How to Spend One Day in Canyonlands National Park (Full Guide!)

Last Updated on March 14, 2023 by admin

Canyonlands National Park is located just 26.2 miles away from Arches National Park.  We recommend that you spend at least one day at Canyonlands National Park. Although Arches National Park sees more visitors each year, Canyonlands is actually a much bigger park. (Canyonlands National Park has 527 square miles compared to 119 at Arches National Park!) As a park that big, there are plenty of must-see hikes in Canyonlands National Park. In this post, we’re sharing how to spend one day at Canyonlands National Park.

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Hikes in Canyonlands National Park how to spend one day

About Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park was established in 1964. In 2021, Canyonlands National Park received over 900,000 visitors. (If you’re curious, you can view yearly visitor counts by clicking here.)

Canyonlands is split into distinct districts: Needles, Island in the Sky, the Maze, and the Rivers of Canyonlands themselves. The rivers create natural divides between each of these districts.

We recommend visiting Island in the Sky if you only have one day at Canyonlands National Park. It’s conveniently located close to the town of Moab, and you can see a lot of epic views in a relatively short amount of time. 

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How to Get to Canyonlands National Park


Canyonlands National Park is located in Utah near the city of Moab

From Moab, it’s about a 30-mile drive to the entrance of Canyonlands National Park. You’ll simply head north on US-191 and then turn left on UT-313. Continue on that road and it will take you to the entrance to Canyonlands National Park.

If you’re flying into Utah, you have several options. Many people fly into Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC), which is about 237 miles away from Moab. There are some smaller airports that are closer, which include Canyonlands Field (CNY) and Grand Junction Regional Airport (GJT). 

TIP:I recommend checking the SkyScanner website to search for the best airfare prices for your dates of travel.

Tips for Visiting Canyonlands National Park

Before we share our favorite hikes and viewpoints at Canyonlands National Park, here’s our best tips for visiting the park!

Island in the Sky Visitor Center Canyonlands National Park

1. Arrive to Canyonlands Early

The number one most important thing is to arrive at the park entrance early in the morning. Depending on when you visit, it’s truly worth it to beat the crowds and the heat.

When we visited Canyonlands National Park, it was during Memorial Day Weekend. We got to the park at 8am. Thankfully, we were able to breeze through the entrance gate and begin our day. By the time we were leaving the park a little after 11am, there was a long line of cars waiting to get in! If you’re not a morning person, trust us, it will be worth getting up early this time. I don’t know how long those cars had to wait, but I’d estimate at least an hour. That’s not the best way to start your day in the park, especially if you only have one day to visit.

If you’re not visiting during peak season, then you can arrive to the park whenever you’d like. But if you’re visiting during peak season, we highly recommend you wake up early. (You can always take a nap later.)

2. Bring the Right Gear to Canyonlands

You will need to bring your own food and water into Canyonlands National Park. There are no cafes or restaurants in the park. We were able to buy a gallon of water at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center, but there was not much else there besides souvenirs. If you plan to spend the day in Canyonlands, you will need to start out prepared!

You’ll also want an insulated backpack system to keep your food cold (especially if you are hiking in the summer). I’ve linked some ideas below. 

Some items to consider bringing include:

  • Insulated water bottle: You’ll need to stay hydrated while you’re out hiking. (You’ll need more water than you think due to the heat and strenuous exercise.) We brought an insulated water bottle to keep our water cool. There is nothing more refreshing than ice cold water at the end of a hike! 
  • Hiking boots: Don’t hike in sandals or flip flops. Proper hiking boots will protect your feet and ankles. I’ve been wearing Columbia hiking boots for years, and they’ve been great!
  • Daypack: Keep all of your snacks, safety supplies, and extra layers in a comfortable backpack.
  • Power bank phone charger: A power bank will let you re-charge your phone while you’re on the go. We use our phones all the time for navigation and for photos, so we never want to be caught with a dead battery.
  • Hiking poles: We have these hiking poles and they’ve been working great for us so far.
  • First aid kit: Anytime you’re out in the wilderness, be sure to have some basic first aid items on you. 

3. Go to Mesa Arch First

Mesa Arch is one of the most popular trails, so if you’re at the park early, be sure to go straight there. The parking lot is fairly small, so you’ll want to secure a parking space. This is one of the best hikes in Canyonlands National Park. As such, the parking lot fills up quickly.

View from Mesa Arch at Canyonlands National Park
Sitting next to Mesa Arch

One Day in Canyonlands National Park

We went to Canyonlands with our toddler with the goal of being back to our hotel for lunch and nap time. We were surprised just how easily we were able to see so much of the park with just one day! Below is our guide for what to see at Canyonlands National Park in just one day.

1. Mesa Arch

Mesa Arch is one of the most popular hikes in Canyonlands National Park. It’s also one of the most photographed arches in Utah. You’ve probably already seen it on social media or postcards.

The Mesa Arch trail is relatively easy and is less than a mile out-and-back (.7 miles roundtrip with 88 feet of total elevation gain). We spent about an hour seeing the arch, including the hike itself and time to take photos. If you’re a photographer, you’ll want to arrive in time for sunrise because the sunlight will make the arch glow from underneath. We arrived after sunrise, but we were just as mesmerized by view. It was easily one of our favorite hikes from our trip to Utah.

One thing we liked about this hike is that the arch isn’t just an arch. It’s also a window to the canyon and the La Sal mountains! The arch is positioned right on the edge of a 500-foot-cliff. (Don’t get too close to the edge, it’s not worth it for a photo!)

Mesa Arch was formed by surface water which eventually eroded through the bedrock.

Please be respectful of the national parks and be sure to leave no trace. Also don’t walk on top of the arches. It’s important to protect these spaces for generations to come. This was one of our favorite hikes in Canyonlands National Park!

Woman and baby at Mesa Arch

(PS. The baby carrier we use for hiking is linked here. We used the Ergo until our daughter was one year old, and then we switched to this hiking carrier. It looks like it might be heavy, but it’s actually very light and comfortable. Bonus that it has added shade for sun protection!)

2. Green River Overlook

After Mesa Arch, we then drove to the Green River Overlook. From the parking lot, it’s just a short .1 mile walk to the overlook. At the lookout, there is an expansive view of the Green River and Soda Springs Basin. The trail is paved and ADA friendly. Our toddler easily completed that “trail”, so we didn’t have to set up the stroller or hiking carrier. 

We visited over Memorial Day weekend, and there was ample parking at this lookout. This made it a very easy sight to see for our day at Canyonlands! (And very stress free. We didn’t have to circle around the parking lot hoping for a spot!)

From the Green River Overlook, you will have a clear view of the Green River flowing through the canyon. You will also be able to see the White Rim Road, which is named for the top layer of white rim sandstone seen in the canyon. White Rim Road is 100 miles long and is only accessible for four-wheel-drive vehicles or mountain bikes. Permits are required for day use and overnight use. (Note that ATVs are not permitted on this road.)

Green River Overlook at Cayonlands National Park
Short walk for a big view!


3. Grand View Point

The Grand View Point trail is 1.8 miles long (out-and back) and has 160 feet of elevation gain. It leads to a view of Canyonlands National Park with a view from 6,080 feet of elevation. We attempted to do this trail, but the parking lot was packed by the time we got there mid-morning of Memorial Day weekend. After circling through a couple of times (and with a tired toddler in the backseat), we decided to skip this hike and add it to our list for next time. If you’re looking for hikes in Canyonlands National Park, though, you must add this one to your list.

4. Shafer Trail Viewpoint 

Our final stop in the park was the Shafer Trail Viewpoint. It’s located on the right side of the park prior to exiting, right before reaching the visitor center. It was super easy to pull over, hop out of the car, and take in the view. From the viewpoint, you can see the Shafer Trail winding steeply below to the canyon floor. The trail descends 1,500 feet right through the canyon!

The Shafer Trail is believed to have originally been a trail used by Native Americans to reach the mesa top. It was then used by sheep herders and then truck workers carrying uranium. The trail was named after John Shafer, who was a pioneer settler that helped to expand the road. Today it is an unpaved road for recreational use. It was pretty amazing to see the tiny cars below us driving along this rugged road! 

Shafer Road at Canyonlands National Park

Driving in Canyonlands National Park

All of the sights listed above are located fairly close to each other. We didn’t have to be in the car for too long, which made it very feasible to see Canyonlands National Park in one day. From the visitor center, it was only a 10 minute drive to Mesa Arch. From there, it was just another 5 minutes to the Green River Overlook. Then it took us just 15 minutes to the Grand View Point. Finally, it was another 20 minutes (on the way back) to see the Shafer Trail Viewpoint. After that, it was only 2 minutes to get back to the Island in the Sky Visitor Center and exit the park.

All together, we drove to all of these sites in less than one hour inside the park. This is important, because you come to the national parks to be outside and not to spend all day in your vehicle! We really loved Island in the Sky because there were so many things to see that were located close together.

Guided Tours of Canyonlands National Park

There are numerous outdoor recreational experiences in the Moab area. Booking a guided tour can give you a new experience, and your guide can you teach about the local history. 

Some tours in the Moab area to consider include:



History of Canyonlands National Park

There are dozens of indigenous groups that have inhabited and cared for the land at Canyonlands National Park. The National Park Service acknowledges each of them here. These include, but are not limited to, the Hopi Tribe, Navajo Nation, and the Southern Ute Indian Tribe.

There are records of people inhabiting this region for at least 10,000 years. There are a number of archaeological sites at Canyonlands which include rock carvings and ruins. 

Butch Cassidy and other outlaws used the intricate canyons to hide away from the law. Their Robbers Roost was located near the Maze District. 

Canyonlands became an official national park in 1964 when President Lyndon B. Johnson set aside the land for the public. This was thanks to the advocacy of Bates Wilson, who was the Arches National Monument Superintendent. He wanted to also protect Canyonlands, and he was able to secure it as a national park for the future enjoyment of everyone. 

Hikes in Canyonlands National Park

Archaeological Points of Interest at Canyonlands National Park

There are dozens of places within the park to see ruins, carvings, and paintings. Rock paintings are known as pictographs and rock carvings are known as petroglyphs. Please remember that it is illegal to carve rocks or touch the paintings in any way. Also remember that these sites are sacred to many people. Please be a respectful visitor.

High Gallery

The High Gallery is located in Horseshoe Canyon and can be reached by a moderately difficult trail. There are even dinosaur tracks along the trail! The trailhead is located down a difficult dirt road, so be prepared with an appropriate vehicle. High Gallery is the first of four art panels located in the canyon.

The Great Gallery

The Great Gallery in Horseshoe Canyon includes a panel of life-sized rock drawings and is extremely well-preserved. It is the most famous set of pictographs in Canyonlands National Park. All in all, there are approximately 20 images painted onto a 80-foot portion of the canyon wall. The paintings are between 1,500-4,000 years old. This portion of Canyonlands was added to the park specifically to protect the amount of rock art in the area. To see this area for yourself, you will need to drive 30 miles into the park and hike 7.2 miles. 

Tower Ruin

Located in the Needles district, this cliff dwelling is perched within Horse Canyon. To reach Tower Ruin, you will need to drive through a wash and hike a fair amount. However, you will be rewarded with natural arches and pictographs along the way. 

Blooming Cactus at Canyonlands National Park
A blooming cactus

Nearby Things to See

Dead Horse State Park

If you accomplished all of these hikes in Canyonlands National Park and still have more time, we recommend that you visit Dead Horse Point State Park to catch the sunset. It’s only about 20 minutes away from the Island in the Sky Visitor Center once you exit the park. The view from the state park is one of the most photographed vistas in the world! From this park you have an excellent view of the Colorado River and much of Canyonlands National Park. 

Moab Giants

If you have kids, you might also enjoy visiting Moab Giants, which is a dinosaur-themed museum. It’s only 25 minutes away after exiting the Island in the Sky Visitor Center. (Right where you connect with Highway 191). There is a 5D Prehistoric Virtual Aquarium (which was a unique experience!), a dinosaurs trail with over 100 life-size dinosaurs, a 3D theater, a museum, a playground, and dig-it-out sites for young children to find “fossils” in the sand. We took our toddler there, and she had a blast! We wrote a full review of Moab Giants here.

Moab Giants Utah
Visiting Moab Giants


Arches National Park

While you’re visiting Canyonlands National Park, be sure to spend a day or two at Arches National Park. Arches National Park is home to Delicate Arch, Balanced Rock, and Double Arch. 

Arches National Park Delicate Arch

See our post about the best places to eat in Moab!

Where to Stay Near Canyonlands National Park  

We stayed at the Best Western Plus Canyonlands Inn in Moab. It was a convenient location to both Canyonlands National Park as well as Arches National Park. We appreciated staying in town because we could easily walk to restaurants for lunch and dinner. We really liked their pool, and we’d definitely recommend staying at that hotel to others!

For a full list of lodging options in Moab, click here

Frequently Asked Questions About Canyonlands National Park

How long does it take to see Canyonlands National Park?

You can see most of the sights in Canyonlands National Park (Island in the Sky) in one day. We spent 5 hours in the park and we were able to hike to Mesa Arch, see the Green River Overlook, and see the Shafer Trail View Point. With a full day, we could have easily added the Grand View Point hike as well. If you’d like to visit some of the other districts of Canyonlands National Park, we recommend 2-3 days in total. 

What can you not miss in Canyonlands National Park?

If you go to Canyonlands National Park, you absolutely need to do complete the small hike to Mesa Arch. The arch sits on the edge of a 500-foot cliff. Looking through the arch, you’ll be able to see the canyon below and the La Sal mountains in the distance.

Can you drive through Canyonlands National Park?

You can easily drive through Canyonlands National Park’s Island in the Sky district. Canyonlands is very accessible because most of the sights are grouped very close together. By driving through the Island in the Sky district, you can easily hop out at lookouts for epic views. We recommend stopping by the Green River Overlook and the Shafer Trail View Point. 

What is unique about Canyonlands National Park?

Canyonlands National Park is unique because it is actually more than four times the size of Arches National Park. Canyonlands National Park has a canyon, arches, and plenty of trails to explore.

Which part of Canyonlands is best?

If you can only choose one district to visit at Canyonlands National Park, we recommend that you visit the Island in the Sky district. Island in the Sky is the most popular of the districts, and you’ll be able to see arches and expansive overlooks. 

What is the best hike in Canyonlands?

The most popular hike at Canyonlands National Park is definitely the trail to Mesa Arch. If you only have time for one hike, make sure you add Mesa Arch to your list.

How hard is it to get to Mesa Arch?

The trail to Mesa Arch is relatively short and has an easy difficulty level. The hike is a .7 mile loop with 88 total feet of elevation gain. People of most abilities will be able to complete this hike. If you have young children, just be sure to supervise them closely when you reach the arch. (There are drop offs if you go off the trail.)

How far is Moab from Canyonlands?

The Island in the Sky Visitor Center of Canyonlands National Park is about 32 miles from Moab, Utah. It took us about 37 minutes to drive from Moab to the visitor center. 

How many days do you need in Canyonlands National Park?

You need one full day if you want to see the main sights in the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park. We recommend that you set aside at least two days in your itinerary if you want to visit some of the other districts of Dead Horse State Park. 

Why should I visit Canyonlands National Park?

In our opinion, Canyonlands is an underrated park that is often over-shadowed by the nearby Arches National Park. But, it turned out to be one of our most favorite parks from our entire road trip! Canyonlands National Park has an epic arch, deep canyon, and plenty of trials and lookouts. It was also easier to navigate than some of the other parks, and it was less crowded. We’d definitely go back to Canyonlands National Park again.

Can you do Canyonlands in half a day?

You can definitely plan to spend a half day at Canyonlands National Park. We spent a half day at Canyonlands and we felt like it was definitely worth it. We were able to see many of the main sights in the Island in the Sky district.

When is peak season in Canyonlands?

Canyonlands National Park is the most busy during the month of May. I looked at monthly visit counts for the past year, and there were over 114,000 visits to Canyonlands National Park during the month of May. (Compare this number to the least amount of visits, which was a little over 15,000 visits in the month of January.) During the summer months, there were about 65,000 visits per month. Based on this information, we would advise visiting in February. The average temperature at Canyonlands during the month of February is a high of 49 degrees, and there were only 19,000 visitors last year during that month.

Summary: Our Trip to Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park might not be as famous as some of the other national parks, but it was one of our favorite stops on our three-week road trip

We spent one day at Canyonlands National Park at Island in the Sky, and we absolutely loved it. Even though we visited the park during a busy holiday weekend, we were able to see most of the things we wanted to see by arriving to the park early in the morning. The view points were incredible, and we found the park easy to navigate. We hope this guide inspires you to visit Canyonlands National Park too!

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Cracked dirt at Canyonlands National Park
Don’t forget to look down! The ground is just as beautiful.



After studying abroad in Spain, I became passionate about international travel. Since then, I’ve traveled to 6 continents and 36 states within the United States. When I’m not travel blogging, you can find me hiking, reading Spanish novels, or playing cribbage. I hope my blog inspires you to see the world!