It’s impossible to exaggerate the magnificence and sheer vastness of Canyonlands National Park, Utah. Situated in the heart of the Colorado Plateau and bisected by both the Colorado and Green Rivers, this almost incomprehensibly wild park protects literally hundreds of canyons, as well as countless mesas, buttes and arches.
The two rivers that cut through Canyonlands National Park, the Colorado River and the Green River, divide the park into three distinct districts. The rivers themselves are classified as the fourth district. These four different districts are: Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze and the Rivers.
This page is dedicated to the Island in the Sky district, the one that’s easiest to visit.
Located a short drive from the town of Moab and near Arches National Park, Island in the Sky can be explored on a scenic drive and on various short hiking trails. The district gets its name from its geographical location. Surrounded on both sides by the canyons of the Colorado and Green Rivers, this area appears to be a floating plateau, a mesa perched more than 1,000 feet (300 meters) above the innumerable canyons and rock formations below. Needless to say, the views are mind-blowing.
With its sheer vertical cliffs, boulder-covered mesas as far as the eye can see, a seemingly endless stairway of canyons and plateaus, and awe-inspiring night skies, Canyonlands National Park is truly one of the very wildest U.S. national parks.
Best of Canyonlands National Park (Island in the Sky)
This enormous national park can easily keep you occupied for days, if not weeks. Its vastness is almost incomprehensible, its attractions are numerous. The Island in the Sky district, however, is easily explored in a day or two.
Island in the Sky Highlights
Focus on these Island in the Sky attractions when visiting this particular district in Canyonlands National Park.
- Visitor Center
- Scenic Drive
- Mesa Arch
- Upheaval Dome
- Grand View Point
- Green River Overlook
- Shafer Canyon Overlook
Hiking in Island in the Sky is one of the best ways to explore this spectacular area. There are trails to suit all abilities, from easy strolls along the mesa’s rim to challenging descents into the lower canyons (and climbs back up to the rim).
- Gooseberry Trail (5.4 miles out-and-back, strenuous descent into the canyon and back, 4-5 hours)
- Grand View Point Trail (2 miles out-and back, easy walk along the rim to end of Island in the Sky mesa, 1.5 hours)
- White Rim Overlook Trail (1.8 miles out-and-back, easy walk to a viewpoint overlooking Colorado River, La Sal Mountains and Monument Basin, 1.5 hours)
- Upheaval Dome Trail (2 miles out-and-back, moderate hike to a viewpoint of a fascinating rock formation, 1.5 hours)
- Aztec Butte Trail (2 miles out-and-back, moderate climb to Ancestral Puebloan granaries and fine views, 1.5 hours)
- Mesa Arch (0.5 miles out-and-back, very easy stroll to an arch perched on the cliff edge, one of the park’s main attractions, 30 minutes)
Canyonlands National Park Activities
It’s no coincidence that Moab is one of America’s greatest adventure towns. With both Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park at its doorstep, there’s no shortage of outdoor activities.
While Arches National Park is scenic and accessible, the Canyonlands National Park activities are a bit rougher and challenging. Therefore, this is one of the best places in the country to immerse yourself in vast, rugged landscapes.
Still focusing on the Island in the Sky District, there are several short trails with hardly any elevation change, making it possible for pretty much all visitors to explore some of the area on foot. There are, of course, a number of moderate and strenuous hikes as well, for those of you looking for a bigger challenge. The above-mentioned Gooseberry Trail is a prime example of one of those challenging hikes.
Be aware that, while the hiking trails along the rim are fairly easy and well-marked, those that descend into the canyons are all primitive and rough. You’ll find no drinking water anywhere below the rim, so make sure to bring plenty yourself.
The roads used for four-wheel driving are also suitable for mountain biking. In fact, you are allowed to ride your bike on all public roads in the park, including paved and backcountry roads. It’s no surprise that Canyonlands National Park is one of the greatest mountain biking destinations in the United States, if not the entire world.
Especially the Island in the Sky District is fantastic to explore on two wheels. This is the location of the famous 100-mile White Rim Road, which circles below the mesa. Particularly this trail is popular for multi-day mountain biking trips.
The Island in the Sky is by far the best district in Canyonlands National Park for car touring. The Scenic Drive offers spectacular views and access to a plethora of trails. Additionally, if you’re looking for more adventure, this is an awesome place to be as well.
There are literally hundreds of miles of unpaved roads in the park, offering access to overlooks, trails, rock formations and trails deep in the backcountry. The Island in the Sky has the most convenient and moderate four-wheel-driving roads in the park. The other districts are much wilder and should only be tackled by experienced off-roaders.
The Colorado Plateau national parks—famous examples include Grand Canyon, Zion and Bryce Canyon—are famous for their exceptional night skies. Because of the region’s high altitude and lack of large cities, its skies are uniquely dark.
There are regular stargazing events in both Canyonlands and neighboring Arches National Park. Although you can cover pretty much all of the above-mentioned Canyonlands National Park attractions in just one day, I implore you to stay at least one night. There’s no way you’ll regret it.
Where to Stay?
So, if you do decide to stick around for a few days and nights, there are a number of options. The Island in the Sky has one campground, the Willow Flat Campground, which lies near the Green River Overlook. The sites at this campground are all first-come first-served. There’s also a campground in the adjacent, and extraordinarily scenic, Dead Horse Point State Park, as well as a couple of primitive campgrounds along UT 313, the road into the Island in the Sky. Many more primitive campgrounds are scattered around Moab.
For more luxurious accommodation, you should stay in Moab itself, the main tourist hub in this breathtaking region in southeastern Utah. This friendly town is the gateway to both Canyonlands and Arches National Park, two of the five national parks in Utah. There are to numerous hotels, campgrounds, restaurants, bars and even a craft brewery.
Canyonlands National Park Map (Island in the Sky)
Location: Southeastern Utah, United States
Nearest Town: Moab
Area: 527.5 square miles (1,366.2 square kilometers)
Features: Sprawling landscapes of canyons, mesas, buttes, rivers and cliffs, Native American sites
Main Attractions (Island in the Sky): Mesa Arch, Grand View Point, Upheaval Dome, Green River Overlook, Shafer Canyon, Colorado and Green Rivers
Main Activities: Hiking, mountain biking, 4-wheel driving, camping, stargazing
Suggested Stay: 2 days / 2 nights
More Information: National Park Service
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Canyonlands National Park Photos
Visit my national parks photography portfolio for a bunch of awesome photos of Canyonlands National Park.