Canyonlands National Park (Island in the Sky) Travel Guide

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The Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky district is full of hikes, bikes and so much more. Plus, it's just 40 minutes outside of Moab, Utah.
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Canyonlands National Park is like Utah’s equivalent to the Grand Canyon — except these canyons tip the scale at just over 1,000 feet and they are far more intrinsic to the being of travelers in the area.

Visiting Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky district, you won’t be inundated by a ton of travelers seeking and ruining photos and hikes. You probably won’t be caught in traffic jams leading to the best sights to see in the park. And it won’t take you multiple visits to see and experience everything the park has to offer.

That’s because Canyonlands National Park is split into two areas: Island in the Sky and Needles. Visiting both districts on the same day is almost impossible since you must traverse 106 miles along the exterior of the park to get from one entrance to the next.

Since the Island in the Sky entrance is a quick 35-minute drive from Arches National Park and 40 minutes outside of Moab, it makes for a perfect day trip to experience something other than arches and red sand.

The Needles district of the park is a bit south, so it may be worth adding it to a long list of Utah National Parks and heading even further south for an epic road trip!

Don’t get me wrong, I loved seeing both of the previously mentioned things during my time in Moab, but the Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky district offers sweeping canyons, colorful backdrops and an all-around diverse experience!

Here’s what you need to know to make the most of your visit.

Best Things to Do in Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky District

1. Mesa Arch

You know, it’s kind of funny that one of the most-visited parts of the Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky district is Mesa Arch. You’d think that those who visited nearby Arches National Park would be all arched out, but that’s not the case.

And I second that notion of this being one of the best views in the entire spark. Just look at that picture below. Vibrancy exudes through each color and shade that catches the eyes. The La Sal Mountains and 1,000-foot-deep canyons are perfectly framed by the Mesa Arch like a scene out of a multi-million dollar Hollywood movie.

Plus, the half-mile “hike,” which is really a walk up a perfect path makes the payoff views that much sweeter. For the little amount of work you must do, Mesa Arch is an amazing sight to see. I took the path less traveled, stood in a 5-minute line to snap a photo with the arch and then perched myself on the edge of the canyon while I gazed into the canyon in awe for about 45 minutes.

  • Amount of Hiking Necessary: 0.5 miles round trip
  • Best Time to Visit: Sunrise or late in the afternoon provides the best pictures

2. Upheaval Dome

There are many places in the world you visit where pictures just don’t do justice — and nothing ever could unless you get a glimpse with your own two eyes. Upheaval Dome is one of those places.

The mystery shrouding Upheaval Dome makes it much more interesting, too. With the emergence of vast and expansive advances in science and technology, many things in this world have been figured out. Upheaval Dome is not one of those things.

There are two theories as to how it was created.

The first theory suggests an ancient saltwater sea evaporated millions of years ago, and the salt eventually flowed through the thick rock layers to create a dome in the middle of a deep canyon. This theory is suitably called the “Salt Dome Theory” and has been backed by geologists.

The second theory is, in my mind, much more fascinating. According to some geologists, a meteorite, which is estimated at a one-third-mile diameter, broke through the atmosphere and crashed smack dab into the earth about 60 million years ago. And since it (allegedly) occurred so long ago, debris from the meteorite has been washed away by erosion.

What do you believe? Comment below to let me know! I’m no geologist, but I believe both theories are plausible.

  • Amount of Hiking Necessary: 1.8 miles round trip
  • Best Time to Visit: Before noon provides the best pictures

3. Grand View Point Overlook

If you want to know where Canyonlands National Park gets its name from, head to Grand View Point Overlook and wonder no more! This is the best and most expansive view in the park to fill your eyes with canyons galore.

You get a pristine view of the colorful canyons with the La Sal Mountains deep in the background, standing guard for these beautiful canyons that peak around 1,000-feet deep.

  • Amount of Hiking Necessary: A few hundred feet to the lookout and 2 miles round trip on the trail
  • Best Time to Visit: The afternoon provides the best pictures

4. Shafer Canyon Overlook

While the Shafer Canyon Overlook offers one of the most breathtaking views in the park, it’s not because of the expansive canyons steeply dropping more than 1,000 feet to the desert’s ground floor. The steep switchbacks, navigating from the upper level to the floor level of the canyon, is what catches the eyes.

I stood at the overlook for a solid 30 minutes, watching cars morph from hot wheels into full-sized four-wheel-drive trucks as I imagined the sheer beauty one would experience (views and adrenaline-fueled steering) while navigating the switchbacks from deep, peaceful canyon thoughts to the entrance back into reality on paved roads.

As I stepped back into my two-wheel-drive sedan rental, I thought about driving down the Shafer Canyon Trail before I eventually balked at the idea of being stuck at the bottom after the sun sets.

Upon further research, I learned many people successfully make the trek to the bottom in 2WD cars — and that 4WD vehicles are only necessary if you plan to go deeper into the canyon.

As I write this, staring at the picture with my half-full wine glass near the keyboard and a false sense of confidence, I shake my head for not trying to navigate the first switchback. I could’ve just turned back if things got sketchy, right? Oh well, maybe some other time. As for now, I won’t dwell on the past.

  • Amount of Hiking Necessary: None
  • Best Time to Visit: Mid-day to late in the afternoon for the best pictures

5. Buck Canyon Overlook

This is where the buck stops for me. Pun intended. I didn’t get to see the Buck Canyon Overlook with my own two eyes, but everything one I’ve talked to and every picture I’ve seen tells the story that you should go!

After all, it’s a simple overlook with a 0.1-mile walk to get some pretty pristine canyon views. Although the Grand View Point Overlook is still 10 times better, I urge you to take a gander of both overlooks.

You can either stop at the overlook or, if you’re into canyoneering, you can make a day out of this half-day canyoneering trek.

  • Amount of Hiking Necessary: 0.1 miles to overlook
  • Best Time to Visit: Mid-day to late in the afternoon for the best pictures

6. Green River Overlook

Although the Green River doesn’t run nearly as deep as it once used to, the Green River Overlook offers a glimpse into the past. This spot has spectacular canyon views and you can see the Green River slowly cutting through the middle of the canyon.

Can you even imagine what the Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky area looked like millions of years ago? Well, now imagine what it will look like in another million years, because that same river is still cutting its way through and making the canyon deeper.

  • Amount of Hiking Necessary: 0.2 miles to the overlook
  • Best Time to Visit: The morning, before noon, provides for the best pictures

7. White Rim Road

If you don’t have a four-wheel-drive vehicle during your trip to Canyonlands, you can go ahead and skip to the next section. However, if you do, you may want to traverse the entirety (or part of) this 100-mile dirt-road loop.

According to the National Park Service, this loop takes three or four days to complete and requires a permit. Since I didn’t traverse the road myself due to a lack of time and access to a 4WD vehicle, I can’t explain the trek as well as DangerousRoads.org. If you have trekked this road, drop a comment to let me know how it was!

  • Amount of Hiking Necessary: None
  • Best Time to Visit: Summer to fall and during the weekdays

Best Time to Visit Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky

Since the Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky district is located smack dab in the middle of a blazing hot desert, it’s best to visit this sweeping wonderland during the fall and winter months.

If you visit during spring, your trip may be hindered by flooding and heavy rains. If you visit during summer, you’ll have to be cognizant of 100-plus-degree days, dry heat and the beating summer sun.

Visiting during the fall ensures you can beat the heat and that you’ll have mostly clear skies with a fraction of the visitors. Visiting during winter ensures you’ll definitely beat the heat, but that you may have to deal with snow and soggy roads/hiking trails.

I visited during mid-October and the weather was perfect (70s during the day and 40s to 30s at night, plus half the number of visitors as summer months).

Canyonlands National Park Hours

Canyonlands National Park is open 24 hours a day, seven days a week, but the visitor center is only open from 9 a.m. to 4:30 p.m. every day, extending its hours from March through October.

Canyonlands National Park Entrance Fee

Canyonlands National Park costs $30 per vehicle, $25 per motorcycle or $15 per bicyclist. Or you can buy the America the Beautiful National Park Annual Pass for $80 or the Southeast Utah Pass for $55. I wound up buying the annual pass because you can use it at Arches National Park and the rest of America’s National Parks for an entire year!

Where Is Canyonlands National Park?

Canyonlands National Park is located in Southeastern Utah outside of Moab. Getting to the Island in the Sky Visitor Center from Moab will take you about 35 minutes. It’s in the perfect location because it’s only a brisk 30-minute drive to the entrance of Arches National Park!

How Long Does It Take to Drive Through Canyonlands National Park?

Although Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky area is pretty big, the paved road leading through the park is not nearly that capacity. If you were to drive from the Island in the Sky visitor center to the Grand View Point, which is the furthest point on paved roads, it would only take about 30 minutes each way.

So, theoretically, you could drive the entirety of Canyonlands’ paved roads in about one hour. But you’d be missing out exponentially because the Island in the Sky area offers so many incredible sights, hiking trails and offroad activities!

If you just so happen to have a four-wheel-drive vehicle, you can take a scenic diversion on each side of the park and, realistically, could be driving into the deep canyons and alongside winding rivers for days on end. There are about 100 times more 4WD-accessible roads than there are paved roads in Canyonlands National Park.

Canyonlands National Park Camping

While there are many backcountry campsites to stop at on White Rim Road (Airport, Gooseberry, White Creek, Murphy Hogback, Candlestick, Potato Bottom, Hardscrabble, Labyrinth, and Taylor), there’s only one legitimate campsite in Canyonlands National Park for the average Joe and Jane.

That’s the Island in the Sky Willow Flat Campground, which offers 12 first-come, first-served campsites for $15 per night each. They’re equipped with fire rings and picnic tables at each site and a community bathroom for those without RVs.

If you want to camp for the free-99 near Canyonlands National Park, you’re in luck! Camping near Canyonlands National Park at eight of the nine campsites is free and within a 45-minute drive!

Maybe it’s the wandering soul that lives within me (or the cheapskate), but I highly recommend camping out when you’re in the area. I feel that hotels and home sharing waters down the experience a bit.

There’s nothing quite like waking up at sunrise, fixing a cup a coffee while overlooking the natural terrain, grabbing a previously purchased breakfast from your vehicle, and just hitting the open road without having been inside a man-made establishment for at least 12 hours.

During your visit to Canyonlands National Park, I hope this travel guide offers everything you want or need!

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