GOLDEN CANYONS AND RAGING RIVERS CAN BE FOUND IN THIS TRIPLE THREAT NATIONAL PARK IN SOUTHERN UTAH. THIS IN-DEPTH ADVENTURE TRAVEL GUIDE COVERS EVERYTHING YOU NEED TO KNOW TO EXPLORE IT.
It took us about five different trips to the Moab area before we finally decided to head out to Canyonlands National Park. And man oh man were we so glad we did. It took us all of 10 minutes to question why it took us so long in the first place. Canyonlands, like many other Utah national parks, is full of just jaw-dropping natural beauty. The colorful rocks, rugged landscape and the overall feeling of wildness is stunning. Author Edward Abbey, a frequent visitor to the park once described Canyonlands as "the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth—there is nothing else like it anywhere." We could not agree more.
In this in-depth adventure travel guide to Canyonlands National Park you will find everything you need to know about the park; including, the best time to visit, the top adventures, and how to camp within the national park.
So with that, let's get adventuring!
HISTORY OF CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK
In the early 50s Bates Wilson, then superintendent of Arches National Monument, began exploring the area around Moab, Utah. After doing a bit of exploring to the south, he came upon an area that we now know as the Needles district. Wilson was so struck by the landscape that he was soon advocating for the establishment of a new national park - which would of course include the Needles.
Soon after, he began exploring other areas - including the present-day regions of The Maze, The Confluence (where the Green and Colorado Rivers meet) and Horseshoe Canyon. Wilson would propose those three areas for inclusion into the new national park as well.
In 1961, by happen chance, the present Secretary of the Interior (which oversees the whole National Park System) Stewart Udall was scheduled to address a conference at nearby Grand Canyon National Park. On his flight there he flew right over the Confluence. This view apparently sparked Udall's interest in Wilson's proposal for a new national park in that area. Soon Udall also began promoting the establishment of Canyonlands National Park.
But it was actually Utah Senator Frank Moss who introduced the first formal legislation to Congress to create Canyonlands National Park. His legislation attempted to satisfy both nature conservationists' and developers' interests. Over the next four years, Moss's proposal was debated, revised, and reintroduced to Congress many times.
Finally, in 1964 - after several years of debate - President Johnson signed legislation to create Canyonlands National Park. Wilson, fittingly, would become the first superintendent of the new national park. He is often referred to as the "Father of Canyonlands."
THE ULTIMATE ADVENTURE GUIDE TO CANYONLANDS NATIONAL PARK
\\ Canyonlands National Park | Fast Facts
NUMBER OF VISITORS
493,914 people visited in 2020
COST TO ENTER
$30 per vehicle, $25 per motorcycle and $15 per person (all valid for 7 days)
Bikepacking, hiking, and jeeping
\\ A Few Important Things to Know About Canyonlands National Park
THE DIFFERENT DISTRICTS
Canyonlands National Park was established in order to preserve both the natural beauty and the human history that can be found within its four districts (which are divided by the Green and Colorado Rivers). While the districts all share a rugged desert landscape, each retains its own unique character and offers different opportunities for exploration and adventure.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: though the districts appear close on a map, more often than not, there are no roads that directly link them. This makes traveling between them much tougher and longer. Expect at least two hours (if not six hours) driving by car as there are few places to cross the two rivers.
THE ISLAND IN THE SKY DISTRICT
By far the most accessible, this district has lots of easy to reach overlooks along a paved scenic drive (Grand View Point Road), as well as plenty of hiking trails of all lengths and difficulties. There is also a moderate 4-wheel drive road available for biking and jeeping (the White Rim Road).
THE NEEDLES DISTRICT
The second most accessible area is The Needles District, which though still relatively close to civilization has a more backcountry feel. To get around this area you will need to either hike or have a 4-wheel drive vehicle.
THE MAZE DISTRICT
This is quite a remote area and one that takes quite a bit of time to get to. You definitely need more self-reliance and time to reach The Maze District - therefore it is only smart to visit if you have at least 2 days for exploring and adventuring. There are very few services available (like water) so come completely stocked up. Also, the Orange Cliff Unit located on the western boundary is co-administered by Glen Canyon National Recreation Area.
THE HORSESHOE CANYON DISTRICT
The smallest district of the national park is also really meant for day-use activities (mainly hiking). But because of its relative proximity to The Maze you could combine the two in one trip. This district is great for people looking to explore beautiful American Indian pictographs, for this area is home to the famous Great Gallery - a large array of artwork painted onto massive sandstone canyon walls.
THE VISITOR CENTERS
There are two main visitor centers in the park: one in Island in the Sky and one in The Needles. The Maze just has a ranger station, while Horseshoe Canyon doesn't have anything.
The Island in the Sky Visitor Center is open every day from early March to December and then just on Thursday - Monday in January and February. Hours will vary with the season. The Needles Visitor Center is normally open spring through fall (similar to Island in the Sky) and then just Thursday - Saturday between December and mid-February. Both visitor centers do have water and bathrooms available year-round.
The remote Hans Flat Ranger Station in The Maze is usually open daily year-round. The ranger station has a picnic table and vault toilet on premises. Otherwise, there are no services, food, gas, trash collection, electricity for visitor use, or potable water in The Maze.
Here are directions to each of the three national park visitor centers:
ISLAND IN THE SKY VISITOR CENTER
40 minutes from Moab, Utah. Take Hwy 191 to Hwy 313 (Island in the Sky Road). Keep going for another 25-30 minutes. The visitor center is right after the ticket booth. Exact location here.
THE NEEDLES VISITOR CENTER
Head south down Hwy 191 (from Moab) until you reach the turn-off for Road 211 (on the right). From there keep going for another 35 miles/45 minutes until you reach the visitor center. Exact location here.
HANS FLAT RANGER STATION
This is by far the hardest spot to get to of the three. To reach this ranger station first head to Hanksville, Utah (1 hour and 40 minutes west of Moab). When you almost reach the town turn left onto Road 1010. Keep going until you get to Hans Flat Road (near the famous/infamous Little Bluejohn Canyon), from there you still have another 14 miles to go (though be warned Google Maps says it will take 1 hour…). Exact location here.
There is no visitor center but there is a large parking lot (where you can camp). To reach it, head out on Road 1010 (like going to The Maze), keep going on 1010 for 30 miles. Total travel time is 1 hour and 45 minutes from Hanksville, Utah (47 miles). Exact location here.
➳ You can find even more information on the visitor centers here (including each one’s amenities).
\\ When to Visit Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park is normally open 24/7, 365 days a year (though as you would have seen above each district has its own visitor center with its own operating hours).
The park is part of the Colorado Plateau, a high desert region that experiences drastic temperature fluctuations (sometimes over a 40 degree change in a single day). Unsurprisingly, the best weather and the most popular seasons to visit are one and the same. Spring - April through May - and fall - September through October - are the best times to visit because the daytime highs average around 60º to 80ºF (or 15º to 26ºC) while the average lows are 30º to 50ºF (-1º to 10ºC). So pretty much perfect weather.
The other two seasons look like this:
100ºF (37ºC)+ temperatures, which obviously makes strenuous exercise like hiking and biking difficult. You also have to worry about late summer storm cells which can often cause flash flooding.
Average daytime highs of 30º to 50ºF (-1º to 10ºC), and average lows of 0º to 20ºF (-17º to -6ºC). Brrr. Though you do not have to worry about a lot of snow (big dumps are uncommon). But even so, even just a bit of precipitation can make trails and roads tough to get through.
\\ How to Get to Canyonlands National Park
This totally depends on which part of the park you want to visit. By far the easiest section to explore is Island in the Sky, which can be reached via a paved highway. The next easiest would be The Needles and then The Maze and Horseshoe Canyon.
The closest towns to Canyonlands are Moab, Utah for Island in the Sky, Monticello, Utah for The Needles and Hanksville, Utah for The Maze and Horseshoe Canyon. Both Moab and Monticello are large enough to have decently sized grocery stores, gas stations, lodging and a few restaurants and cafes. Whereas Hanksville has just the bare minimum (but a darn good coffee shop).
If you are looking to explore multiple national parks then consider purchasing the Annual Parks Pass which costs $80 but is good for a year and covers all 400+ national park units in the USA.
Also, if you are looking to just explore Canyonlands and Arches National Parks (plus Natural Bridges and Hovenweep National Monuments) maybe think about getting the Southeast Utah Parks Pass which costs $55 and is valid for a year.
💬 INSIDER TIP: the Annual Parks Pass is, in our opinion, one of the best purchases of the year. It might cost $80 but entrances to most parks cost between $20 and $30. So if you think you will visit more than 4 parks a year (including monuments, historical parks, etc.) it is 100% worth it.
➳ You can buy the Annual Parks Pass (the America the Beautiful Pass) here.
\\ The Top Adventures in Canyonlands National Park
BIKEPACKING AND JEEPING
There are dozens upon dozens of miles of exciting unpaved roads within Canyonlands. All will provide you access to various campsites, trailheads, and viewpoints in the park's rugged backcountry. One thing to note though is that these roads are not easy - most will require high clearance and four-wheel-drive. One of the most popular spots to drive is the famous White Rim Road, which is easily accessed from inside the national park or from just outside of Moab.
WHITE RIM ROAD
One of the biggest draws of the Island in the Sky area is this adventurous road. Measuring 100 miles, the White Rim Road loops around and below the main mesa top (you can see it below you from most observation points). Four-wheel-drive vehicles/jeeps, motorcycles, and bicycles (including e-bikes) are all allowed on the White Rim Road - so as you'd expect, it can get quite busy. For vehicles and motorcycles, it usually takes 2-3 days to do the whole loop, while for bikers it usually takes 3-4 days. Luckily, there are plenty of backcountry campsites available along the way.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: permits are required for both day-use trips and backcountry camping. Also, during the spring and fall (prime season) demand for overnight permits commonly exceeds the number available. So if you are planning to visit Canyonlands during those seasons, you should definitely make reservations well in advance.
➳ Learn more about the White Rim Road - including more information on camping - here.
Other areas where jeeping and auto touring is allowed is on rough unpaved roads in The Needles District and The Maze. Just know that like the White Rim Road you will need to have a high-clearance and 4-wheel drive vehicle. But even more so in places like The Maze you will need to have all supplies (including water) with you for there are no services and you are waaaay out there.
➳ You can find even more information on jeeping in the park here.
As you can imagine in a park that is incredibly focused on two large rivers - the mighty Colorado and the Green River - the availability of water sports is top notch. The two rivers offer miles upon miles of flatwater (calm water) - which is perfect for canoes, sea kayaks and other shallow-water boats as well as some rougher areas that are great for rafters (this is especially true in the area around Cataract Canyon).
Here are a few important things to know about floating in Canyonlands:
You must have one for a private river trip (one without a guide). You may reserve overnight permits up to four months in advance but you will need to know when you are planning to go so you know which period to get a permit for (April - October or October - April). Day-use permits are available year-round.
The character of the river changes dramatically depending on the season. Usually, the river is higher from early May to late June and then lower during the end of summer. It is always recommended to check the water flow before heading out.
You must have a permit to packraft in the park. Also, if you are planning on traveling or crossing either of the two rivers during a backpacking trip, you may need to include it on your permit. You must also abide by all river rules, regulations, and required equipment. You can find all packraft information and regulations here.
LAUNCHING AND TAKING OUT
On both rivers all launch ramps are outside of park boundaries. Launch locations on the Green River include Green River State Park (in the town of Green River), Ruby Ranch (south of Green River) and Mineral Bottom (off of a BLM road that can be reached from the road to the Island in the Sky District). On the Colorado River, boaters typically use the Potash or Moab ramps.
One important thing to know is that you only need a park permit for the nights you will be inside the actual national park (so anywhere below the Potash and Mineral Bottom ramps). While hiking trails do lead to the rivers from each of the park's districts, these trails are likely too long and rugged to be seriously considered for shuttles. The only time hiking might be an option is if you are using packrafts, which are designed specifically for this purpose.
➳ You can find even more information about boating in the national park here
HIKING AND BACKPACKING
Canyonlands has hundreds of miles of hiking trails that explore the park’s stunning natural landscapes, as well as its many cultural features. Both the Island in the Sky and The Needles districts provide plenty of opportunities for short, easy walks, mid-range day hikes and backpacking trips. Whereas, due to its remoteness, The Maze is primarily a spot for backpacking.
Hiking trails are usually marked with cairns (obvious rock piles) and/or signs. Below are a few hiking trails we recommend checking out:
THE ISLAND IN THE SKY DISTRICT
| Aztec Buttes: 2 miles/3 kilometers; you can actually do two different routes on the trail: the first is the eastern fork (right) - this one ascends to the top of the actual Aztec Buttes, while the western fork (left) climbs a smaller butte before dropping down to two ancestral Puebloan structures.
| Grand View Point: 2 miles/3.2 kilometers; if you are looking for epic views of the surrounding landscape then definitely check this short trail out. You start at a large parking lot before following the canyon rim for a mile to another incredible rocky viewpoint. Highly recommend.
| Neck Spring: 5.8 miles/9.3 kilometers; this is a great way to explore the human history of the park. The route passes a few historic ranching features as well as two springs where cowboys once watered their cattle. Overall, the trail is pretty flat and should only take around 3 hours.
| Murphy Loop: 10.8 miles/17.4 kilometers; this is an awesome full day hike that drops off the side of the mesa. The main reason to do the trail is to get a great view of the Murphy Hogback - the steepest climb of the entire White Rim Road (you can also camp there).
THE NEEDLES DISTRICT
| Cave Spring: 0.6 miles/1 kilometer; this is a nice short little loop that takes you to a historic cowboy camp and some prehistoric rock art.
| Big Spring to Squaw Canyon: 7.5 miles/12 kilometers; this is a great way to get to know The Needles District more intimately. The trail actually connects two different canyons to form a nice big loop. One thing to note is that some of the climbs up the canyon are quite steep and can be dangerous when wet.
| Confluence Overlook: 10 miles/16.5 kilometers; this is one of the few trails in the area that actually traverses dry and open country. The main point of this hike is to reach the cliff that overlooks the spot where the Colorado River and the Green River meet (converge). You can also backpack along this trail (backcountry campsites are available).
| Druid Arch: 11 miles/18 kilometers; if you are looking for a full day of hiking in The Needles area then we recommend this trail. The views of the whole area are absolutely stunning - plus the trail will give you the chance to explore the bottom of Elephant Canyon.
❔ GOOD TO KNOW: many remote trails do not receive regular park maintenance and therefore may not be adequately marked. It is smart for all backcountry hikers to carry a topographic map (and know how to read it). There are also a lot of offline maps/apps that are super helpful. We personally like Gaia.
➳ You can find even more hiking trails in Canyonlands here.
\\ Where to Stay in Canyonlands National Park
CAMPING IN THE NATIONAL PARK
There are only 2 established campgrounds in the whole national park: one in Island in the Sky (Willow Flat) and one in The Needles (simply the Needles Campground). Below is a quick breakdown of both.
WILLOW FLAT | THE ISLAND IN THE SKY DISTRICT
| Sites: 12
| Reservations: no, totally first-come, first-served
| Price: $15 /night
| Amenities: no water (must get at visitor center), but there are toilets and each site has a picnic table, fire pit and gazebo; also there is trash and recycling and an amphitheater
💬 INSIDER TIP: we stayed at Willow Flat and loved the location. If you are into night photography we recommend heading down to the Green River Overlook for some sweet photos.
THE NEEDLES CAMPGROUND | THE NEEDLES DISTRICT
| Sites: 26, plus 3 group sites in the area (not in the campground)
| Reservations: reservations available spring through fall (off season is first-come, first-served)
| Price: $20 /night
| Amenities: flush toilets (seasonal) and vault toilets year-round, potable water (seasonal), trash and recycling, picnic tables and fire rings, and an amphitheater
There is an extensive network of backcountry camping sites throughout the national park. Some you can reach via 4-wheel drive/jeeping, mountain biking and even floating. You can find the whole backcountry camping map here.
There are a few basic backcountry camping regulations that apply throughout the whole national park. Also, depending on how you are reaching each campsite (floating for example), there may be more regulations to follow. Here are some basic things to keep in mind:
| Night photography is a great way to enjoy the park, but please note that using artificial light sources to light up landscapes, rock formations, or other park features is prohibited.
| Wood fires are allowed at Island in the Sky Campground (Willow Flat), at The Needles Campground, and along the rivers. They are prohibited elsewhere in the backcountry. Also, no wood gathering except along the rivers.
| Disturbing, entering or camping within 300 feet of an archeological or historical site is absolutely prohibited. Collecting artifacts is also not allowed.
| Hunting is prohibited in Canyonlands (it is a national park...). Similarly, the discharging of firearms is not allowed. But fishing is allowed - but you do need to have a valid Utah State Fishing License and must comply with Utah State Fishing Regulations.
| Even though graffiti is prohibited by law, rangers and volunteer groups spend 100s of hours every year removing it in the park. Be a good person and a good explorer and leave NO mark. Seriously.
| Permits are required for all overnight trips in the backcountry. Learn more about permits here.
➳ You can learn even more about backcountry camping here.
CAMPING OUTSIDE OF THE NATIONAL PARK
Just like with all other national parks in Utah, you can very easily find boondocking campsites nearby. As always, we recommend checking out the app iOverlander for an idea on places to go. Personally, we have had good luck camping about 4-6 miles from the entrance to the Island in the Sky District (here is great).
A few things to remember when boondocking:
| Only park/camp in established spots. This means you do not add more campsites and roads to the area. You will usually be able to know if a place is an established site if it has a fire ring (metal or made of rocks).
| Leave no trace of you camping when you leave. This means taking all trash and items with you. We cannot tell you how many times we have rolled up to a beautiful campsite only to find trash everywhere. Be a good person and clean up after yourself.
| Be courteous of your neighbors. Don't play loud music, don't shoot off fireworks or guns, don't have super bright lights. Again, just be a good person.
If you are looking to camp somewhere that has a few amenities but isn't in the national park, then you can often find some BLM or National Forest campgrounds nearby. In the area around the Island in the Sky District there is the Wingate Campground and Horsethief Campground. While next to The Needles District there is the Needles Outpost Campground and Hamburger Rock Campground.
LODGES AND MOTELS
If you really aren't looking to rough it and instead want to stay at a hotel or motel then your best bet is to find a spot in Moab or in Monticello. We have personally never stayed at a hotel or motel in either city so we don't feel comfortable recommending you anywhere in particular. Below are a few places that seem to be well-priced.
| Fairfield Inn and Suites (Moab): $166 /night (in-season). This spot is on the edge of Moab and one of the closest hotels to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. Book here.
| Moab Springs Ranch (Moab): $188 /night. Definitely a bit more upscale than others in town, this cute boutique-esque spot has hot tubs and is right on the edge of downtown. Book here.
| Canyonlands Motor Inn Monticello (Monticello): $55 /night. Much cheaper than spots in Moab, this small little motel offers an indoor heated pool, WIFI and is pet friendly. Book here.
\\ Must-See Sites Near Canyonlands National Park
ARCHES NATIONAL PARK
If you are looking to explore another unique desert landscape then we highly recommend checking out Arches National Park - which is only about 25 minutes from the Island in the Sky District (and 1.5 hours from The Needles District). We recommend spending a day in the park exploring the various arches and rock structures. Or if you are feeling adventurous, there are a couple of awesome canyoneering routes (U-Turn is one of the best). Find more information on the park - including how to avoid crowds - here.
CAPITOL REEF NATIONAL PARK
While we were absolutely blown away by the beauty of Canyonlands, we still think one of Utah's best kept secrets is Capitol Reef National Park - located about 2 hours (or so) from the Island in the Sky District. If you want colorful rock walls, monolithic rock structures and tight canyons - all without lots of people - then come to this out of the way national park. We promise you will not regret it.
GOBLIN VALLEY STATE PARK
Another spot to explore if you are into unique and just downright weird rock structures is Goblin Valley State Park. This hidden gem is right off of Highway 24 (the road to Hanksville). You can camp or stay at one of the park's yurts, go for a hike, canyoneer and even play disc golf at one of the most fun courses around. This park costs $20 to enter and then $35 per night of camping (no hookups). The yurts are $100 per night. Find more information on the park here.
💬 INSIDER TIP: if heading to Goblin Valley also consider stopping at Little Wildhorse Canyon, a great hiking trail that loops through slot canyons and open mesas.
Canyonlands National Park is home to some of the most rugged and colorful desert landscapes around. Plus, since it is broken up into four distinct districts you can easily find the right place for you to adventure in. In our opinion, Canyonlands National Park is definitely one of those parks that you need at least a couple of days to explore - if not a couple of different trips to fully take it all in.
Hopefully, this in-depth adventure guide helps you plan the perfect adventure to one of America's top national parks.
If you have any questions or comments about this guide or the national park in general - then please leave us a comment below! And if you don't want to miss out on any national park guides or adventure travel inspiration, then consider subscribing to Backroad Packers.