Protecting nearly 350,000 acres of red rock canyons, sweeping mesas, towering rock arches, and sand-sculpted spires in southern Utah, Canyonlands National Park continues the grand traditional of Utah’s Mighty Five and offers yet another unique perspective of the state’s otherworldly landscapes. You could easily spend weeks discovering hidden slot canyons, watching the sunrise from cliffside viewpoints, and hiking out to awe-inspiring rock features, but for those low on time, you can still experience some of the park’s most impressive highlights in a jam-packed single day.
Canyonlands National Park comprises 4 distinct regions, each more staggering than the last, but this itinerary focuses on Island in the Sky, the most popular and conveniently located district, and The Needles, a more remote but still accessible district in the south end of the park. Hiking out to the most impressive natural arch in the entire southwest and concluding with sunset over a sea of convoluted canyons, expect to fall in love with Utah’s least visited national park.
Read on to discover absolutely everything you need to know for the ultimate day at Canyonlands National Park, including when to visit, how to get there and where to stay nearby, COVID closures and park health measures, essential packing list, and a super detailed 1-day itinerary with all the best viewpoints and hikes.
Check out other posts in my 1-day National Park series:
Like most of Utah’s Mighty 5, Canyonlands National Park is a year-round destination offering spectacular scenery and unique experiences 12 months of the year:
Summer (June to September) remains the most popular time to visit the park, but with soaring temperatures into the high 40s (110F+) and enormous crowds, this is the least advised time to explore Canyonlands. If you do visit in summer, get up early to minimise time outside in peak afternoon heat and be prepared to queue up for photos at popular viewpoints.
Autumn (September to November) & Spring (March to May) each boast fantastic daytime temperatures (20C/68F) and mostly clear skies with fewer visitors, but be warned that early mornings and nights can still be incredibly cold (5C/40F), so pack plenty of layers. This is absolutely the best time to visit Canyonlands, since you’ll be able to see everything you want without fighting crowds of people and still enjoy mostly sunny days.
Winter (November to February) can also be a good time to visit Canyonlands, with cooler days and the lowest number of visitors, but expect the nights to be well below freezing and for very short daylight hours to somewhat limit your itinerary. There’s a distinct possibility of snow in the winter, but the roads are plowed and severe storms are pretty unlikely at this elevation (as opposed to Bryce Canyon). It’s definitely not advised to camp in winter, so plan on getting a hotel in Moab (see accommodation recommendations below), but the reward will be relative solitude!
Buying a parks pass for Canyonlands National Park
As with the entire NPS network, there are fees associated with visiting Canyonlands National Park. If you are only exploring the park for a single week and not planning to visit any other national parks in the next year, you can purchase a 7-day access pass for $30USD at the main entrances (Island in the Sky or The Needles), which covers all people within your car.
However, if you are planning on visiting more than 3 US national parks in the next 12 months, it’s actually cheaper to just purchase an annual parks pass for $80USD, accepted at all 62 national parks and thousands of other national monuments and forests around the country. These can typically be purchased at the ranger station upon entry or from one of the visitor centres (located just inside the park entrance at Island in the Sky, The Maze & seasonally at The Needles), but note that the visitor centres are presently CLOSED for COVID.
I’d recommend purchasing your America the Beautiful Pass (the catchy name they’ve given the annual parks pass) online/in-person at outdoor retailers like REI or from yourpassnow.
COVID-safe in Canyonlands National Park
In response to the COVID-19 pandemic and in light of public health advice from the CDC, the National Parks Service has implemented a number of health and safety measures across the entire network of US parks, mostly to minimise proximity between travellers and prevent the contamination of shared surfaces.
As of early 2021, Canyonlands National Park is open with a few restrictions:
All travellers to the park are discouraged from interacting closely with people outside their party. Obviously this is difficult to enforce, but try to maintain a safe distance (2m) from other travellers at viewpoints, campsites, and on the trail.
You are not required to wear a mask while hiking, but are encouraged to do so when it’s not possible to physically distance from people outside your party. I’d estimate about 50% of people at viewpoints were wearing masks during my November 2020 visit.
All visitor centres (located just inside the park entrance at Island in the Sky, The Maze & spring to autumn at The Needles) are currently CLOSED, but you can get a map from the ranger station when you drive through and there are also limited outdoor information services provided at the visitor centres.
Some car-camping sites within The Needles are CLOSED, so be sure to check before rocking up for the night. This itinerary recommends camping at either Elephant Canyon (backcountry camping in The Needles) or Needles Campground (which is privately owned and does accommodate campervans), and both of these are open— read more about accommodation below.
All other hikes and viewpoints within the park are open as normal, including Grand View Point, Mesa Arch, and Druid Arch. Popular trails can still be busy, so use common sense and respect your fellow travellers.
Public restrooms are open throughout the park and hand sanitiser is provided.
If you are feeling unwell, DO NOT VISIT! Follow local public health guidelines and get tested before visiting the national park.
For the latest updates on trail closures and COVID safety practices within Canyonlands National Park, visit the NPS website.
Getting to Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park is located 50km/32mi from Moab, Utah, which has a small airport (Canyonlands Field Airport) and is also within spitting distance of Walker Field Airport (in Grand Junction, Colorado; 2hr drive). If time allows, though, Salt Lake City International Airport is likely to offer the cheapest and most direct flight, located 4hrs north of Canyonlands. Conveniently, Moab is also the jumping off point for nearby Arches National Park, so it’s easy to tuck in both of these parks in a single trip!
There are several entrances to Canyonlands National Park (Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze & Horseshoe Canyon), each servicing one of the park’s distinct districts and accessible on Highway 191 north from Moab or the 279 Scenic Byway. Visitor centres are also located at Island in the Sky, The Maze, and spring to autumn at The Needles, but note that these are closed as of early 2021 due to COVID.
Getting around Canyonlands National Park
Really, the only way to explore Canyonlands National Park is in your own car; unlike some of the other Mighty 5, there is no park shuttle service operating in Canyonlands.
The park is also incredibly spread out, with 4 disconnected districts that each have their own entrance and a convoluted network of rugged roads— aside from Island in the Sky, which is by far the most popular and best-maintained district, expect the vast majority of driving to be done on unpaved dirt roads. In fact, The Maze and Horseshoe Canyon are only accessible to high-clearance 4WD vehicles and I’d recommend at least a small SUV for The Needles. Note that this itinerary does not include The Maze, so you do NOT need to hire a 4WD if following this guide!
Make sure to pick up a free map when you come through the entrance, as there is limited mobile reception within the park! Most viewpoints and hikes are extremely well signed, but it helps to have a paper map to plan your visit. If you miss grabbing a map (outside of staffed hours; typically 8am-5pm) or prefer to use your phone, there are downloadable versions of the NPS map availablefor The Needles and Island in the Sky, and I’ve also marked all my recommended stops on a handy Google Map (which you can save to your phone) in the itinerary section below.
Where to stay near Canyonlands National Park
Moab, Utah is the nearest town to Canyonlands, offering heaps of lodging and food options around 40min from Island in the Sky and 1.5hrs from The Needles.
For this particular itinerary, however, it is far more convenient to camp out near The Needles on the night prior, as this saves 1.5hrs of driving in the early morning and will give you more time to actually explore Canyonlands. After your day in the park, I’d recommend staying in Moab (40min), since it’s much closer to Island in the Sky.
Elephant Canyon campground | This is a spectacular backcountry campsite within The Needles, an easy 45min-1hr (3.5km) hike from the carpark and trailhead, and is perfectly positioned for hiking out to Druid Arch (see more below) and Chesler Park. I’d highly recommend this if you have backpacking gear and are able to score one of the limited sites in advance (EC1 in particular is beautiful); $20 per site. *Note that all backcountry permits must be secured online, at least 2 days in advance due to COVID restrictions.
Needles Outpost campground | An alternative to the backcountry camping at Elephant Canyon, this privately-owned campground and RV park is located just a few kms from the Druid Arch trailhead; starting at $22 per site.
Bowen Motel | If opting to stay in Moab, this super basic but very affordable motel is a great choice; double rooms starting at $80.
Big Horn Lodge | Another inexpensive and conveniently located motel just a few minutes’ drive from the park entrance; double rooms starting at $100.
Packing list for Canyonlands National Park
Although this is not intended to be a fully comprehensive packing list, here are some absolute essentials to pack for your day exploring Canyonlands National Park:
Water bottle | Plan to carry a couple of litres in the car and on longer hikes, as there is no water available in the park and it can get HOT; this is an awesome bottle with a built-in filter
Snacks | To maximise time exploring, you need to pack food for snacks and lunch, as there is nothing available inside the park; if you plan to picnic, it can also be great to bring compact camping chairs like these awesome REI Flexlite Camp Chairs and a small table
Camera (+ tripod if you’re trying to capture sunrise and sunset shots)
Hat | I wore my Akubra Traveller through all of Utah’s national parks and loved the sun coverage (not to mention all the compliments!); this is an Australian-made hat, but you can find it online at select retailers in the US and it is SO worth the money
Boots or sturdy walking shoes | You can explore most of Canyonlands in sturdy walking or hiking shoes, but I personally prefer boots when walking on sand/rock slabs and love my square-toe 1306 Blundstones (also from Australia, but available in limited styles online in the US) or my Salomon GTX 4D Hiking Boots
Layers! | In autumn, spring, or winter, it is absolutely essential to have lots of layers, as temperatures can vary widely from early morning to mid afternoon; during my November visit, I would start out the morning in a down jacket, mountain jacket, fleece jumper and often be down to a t-shirt by midday
*1-day Canyonlands National Park itinerary
The following itinerary packs the highlights of Canyonlands National Park into a single day and is suitable for all times of year, including short winter days where you have limited daylight hours (7am to 5pm during my November visit). As previously mentioned, though, accessing The Needles on the south end of the park will either necessitate an insanely early departure from Moab (1.5hr drive) or camping nearby for a more convenient morning start.
Fitting both The Needles and Island in the Sky into a single day also involves a LOT of driving— there are no internal park roads linking the 2 districts, so you essentially have to drive all the way around the perimeter of the park (2.5hrs) to reach the Island in the Sky entrance. It is important to get an early start and make sure you’re moving efficiently to fit everything in, but if you can pull it off, this will be one of your favourite days in any of Utah’s national parks!
1 | Wilson Arch
As you drive towards The Needles district, the first notable landmark you’ll pass is Wilson Arch visible right from the road.
This arch, like most of those found in the southwest, was formed millions of years ago by underground movement of salt that caused layers of red and white sandstone to crack and eventually weather into a sweeping rock bridge. It’s possible to pull off to the side and climb into the arch, as seen above, but with limited time, a roadside photo op is probably a better choice— trust me, you won’t want to rush the next stop!
2 | Wooden Shoe Arch
Just after entering The Needles, there’s another opportunity to hop out of the car and quickly check out a natural rock arch in the distance, this one apparently clog-shaped— I’m not sure I totally see the likeness myself, but perhaps you’ll have better luck!
The absolute crown of this itinerary, and my number one favourite view in the ENTIRE southwest, is Druid Arch, an indescribably beautiful rock arch out in remote Canyonlands.
It’s not a total hidden gem, but thanks to the long drive and moderately physical approach, there are hardly any people out here— in fact, I had Druid Arch 100% to myself in November!
To reach Druid Arch (or Chesler Park, suggested as a great second day below), you’ll depart from the Elephant Hill trailhead in The Needles, which offers spectacular views of the La Sal Mountains and, of course, plenty of curious orange rock formations to explore as you journey towards Druid Arch.
Note that you’ll need to drive a 5km / 3mi section of dirt road (the turn-off is not far beyond Wooden Shoe Arch) to actually reach the Elephant Hill carpark. It’s then a 3.5km / 2.2mi hike to reach the Elephant Canyon campground (EC1; the other campsites are slightly farther), which is part of the 17km return hike to Druid Arch.
Beyond Elephant Canyon, you’ll follow a dry creek-bed for several kilometres, winding on and off of the wash to intermittently join up with a trail on either sideof the rocks.
There are signs along the hike, but you’ll want to watch closely (or download the GPS file from AllTrails above) to avoid missing some of the more confusing turns. Thankfully, neither the terrain nor the elevation gain are difficult to manage!
The entire hike is absolutely staggering, your route flanked by rock formations that become increasingly dramatic as you near the arch.
The final few kilometres are the most jaw-dropping yet, orange spires towering overhead like giant chess pieces until the medieval landscape gives way to Druid Arch— approaching at golden hour, with sun beaming through the long archway, is like arriving at the gates of an Egyptian sun temple. Equally mystical, yet entirely natural.
Of all the thousands of arches in the southwest, Druid Arch is truly beyond compare.
I genuinely can’t talk this hike up enough, so just know that it is worth ALL of the inconvenience of getting out here and is likely to soar straight to the top of your own personal favourites.
With 4-5hrs, you should have plenty of time to get to the arch, take several (hundred) photos (as the case may be), and make it back to the car with a few hours of daylight to spare for Island in the Sky.
4 | Mesa Arch
0.8km / 0.5mi return | 20min return
After a spectacular morning of hiking in The Needles, hop back in the car and get comfortable for the 2.5hr drive to Island in the Sky— I wasn’t kidding, this is going to be a massive day!
Thankfully, Mesa Arch is located right off the main road, Grand View Point Drive, and is just 15min from the entrance. It’s about a 10min walk out to the arch along a flat, natural trail, and when you arrive, expect sweeping views of the canyons and red desert rocks rolling into the distance through the low arch (when it’s not snowing).
5 | Green River Overlook
From Mesa Arch, it’s hardly 2min in the car to reach the short turn off for Green River Overlook, a sprawling viewpoint from which you can stare across the top of Canyonlands’ many canyons.
6 | Grand View Point
3.2km / 2mi return | 45min return
Wrapping up the day with a bang, continue 15min to the end of Grand View Point Drive and then set off along a cliffside trail for an epic sunset.
The journey is pretty spectacular, with excellent views of the canyonlands below, but the best vantage point is definitely from the final rocky perch, from which you can see the entirety of Monument Basin and its towering mesas stretched out before you.
Other great options
With more time in Canyonlands National Park, I would highly recommend adding an additional day of hiking out in The Needles.
Chelser Park & Joint Trail Loop (16km / 10mi; 550m / 1800ft elevation gain; 4hrs) takes in sweeping vistas of the La Sal Mountains, winds beneath towering orange rock cathedrals, and explores an incredibly cool slot canyon, all from the same trailhead as Druid Arch.
With a 4WD, you can also visit the smallest and most remote district, Horseshoe Canyon, which is a small annex not even connected to the rest of the national park. Check out my dad’s trip reportfor further details!