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Canyonlands National Park is divided up into 3 districts. Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze. The Maze is over a 3 hour drive from Moab, and only has dirt roads going into it, so you’d have to have a 4 wheel drive vehicle and stay at a campground. There are also no marked trails-so the section is definitely not for beginners! The Needles is about an hour and half drive south of Moab and close to the town of Monticello. It’s much less visited and would certainly be a worthwhile see, but if you’ve never been to Canyonlands before, and only have one day, Island in the Sky is the section you’d want to start with!
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Driving to Canyonlands from Moab
From the town of Moab* it’s an easy 40 minute drive to the visitor’s center(longer to other points on the roads in the park). You just follow 191 North, then turn West onto 313. There will be signs for Canyonlands and also Dead Horse Point State Park, which is also just off 313. You will need a car to get there as there’s no public transportation to and from the park, or once inside.
*Moab is the place to stay to visit both Canyonlands and Arches National Parks. It’s got plenty motels, hotels, even a hostel to stay in overnight, not to mention plenty of restaurants, grocery stores, etc. Also if you’re crazy about extreme sports it’s a big hub for that too!
Like many of the National Parks in the US, you’ll have to pay an entry fee when you arrive at Canyonlands. Check the park website out for current fees here.
If you plan to visit at least 3 national parks, I highly recommend you purchase the $80 annual pass as it will save money in the long run. You can buy this pass at any National Park entrance station.
Other important things to note: There are no places to buy food or gas stations inside the park. So make sure you fill up your car, and get all the food & water you need while you’re in Moab! And bring lots of water, this area is really dry!!
What can you do in a day?
We arrived at Canyonlands around 9:30am, after having a good breakfast in Moab, and left just after sunset around 7pm. This was in early October so the days were shorter then, but the weather was amazing! Our day was filled up by:
- Stopping at the Visitor’s Center
- Listening to an informative Ranger Talk
- Viewing all the overlooks on the paved roads
- Hiking Mesa Arch Trail
- Hiking Grand View Point Trail
- Lots of photography & looking for wildlife
We also stopped to eat a picnic lunch that we packed with us. We took our time, had fun taking pictures of everything, and weren’t rushed at all. We even hunted around to spot some lizards. It was a fun, easy going day and offered a great overview of the park!
*If you’re not into photography that much or keeping a leisurely pace, then you can definitely fit in a couple more hikes than what we did, or perhaps even detour and spend a couple hours at Dead Horse Point State Park, which is right near Canyonlands.
At the Visitor’s Center
I always suggest stopping at the visitor’s center to get whatever maps you may need. There’s a lot of information about all the hikes available, and also Ranger talks on various subjects. When we were there a talk was starting that was all about water in the desert region. We learned that Utah is the second driest state in the country(Nevada being the first), and just how amazing the plants that live here are. The area of Moab gets just 9 inches of rainfall a year on average. As a comparison, on the humid east coast of the US the average is around 40 inches! So that’s very little rain that all the plant and animal life(including humans who live there!) have to make do with in Utah.
While you’re still at the visitor’s center, take a walk just across the street, and you’ll be at the first overlook where you’ll get a sense of what this area of the park is all about.
Why is it called Island in the Sky?
Well after you’ve been to several overlooks you’ll know! You’re on top of a mesa with nothing but a land full of canyons spread out below you, for miles and miles. It truly feels like you’re looking down from an island, up in the sky!
Driving to the Overlooks
Grand View Point, Upheaval Dome Road, and Green River Overlook Road are the 3 paved roads in the park that you’ll take to see all the viewpoints and access the trails. The road is an easy drive, and overlooks are well marked. It was fun seeing the views from the different stops along the way, and it gives you a great overview of the park.
Landmarks to spot below the mesa
There are many landmarks to spot while looking out into the vast views. There is plenty of signage around at the various viewpoints, but some of the more noteworthy things to spot I listed below:
White Rim Road
If you look below the mesa at many of the viewpoints you can see a road, maybe even cars driving down it. That’s White Rim Road, and don’t try heading down it yourself without any preparations! First, you’d need a permit. Second, if you’re only here for a day, the nicely paved park road has more than enough things to do and see on it! It’s recommended you take at least 2 days to drive and explore White Rim Road, and you’ll also need a 4 wheel drive vehicle as it can be a bit rough!
The interesting thing about this road is that it was made in the 1950’s by people exploring and wanting to mine the uranium in the region. Thankfully not much was found and the miners stopped coming. The roads remained however, and that lead to places like Canyonlands being made accessible to tourists wanting to see the amazing landscapes.
White Rim of Sandstone
White Rim road is clearly named because it runs alongside of the white sandstone that can be seen along the lower canyon edge and on top of many buttes and spires. This sandstone is harder than other layers and creates a sort of cap on parts of the land, preventing some erosion. They say it was formed from sand dunes. Looking at this topography I could totally imagine it all filled in with water once upon a time!
Green & Colorado Rivers
The Green and Colorado Rivers meet here in Canyonlands, and create a confluence. From different overlooks you can catch glimpses of each river, but not the confluence itself from Island in the Sky (there’s a hike to an overlook of it located in the Needles district however).
We only had time for 2 small hikes on our day there, but there are plenty of other easy, moderate, and strenuous hikes which you can find a list of here on the National Park Website.
Mesa Arch Trail
We decided to do Mesa Arch Trail because, well arches are just really awesome rock formations to see! It’s a short easy 0.5 mile hike to the arch, which I detail about here, and if you only have time for one trail in the park, or aren’t really into hiking, then this is the one you should go on!
Grand View Point Trail
We heard that you can see a nice sunset from this trail, it’s a bit longer at 2 miles round trip, but also an easy walk with incredible scenery the whole way as you walk near the rim of the canyon! We loved this hike and had so much fun on it, and was the last thing we did during our day at Canyonlands.
Believe it or not there’s quite a bit of animals in this area, although depending on the time of day or season you may or may not see them. But you’re bound to run into some birds, and keep watching the ground for any lizards because they’re quite common too. Big horn sheep and mule deer are 2 of the more common larger animals. Mountain lions and black bears have also been spotted, but you’d be VERY lucky to catch sight of one of those as sightings are super rare.
We saw several birds, lizards, chipmunks, and even caught site of a desert cottontail rabbit when we were on our way out of the park.
We had an awesome time and a great day. Canyonlands is definitely worth a visit, even if you only have a day. Hopefully this little guide will help you with your first visit to Canyonlands! Let me know in the comments if there is any other info you’d like to know about.
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