15 Best Things to do in Canyonlands National Park – the Highlights

15 Absolute Best Things to do in Canyonlands National Park – Island in the Sky District

Best of Canyonlands: Wondering What to do in Canyonlands National Park? I think Canyonlands is one of the most underrated National Parks and that’s why I have put together this list of the Best Things to do in Canyonlands National Park.

Visiting Canyonlands is an experience and there is so much to do! I have written a lot of posts on Canyonlands so you can check out my One Perfect Day in Canyonlands and hikes to do there. I also have a post on Moab Tours which includes tours to the park. And my post popular post is where to stay in Moab, Utah.

This post will focus on the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands which is located closest to Moab, Utah.

The northern district of Canyonlands National Park is dominated by the sheer-walled mesa known as Island in the Sky. A picturesque road follows the rim of the mesa, with pullouts at viewpoints offering spectacular views of the surrounding countryside, including the rocky gorges cut by the Colorado and Green rivers. The surrounding country is 1,000 feet down, almost straight down, from the top of the mesa in several spots.

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To visit any of the National Parks in the USA, I recommend buying a National Park Pass. The America the Beautiful Pass is valid for one year and costs $80. Plus 10% of sale proceeds go to the National Park Foundation.

Map of the Best Things to do in Canyonlands Island in the Sky District

What to do at Canyonlands National Park

Visitor Center View Point

As you enter the park, you will come upon the visitor center with maps, brochures and public restrooms. But the surprising thing about the visitor center is that there is a beautiful viewpoint just across the street.

This will be your first view of Canyonlands and the Island in the Sky and seeing the 1,000 foot drop around the mesa. Its a great first stop in the park.

Mesa Arch

Mesa Arch is the most popular hike and site in Canyonlands and well worth waking up early to see the Mesa Arch Sunrise.

Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park

If you are researching Canyonlands National Park then you will know that Mesa Arch is the most iconic place in the park. It is an easy enough hike that is mostly flat but there are a few rocky places along the way.

Visiting Mesa Arch at sunrise is a lovely experience if you are a morning person but well worth the early wake up time! Mesa Arch is one of the best hikes in Canyonlands National Park.

Grand Viewpoint

The Canyonlands area may be seen from Grand View Point, which has a fantastic view. You can see distant mountains, canyons, basins, and the White Rim Road from the viewpoint at 6,080 feet elevation.

The southernmost point of the Island in the Sky scenic route is Grand View Point. The tourist centre is about a 15-minute drive away, while Moab, Utah is about a 60-minute drive away. The overlook has restrooms, but no running water. Water is available at the tourist centre from spring until October.

The Needles, Monument Basin, the La Sal Mountains, the Abajo Mountains, and the White Rim Road are all visible from the viewpoint thanks to an outdoor display.

Green River Overlook

In Canyonlands National Park’s Island in the Sky District, the Green River Overlook is located at the end of the paved road just past the Willows Campground. The vantage point, at roughly 6,000 feet, provides an excellent view of the canyon amid the cayon geology that distinguishes the Island District. The Green River may be seen winding its way through the vast Soda Springs Basin. Furthermore, the White Rim Trail may be viewed from afar.

This is a must-do when visiting the Islands in the Sky District because of its ease of access and vast perspective. Visit an hour after sunrise or after sunset for the finest experience and lighting. 

The greatest views of one of Canyonlands’ two great rivers may be found from this southwest-facing vantage point: the Green River, deep in its channel 1,300 feet (396 m) below. The Maze district and the White Rim Road are also visible to visitors.

This is one of the best sites to view the sun set at Island in the Sky.

Shafer Canyon

The Shafer Trail in Canyonlands National Park’s Island in the Sky region is an iconic route that drops 1,500 feet (457 metres) through a colorful, enormous sandstone cliff. Its purpose has evolved over time, from a path used by Native Americans to gain access to resources on the mesa top, to a track used by sheep herders to move flocks to better feeding in the winter, and finally to a road used by trucks transporting uranium from the backcountry to market.

Breathtaking view of rugged Shafer Trail winding down into Shafer Canyon on a sunny day, Shafer Trail Viewpoint, Island in the Sky District, Canyonlands National Park, Moab, Utah

The Shafer Trail is now a difficult, unpaved backcountry road for recreational users looking for a once-in-a-lifetime adventure.

Buck Canyon Overlook

Buck Canyon Overlook is located immediately off Grand View Point Road in Canyonlands National Park’s Island in the Sky region. Buck Canyon is less popular than some of the other views in the area, but don’t expect to have it all to yourself.

The parking area is only a short walk away from the viewpoint, which is reached through a paved walkway. Down into Buck Canyon, there are some spectacular views. The La Sal Mountains stand up against the red canyon rock, and you can even see the Colorado River and the popular 4WD White Rim Road in the distance.

Down in the canyon, you might be able to discern the faint shape of some more roads and seismic lines. These were built in the 1950s as part of a uranium and oil quest. The effects of these mining activities are still obvious, despite the fact that they have been stopped for a long time. Natural revegetation is progressively correcting these effects, but in this arid environment, it will take many years.

Upheaval Dome

Canyonlands is a geologically orderly area. Layers of sedimentary layers chronicle the park’s history in an orderly manner. These strata have not been considerably altered, skewed, or folded in the millions of years since they were laid down by ancient seas, rivers, or winds, with a few exceptions.

Views of Upheaval Dome in Canyonlands National Park along the White Rim Road

The story of Upheaval Dome is extremely different. Rock layers have been significantly distorted over a three-mile (5-kilometer) area. The rocks are pushed up into a circular structure called a dome, or anticline, at the centre. A downwarp in the rock layers known as a syncline surrounds this dome.

Whale Rock

Whale Rock, which rises above Upheaval Dome in Canyonlands National Park’s Island in the Sky, is a one-of-a-kind natural structure on the western extremity of a beautiful mesa known as the Island in the Sky. Two prominent ideas explain how Upheaval Dome, a peculiar dome/crater, came to be, but none discusses how a whale-sized rock got up sprawled across the neighboring mesa.

Whale Rock is a lengthy sandstone formation that resembles a gigantic beached whale that washed up on the Sky Island. A one-mile round-trip hike to the summit of Whale Rock gains 250 feet in elevation, providing a great perspective of Upheaval Dome and the surrounding canyons.

White Rim Overlook

The White Rim Overlook Trail, located just up the road from Grand View Point in Canyonlands National Park’s Island in the Sky District, sees significantly fewer tourists than Grand View Point.

The trek, which takes you to the south-east point of the “Island” plateau, provides unrestricted views to the north, south, and east that are among the greatest in Canyonlands. Monument Basin and Gooseberry Canyon, located more than 1,500 feet below the edge of the Wingate sandstone cliffs on which the overlook perches, are particularly interesting.

Aztec Butte

This is a fantastic hike, but it is not for the faint of heart. The first two-thirds of the track are well-defined and on packed sand, but at the conclusion, you’ll ascend roughly 200 feet up a tough slickrock slope, following cairns. There are no handrails and the ascent up the slickrock slope to the top of the butte is more challenging than mounting Whale Rock. Make sure you’re wearing appropriate footwear and exercise caution.

On the higher butte, there are seven one- and two-room houses, and two more on the lower butte, which are original Puebloan constructions known as granaries. You can also take in some spectacular views, particularly of the enormous Trail Canyon headwall to the north-west.

White Rim Road

The 100-mile White Rim Road winds around and beneath the top of the Island in the Sky mesa, providing panoramic views of the surrounding area. Mountain bike tours take three to four days, while four-wheel-drive journeys take two to three days.

The White Rim Road is relatively demanding for high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles under ideal weather conditions. The White Rim loop is a hard mountain bike ride because of the steep, exposed sections of the Shafer Trail, Lathrop Canyon Road, Murphy Hogback, Hardscrabble Hill, and the Mineral Bottom switchbacks, which necessitate extra caution for both vehicles and cyclists during inclement weather.

Tips for Visiting Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands is perfect for outdoor enthusiasts.  Also, note that it is dry and hot (in the summer) and make sure you know what you are getting into before you start.  Here are a few tips for Canyonlands:

  • Check out this book on Canyonlands National Park. Its a great resource for visiting Canyonlands and Arches. You can pick it up here.
  • Bring a reusable water bottle and lots of water! Remember you are in the sun and you will need to drink lots of water. I love my LifeStraw Filtered Water Bottle.  I can refill this bottle anywhere and it comes with a carabiner to connect it to my daypack.
  • Check the Weather – days over 100 degrees are very common.  On top of that there is quite a bit of air pollution in Phoenix which can make it suffocating.  Make sure to check.
  • Hiking boots or sandals that will protect your feet! I love good shoes.  I need all the support and help I can get.  I actually love these sandals for hiking and have a whole post on Merrell vs Keen shoes for hiking.  I also love these hiking boots which I used for Hiking in the Grand Canyon.
  • Bring hiking poles for balance and to protect your knees.  I know many experienced hikers (and even amateur ones) think that hiking poles are for old people who lose their balance.  Actually, hiking poles can help when going down steep inclines or when scrambling over rocks.  They are great to hike with even for the most experienced hiker. 
  • Wear a sunhat. I feel like this whole post is about how high you are in the mountains and how much closer you are to the sun but it is so true. At elevation, you are closer to the sun and more likely to burn. Wear sun protection such as a sun hat and sunscreen.
  • Start Early – If you want to avoid the traffic and the heat you will need to start your hike early.  That way it will be nice and cool and the smog will not affect you either.
  • Leave no trace. If you are new to the concept of Leave No Trace it is all about preserving the environment to ensure it is in the same or better condition when you leave it.  This means that you should stick to the trails and carry out everything that you carried in.  This is a great explanation of the Leave No Trace principles!
  • Water shoes are great for water hikes– If you don’t have a pair, I highly suggest it as they are affordable.  I have an article on the pros and cons of several pairs of water shoes.
  • Bring Bug Spray and a snack: Be sure to bring everything you need including a snack like a protein bar plus BUG SPRAY.

Where to stay near Canyonlands

Canyonlands makes for a great weekend escape. Fresh air, beautiful scenery and being in nature does a world of good for the soul. I recommend staying as close to the park as possible and even treating yourself with a cabin with a spa pool to relax at night.

  • There are lots of fantastic Airbnbs in Moab. There are many beautiful places to stay near the park and this allows you to spend most of your time experiencing the park instead of driving to the park.
  • I stayed at the Best Western Plus. I have an entire post on where to stay near Canyonlands to help you find the best place for your budget.

If you are taking a road trip remember to reserve a car in advance using Discover Cars .

Nicole LaBarge

Nicole is a travel expert who has been traveling to the American Southwest since 1992. There is so much to see and do in Arizona, New Mexico, Utah, Nevada, and California. I spend part of the year in Phoenix and travel around the area visiting all the best places and going on the best hikes. Check out my detailed destination guides, the best hiking in each state guides, and the travel gear you need for your next trip.

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