Canyonlands National Park

Length of stay:1 day
Visited: January 2023

Canyonlands National Park is the largest national park in Utah. Its dramatic desert landscape has been sculpted over time by the Colorado River. It contains countless canyons, rock pinnacles, mesas, buttes, arches and spires. The park consists of four districts: the three land districts of Island in the Sky in the north (the most accessible and visited district), the Needles in the east (filled with backcountry roads and colourful spires) and the Maze in the west (the most remote and rugged district), and the Green and Colorado rivers that divide the park.

We left our hotel near Bryce Canyon National Park first thing in the morning, glad to be leaving (most of) the snow and colder temperatures behind. It was a quiet drive through the countryside and we enjoyed watching the sunrise from the car. Even though we were still in the desert, the landscape changed considerably as we neared Moab as there was less snow and less vegetation.

We planned to spend the day at Canyonlands. Since our rental didn’t have four-wheel-drive, we figured we’d get the biggest bang for our buck at the most popular and accessible district at Island in the Sky. Island in the Sky is a broad mesa nestled between the Green and Colorado rivers. It has a visitor centre that is open every day and offers many overlooks and hiking trails to soak in the sweeping views and vistas.

We started at the visitor centre to pick up a larger map of the park and to refill our water bottles. We then walked across the road to check out a viewpoint of the Shafer Trail, a backcountry road that leads down into the canyon. From here we could also see the snow-capped La Sal Mountains in the background.

We hopped back in the car and continued along the main road to get to Mesa Arch (1km loop, rated easy). There’s a short trail that leads through the sandy desert terrain to an arch that’s perched on the edge of a sandstone cliff that overlooks the Colorado River, Monument Basin and La Sal Mountains. There was a bit of snow on the trail and it was a little chilly outside, but the sun was shining which was warming things up.

We then headed west towards the trailhead for Upheaval Dome where there are a few different trails that connect to form a series of loops. Our plan was to hike to the two scenic overlooks and then turn around, but there are other options to extend the hike into a longer loop. From the parking lot we followed the signs to the first and second overlooks (1.9km round trip, rated moderate). It’s a short trail that’s pretty much straight uphill. At the junction we first turned right to reach the first overlook. We then backtracked and went left to reach the second overlook. This section involved a bit more scrambling up the red rocks to reach the viewpoint which provided a similar view of the crater.

Upheaval Dome is somewhat of a mystery in terms of how it was formed. Some scientists think it was a salt dome that cracked and tilted the rock over time, but the popular opinion today was that it was created by the impact of a meteorite that fractured the rock.

Since we were parked by a picnic table that was partially in the shade (a rarity in the desert), we figured we might as well take advantage of the situation and eat our lunch here.

Afterwards we hiked Aztec Butte (2.3km loop, rated moderate). The first part of the trail leads through a sandy wash towards a junction. We first went right to climb to the top of Aztec Butte. By now we knew to look for the cairns to help with navigation. We scrambled up and across the slick rocks, which for the most part was pretty straightforward. There was just one dicy section that was super steep and required a bit of finagling to find a good hand and foothold to propel ourselves upwards. Once we reached the top, there’s a flat path that loops around the butte, providing sweeping views of the entire area.

Getting back down was much easier as we just slid down on our butts on the steep section. We circled back to the junction and this time we went the other way, which leads to the top of a smaller butte. There’s a short turnoff that dips below the rim that leads to a ledge where there are two ancestral granaries. Hundreds of years ago, the Puebloans scrambled up these buttes to store their harvest in small stone structures sealed with mud.

Once we looped back to the parking lot, we went to the Green River Lookout, located just past the main campground. The overlook provides a panoramic view of the Green River and several interesting rock formations.

We drove to the end of the paved road to check out the Grand View Point Trail (2.9km round trip, rated easy). The trail leads down a series of steps and follows the rim of the canyon, providing sweeping views of the Colorado River Canyon and Monument Basin along the way. The path was easy to follow as it was marked with large rock cairns consisting of three blocks on top of each other, which were hard to miss.

We squeezed in one last hike to the White Rim Overlook (2.9km round trip, rated easy). The trail itself is relatively flat and rather uneventful, but provides a nice view of the desert shrubbery that can survive in such harsh conditions. It leads to another dramatic overlook of the Colorado River Canyon.

And that’s about all the time we had for the day. From Canyonlands we drove towards Moab.


109 thoughts on “Canyonlands National Park

  1. kagould17 says:

    Many beautiful Badlands scenes Linda. So glad the weather cooperated for you. I hear you on the lack of 4 wheel drive. We went to one area not far out of Bryce that was just a giant sandy mess. Not sure Avis would have been happy with me for driving there. Thanks for sharing. Have a great Thursday. Allan

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      It always helps to have clear skies to more fully appreciate the views. It was a bit chilly outside, but at least the sun was shining. We didn’t want to take any risks with our rental car and thought it was best to just stick with the Island in the Sky area, especially since we didn’t have cell reception. No complaints as there were plenty of overlooks and hiking trails to keep us busy. Thanks for reading. Have a wonderful weekend. Linda

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      We only had a day to explore Canyonlands, but we could have easily spent more time in this area. I guess this means we’ll just have to come back someday. The Maze seems like it would be beyond our area of expertise though given how much we struggled with navigation on some of the other trails in southern Utah!

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks for your kind words. I wish we could have stayed in Canyonlands and southern Utah in general for longer. There are still so many state parks and trails we have yet to explore. I have a feeling that we’ll be back someday!

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      You bet. I’m glad we had clear skies and lots of sunshine to more fully enjoy the views and desert landscape. We’ve never been off-roading before, but this looks like a great spot for it (assuming you had the right vehicle and supplies that is).

      • Bernie says:

        Those vistas are absolutely amazing! As per usual you two packed in a lot of hiking in one day! But so worth it. Bernie

      • WanderingCanadians says:

        The scenery in Canyonlands is stunning. It’s incredible just how vast the area is. We certainly tried to make the most of our day trip. It helped that the weather was perfect for hiking.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanksss. Southern Utah makes for an awesome road trip if you’re into the scenery and all things outdoors. And I love how the landscape at all the national parks we visited are so different. Canyonlands seemed very appropriately named. The views were gorgeous.

  2. Little Miss Traveller says:

    The trails in Canyonlands NP look superb and that sunrise at the start of your post must have been worth getting up early for. I really need to return to Utah one of these days as your photos are really tempting me.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      It was a bit of a struggle to get up so early in the morning, but seeing that sunrise on the drive made it all worth it. The hiking in Canyonlands was fantastic. There’s a nice variety of trails that range in length and difficulty and they were all well-signed. Hopefully you’re able to visit someday.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      That’s awesome that you’re able to visit Moab every few years. I wish we could have spent a few more days in the area. We had a wonderful time at Island in the Sky in Canyonlands. The views and vistas were incredible. I bet it would be fun to explore some of the backcountry roads in the Needles section of the park.

  3. Travel Essayist says:

    This place looks like endless joy for hiking, with so many different trails to explore and photograph. You did a great job showcasing this park’s different parts with your beautiful photos. My favourite is the Mesa Arch.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks for your lovely comment. We had such great lighting at Mesa Arch. But the best part was that we were the only ones there. We really felt like we were alone in this rugged wilderness, which was pretty cool.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks! All this talk about the red rocks and desert scenery makes me want to go back too! We had a wonderful time in Canyonlands and could have easily stayed for longer. There never seems to be enough time.

  4. travelling_han says:

    Look at that sunrise. And all of your photos of Canyonlands are just stunning – I really hope to visit one day. There are just too many beautiful places in this world to see 🙂

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      It can be tough getting up early, but it was so worth it to catch the sunrise. This also meant that we had more time to spend in Canyonlands. I hear yah, there’s so many places left to explore. And the more I travel, the longer my bucket list seems to grow!

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      That’s awesome that you’ll be heading to southern Utah this spring! I bet the desert will look gorgeous with all the wildflowers and cacti in bloom. Canyonlands is a bit of a drive from Zion, but if you have the time, it’s definitely worth exploring, along with some of the other national parks nearby like Bryce Canyon, Capitol Reef and Arches.

      • Book Club Mom says:

        Oh not sure – we usually don’t travel much but have 2 destination weddings coming up. For each, we decided to add days and make vacations out of them. We’re from the east coast and have been up and down the coast, but not too often to the west, but now that our kids are older and mostly out on their own, we can travel more. 🙂

  5. Ab says:

    Another beautiful day out in Utah! I love seeing all the beautiful scenery. What a treat it must’ve been to see the sunrise during your drive and to see the landscape change as your day progressed.

    Upheaval Dome seems very interesting and it’s always fun to speculate about how things may have led to the formation.

    To have that warm weather right about now!

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      It’s always tough getting up earlier, but it was so worth it to see a spectacular sunrise. I’m glad we could watch it from inside our car as it was super cold outside. Getting an early start to the day also meant that we had more time to explore Canyonlands. It’s kind of neat how there are still mysteries in this world that have yet to be solved. And yes, it would be nice to have some warmer weather and sunshine! Hope you have your shovel ready for tomorrow! Enjoy the rest of your weekend.

  6. brandib1977 says:

    Lovely visit! This is one of my favorite places on earth. We went there to see a meteor shower. I saw my first desert sunrise the next morning. These are among my favorite life memories.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      I can easily see why Canyonlands is one of your favourite places to visit. That must have been such an amazing experience to see a meteor shower there. It was a bit too cold for camping when we visited in the middle of January, but I’d love to come back someday. And agreed, those desert sunrises and sunsets are pretty spectacular.

      • brandib1977 says:

        Oh my, that sunrise is something I will never forget. We also watched the sunrise a few times at Arches that week (and they all were gorgeous) but that first is especially memorable .

      • brandib1977 says:

        This is true! Sadly, some of the best trips have been to places that didn’t sound as wonderful as they turned out to be. There was no way to foresee that either so I just have to keep trying new places!

      • WanderingCanadians says:

        I know what you mean. It’s funny how that works. Maybe because we don’t have high expectations to begin with for certain places. So much of it also depends on things outside of our control too, like the weather.

      • WanderingCanadians says:

        I was the complete opposite about Utah, but that’s maybe because we were planning on visiting a few years ago, but had to delay our trip because of the pandemic. So it was a long time in the making. Out of all the national parks we visited, I had the lowest expectations for Capitol Reef because it’s not as popular as the other ones, but it turned out to be amazing.

      • brandib1977 says:

        I had gone through a bad break up a few years ago and a friend called and said “let’s plan a trip to Arches.” I literally had to google it because I didn’t know what she was talking about. I will be forever in her debt for knowing that was the trip I needed.

      • WanderingCanadians says:

        One of my favourite things about spending time in nature is that it helps me focus on the present and that it improves my emotional well-being. Glad to hear that taking a road trip to Arches was exactly what you needed.

      • brandib1977 says:

        It was perfect. And I know what you mean about restoring that sense of self and emotional well being. I feel stronger and more like me after spending time in nature.

  7. Thattamma C.G Menon says:

    Such a wonderful places in the earth , so amazing !! So mesmerized Sunrise,
    So awesome landscapes, varieties of plants , admiring the two caves like,
    All Magnificent view 🙏😍 this place can nice hiking place as well 🌹👌
    Your explanation is marvelous 👏❤️ thank you for sharing dear friend 🥰

  8. wetanddustyroads says:

    Beautiful sunrise photo Linda! And wow, you really had some dramatic views on these hiking trails – I especially like the one you took through the arch. And the snow capped mountains in the distance in some of your photos are also beautiful. Looks like a great day out in the desert.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks! The sunrise made it worth getting up early for! This meant that we also had more time to explore the trails and scenery at Canyonlands. It was a bit chilly outside, but it was the perfect weather for hiking. And it’s always nice to have clear skies and sunshine to enjoy the views.

  9. Bama says:

    Your beautiful photos convinced me that it’s a good idea to visit this national park in wintertime when it’s chilly (and hopefully at the same time sunny) with patches of snow here and there. The expanse of the entire place is just mind-boggling, and to have that with no other people in sight must have been very special.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      We were a bit concerned what the conditions would be like on the trails, but it wasn’t too bad. It’s crazy how quickly things warm up once the start is shining. The cooler temperatures were great for hiking. I have no idea how people can hike in the heat, especially since there is zero shade. And yes, it was pretty awesome to have the park mostly all to ourselves. That’s just how we like it.

  10. michellecj333 says:

    You all certainly saw the best in Canyonlands! Such beautiful and vast scenery and your photos are absolutely gorgeous! Glad you got to see the granary – what a great bonus. Love your views of the Green river too!! We floated it in canoes in 2021 and had the best time! I’m loving your trip report!

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      We only had a day in Canyonlands so we tried to make the most of it. It’s wild how people used to store their food in those hidden granaries. I can’t imagine how much more challenging it would have been to hike up there with all that food! Sounds like quite the adventure to go paddling in the Green River!

  11. littlelilly says:

    What a stunningly spectacular views. Watching the sun creeped out the horizon was a perfect treat! Thanks Linda for sharing, I hope one day, I can visit the place. 😍

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      It’s always tough to get up early, but seeing that sunrise made it all worth it. It was a perfect way to start the day. We had a wonderful time exploring Canyonlands. Hopefully you’re able to see this beautiful desert landscape for yourself someday.

  12. Little Old World says:

    I can’t get over the vastness of the landscape, just spectacularly stunning views as far as the eye can see. It’s breathakingly beautiful and your photos are incredible. I especially love the photo through the arch. Thanks for sharing 🙂

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks for reading and leaving a comment. The desert landscape in Canyonlands is breathtaking. I’m glad we had such nice weather to appreciate the views and explore a few of the hiking trails. And the best part was that it wasn’t very busy.

  13. Flowerpoet says:

    What a delight to see your photography and such interesting landscapes. I’m a Canadian living on Vancouver Island where the scenery is much different. Looking forward to more of your posts. 🤩😍💕✨

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Thanks for your lovely comment. The desert landscape is very different compared to anything we have here in Canada. We visited Vancouver Island last spring and fell in love with the scenery along the west coast with all those ancient rainforests and rugged coastline. We’re actually thinking about doing a road trip along the Oregon Coast this spring.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Sounds like quite the adventure to go on a mountain biking trip to Canyonlands! The desert landscape is incredibly scenic. We had a wonderful time in the Island in the Sky district of the park and I’m glad we had clear skies to enjoy the views.

  14. Steve & Cheryl Retired Adventures says:

    Looks like I need to add yet another Utah destination to my collection. Even though I’ve been a few times now, my list of what I haven’t seen just keeps growing. You photos from the overlooks are amazing; I like how they really show off the depth of the canyons and crevices.

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      Oh I know. It’s funny how that works. The more we travel, the longer our travel bucket list seems to grow. There never seems to be enough time (or vacation days) to see it all. Canyonlands is definitely one to add to the list though. The landscape is so vast and incredible.

  15. Pearl says:

    You show so many places that the regular media doesn’t show
    It’s exciting to see
    It looks so quiet and reserved for a peaceful trip or picnic

  16. ourcrossings says:

    With so much beauty to behold across the globe, it’s tough to choose which natural wonders you should visit next. Nature is amazing and there’s no better place to experience the great outdoors than in one of the many national parks in the U.S. Thanks for sharing and have a good day 🙂 Aiva xx

    • WanderingCanadians says:

      I couldn’t agree more. Our road trip through southern Utah was a great excuse to visit the “Mighty Five” national parks in the area and explore the desert landscape. I’m glad we went in the middle of winter when it wasn’t too hot and there weren’t many people around. Thanks for reading. Take care. Linda

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