Canyonlands National Park is the lesser-visited of the two national parks just outside of Moab, Utah, but with its vast network of canyons, stunning vistas and amazing trails, it’s one of our favorite desert parks.
Canyonlands is divided into three districts. Island in the Sky sits perched atop a mesa and provides stunning views to the Colorado River below. It’s 40 minutes west of Moab along Hwy. 313. The Needles District is an hour and a half southwest of Moab and is a great spot to wander amongst towering rock spires and other interesting rock formations. The last district is the Maze, the remote and hard-to-access western portion of the park that isn’t recommended for first-time visitors.
Only have two days? We’ve put together an incredible Canyonlands itinerary that hits the best of Island in the Sky and Needles, including amazing trails, scenic drives and ranger programs.
DAY ONE – ISLAND IN THE SKY
7 a.m. Watch the Sunrise at Mesa Arch
This classic Island in the Sky destination is popular among photographers for sunrise, so you’ll want to make sure you get there early to snag a good vantage point. If you’re coming from Moab, allot an hour for the drive.
The trail to Mesa Arch is 0.3 miles one-way and is uneven, including stone steps. Make sure to bring a headlamp to help you navigate the trail in the dark. The arch itself is 27 feet long and located at the edge of a cliff, framing a beautiful view of the surrounding landscape. When the sun rises, the light sets the bottom of the arch aglow. To see the spectacle, arrive at least 30 minutes before sunrise.
8 a.m. Hike to Ancestral Puebloan Sites
After taking in the sunrise at Mesa Arch, move your car to the Aztec Butte Trailhead, a quick three minute drive away. Hidden amongst the park’s namesake canyons, you’ll find evidence of the ancient people who once lived here if you know where to look.
This hike is fairly short at 1.4-miles roundtrip, but it involves steep scrambling and exposed sections. It’s not suitable for young children or anyone who is afraid of heights. Be sure to wear closed-toed shoes with good grip. Shortly after leaving the parking lot, the trail forks. Follow the path to the right to get to the Ancestral Puebloan sites. You’ll encounter a gradual decline as you head towards a small butte in the distance. Around the 0.5-mile mark, look for a trail marked with a cairn (a stack of rocks) that climbs up the west side of the butte. Some scrambling is required as the trail gets narrow and steep, with exposed drop-offs. Watch your step.
Take in the views from the top of the butte before continuing north to the spur trail that drops below the rim. Two Ancestral Puebloan granaries are located here where this ancient civilization stored food. It’s illegal to touch or enter the structures.
Climb back up to the mesa top and follow the trail as it loops back to the fork, before returning to the parking lot.
2 p.m. Drive the Shafer Trail
Shafer Trail is one of Canyonlands’ most iconic sights. The dirt road that switchbacks down the side of a cliff from Island in the Sky to the valley floor below was originally a route used by Native Americans to access the mesa top. Today, it’s a challenging four-wheel-drive road that should only be attempted in a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle with a low range gear. ATVs, OHVs and UTVs are not permitted in the national park, so if you’re not traveling in an off-road capable car, rent a Jeep from one of the many outfitters in Moab before taking on this drive.
The trail is 19.3 miles long and connects the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands with Hwy. 279. It takes approximately an hour to drive it either direction. The views are gorgeous, but beware, the road can be harrowing. It’s extremely steep, with up to a 16% grade in places with overhanging rocks to watch out for. There are tight curves and steep drop offs and, at times, it’s too narrow for more than one car. Pay attention to traffic and ensure you have room to pull off before you get too close to oncoming vehicles. Because of the nature of the road, it’s often closed when wet or snowy, so check ahead to ensure it’s open before setting out.
Start from Island in the Sky and drive to the Potash Boat Ramp, making sure you go left at the first fork, staying on Potash Road (142) so you don’t end up on the multi-day White Rim Trail. After the switchbacks, the road follows the Colorado River, including some beautiful overlooks, before detouring around the road’s namesake Potash Ponds. Once you reach Hwy. 279, you can continue on a paved road that hugs the Colorado River all the way to Moab where you can return to Island in the Sky on Hwy. 313, or you can tackle Shafer Trail again in the opposite direction.
8 p.m. – Camp at Island in the Sky Campground
One of two campgrounds in the park, Island in the Sky’s 12 first-come, first-served sites fill up early, especially in spring and fall. Check-out time is 10 a.m., so it’s a good idea to show up early to claim a site. It’s $15 per night and there is no water, but vault toilets are available.
When the sun goes down, it’s an excellent place to sit around the campfire and take in the views of the stars above.
DAY TWO – NEEDLES DISTRICT
6:30 a.m. Drive from Island in the Sky to the Needles
Get an early start to drive from Island in the Sky to the Needles. It’s approximately a two hour drive from one visitor center to the other, but allow for another 30 minutes to get to your next trailhead. Take Hwy. 313 back through Moab where you can fuel up on coffee and donuts at Doughbird, and then head south on Hwy. 191. Take Hwy. 212 west, passing Newspaper Rock, the largest collection of petroglyphs in Utah, as well as Indian Creek, a popular rock climbing area.
9 a.m. Hike to See Spectacular Views in Chesler Park
The hike to Chesler Park is a gorgeous area of the Needles District filled with weird and wonderful rock formations and lots of rambling trails that wind through them. While there are several backpacking routes through the area, the best way to experience it on a day hike is the 5.8-mile trek to Chesler Park Viewpoint. The distance of this hike may be moderate, but there’s lots of strenuous up and down climbing, so be prepared with at least two liters of water per person and closed-toed shoes with good grip.
Park at the Elephant Hill Trailhead, which is accessed via a dirt road that’s accessible by most cars. The road continues on, but turns into a permit-required four-wheel-drive adventure, so be sure to park at the trailhead.
Climb a steep staircase to a slickrock section where you’ll follow cairns to an easy-to-spot 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 for a 5.8-mile hike with 1,250 feet of elevation gain.
2 p.m. Drive to the Colorado River Overlook
If you rented a Jeep to tackle Shafer Trail, you’ll also want to drive the 7-mile, four-wheel-drive road to the Colorado River Overlook in the Needles District. This road doesn’t require a permit, but you’ll need a high-clearance vehicle to tackle the slick rock stair steps approximately 1.5 miles before the overlook. You can also park at this point and finish the last section by foot. Just make sure to leave room for others to pass you.
When you reach the end of the road, you’ll be treated to a spectacular view of the Colorado River winding through the red rock cliffs. It’s a great spot to have a snack and take in the views before heading back.
8 p.m. Constellation Tour at Needles Campground
On certain dates throughout the spring, summer and fall, rangers offer evening programs at the Needles Campground Amphitheater. A favorite program is the Constellation Tour, where rangers will help you identify the stars above. Canyonlands is an International Dark Sky Park, meaning it has some of the darkest skies in the world, perfect for stargazing. Even if you’re visiting on a night without a night skies program, be sure to look up.
If you’re visiting over a full moon, it might be harder to spot the Milky Way, but it’s a great opportunity to go on a ranger-led moonlight hike. These hour-long hikes are a great way to get a different perspective on the park.
Check the schedule of events at the Needles Visitor Center.