Split by two coursing rivers, the Green and Colorado Rivers, Canyonlands National Park is home to some of the most remote and memorable adventures in the American Southwest. Even if you only get to experience Canyonlands in one day, you’ll be able to take in panoramic viewpoints over the Island in the Sky district that will leave you speechless enough to come back and explore the more remote corners of the park.
What you can expect from this Canyonlands National Park itinerary is a complete, rugged day of exploration that includes many popular places in the park, as well as some stunning trails that will blow the roof off of your trip to Utah. Canyonlands, like other National Parks in Utah, is vastly underrated for a landscape that is nicknamed ‘the Grand Canyon’s younger sister’. Most people only experience a Canyonlands itinerary from the top of the canyon mesa, but after one day here, you’ll be curious to find out what other ways you can come back to enjoy this park’s beauty.
This Canyonlands one-day itinerary fits the best after spending a few days in Arches National Park, or if you paid a visit to Capitol Reef coming from the Southeastern corner of Utah. Be prepared to fall in love with the secluded nature of this park and channel your inner explorer!
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Things To Know Before Visiting Canyonlands National Park
CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK LOCATION | Canyonlands National Park is located in eastern Utah, about 45-minutes outside of Moab and right next door to Arches National Park. One of the most popular ways to visit Canyonlands is on a larger Utah National Parks road trip, beginning in Salt Lake City or Las Vegas, and hitting Utah’s Mighty Five: Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion. Alternatively, you can rent a car from Salt Lake City, base yourself in Moab, and visit Canyonlands and Arches for a shorter trip to these two beautiful National Parks.
CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK GEOLOGY | What most people discover when visiting Canyonlands is that there is a whole lot more to see in this park than the main canyon. What makes this park so alluring, especially for the adventure junkies, is that the park is divided into three separate districts: Island in the Sky, Needles, and the Maze.
Island in the Sky is the most popular of the three districts. Scenic drives and trails offer panoramic views from the mesa that rests on sandstone cliffs over 1,000-feet over the surrounding views. You’ll be able to spot two rivers, Green and Colorado, that helped shape this canyon millions of years ago, and that act as natural boundaries for each section of the park.
The Needles is the next most visited district of Canyonlands and is perfect for those that want to avoid crowds and discover some serious gems in the park. This is a popular district for backpacking and longer day hikes through colorful spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone and narrow canyons. Since you’re seeing Canyonlands in one day, you’ll need to come back to explore this spot, but if you have a little more time, I recommend adding it to your itinerary!
The Maze is the least visited, least accessible, and most remote part of Canyonlands. You should only consider a trip out here if you’re able to be self-sufficient and carry the necessary supplies for self-rescue. You’ll need a high clearance, 4×4 vehicle to drive on any of the roads here and experience navigating rough terrain. Once I have more boondocking experience under my belt, a trip out here is on my bucket list!
OPEN | Year-round. If you’re planning on visiting the visitor center to pick up souvenirs, open and closing times change by season, so be sure to check the current schedule for your trip.
HOW TO GET AROUND CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK | Since Canyonlands National Park is so remote, the best way to get around is by car. I recommend taking your own car or renting a car from Salt Lake City so that you can explore all the best spots in the Island in the Sky District. The second best way to get around Canyonlands is via all the beautiful hiking trails. The viewpoints in the park are beautiful, but the day hikes in Canyonlands take you to some stunning locations. There is no shuttle service in Canyonlands.
DRIVING THROUGH CANYONLANDS | One of the most popular things to do in Canyonlands is driving the 34-mile Grand Viewpoint Road and hitting all the beautiful viewpoints dotted in the park. One day in Canyonlands is plenty of time to see the park and this scenic drive will take you to all of the highlights you won’t want to miss on your Canyonlands itinerary.
CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK ENTRANCE FEE | To get into Canyonlands National Park, it’s $35 per vehicle, and this pass grants you access to the park for seven days. If you’re visiting more than one National Park this year or hitting all of Utah’s National Parks, I recommend picking up an America the Beautiful Park Pass. For a year, it gets you into all the National Parks in the states for $80, which will save you a good amount of money. I pick one up every year for all my hiking adventures!
CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK CROWDS | Canyonlands experiences the largest number of crowds during the spring and fall, but the crowds dwindle in the summer and winter. You’ll encounter the most people at all the popular viewpoints and the Mesa Arch Trail, but once you hit the trails, a lot of the crowds tend to thin out. Hit the trails in the early morning to avoid the most people and the midday desert heat.
LEAVE NO TRACE PRINCIPLES | When visiting Canyonlands National Park, or exploring the outdoors in general, following the seven Leave No Trace Principles to help reduce your impact in outdoor spaces is crucial. Now that more people are getting outdoors, vandalism has been on the rise, so let’s please all work together to keep these spaces as we left them.
Canyonlands In One Day Itinerary FAQs
CAN I SEE CANYONLANDS IN ONE DAY? | You can see the majority of the highlights in Canyonlands National Park in one day. Although, if you’re an experienced hiker, I would recommend at least two days to explore more difficult trails or an optional visit to the Needles district.
HOW MUCH TIME DO YOU NEED IN CANYONLANDS? | If you’re sticking to the scenic viewpoints and short trails, one day is plenty of time to see the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands. Once you start adding in more difficult trails or even other districts like the Needles and the Maze, you’ll need at least 2-3 days.
CAN YOU JUST DRIVE THROUGH CANYONLANDS? | You can definitely drive through Canyonlands via the 34-mile Grand Viewpoint Road and see many popular scenic viewpoints, but some of the best views in the park are seen on the hiking trails.
WHICH IS BETTER, CANYONLANDS OR CAPITOL REEF? | No matter who you ask, everyone is going to have a different answer to this question because it depends on your interests. Personally, I would say Canyonlands is better than Capitol Reef due to the variety and number of things to do in Canyonlands: hiking, river tours, off-road tours, and backpacking. And because there are three different districts, you could easily spend a week there and not run out of things to do. Capitol Reef is geared more towards hiking and history rather than adrenaline-inducing adventures. After visiting both of these parks years ago, Canyonlands has always been at the top of my list to go back to.
How To Spend A Day In Canyonlands National Park
I’ve crafted this Canyonlands National Park itinerary to get you to all the best things to do at prime times of the day to avoid crowds and limited parking. You won’t be able to hit everything in this itinerary, but since there are so many different things to do in the park, I’ve offered more than one option for certain times of the day so that you can choose based on what interests you more because frankly, there are so many different combinations of adventures and I want to make sure you all your options. Also, this itinerary avoids backtracking, so you’re making the most out of your time in the park.
If you’re visiting during the summer months, and as tempting as it is to jam-pack your itinerary since you have so much daylight, you want to limit your activity from 10:00 am to 4:00 pm when the temperatures are the hottest. Be sure to pack plenty of water, wear light colors, and stay hydrated as well!
Use this map to help you navigate this one day in Canyonlands itinerary and nearby stops! For best use, download this map to your smartphone so you can use it offline (instructions here).
Mesa Arch Trail
There is no better way to kick off a day in Canyonlands than at Mesa Arch. It’s the most photographed place in the park and is best experienced at sunrise. As busy as this spot is, it’s still one of the most memorable sunrises I’ve experienced to date. You’ll gather around with professional photographers, families, and other hikers to watch the first golden hues of the day light up the entire canyon.
If you don’t want to get here so early, about an hour past sunrise is a good time to stop by because all the photographers have packed up and most of the people that came to watch the sunrise have left. Be wary of visiting here midday because this hike is incredibly popular and the parking lot is very small. It may be tempting to come here for sunset, but there are some other spots in the park that are better for the end of your day.
The Mesa Arch Trail is about 6-miles past the visitor center on the left. The hike is straightforward, easy, and well-marked, and it only takes 15-20 minutes of walking to get to the main viewpoint.
When visiting the arch, remember that this is PUBLIC LAND and you have just as much of a right to a nice photo no matter if you woke up at the asscrack of dawn for this spot or not. One of the photographers here harassed me for grabbing the photo you see above because I was in her shot for, quite literally, 0.3 seconds. Just because someone has expensive camera equipment doesn’t make them entitled to an area.
Grand View Point Overlook
The Grand View Point is one of the most visited viewpoints in Canyonlands National Park and although there is more parking here, the lot still fills up fast so make sure to explore here in the morning to get a spot. This is a fantastic spot to view the park’s unique geology since you can see the Needles, the Maze, Monument Basin, the La Sal Mountains, Abajo Mountains, and the White Rim Road all from this singular viewpoint.
From the first viewpoint, you can take the Grand View Point Trail which is an easy, 2-mile trail leading further out to the edge of the mesa. If you’re really trying to squeeze a ton in, missing the trail won’t be the end of the world. You’re going to be hitting a ton of viewpoints in a day and to just see the viewpoint is short and sweet. This trail and the White Rim Overlook are very similar, so choose one or the other for your hike this morning.
I preferred the views at the White Rim Overlook, more on that below, because you can see more of the dramatic rock pinnacles below the mesa and you can spot cars driving along the White Rim Road as well.
White Rim Overlook
Similar to the Grand View Point, the White Rim Overlook offers views a short walk away from the parking lot or an optional 1.8-mile trail further out onto the mesa. This tends to be an underrated place to see in Canyonlands but ends up being a lot of hikers’ favorite views in the park! Take the White Rim Overlook Trail then follow the wide dirt path and cairns all the way out to the edge of the cliffside!
OPTIONAL | Gooseberry Trail
If you want more of a challenge, the Gooseberry Trail shares the same trailhead as the White Rim Overlook Trail and takes you down the steepest trail in Island in the Sky to the White Rim bench. What makes this trail difficult is the steep climb back up to the parking lot. This trail is 4.2 miles round trip and takes around 3-5 hours to complete, so keep that in mind and pack plenty of water.
Buck Canyon Overlook
Even though you’ve already stopped at the White Rim and Grand Viewpoint overlooks, don’t skip out on this one. Buck Canyon Overlook ended up being one of my favorites in the park because the La Sal Mountains create a dramatic contrast between the red rocks of Canyonlands and you can spot old mining routes that were created in the 1950s during a search for uranium and oil.
MORE HELPFUL GUIDES FOR YOUR TRIP TO CANYONLANDS:
Upheaval Dome Trail
One of the most unique hikes in Canyonlands is the Upheaval Dome Trail. The sandstone features of the park were carved and sculpted millions of years ago by ancient seas, rivers, and winds, and keep chapters of the park’s geological history. Upheaval Dome, however, is a largely debated topic by geologists since it’s much different than all the other land around it. The crater is about three miles wide and features dramatically deformed rock formations in the center that jut up to create a dome, or anticline, against the downwarp of rocks surrounding it that create a syncline. It’s a scientific mystery as to how this formation came to be, but my favorite is the Impact Crater Theory.
There is a first and second viewpoint to see the dome, but the second is a lot better and less crowded than the first. Take the 1.3-mile trail to the viewpoint and wonder how this geological feature came to be.
Consider this trail with any of these other short and moderate trails in the area. All of these spots are on Upheaval Dome Road heading out of the park and take roughly the same amount of time and effort.
OPTIONAL | Whale Rock Trail
Hike the 1-mile Whale Rock Trail up slickrock to see panoramic views over the north end of Canyonlands National Park. Overall, I’d say this trail is alright compared to the other hikes in the park, but this is a good one if you have a family. Because this trail is short and sweet and takes under 30-minutes, it can easily be paired with either of the two hikes below.
OPTIONAL | Aztec Butte Trail
Explore the Aztec Butte Trail to see ancient granaries or storehouses, and views over the Island in the Sky district. The trail starts on relatively flat, sandy ground that goes through juniper and sagebrush and around the first butte before you arrive at a junction. The trail to the left will take you to a pair of ruins on the northwest side of the butte, whereas the trail to the right leads up to Aztec Butte. This trail is a little under two miles and is easily completed in under an hour.
OPTIONAL | False Kiva Trail
One of the least hiked trails in Canyonlands is the False Kiva Trail. A kiva was a location used for religious purposes by Puebloans, but because the origins and purpose of this one are unknown, it was named the ‘false‘ kiva. This hike doesn’t have any official trail signs or markers, just cairns, so I only recommend this trail for experienced hikers. While you’re here, please be respectful of this site. The alcove that the kiva is in was closed due to numerous counts of vandalism, so enjoy it from afar. When visiting lesser-known places like these, please remember to follow Leave No Trace and be respectful of these indigenous sites. I have the parking area and trailhead labeled on the one day in Canyonlands itinerary map at the beginning of this blog post.
Green River Overlook
The Green River Overlook is one of the best spots in Canyonlands to watch the sunset. This is a great option if you want an amazing sunset but don’t want to hike in the dark afterward, or if you’re looking for an easy way to end your one day in Canyonlands National Park itinerary. You’ll be able to see dozens of flat mesa tops that were carved by the Green River illuminated in golden rays.
It might be tempting to plan this spot for sunrise instead… After making this mistake myself, I want to pass the message on to not do that. In the morning, there is a shadow across half of the canyon that ruins any chances of a nice photo.
OPTIONAL | Murphy Point Trail
If you want an easy hike to a crowd-free sunset spot, the Murphy Point Trail is one of my favorite locations in the park. The trail is only 3.4-miles and has next to no elevation gain so it’s a nice, leisurely stroll out to the viewpoint. This hike falls under the radar since it’s not marked and the parking area is just a small sandy lot on the side of the road just past the Buck Canyon Overlook.
At the beginning of the trail, you’ll pass by a historic corral from back in the pioneer days, yet there aren’t any signs that offer any information about its abandonment, etc.. Keep going until you get to a junction. Left takes you down the mesa to the White Rim Road and other backcountry trails, so make sure you go right and follow the edge of the mesa. Once you arrive, you’ll get expansive views of the White Rim Road, Green River, and the Candlestick.
Shafer Canyon Overlook
Follow Grand View Point Road on your drive out of the park and stop at the Shafer Canyon Overlook. Not to be mistaken for the Shafer Trail Viewpoint, which offers up-close views of the switchbacks that lead down to the White Rim Road. They both offer similar views, but there is better parking at the Shafer Canyon Overlook, so you’ll have the best luck there.
From this viewpoint, you’ll be able to see Dead Horse Point State Park in the distance and the spectacular White Rim of Canyonlands.
Island in the Sky Visitor Center & Viewpoint
Since this is one of the last stops on your visit to Canyonlands, the visitor center may be closed, but this is a great place to fill up on water, use the restroom, and catch one last viewpoint before you head out on your next adventure. Just across the street from the visitor center is another view similar to Shafer Canyon, but with better views of the nearby La Sal mountains and White Rim Road.
This was a jam-packed day in Canyonlands, but you will be leaving the park stoked and fulfilled with your time in this scenic park.
Overview of the Canyonlands 1 Day Itinerary
Sunrise at Mesa Arch
White Rim Overlook
– Gooseberry Trail (optional)
Buck Canyon Overlook
Hike Upheaval Dome Trail
– False Kiva Trail (optional)
– Whale Rock (optional)
– Aztec Butte (optional)
Green River Overlook
– Murphy Point (optional)
Shafer Canyon Viewpoint
Island in the Sky Visitor Center & Viewpoint
With more than one day in Canyonlands
If you’re looking for other stops to add to your canyonlands national park itinerary or larger Utah National Parks road trip, these are some amazing spots to consider! One of the things I love most about exploring National Parks is that you can craft so many different adventures based on your own interests! These options guarantee 100% stoke, even if you can only choose one.
Dead Horse Point State Park
State Parks often do not get the recognition they deserve, and Dead Horse Point State Park is left shadowed by all of Utah’s National Parks. This park is only a 20-minute drive from Canyonlands so you can easily stop by to hike a trail or viewpoint! I recommend the Dead Horse Rim Loop Trail, if you’re looking for a moderate trail, or if you want something short and sweet, the Dead Horse Point State Park Short Loop Trail serves similar views for a fraction of the distance. If you can manage to make it to either of these views for sunrise or sunset, it’ll make it even more epic and offer PERFECT lighting *chefs kiss*.
Since most people only spend one day in Canyonlands National Park, they focus all their time in the Island in the Sky district. The Needles is a perfect addition with more wiggle room on your itinerary since the Needles district is two hours away from Island in the Sky. Druid Arch and the Chesler Park Loop Trail are more challenging day hikes in this district that are well worth the work to get to them.
White Rim Road
The White Rim Road is a 100-mile off-road trail that follows below the Island in the Sky mesa top and offers some of the most amazing views below the canyon rim. Advance planning and permits are required to drive and camp along this road so make sure you come prepared to this adventure. To complete this 2-3 day trip, you must have a high clearance 4×4 vehicle or you can book a White Rim tour with an expert guide to do the dirty work of driving. This is a trip of a lifetime and is guaranteed to be one of the most memorable adventures you’ll experience in Utah.
Arches National Park
Many people visit Canyonlands and Arches National Park in one day but both deserve 1-2 full days of exploring. Since you’re in the area, this may already be on your list of things to see, but make sure you don’t miss this park and my favorite trail in the park!
Where to Stay in Canyonlands National Park
The only lodging option in Canyonlands is for camping, so if you want to book a hotel or Airbnb, you’ll have to stay in Moab, between Canyonlands and Arches National Park.
CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK | The only place to stay inside Canyonlands is at the Island in the Sky (Willow Flat) Campground. It’s open year-round, but the twelve campsites are on a first-come-first-served basis, so you’ll need to get here early to snag a spot spring through fall. The only amenities it offers are fire rings, picnic tables, and toilets. Also, keep in mind there is no water here, so you’ll need to pack in all your water. It’s a good option, but can be unreliable, especially if you’re visiting during the summer months or arriving at the park late as we did.
HORSETHIEF CAMPGROUND | Just outside of Canyonlands, Horsethief Campground is a perfect camping option if you arrive late and want to stay close to the park. This is the next closest camping option outside of the park and it’s only a 20-minute drive into the park from here. It offers the same amenities as the Island in the Sky Campground; toilets, fire rings, and picnic tables. The sites here are also on a first-come-first-served basis, but there are more sites that give you better odds of grabbing a spot. Be sure to browse other free camping spots nearby to have a backup plan in case this campground is full when you arrive.
MOAB | Moab is the most popular place to stay for a Canyonlands itinerary. A lot of people see both Arches and Canyonlands in one trip, but it’s popular no matter which park you’re visiting. MainStay Suites Moab is a 45-minute drive from Canyonlands and is a great option if you’re on a budget or have a large group. Some suites can accommodate six people, so you can divide the price and save a bit of money this way!
The Red Cliffs Lodge is an hour away from Canyonlands, but it’s a very popular place to stay for a Canyonlands itinerary. Every room has a patio and a view of the Colorado River and onsite there is a swimming pool, tennis courts, gym, and a winery. It’s an ideal place to come back and relax after a long day of hiking in the park.
Best Time to Visit Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park is open year-round, but depending on what you want to do, some seasons are better than others. The most popular months to visit the park are April/May and September/October since the weather is so favorable for day hiking. Summer is the next busiest time to visit, but the daytime temperatures get so hot that it makes this time of year brutal for visiting the park. If you want to avoid crowds in Canyonlands National Park, try to avoid weekends and holidays, and start hiking early in the morning.
SPRING | Spring is one of the most favorable times of year to go to Canyonlands. Much like the fall, the daytime temperatures range from 60 to 80 degrees during the day, so trips to the Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the Maze are ideal this time of year. If visiting this time of year, be sure to avoid spring break since this is one of the busiest times of year to visit Canyonlands. Get to the park early to avoid long entry lines and limited parking spots.
SUMMER | Canyonlands in the summertime has daytime temperatures that climb into the 100s, so this time of year is scorching but great for escaping on a river tour or to the La Sal Mountains to cool down. Since these months offer the most amount of daylight it’s tempting to jam-pack your Canyonlands National Park itinerary, but you’ll want to pack extra water and aim to be out in the early morning or late afternoon to avoid the brutal heat. This time of year, it’s crucial to wear sunscreen to protect your skin!
FALL | Fall is a beautiful time for hiking, camping, backpacking, and climbing in Canyonlands National Park. The daytime temperatures range from 60 to 80 degrees during the day but get pretty low at night so make sure to pack some layers to stay warm. River tours down the Green River and off-road trails like the White Rim Road are popular this time of year as well!
WINTER | Although the temperatures are cold, winter is a nice time to visit Canyonlands National Park. The vibrant red and orange tones of the canyon are blanketed in snow and the 40-50 degree temperatures are the perfect addition to essentially crowd-free trails. The only caveat is that there may be road closures this time of year, so be mindful of that when planning your trip.
MORE HELPFUL GUIDES FOR YOUR ONE DAY IN CANYONLANDS ITINERARY:
ADD THIS CANYONLANDS ONE DAY ITINERARY TO THESE OTHER UTAH ROAD TRIP STOPS CLOSE BY:
ZION NATIONAL PARK
CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
BRYCE CANYON NATIONAL PARK
ARCHES NATIONAL PARK
HAVE YOU EXPLORED OTHER UTAH NATIONAL PARKS? SHARE WITH ME IN THE COMMENTS BELOW!
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