Last Updated on April 13, 2023
Canyonlands National Park is often overshadowed by its much smaller neighbor, Arches National Park. That’s a real shame though because Canyonlands is home to some incredible scenery and hikes. There are so many things to see and do in the Moab, Utah area, but a visit to Canyonlands is a must. This one day itinerary for Canyonlands National Park will make sure you see the best sights while you are there. If you are unable to get an entry permit for Arches in the summer, Canyonlands is a wonderful backup option. Planning a full day in Canyonlands is a must either way.
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How Big is Canyonlands National Park?
Canyonlands National Park covers a very large 337,598 acres (1,366 sq km), making it the largest of the Utah Mighty Five National Parks, but is made up of three different areas: Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze. This one day itinerary for Canyonlands National Park mostly focuses on the Island in the Sky district. This is the easiest area to visit from Moab and has tons of great day hikes.
The Needles is also easy to visit but is more popular for backpacking and a little further from Moab. The Maze is extremely remote and very difficult to visit. All three are accessed from different areas and highways, you cannot get from one to the other while inside the park.
Is Canyonlands National Park Worth Visiting?
Yes! It doesn’t get as much recognition as nearby Arches National Park but it is absolutely worth visiting. It has some of the best scenery in the Southwest USA that should definitely not be missed. It is great for hiking and has trails for all skill levels but it is also great if you just want to enjoy some overlooks and beautiful vistas that are just a few steps away from your car.
How Many Days Do You Need in Canyonlands?
You will be able to see most of Canyonlands in one day, or at least the Island in the Sky district. With one day, you can see most overlooks and do one or two short hikes. If you want to go to The Needles too, you may need more time or to cut out some hiking.
Directions to Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park is located in southeast Utah outside of the town of Moab. It is not too close to anything but is very easy to get to wherever you are coming from. You can easily visit Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park on the same trip as they are right next to each other, both easily accessed from Moab.
Salt Lake City to Canyonlands National Park
The Island in the Sky Visitor Center is four hours, 249 miles (400 km) from the Salt Lake City International Airport. Most of the drive twists and turns through a beautiful area of Utah as you transition from the high mountains into the drier desert of Moab.
Denver to Canyonlands National Park
The drive from Denver International Airport to Island in the Sky is a bit longer, at six hours. It’s a beautiful 388 mile (624 km) drive through the Rocky Mountains into the desert. It can be a bit treacherous in bad weather over the high mountain passes of Colorado, however on a nice day it is wonderful, especially if you travel during the fall months.
Las Vegas to Canyonlands National Park
The drive from Harry Reid International Airport in Las Vegas is the longest at seven hours, covering 478 miles (769 km). This is the best place to fly in if you are visiting Canyonlands as part of a big Southwest USA Road Trip.
Ultimate One Day Itinerary Canyonlands National Park
This itinerary will help you find the best sights to see and hikes to do in Canyonlands in a day. Your day will start nice and early with a sunrise hike followed by overlook after overlook, each better than the last.
Sunrise at Mesa Arch
Mesa Arch is an amazing place to watch the sunrise, but it is also extremely popular, so do not expect to have it to yourself. This is a famous photography spot where the rising sun is spotted under Mesa Arch, causing it to glow a brilliant shade of orange. It is an easy 0.7 mile (1.1 km) loop hike from the small parking lot to the arch. There are many beautiful photo spots in the open area around Mesa Arch, so be sure to explore on foot after viewing Mesa Arch. This is the best place to start your one day itinerary in Canyonlands National park.
Location on Google Maps: Mesa Arch Trailhead
Cost: There is no fee for hiking to Mesa Arch but there is a $30 USD National Park entrance fee. If you plan on visiting more than three National Park sites, then a National Park pass would be worth getting. They are $80 USD but will cover your entrance to all site in the National Park system. The only additional fees here are for camping.
What to Bring: Patience and a sweater. It can get very cold in the morning before sunrise. A flashlight or headlamp for hiking in the dark will also be helpful.
Helpful Tips: if you want the perfect photo, you will have to arrive at least 30 mins to 1 hour before sunrise to stake your spot. This is the most popular place to watch sunrise in the park and it gets busy so you want to make sure you get there early enough for a good spot. Even during the offseason you can expect there to be a large number of people watching sunrise here.
Orange Cliffs Overlook
A lot of the most popular and famous views in Canyonlands face east, but the Orange Cliffs Overlook faces west. You will find this overlook along the Grand View Point Road, on the right-hand side just before you reach the Grand View Point. This is a beautiful view and you may be able to see the White Rim Road winding far below.
Location on Google Maps: Orange Cliffs Overlook
Helpful Tips: This view is sprawling but may not be as dramatic as others nearby. Stop here before Grand View Point so you can really enjoy it in all its beauty without first comparing it to others nearby.
Grand View Point
Grand View Point is one of the most famous views in Canyonlands and for good reason. This overlook is at the most southern point of the Island in the Sky scenic drive and has a paved sidewalk out to the first view. There is an unpaved trail that is one mile (1.6 km) to an additional viewpoint that is even better than the first. Be sure to do that short hike to make the most of this stop. From Grand View Point, you can see a lot of landmarks including the White Rim Road, The Needles District, Monument Basin, the La Sal Mountains, the Abajo Mountains, and The Maze District. They didn’t call it Grand View for nothing!
Location on Google Maps: Grand View Point
Helpful Tips: Do not skip the additional hike out to the second view point. It is beautiful and does not take too much extra time. This is a must-do if you are visiting Canyonlands in a day.
Candlestick Tower Canyon Overlook
Candlestick Tower Canyon Overlook is a famous viewpoint in Canyonlands that overlooks Candlestick Tower, a group of rocks that looks like a group of candlesticks. This is a great spot for photography and will likely not be very busy since it has a small parking area. You can easily walk around the open rock area here to get a different view or get creative with your photography.
Location on Google Maps: Candlestick Tower Canyon Overlook
Helpful Tips: The parking area here is small and can only accommodate 4-5 cars so you may have to check back if it is full when you try and go.
Upheaval Dome and the Syncline Loop
Upheaval Dome is an interesting stop in Canyonlands where you can see some interesting geology. This geologic formation is about 3 miles (5 km) across and made of dramatic rock layers. There are two theories on how Upheaval Dome was formed, the Salt Dome Theory and the Impact Crater Theory.
The Salt Theory is that a thick layer of salt underlies the region and over millions of years of pressure from the overlying rock, the salt flowed up and created salt domes on the surface. The Impact Crater Theory suggests that about 60 million years ago, a large meteorite hit the ground at what is now Upheaval Dome. The initial impact created a crater that partially collapsed on itself. Erosion since the impact washed away any debris, exposing layers of rock that were once buried thousands of feet underground. Recent research supports the meteorite theory, but there are still unanswered questions.
There is a 1 mile (1.6 km) hike to the first overlook of Upheaval Dome that is a little steep. If you want to hike even more, there is an additional mile you can hike to a second overlook. If you hike to both, it will be a 4 mile (6.4 km) moderate hike. This is a great choice if you want a slightly longer and more challenging hike, but not too challenging.
If you want a much more strenuous hike, consider the 8.3 mile (13.3 km) Syncline Loop Trail. This hike will take you around all of Upheaval Dome. It is difficult and includes climbing and scrambling through boulder fields.
Location on Google Maps: Upheaval Dome and Syncline Loop Trailhead
Facilities: Bathrooms and picnic area
Helpful Tips: If you are not a very experienced desert hiker or rock scrambler, stick to the shorter Upheaval Dome trail. The Syncline Loop trail is strenuous and most park rescues occur on this trail. It is the most difficult trail in the Island in the Sky district.
Green River Overlook
The Green River Overlook was our favorite view in the park and cannot be missed on your one day itinerary in Canyonlands National Park. This stop offers a view of the White Rim Trail and The Maze as well as the beautiful Green River 1,300 feet (396 m) below.
The views from here are truly breathtaking and in our opinion are the best in the park. They are made even better late in the afternoon before sunset as the sky changes dramatically.
Location on Google Maps: Green River Overlook
Facilities: Bathrooms and camping
Helpful Tips: This is one of the best overlooks to enjoy sunset and after hiking Upheaval Dome and the Syncline Loop, it is the perfect place to end your day since it is on your way out from there. It is also great to enjoy sunset here if you are camping in the park.
Optional: Drive the Famous Shafer Trail
If you have a 4-wheel-drive and high-clearance vehicle and are leaving Canyonlands with 2-3 hours of daylight left, consider taking the Shafer Trail back to Moab. These sharp switchbacks take you down the historic Shafer Canyon Road between Dead Horse Point State Park and the Colorado River to Potash Road and back to town. The drive takes about two hours and is fairly rough so you will not be able to do it in a regular 2WD vehicle. If it has rained or snowed, the road may be impassable.
The Shafer Trail is named after the Mormon Pioneer family, the Shafer’s, who starting in 1916 used this trail to move cattle from summer pastures on the mesa to the White Rim Sandstone in the winter. John Shafer has been credited with improving the trail and making canyon access easier before it was extended by the Atomic Energy Commission. Once Canyonlands National Park was founded in 1964, the trail was used primarily for recreation over ranching.
Location on Google Maps: Shafer Trail
Facilities: Bathrooms and water at Island in the Sky Visitor Center, nothing until the paved section of Potash Road which has bathrooms.
Helpful Tips: If you won’t be driving out of the park during daylight, skip this road. It is best done during daylight so you can enjoy the views but it is also safer to drive during the day since it does have steep drop offs on the side of the road. It is also just easier in daylight, being able to see any obstacles on the road.
Optional: The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park
Island in the Sky and The Needles look close on a map, but it is a two-hour drive between the two visitor centers. If you are not doing any hiking, you could probably go to both districts in one day but it is not recommended. You would not have much time in either of them, especially if you were wanting to hike. The Needles Canyonland is much better for overnight backpacking trips and longer day hikes. There are not as many overlooks and roadside stops or short hikes here.
To get here from Moab, just head south on Highway 191 until you get to the turn off for The Needles, not to be confused with The Needles Overlook, which is another option and 1.5 hours from Island in the Sky. This is not recommended if you are just visiting Canyonlands in a day.
There are four short hikes you can do here. Roadside Ruin is a 0.3 mile (0.5 km) trail to an ancestral Puebloan granary. The 0.6 mile (1 km) Cave Spring Trail leads to a historic cowboy camp and pictographs. The 0.6 mile (1 km) Pothole Point takes you to a view of the Needles and the 2.4 mile (3.9 km) Slickrock Trail has several viewpoints and you may be able to see bighorn sheep. These are all some great short trails to stretch your legs after the drive down here to The Needles.
Location on Google Maps: The Needles Visitor Center
Facilities: Bathrooms, picnic areas, water, camping, visitor center
Helpful Tips: Be sure to stop at Newspaper Rock on the drive out to The Needles. An alternative to The Needles if you have less time is The Needles Overlook. This is just an overlook and there is no hiking here, but the views are excellent and show you a different area of Canyonlands National Park.
More Days in Moab?
If you can, spend more time in Moab. Having three days in Moab, one day in Arches, one day in Canyonlands, and one day to do other hikes, would be ideal. This way you could also easily visit The Needles district of Canyonlands and not be rushed in any of your activities. We have a detailed 3 Days in Moab Itinerary perfect for your next trip! Alternatively, there are so many other great places to visit in Utah!
Detailed Utah National Park Itineraries:
Best Time to Visit Canyonlands National Park
It is hard to find a bad time to visit Canyonlands, maybe over spring break or holidays, but a visit any time of year is hard to go wrong. Crowds and weather will vary but it is accessible year-round.
Winter in Canyonlands National Park
Even though it is a desert, Canyonlands can get fairly cold and even snowy in the winter. But for the most part, the weather is great for hiking and the crowds are minimal, except over holidays. Prices in Moab are a lot lower so if you are visiting on a budget and flexible about when you can go, winter is the best. If you are driving Shafer Trail, check road conditions before going. If it has rained or snowed the road can be impassable.
Spring in Canyonlands National Park
Spring in Canyonlands offers wonderful temperatures with some high wind which can make hiking a little uncomfortable. You may also be able to catch wildflowers and cactus blooming in the spring which is always beautiful. Crowds are larger than winter but smaller than summer, spring break however will be very busy as will Easter since that is when Jeep Week happens.
Summer in Canyonlands National Park
Summer is the most popular time to visit Canyonlands and it does get pretty busy, not as busy as nearby Arches. If you’re visiting in the summer, start your day as early as you can to avoid heat and crowds. It does get very hot in the summer, so be sure to stay hydrated and take plenty of breaks. July to September is monsoon season, so rain and storms are possible. Keep that in mind if you are planning on driving the Shafer Trail.
Fall in Canyonlands National Park
Fall is the best time to visit because the weather is perfect and it isn’t as busy as summer. Unlike spring, fall does not get as much wind so hiking is a lot more comfortable. If can be cool in the mornings and evenings, but the temperature becomes very pleasant during the day.
Best Place to Stay Near Canyonlands National Park
Moab may be small but there are plenty of hotels to choose from no matter your taste or budget. There are the typical chain hotels alongside charming local options. If you plan to camp, there is certainly no lack of that either.
Hotels Nearby Canyonlands National Park
The closest place to stay near Canyonlands National Park is Moab Under Canvas, a glamping resort just outside of town. This is a fun and unique hotel with other locations throughout the west.
Budget – True budget hotels are hard to come by in Moab unless you are visiting in the winter. The Big Horn Lodge is a great choice for a budget hotel in Moab in peak season. It is rustic and no-frills but is in a great location near downtown.
Mid-range – The Aarchway Inn is a great mid-range choice with good sized rooms. It is not quite downtown but not outside of town either. It is close to the Arches National Park entrance.
Luxury – Hoodoo Moab is the best luxury choice and it is conveniently located downtown. It is new and modern looking within walking distance of most restaurants and stores downtown.
Canyonlands National Park Camping
The Willow Flat campground is the only campground in Island in the Sky and it has just 12 spaces, but it is open year-round. It is first-come, first-served and the spaces fill quickly, especially in the summer. There are vault toilets but no water or showers. The Green River Overlook is nearby. If you manage to get a spot here, plan to be out of service for your stay as there is no phone service or Internet here. This is an excellent option though to set up canyon and be able to walk to The Green River Overlook to enjoy sunset.
The Next Trip Top Five Tips for the Ultimate One Day in Canyonlands
To make the most of your one day itinerary for Canyonlands National Park we’ve put together our top five tips for this beautiful Utah National Park.
Start Early to Avoid the Heat
The best way to avoid that summer heat is to start your day nice and early. Hiking to Mesa Arch at sunrise is a popular option. Doing most of your hiking in the morning will help avoid the heat, too. Consider saving overlook stops for mid-day and afternoon if you can. This is also a good way to avoid crowds.
Have Alternative Hikes in Mind
Many of the parking areas in Canyonlands are fairly small, so you may have to circle back for some views or hikes during busy times of the year. Having alternative hikes in mind, like Murphy Point or White Rim Overlook, can still allow you to hike in the cooler hours of the day if the parking for a hike you wanted is full.
Get an America the Beautiful Annual National Park Pass
A national park entrance pass is a must-have, especially if you plan to visit Arches or any other national parks on this trip or later in the year. It is $80 USD but covers the entrance fee for all of the National Park Service sites and will save you a lot of money if you are visiting more than three national park sites in a year.
Hike to Mesa Arch at Sunset to Avoid the Crowds
Hiking to Mesa Arch at sunrise is beautiful and probably the most popular thing to do in Canyonlands but hiking to Mesa Arch at sunset is a good way to avoid some of the crowds. You will not get to see the glow of the sun behind the arch but it is still beautiful. You could always bookend your day with Mesa Arch to see it both ways.
Bring a Picnic Lunch
Since Canyonlands is not right by town, you may want to bring a picnic lunch so you do not have to leave the park mid-day. You can enjoy your lunch with a beautiful view of the canyons below before hitting the trails again.
One Day in Canyonlands National Park Itinerary Summary
Hopefully you have now found the perfect one day itinerary for Canyonlands National Park that lets you hike and enjoy all the overlooks and beautiful views the park has to offer. It is a great underrated national park that is perfect for both hikers and casual drivers alike.
Did we miss your favorite part of Canyonlands National Park? Leave us a comment! Also remember to pin this post to your Utah Pinterest board to be sure you have it ready for your trip to beautiful Canyonlands National Park!