Published on August 4th, 2022
Utah’s Canyonlands National Park is mighty and memorable but requires extra effort to uncover its gems thanks to its immense size and hard-to-access terrain. But those travelers who rise early, don’t mind some driving, or putting their feet to work, are rewarded with some of the finest Wild West scenery in America’s Southwest. In this guide, we’ll explore the top things to see and do in Canyonlands National Park.
Check out additional Canyonlands NP travel resources and combine your visit with other members of Utah’s “Mighty Five” using in-depth Southern Utah travel guides.
The Maze is the wildest and remotest district in Canyonlands National Park, named after its 30-square-mile puzzle of mesas, buttes, towers, and fins, that require skill, time, and a 4WD vehicle to navigate through. The Maze is one of the least accessible areas in the Continental U.S. but one of the best places to go off-the-grid and be at one with nature.
Druid Arch is located in the Needles district of Canyonlands NP. The natural rock arch is composed of cedar mesa sandstone and towers 150 feet in the air (46 m). It is one of the most striking arches in the region, reached via the challenging Druid Arch Trail. Druid Arch derives its name from its unique shape, resembling Stonehenge boulders which are believed to be part of a Druid temple.
Canyonlands National Park is dissected by the Colorado and Green Rivers, whose serpent-like contours meet at the Confluence to create the shape of the letter Y when viewed from the air. Many hiking trails provide access to the rivers district, and the Confluence Overlook Trail in the Needles leads to an eye-catching vista of the wet meeting point. Naturally, boating excursions are also a popular way to experience the region.
Covering 337,597 acres (1,366 km2) in Southern Utah, more than double the size of Zion National Park, it’s no surprise to find many thrilling backcountry roads in Canyonlands NP. In the Needles, conquer Elephant Hill Trail, one of Utah’s most challenging backcountry roads. In the Maze, drive to Horseshoe Canyon with little chance of seeing another human being. In Island in the Sky, overcome the steep switchbacks of the Shafer Trail and drive on the legendary White Rim Road. Most backcountry roads require 4WD vehicles, but some are suitable for high-clearance AWD cars.
When visiting Island in the Sky, leave enough time to head next door to Dead Horse Point State Park. This park has a small network of hiking trails and great picnic spots, but the main draw is Dead Horse Point, the scenic lookout at its southern tip overlooking the vast expanse of Canyonlands. The late afternoon sun paints this area red, orange, and gold. One thousand feet below, the Colorado River continues to carve the land, and it is here where the legendary final scene from Thelma and Louise was filmed.
Get an early start and head to Mesa Arch in Island in the Sky to catch the sunrise or early morning colors. The Mesa Arch is uniquely positioned like a vanity window, only instead of mannequins, the distant La Sal Mountains and stunning sandstone buttes are the fashionable subjects.
The White Rim seems like a giant opening on the earth’s surface when viewed from Island in the Sky. Hiding inside this canyon are sandstone spires shaped to perfection by the eroding forces of nature and the Colorado and Green Rivers, who are the leading artists of this canvas. Several trails descend over 1,000 feet from the mesa top to the White Rim, including the Murphy Trail Loop and the Gooseberry Trail. Just remember, what goes down in Canyonlands, must come up!
Little-known and even less visited Horseshoe Canyon is technically part of the Maze district of Canyonlands NP but managed as a separate unit. Horseshoe Canyon features some of North America’s most impressive and significant rock art, highlighted by the Great Gallery, where life-sized figures left by mysterious hunter-gatherers decorate the canyon wall. Seeing the Horseshoe Canyon’s wonders requires a bit of an effort, with over a two-hour drive on dirt roads slicing through the middle of nowhere.
Canyonlands is not only about canyons, and here’s the proof. At the Needles district of the national park, red and white sandstone spires bound together rise hundreds of feet in the air. This is the result of over 200 million years of geology, and hiking is the best way to experience it. The Chesler Park Loop Trail is the most popular hike in the Needles, providing foot access to the grassy meadow from which the famous needles rise to the sky.
Trapped by the Colorado and Green Rivers, Island in the Sky is the most visited district in Canyonlands National Park, and it’s easy to see why. Its Y-shaped scenic drive stretches for 23 miles, revealing one breathtaking scenic viewpoint after another. Some lookouts are also the starting point for trails on the “island” itself or down to the action below. Don’t miss Grand View Point with its exciting hiking trail, White Rim Overlook, which offers a glimpse of the Colorado River, and Green River Overlook with its “classic” Southern Utah vistas.
This wraps up the roundup of the top 10 things to see and do in Canyonlands National Park. Now, it’s time to plan your own adventure to Utah’s largest national park. First, start shaping your visit with additional Canyonlands resources, including sample itineraries and essential planning tips. Then, combine your visit to Canyonlands with other members of Utah’s “Mighty Five” using travel guides to Southern Utah.
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