The Ultimate One Day in Canyonlands National Park Itinerary

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by Duncan McHenry


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Planning a one day in Canyonlands National Park itinerary may seem a bit ambitious. With a vast area of more than 250,000 acres of crimson sandstone rock formations, sagebrush-lined drainage gullies, and wide-open desert landscapes, Canyonlands is one of the true natural wonders of the continental United States.

Confronted by so much explorable wilderness, travelers might think it would be hard to spend just one day here and not feel rushed. This isn’t exactly true, however, as Canyonlands—like nearby Arches National Park— is extremely well-maintained by US Park Service staff, and road access to the park’s two main areas is excellent.

Opportunities for hiking and sightseeing in Canyonlands are abundant, and there are a lot of options for travelers who aren’t looking to venture too far from the car.

How Many Days in Canyonlands?

When deciding how many days to spend in Canyonlands National Park, remember that it’s an enormous wilderness area where you could easily choose to do multiple days of backpacking and camping, or you could decide on two or three days of car camping or staying in nearby Moab and going on day trips.

Remote parts of The Needles and The Maze require either hiking or four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicles to reach and would likely be too much of an undertaking for travelers looking to visit Canyonlands in one day.

But closer parts of The Needles are very accessible in just a day’s time, and the same goes for much of the Island in the Sky area.

The Needles in Canyonlands National Park
The Needles in Canyonlands

Since Island in the Sky is the most accessible part of the park in terms of having great views from convenient overlooks along the paved road, as well as some of the park’s more moderate hiking trails, focusing on this area is a great way to approach a one-day trip to Canyonlands.

The Needles—named for the area’s colorful, towering sandstone spires that have eroded over the centuries—is also worth a stop if you have the time and really want to explore the whole park, or you might consider doing a long day hike here if seeing as much of the park as possible isn’t your main goal.

No matter how you structure your Canyonlands itinerary, be sure to make at least a quick stop in either of the visitor centers. Not only do they offer services like restrooms and sometimes water, but they are also great sources of information and context before you venture out into the park.

Of course, if you’re looking for incredible views over the national park, you can’t miss visiting Dead Horse Point State Park before entering Canyonlands itself. Other great viewpoints include the White Rim Overlook, the Green River Overlook and the Shafer Canyon Overlook.

Getting To & Around Canyonlands

Getting to Canyonlands is easy via major highways from any of the biggest surrounding cities like Denver, Salt Lake City, Albuquerque, Phoenix or Las Vegas.

In fact, travelers making a road trip to this area (for instance, from Denver to Moab!) can make things easy and point their GPS toward the town of Moab, as it’s a great preparatory stop for anyone on their way to Canyonlands.

From Moab, the National Park can be reached via either Highway 313 or 211, depending on whether you’re entering at Island in the Sky or The Needles.

As mentioned earlier, Canyonlands is not at all hard to navigate from most any kind of vehicle, including campers and RVs. If you need to rent a car for this trip, browse Rentalcars.com to find deals across major providers. Alternatively, check out Outdoorsy for RV and campervan options.

Driving to Canyonlands National Park
Driving to Canyonlands National Park

Four-wheel drive and high clearance are not required on any of the park’s paved roads, but there is good news for Jeep/4×4 enthusiasts: Canyonlands does offer a plethora of 4×4 routes that range from moderate to extremely difficult. Just be aware that vehicle entry permits may be required for some of the unpaved four-wheel-drive roads in Canyonlands.

Mountain bikers will also find fun opportunities on many of these same trails and roads.

Assuming you’re keeping to the paved roads, driving between the park’s many maintained overlook points and trailheads is the best strategy.

Trails tend to have good signage, and parking is usually in good supply, but keep in mind that the same seasonal and weekend crowds that flood Arches and the general Moab area nowadays can be a presence here too.

Crowds tend to swell on weekends and when the weather is mildest, so plan accordingly and try to have your trip fall mid-week if at all possible.

There is no other option in the park to get around other than a car, so it’s important that you know to plan a Canyonlands road trip and don’t expect a bus system like in other national parks.

The Windows in Arches National Park
The Windows in nearby Arches National Park

One-Day Canyonlands Itinerary

Since this route will focus on possibilities for a shorter one-day visit, most of the stops mentioned will be centered on the Island in the Sky area thanks to its good accessibility and opportunities to get out of the car for shorter day hikes.

A tour through The Needles area might also be in the cards, but some of the zone’s most awe-inspiring attractions like Druid Arch and the Chesler Park Loop are more suited to backpackers with at least two to three days at their disposal.

If you decide to plan your day around Island in the Sky and save The Needles for another time, you’ll find that this area sandwiched between the Green and Colorado Rivers is home to some of the park’s most picturesque overlook spots, such as the Holeman Spring Canyon Overlook, the Green River Overlook, and the Grand View Point Overlook, to name just a few.

There is also a fee to enter Canyonlands, however, if you plan to visit multiple US national parks in a year, it can be very worthwhile to purchase an America the Beautiful Pass which grants you entry into all national parks for one small fee.

Canyonlands National Park near Moab
Canyonlands National Park

Mesa Arch and Aztec Butte

Taking a photo beneath the Mesa Arch with the expansive Utah desert as a backdrop has become a must for travelers visiting Canyonlands National Park. A stop here will show you why, as this stone arch sitting at the edge of a cliff is an amazing sight, and the distant views of the La Sal mountains are striking.

This is also one of the first areas you’ll come to when driving into the Island in the Sky district past the old Shafer Road, so making the easy half-mile hike on the trail from the parking lot is a great warm-up for the rest of your day.

Just around the bend from Mesa Arch is another formation called Aztec Butte. Making this 1.3 to 1.8-mile hike will take a bit more time than Mesa Arch did, so plan accordingly, but if you make the hike, you’ll be treated to one of the park’s more diverse trails in terms of the surrounding vegetation.

Once you reach Aztec Butte, the trail will wrap you around to viewing areas for ancient granaries used by indigenous people that are extremely well-preserved.

Mesa Arch at sunrise in Canyonlands
Mesa Arch at sunrise

Green River Overlook

Next is a stop at the Green River Overlook, which is just a short detour down a paved side road beyond Mesa Arch and Aztec Butte.

The short 0.2-mile path takes you to one of the park’s high points of around 6,000 feet and panoramic views of the Soda Springs Basin as it sprawls outward from the rim of the Island in the Sky mesa. The Green River, which along with the mighty Colorado River has played a key role in shaping Canyonlands, is also in view in the far ranges of the scene.

From here, once you’re back on the main paved road, it makes sense to head northwest toward the pocket of Canyonlands that’s home to Upheaval Dome Road, Whale Rock, and Holeman Spring Canyon Overlook.

It may take more time than you want to spend in just this one part of Island in the Sky to see all three of these in one day, so we’ll focus on Upheaval Dome as the next stop since it also offers good facilities along with trail access.

Scenic Green River Overlook
Scenic Green River Overlook

Upheaval Dome

Upheaval Dome is an area of approximately three miles in diameter that holds a particular amount of intrigue for visitors who are interested in the geologic past of Canyonlands.

While geologists mostly agree that the rest of the park has been formed by layers of sediment being deposited across geologic time by seas, rivers, and winds, the exact origins of Upheaval Dome are still in doubt.

An uplifted dome can clearly be seen in the middle of the huge crater here, and its warped and deformed layers of jagged rock stand out to even the untrained eye. Signs along the trail will tell you more about the main two theories scientists have come up with to explain how Upheaval Dome was formed.

One thing to keep in mind on this stop is that you have two overlook options along the main trail and stopping at the first one puts you at just 0.6 miles of hiking.

Since the views don’t change drastically by going to the second overlook but the hike becomes closer to 1.7 miles round trip, it’s worth thinking about enjoying the views from the first overlook and then turning around if you’re looking to conserve time and keep things moving.

Overlook of Upheaval Dome
Overlook of Upheaval Dome

Buck Canyon Overlook

Located not far down the Grand View Point Road is the Buck Canyon Overlook, which at 6,240 feet in elevation will have you looking out from an even higher point than the Green River Overlook.

This is also a convenient stop on the way down to Grand View Point that’s particularly kid-friendly for families looking to let their young ones run around in a safe area.

The trail here is so short that it can hardly be called a “hike,” but a walk around does offer some nice views of flora and fauna such as the native birds and reptiles like white-throated swifts and small lizards that scurry about on the rocks.

Views from this overlook range out to Buck Canyon and are yet another photographer’s dream and seeing it is one of the best things to do in Canyonlands. At the right time of year, the mountain peaks in the distance beyond Buck Canyon may even be snow-packed, making for a stark contrast against the warmer colors of the canyons below.

View from Buck Canyon Overlook
View from Buck Canyon Overlook

Grand View Point Overlook

Grand View Point is located at the very bottom of the scenic drive through the Island in the Sky area, so it makes sense as a final stop for the day in this part of the park. Like the other overlooks, the views here are postcard-worthy and look out to the White Rim Overlook in the distance.

There is also a paved trail here that eventually transitions to a longer, unpaved trail, so hikers looking to put in some more significant mileage can get out to a more remote point to watch the sunset if they choose.

Grand View Point can also be one of the best learning stops in the park, as rangers present geology talks at the lookout point from spring through fall.

The Needles

While it’s tougher to do a visit to The Needles justice in a single day, it’s worth mentioning in this itinerary for anyone who may want to at least cap a visit to the park with a drive through this more southern part of Canyonlands.

As mentioned before, some of the best attractions in this zone can’t be seen from any road, but there are a couple that you’ll want to keep an eye out for if you decide to drive down here.

The Roadside Ruin and Wooden Shoe Arch Overlook, in particular, are must-see stops, with the former being a short hike to ancient Puebloan ruins and the latter a viewpoint for catching a glimpse of the famed and aptly named Wooden Shoe Arch.

Driving to the Needles
Driving to the Needles

Have More Time in Canyonlands?

Visit Horseshoe Canyon Unit

Horseshoe Canyon is located west of the Green River and north of the Canyonlands Maze District. This is only a good option if you have the time and desire to take on the roughly seven-mile round-trip hike to the Great Gallery, which houses some of North America’s most renowned ancient rock art.

The petroglyph panels here are well-preserved and display intricate figures, designs, and drawings. The hike to the Great Gallery is also enjoyable and full of natural sights to see, especially when the spring wildflowers are in bloom.

Off-Road/4WD

As there are so many unpaved 4×4 roads in Canyonlands and opportunities for renting these vehicles in the area around Moab are in good supply, this makes sense for any travelers to consider as another fun activity.

The Shafer Canyon and Potash roads are two where a high-clearance all-wheel-drive or four-wheel-drive vehicle is mandatory. Seeing the park like this on the true “roads less traveled” brings a special thrill and a sense of escape.

Shafer Trail Road
Shafer Trail Road

Where to Stay Near Canyonlands National Park

If you’re looking for the perfect place to stay near the national park to be best equipped for your trip to Canyonlands, then the town of Moab is your best answer.

Perfectly positioned for exploring both Canyonlands and Arches National Parks, there are plenty of great accommodation options to choose from.

Adventure Inn Moab – This boutique motel is an excellent option for you if you’re looking for a great place to base yourself if you’re staying near Canyonlands National Park on a mid-range budget. They have a myriad of comfortable and clean rooms available, self-service laundry facilities on offer if you need to do a wash on your trip, and free parking on site.

Comfort Suites Moab – If you’re visiting Moab with a bit of a higher budget, this hotel is a fantastic choice for you. They have a number of great amenities, including a heated swimming pool, and countless great rooms available.

Private Rental – If you’d rather have your own private home when visiting Moab than stay in a hotel there are a number of fantastic options available to you. For instance, this quaint home in Moab is located within easy reach of both Canyonlands.

Not quite what you’re looking for? Click here to browse more Moab hotels!

Tower of Babel in Arches National Park
Tower of Babel in Arches National Park

This Canyonlands itinerary should give you some ideas for how best to structure a short visit to this part of Southeastern Utah. The Grand Canyon may be America’s most famous geologic attraction, but one day in Canyonlands National Park will have you convinced that it deserves to be ranked just as highly.

Are you planning to spend a day in Canyonlands? Have any questions? Let us know in the comments!

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Duncan is a writer for The World Was Here First. He lives in Colorado and also works as a fly fishing guide and instructor when not editing or writing. He has spent time in Costa Rica and has made numerous trips exploring the Western states of the Rocky Mountains.

Comments

  1. This will be the first time I have visited this park.my wife and I are seniors and will be doing the driving tour mostly.your information will be a great help to us thanks for your insight.

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