Carved by the mighty Colorado River in eastern Utah, Canyonlands National Park is a stunning maze of canyons, rock formations and rivers to explore. Its close proximity to other national parks, state parks and public lands makes Canyonlands a perfect choice for an RV road trip. With four districts to explore, it can be daunting to plan an RV vacation to this 300,000-plus acre park. We’ve put together some tips to help you get the most out of your Canyonlands RV trip.
Choose Your District
Canyonlands National Park is divided into four districts. These districts cannot be directly accessed from one another, so it’s a good idea to pick one or two districts to visit on your trip since driving between districts can take multiple hours. Of the four districts, Island in the Sky is the most RV-friendly. Here, you’ll find paved roads with stunning overlooks and several hiking opportunities. Island in the Sky is the closest district to Moab.
The Needles is an area known for its beautiful sandstone spires and has plenty of incredible hiking trails. There is one paved road in and out of the Needles, UT 211. The rest of the roads are unpaved.
The Maze is Canyonlands’ most remote district and requires permits and a 4WD-vehicle to visit. Most visits to the Maze take a minimum of three days. The final district of Canyonlands is Horseshoe Canyon featuring incredible ancient rock art. It’s 32 miles east of UT. 24 via a dirt road. It’s usually passable by two-wheel drive vehicle, but it can become impassable or a four-wheel drive road when it rains or snows. In good conditions, it’s possible to drive this road in your RV but it’s a long, bumpy ride so if you’re towing a vehicle, that would be a better option. The other dirt road leading to Horseshoe Canyon is a two-wheel drive, high-clearance road from Green River. Always check weather and road conditions (www.nps.gov/cany/planyourvisit/road-conditions.htm) before starting out on desert dirt roads.
Know Where to Camp
Canyonlands has two campgrounds, one in Island of the Sky and one in the Needles. Both campgrounds are dry and can accommodate RVs up to 28 feet in length. Island in the Sky Campground has only 12 first-come, first-served sites, so if you’d like to camp in this district, be sure to arrive early especially in the most popular spring and fall months. There is one accessible campsite held for people with disabilities.
Twelve of the Needles’ 29 campsites are available for reservations via recreation.gov in the spring and fall months. First-come, first-served sites are available in the off-season.
If you can’t get a campsite in the park, the private Needles Outpost Campground a mile and a half from the Needles entrance can accommodate RVs up to 40 feet in length. RV parks and campgrounds are also available in the nearby towns of Moab and the farther-flung Monticello.
Like its sister park, Arches, Canyonlands experiences crowds in the prime desert seasons of spring and fall. You’ll often find long lines to get into the park and full parking lots and viewpoints during these seasons. Holiday weekends (including Utah school breaks) are especially busy. This can be especially tricky in a large RV with limited places to park, so avoiding crowds is key.
With a little planning it’s possible to experience the magic of the desert without the crowds. While the weather’s colder in the late fall and winter months, the crowds also disappear. November through February are great times to visit the park. Even the desert gets snow, so be sure to keep an eye on the forecast and road conditions if you’re visiting during the winter.
Not a fan of the cold? You can also avoid most of the crowds by getting to the park early in the morning, or late in the day. You can enter the park 24 hours a day, so come for sunrise and get your hiking in before the heat (and the crowds) of the day. Or, head to the park later in the evening and stay to watch the gorgeous stars appear. Canyonlands is an International Dark Sky Park, so the night skies here are truly incredible.
Canyonlands National Park is in the middle of the desert and summer temperatures can often top 100-degrees. Shade and water at the park are slim, making summer exploration challenging and potentially dangerous. The best ways to beat the heat are to visit the park in the cooler seasons of spring and fall. The weather is very mild these times of the year, though they are the busiest seasons. Winter is a great option for avoiding the heat.
If you are traveling in summer, be sure to plan your days accordingly. Start hikes early in the morning and bring plenty of water and sun protection. Rangers suggest a gallon per person on most hikes. Make sure you have a plan for somewhere to cool off during the hottest midday hours of your trip. Never leave pets in your RV without air-conditioning in the summer.
Bring a Map
Like many national parks, cell service is often spotty or non-existent in Canyonlands. Because you may find yourself driving long distances between districts of the park, relying on GPS isn’t a great idea. Bring a map to make sure you can navigate, find the nearest water and fuel and more.
We suggest the Canyonlands National Park Map Pack from National Geographic’s Trails Illustrated series. It’s available on Amazon.com and at larger outdoor stores. For a general overview of the park, the official park map offers very basic road information and can be downloaded or picked up at a park entrance.
Don’t Miss Arches
There is so much to see in this gorgeous part of Utah. Get two national park stamps in your passport by visiting nearby Arches National Park in addition to Canyonlands. Check out our RV guide to Arches.