise. You’ll quickly come to an overhang which is fenced off and holds a historic cowboy camp. Cattle ranching was the norm in Canyonlands until 1975 and the cowboys who took care of the cattle made camp at Cave Spring due to the reliable water source. Farther down the trail is Cave Spring itself, where you’ll see rock art, evidence of Native Americans also using these natural shelters near the spring.
Follow the trail to a wooden ladder and climb up to get stunning views of the surrounding area. One more ladder farther along the trail brings you even higher. Look for the skinny spire of Six Shooter Peak and the La Sal Mountains in the distance. The trail gradually makes its way back to the parking lot from here.
Chesler Park Viewpoint
Total Distance: 5.8 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 1,250 feet
Rating: Moderate to Difficult
This rambling trail takes you through some of the best scenery in the Needles District. At 5.8 miles with 1,250 feet of elevation gain, this trail may seem moderate but be warned. There’s lots of up and down climbing along the way so it may seem more strenuous than the stats make it look.
Start at the Elephant Hill Trailhead, which is accessed via a dirt road. The road to the parking lot is accessible by most cars, but after the parking area it turns into a challenging four-wheel-drive road so don’t continue on unless you have an off-road-capable rig.
The hike starts off with a steep staircase to a slickrock section where you’ll follow cairns to a well-worn trail. There are many junctions throughout this hike, so be sure to always follow signs for Chesler Park. The trail starts to get challenging at the 1.5 mile mark where you’ll walk through a narrow slot canyon and ascend and descend the rocks and slopes in the area. Keep your eyes peeled for petroglyphs along the way, but make sure not to touch them as it’s illegal.
The final climb to the viewpoint is steep, but the views towards Chesler Park’s spires, with Island in the Sky in the distance, are well worth it. Find a good place to take a break and enjoy a snack before returning the way you came.
Total Distance: 10.2 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 2,184 feet
This challenging hike will bring you to a unique-looking arch deep in Canyonlands’ backcountry. The tall and narrow arch has two openings, making an “M” shape. At 10.8 miles roundtrip, with more than 2,000 feet of elevation gain, this trail should only be attempted by experienced and fast hikers on a day trip.
The first two miles follow the same route for the Chesler Park Viewpoint (see above). Follow the signs to Druid Arch at the second trail junction, heading south along a stream bed. Keep your eyes peeled for several more junctions and follow the signs to Druid Arch. The last half-mile is a steep climb to the arch, including a ladder.
Horseshoe Canyon’s Great Gallery
Location: The Maze
Total Distance: 7.1 miles
Total Elevation Gain: 2,472 feet
Canyonlands’ most remote district, the aptly named Maze, isn’t recommended for first time visitors, but if you have experience hiking and navigating in canyon country, this is one of the few hikes in the area that’s possible to do on a day trip. Filled with rock art, dinosaur tracks and incredible views from inside the labyrinth-like canyons, this 7.1-mile roundtrip hike is well worth the trek.
The trailhead is approximately three hours from Moab and follows a dirt road for much of the drive that can often be sandy or washboarded, but is usually passable by most two-wheel-drive vehicles. From UT-24 near Goblin Valley State Park, take County Road 1010 approximately 30 miles to the Horseshoe Canyon West Trailhead.
The trail starts by descending into the canyon along an old road. This is the steepest part of the hike, dropping 650 feet in just over a mile. Remember, this will be your final stretch on the way back so keep your energy and water levels in mind throughout the hike. Look for dinosaur tracks approximately half a mile in. From the canyon floor, follow the wash south, staying in the wash when you pass an intersection with the old mining road. Along the way you’ll pass several rock art panels including High Gallery, Horseshoe Shelter Gallery and Alcove Panel before arriving at the main event: Great Gallery. This stunning collection of rock art is one of the best preserved Barrier Canyon-style panels in the world. More than 80 figures are protected by an overhang including seven-foot human-esque images thought to be several thousand years old. Remember, it’s illegal to touch or otherwise disturb rock art. Return to the car the way you came.
Navigating in canyon country can be difficult thanks to slickrock sections that can make identifying the trail hard. Download GAIA GPS (www.gaiagps.com) ahead of your trip and download maps in the area you plan to hike so that you can get your bearings.