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How to Make the Most of One Day in Canyonlands National Park

How to Make the Most of One Day in Canyonlands National Park
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One of the most important human emotions is wonder. You can find it through incredible meals, jaw-dropping art, or admiring epic views. No matter the means, wondrous experiences create an indelible mark in your memory. I had one such experience in Canyonlands National Park, where my breath was taken away by the stunning natural beauty that southwest Utah is so well known for.

I visited Canyonlands briefly in February 2020. My trip was cut short due to inclement weather, so I actually only got to spend a half-day in Canyonlands. Combining my experience with a little extra research, I’ve put together what I would suggest if you too are short on time visiting the park – but have a full day to spend exploring Canyonlands National Park, rather than a half-day.

A single day doesn’t sound like much, but whether you’re just trying to hit all of the incredible things to do near Moab or are doing a cool Southwest road trip, you can pack a ton of Canyonlands into just one day. Read on info, advice, and tips to make the most of one day in Canyonlands National Park. It will leave you inspired and ready to plan a return trip!


Planning Your Visit to Canyonlands National Park

Before jumping into my suggested itinerary for one day in Canyonlands, I want to cover a few of the basics and logistics. I find answering these questions before you ask them helps you have a perfect trip with no hiccups.

The Three Districts of Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park - Ken Lund via Flickr
Photo credit: Ken Lund via Flickr

The best place to start when planning a trip to Canyonlands National Park is to understand that the park is made up of three very distinct “districts.” (“District” is the official National Park Service term, and they use it across a lot of parks; for example, Zion has both Zion Canyon and Kolob Canyon districts.)

As I said, Canyonlands has three districts:

  • Island in the Sky
  • The Needles
  • The Maze

Each of these districts has different natural wonders and experiences, and different levels of access. Island in the Sky is the most easily accessed (just 45 minutes from Moab) and has the easiest hiking trails. The Needles is intermediate in both effort to reach and to explore. And The Maze is the most difficult part of the park to reach and has the most challenging hikes and natural experiences.

Since you only have one day in Canyonlands National Park, you don’t have time to spend reaching the less-accessible parts of the park – or the multi-day hikes they have. For that reason, this post focuses on how to spend one day in Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky district.

Driving & Parking in Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park - Anna Irene via Flickr

There is one main road that runs into Island in the Sky within Canyonlands, and it’s well-paved and maintained year-round. Each of Canyonlands’ main attractions (many of which I’ve included on my sample one day itinerary below) has a parking area, though they fill up quickly during the summer months.

For that reason, one pro-tip I can offer is to visit during the shoulder season (spring/autumn), or during the winter (the Season of Solitude) when you’ll feel like you almost have the entire park to yourself! I visited Canyonlands in the winter and the rock features are gorgeous with a thin layer of snow.

Canyonlands National Park Entrance Fees

Canyolands National Park - Rob Lee via Flickr
Photo credit: Rob Lee via Flickr

As part of the National Park system, Canyonlands operates under the same rules as other parks. You’ll either need to pay an entrance fee or use a National Parks Pass to enter.

Here are you options:

You can read more about the fees – and check that the above is accurate – on the Canyonlands NPS website. (The fees sometimes change every year, but I can confirm these prices are accurate for 2020/2021.)

Accommodation In & Near Canyonlands National Park

Accommodation in Canyonlands (Islands in the Sky) is limited. There’s just one campground (Island in the Sky Campground) with 12 spots and they fill on a first-come, first-serve basis.

If you can’t get a camping spot, or don’t want one, because that’s not your style, I recommend staying in Moab instead. There are loads of independent and chain hotels in town, plus other accommodation options like Airbnbs.

What to Do in Canyonlands National Park (When You Only Have One Day!)

Okay, now that you have the important logistics to keep in mind, let’s jump into how I suggest you spend one day in Canyonlands National Park. From sunrise to sunset and beyond, here’s a list of the different parts of Islands in the Sky to visit (and in the order that makes the most sense!).

Sunrise at Dead Horse Point

Okay, so technically, I recommend starting your one day in Canyonlands outside the park. On the way from Moab to the entrance of Island in the Sky, you’ll pass Dead Horse Point State Park. This park neighbors Canyonlands and has some incredible views too. (It’s also known for its stargazing, so serves as a good alternative to Grand View Point I mention later.)

There are some great sunrise spots in Canyonlands, but Dead Horse Point is the most logical one so you don’t have to backtrack during the day. Head straight out to the point to watch the sunrise and bring the red rocks into vibrant color.

Stop at the Islands in the Sky Visitor Center

Next stop: the visitor center! I’m a sucker for National Park visitor centers. They’re always full of information about the park I might otherwise miss or not know – and they have the gift shop!

Related: if you love national parks, don’t miss my list of the best national park gifts! Treat yo’ self!

Pop into the visitor center quickly for your National Park Passport stamp and to check with the rangers on any special conditions in the park. If you’re planning to do the Aztec Butte and Upheaval Dome hikes I suggest as optional activities, be sure to double-check that those trails are both open.

Take in the View at Shafer Canyon Overlook

Canyonlands National Park - Shafer Canyon - Robbie Shade via Flickr
Photo credit: Robbie Shade via Flickr

One quick stop you can make right away is at Shafer Canyon Overlook near The Neck. This is a small area that shows an incredible canyon view, plus the mining road that was used as part of constructing the park.

Parking can fill up quick here (like everywhere in Canyonlands), so keep an eye on No Parking signs and other cars moving through the area.

Walk to Mesa Arch for an Epic View

Mesa Arch in Canyonlands

We all know Arches National Park is known for its natural stone arches. Did you know Canyonlands has some too? (Canyonlands also has canyons, hence the name!)

The best arch in Island in the Sky district is Mesa Arch. It’s a short 0.5-mile loop to reach the cliff where you can see Mesa Arch in all its glory.

Mesa Arch is one of the most popular spots for photos in Canyonlands, as you might imagine. It’s particularly great for sunrise, if you want an alternative to Dead Horse Point. In any event, expect parking here to fill up quickly and more people here than other parts of the park. Plan to wait if you want that perfect Instagram photo.

Be Awestruck at the Green River Overlook

One Day in Canyonlands National Park - Green River Overlook

The next stop for your day in Canyonlands is my absolute favorite part of the Island in the Sky district: Green River Overlook.

You’ll turn right off Grand View Point Road onto Upheaval Dome Road, then left onto Green River Overlook Road

I’ve never been so awestruck as stepping up to the cliff edge and seeing this landscape view. It looks like one of the paintings made by explorers first discovering the area (less a few more modern trails/backcountry roads).

It’s an easy, flat walk from the parking area to the Green River Overlook but an absolute must-do no matter how much time you have in Canyonlands.

(Optional) Hike Aztec Butte Trail to Ancestral Puebloan Ruins

Canyonlands National Park - au_ears via Flickr
Photo credit: au_ears via Flickr

For the rest of the morning, I recommend setting out on a hike. If this isn’t your style, or you don’t have the right equipment, you can skip this suggestion and head straight to Upheaval Dome to hang out in the picnic area until you’re ready for lunch.

Aztec Butte Trail is an awesome option for those who want a moderate morning hike because it’s a good workout and has interesting sights. You can reach the trailhead by returning back to Upheaval Dome Road, turning left, and stopping at the trailhead (there’s a small pullout with a few parking spots.)

The 2-mile Y-shaped trail gives a ton of diversity: the eastern fork ascends Aztec Butte for epic views, and the western fork brings you to two Ancestral Puebloan ruins. The trail includes climbing on slickrock (similar to the Delicate Arch trail) so isn’t advisable in the winter.

Note: Water is limited in Canyonlands, so be sure to bring plenty if you plan to hike, as well as sun protection (even in the snowy months!).

Picnic Lunch at Upheaval Dome

There are only two picnic areas in Island in the Sky, so when you find yourself ready for lunch, head to the end of Upheaval Dome road and grab a picnic spot to enjoy yours.

Upheaval Dome is actually not a dome – it’s the remnants of an ancient impact crater, formed by a meteor striking the earth millions or billions of years ago. The picnic area is nice, but hides the best views – so fuel up with lunch and set out to burn those calories right back off.

(Optional) Hike the Rim at Upheaval Dome

Canyonlands National Park - Upheaval Dome

I’ve marked this hike as optional because not everyone will be up for it physically, but if you are interested and willing to put in the effort, Upheaval Dome rim trail is well worth it.

The first viewpoint is a 1-mile out-and-back hike from the parking and picnic area – but be warned it’s a steep trail. You can add on another out-and-back mile to reach a second viewpoint with an even more incredible perspective.

Give yourself at least an hour for this hike, protect yourself from the midday sun, and bring plenty of water!

Hike to the White Rim Overlook

Canyonlands National Park - John Manard via Flickr
Photo credit: John Manard via Flickr

Okay, I know this day seems like there are a lot of hikes, but I tried to mix them up a bit! After all, some of the best views in Canyonlands National Park aren’t right next to the main road (though I’m sure they did their best to make them accessible when they constructed the road!)

Speaking of the road, from Upheaval Dome to White Rim Overlook will take you past a number of epic viewpoints. These include Buck Canyon Overlook and Candlestick Tower Overlook. If you see a sight you’re keen on, be sure to stop and enjoy it. This itinerary for one day in Canyonlands ends with sunset at Grand View Point, so you should enjoy what you can see during daylight hours when you pass it!

White Rim Overlook is a longer hike, but it’s considered easy as it’s totally flat. The trail is a 1.8-mile out-and-back that takes you from the parking area to an epic view of the White Rim of the Colorado River, Monument Basin, and the La Sal Mountains. It’s definitely a must-do even if you skipped the other optional hikes I recommended.

Watch Sunset at Grand View Point

Sunrise Grand View Point Overlook - au_ears via Flickr
Photo credit: au_ears via Flickr

End your day in Canyonlands by watching the sunset. There are plenty of epic spots for sunset in Canyonlands National Park, but the best by far is Grand View Point. Arrive 30-45 minutes before sunset (check that for the day you plan to visit) and you can enjoy the “grand view” before sunset paints the Utah landscape and sky in a gorgeous palette of colors.

There is an additional 2-mile out-and-back hike to Grand View Point Overlook, but you can enjoy the sunset just fine from the parking area. (If you choose to hike-out for sunset, make sure you bring headlamps so you can hike back in the dark!)

Stay for Stargazing

Last but certainly not least, if you have the interest and time, I recommend staying to stargaze in Canyonlands. There are a number of great places for stargazing in Canyonlands, but you can also stay at Grand View Point and admire the night sky from there.

Another option is to make your way out of the park and back to Dead Horse Point State Park. This is one of the best spots in Utah for stargazing and they hold regular astronomy programs there during the summer months.

There you have it: an epic itinerary to make the most of one day in Canyonlands National Park! Do you have any other questions about visiting Canyonlands? Let me know in the comments.


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