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 spires, mesas, buttes and arches.
So, considering the epic size of this park—it’s more than 350,000 acres (or 1,366 km²) of rugged canyon wilderness—, you might wonder what to do in Canyonlands National Park. To make that decision easier for you, I’ve compiled an overview of the best Canyonlands National Park attractions. To keep things at their most convenient, I’ve limited this post to only the Island in the Sky District.
- Landscapes of Mind-Boggling Proportions
- What to Do in Canyonlands National Park’s Island in the Sky?
- Island in the Sky Attractions
- Canyonlands National Park Activities
- Where to Stay?
- Map of Canyonlands National Park (Island in the Sky)
- Recommended National Park Books
Landscapes of Mind-Boggling Proportions
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. The Island in the Sky is the one that’s easiest to visit. Located a short drive from the town of Moab and near Arches National Park, it 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.
Although the Grand Canyon is obviously a bigger canyon and a lot more famous, I personally was way more impressed by the canyons of Canyonlands National Park.
I’ll always recommend people to go to Canyonlands instead of Grand Canyon National Park if they want to see epic canyon landscapes.
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 America at its very wildest.
What to Do in Canyonlands National Park’s 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. This post focuses on the Island in the Sky District, the northernmost and most accessible of the four Canyonlands districts.
If you’re wondering what to do in Canyonlands National Park (Island in the Sky), the following overview is all you need to make the most of your visit. Note that you can cover all of this in just one day. I should mention, though, that the night skies are nothing short of epic in this park, so you might want to stick around for a night or two.
Island in the Sky Attractions
Focus on these Island in the Sky attractions when visiting this particular district in Canyonlands National Park for a day.
The Island in the Sky Visitor Center is open every day, from spring through fall. It’s closed in winter. As in all national parks in America, the visitor center is the best place to start. This particular one lies on UT 313, a 40-minute drive from Moab.
From spring through fall, this is where you can top off your water bottles. There also are exhibits, general information, books and maps. You can get your backcountry permit there, while park rangers are able to offer more detailed and up-to-date information on trail conditions, the weather forecast and so on.
What makes the Island in the Sky District so awesome is that you can explore the entire mesa top by car. The 34-mile roundtrip Scenic Drive takes you past all trailheads and a number of spectacular overlooks, impressive rock formations and other fun stuff.
Almost certainly the most photographed and popular of all Island in the Sky attractions is Mesa Arch. This narrow arch stretches along the Island in the Sky rim, framing the huge canyon below, the La Sal Mountains, Monster Tower and Washerwoman Arch in a stunningly beautiful way.
This is arguably the crown jewel of the Island in the Sky, a place that you should by no means skip. It’s especially spectacular at sunrise, when the day’s first sunrays peek through the arch. Sunset is pretty amazing as well. It’s an easy 0.25-mile (400-meter) walk from the parking to the arch.
A contender for the strangest geological feature in the district, Upheaval Dome lies at the end of one—the western—of the two arms of the Scenic Drive. Its name might cause you to expect a towering rock dome, but this is actually a 1,500-feet (460-meter) deep crater.
You can reach this interesting spot on a short hiking trail, at the end of which a couple of exhibits talk about Upheaval Dome’s possible origins.
Grand View Point
At the end of the other—the southern—arm of the Scenic Drive, you’ll find one of the park’s greatest viewpoints. Grand View Point, definitely appropriately named, provides amazing panoramic views ofthe canyons below the rim and stretching into the distance.
As great as the views from the overlook are, they get even better at the end of the Grand View Point Trail. This 2-mile (3.2-kilometer) out-and-back trail offers not just great, but downright jaw-dropping views all along the canyon’s rim. It ends at the very edge of the rim, at a point where daredevils can literally gaze vertically down the cliff wall.
Green River Overlook
When it comes to photogenic viewpoints, it doesn’t get much better than the Green River Overlook. From this overlook, the view takes in the canyons of the southern part of the Island in the Sky, stretching all the way to the Green River in the utterly wild Maze District. This vista is so sensational that no words suffice to describe it.
Shafer Canyon Overlook
The first major stop on the Scenic Drive is the Shafer Canyon Overlook. From atop this side mesa, you have a superb view of the Shafer Canyon and the zigzagging Shafer Trail, arguably the most popular mountain biking trail in Island in the Sky.
The Gooseberry Trail is unquestionably one of the best Island in the Sky hikes if you want to get a real sense of the sheer magnitude of these landscapes. This is the steepest trail in the Island in the Sky district. A path lined with switchbacks, it swiftly descends 1,400 feet (427 meters) from the mesa’s rim to the White Rim bench.
Some sections are very steep, running along sheer cliffs and near-vertical slopes. There are no handrails, rungs or ladders, so taking uttermost care is advised. Watch your step and keep an eye on the weather. There’s no way you can get out of the canyon quickly if a thunderstorm surprises you.
That said, it’s an absolutely spectacular trail. As is the case in places like Grand Canyon National Park or Death Valley National Park, there’s no way to fully grasp the might of a landscape if you’re not completely immersed in it. If you’re looking for an immersive experience, the Gooseberry Trail is one of the best hiking trails in Island in the Sky.
The roundtrip distance if 5.4 miles (8.6 kilometers) and the roundtrip hike takes between four and five hours.
I also suggest adding the 1.8-mile (2.8-kilometer) out-and-back trail to the White Rim Overlook to this hike. Both trails start from the same parking lot on the Scenic Drive.
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. 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 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 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 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.
Map of Canyonlands National Park (Island in the Sky)
Recommended National Park Books