road trip to utah

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

Last Updated on April 28, 2024 by Kelly

We recently spent one day at Canyonlands National Park, and we were impressed with how much we were able to see in just one day! We had traveled to Moab to visit Arches National Park, so of course we had to add on Canyonlands as well. Even though Arches National Park sees more visitors each year, Canyonlands is actually a much bigger park. (That means there’s so much to see!) In this post, we’re sharing our recommendations for how to spend one day at this epic national park!

Epic view of Canyonlands National Park

One Day Itinerary 

We visited the park with our toddler, and our goal was to be back to our hotel for 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 if you have 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 all of Utah! This arch is plastered on social media and postcards. We recommend that you start your day here, and hopefully beat some of the crowds!

I thought that the Mesa Arch trail was relatively easy. It’s 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 the 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. It’s also important to know that you shouldn’t walk on top of the arches. 

Kelly from Our Adventure Journal at Mesa Arch

2. Green River Overlook

After Mesa Arch, we then drove to the Green River Overlook. From the parking lot, it was 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 everything 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 we came to the national parks to be outside and not to spend all day in our vehicle! We really loved Island in the Sky because there were so many things to see that were located close together.

My Tips for Visiting

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!

Disclosure: This post may contain affiliate links. As an Amazon Associate, I may earn commissions from qualifying purchases.

Some items to consider bringing include:

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
Here I am sitting next to Mesa Arch


About Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park was established in 1964. In 2021, Canyonlands National Park received over 900,000 visitors.

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. 


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). 

Hikes in Canyonlands National Park

Archaeological Points of Interest 

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 Attractions

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! 

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!

Looking for a hotel near Canyonlands? We stayed at the Best Western Plus Canyonlands Inn, and we’d recommend it to others!



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!

Pin for Canyonlands
Feel free to pin for later!

DisclaimerWe always strive for content accuracy. Since the time of publishing, travel-related information regarding pricing, schedules, and hours may have changed. Please look up such information directly from each vendor or institution for the most current information.

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


Hi, I’m Kelly!

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 books in Spanish, or playing cribbage. I hope my blog inspires you to see the world!