Canyonlands Travel Guide

Learn how to travel Canyonlands according to your ability or how much time you have.

Formed by two stately rivers, the Colorado and the Green, Canyonlands offers an abundant network of veiny trails that can sustain a lifetime of hiking wanderlust. It’s divided into four sections: The Maze, Island in the Sky, Needles, and of course the rivers themselves. Mesa Arch, the photogenic frontispiece of the Island in the Sky district, is perhaps the most well-known feature of the park — that and the fact that Thelma and Louise plunged to their deaths over a nearby cliff. The next-most-accessible district is Needles, followed by the Maze, where long hikes and backpacking trips require significant planning and preparation, with no food, water, services or gas for a hundred miles.

Boasting 340,000 acres of sheer, high-desert topography, Utah’s largest park presents a full spread of outdoor excursions, from “no need to get out of the car” to “moderate” to “breakneck survivalist.” You can see for miles right from the road, take some short, standard hikes to non-standard scenery, or you can get out into the wildest the West has left.

I have toddlers in tow. / I just had a hip replaced. / I'm only packing flip flops.

Here are three "green circle" hikes to get you acquainted with Canyonlands:

Mesa Arch: Early morning grandeur for sleepy, happy photo geeks. 0.5 miles roundtrip.

Grand View Point: A short walk to the edge of the sky. 2.0 miles roundtrip.

Murphy Point: Lollipop loop descent into Murphy Basin. 3.6 miles roundtrip.

I've convinced myself I like camping. / I'll do what it takes to get that selfie. / My kids are grown and susceptible to bribes.

Check out our favorite "blue circle" trails that may be moderate in terms of ability, but liberal with beauty:

Upheaval Dome: Wrinkles in time. 1.0 miles roundtrip.

Whale Rock: A one-mile, kid-friendly scramble up to view the Canyonlands panorama. 1.0 miles roundtrip.

Neck Spring: Six miles of moderate snake-shaped trail with 1,500 feet of mesa under your feet. 5.8 miles roundtrip.

My hiking boots cost more than my rent. / Michelangelo could've modeled David's calves after mine. / I have outdoor gear you've never heard of.

Here are a couple of "black diamond" trails for the ultimate adventurers:

Syncline Loop: Revel in primeval upheaval as you spiral around and down to Upheaval Dome. 8.3 miles roundtrip.

Chesler Park: Climb Elephant Hill to stick the Needles District in your eyes. 11 miles roundtrip.

How much time do you have?

If you have HALF A DAY…

Island in the Sky, the most popular district in Canyonlands, sorta sounds like that “Spirit in the Sky” song they played in Apollo 13, and that’s fitting because this place is the best. Island in the Sky’s majestic mesas are the stony red signature of Canyonlands. This northern section of the park is only about 30 miles from Moab and 26 from Arches, so you can easily make it part of your grand summer auto tour.

The main overlooks are Grand View Point Trail, a really great short hike to a 360˚ view that’ll make you forget what you were saying, and, of course, Mesa Arch. But go to Mesa Arch first — like, pre-dawn — so you can stake out the perfect spot for a sunrise photo. And Upheaval Dome, a geographic freak show of furrowed rocks and creased strata, offers two short hikes so you can view the stony circus without getting too breathy.

If you have A FULL DAY…

Big Spring/Squaw Canyon Loop. If you really hurry, you can do all that and then head to the Needles district for some acrophobia exposure therapy. The strenuous 7.5-mile Big Spring/Squaw Canyon Loop will show you the fab formations east of the confluence of the rivers. The main trailheads are Squaw Flat Canyon, which necessitates a little scrambling; Trail Junction and its hardly believable views; and Big Spring, named for its consistent water source. Close the day with the very short Pot Hole Point trail and you’ve got a really solid experience.

White Rim Road. Another option is to use your full day driving the White Rim Road back. You’ll need a permit and 4WD to follow this 100-mile circuit of Island in the Sky but you’re rewarded with a look at Musselman Arch and the canyons the Colorado and Green Rivers wrought. And if you want to use your feet, hit the 8.6-mile Murphy Trail or the strenuous 7.1 miles of the backcountry Syncline Loop.

If you have THREE DAYS…

Peekaboo Trail. Three days is really a perfect amount of time to immerse yourself in the deep of Canyonlands. Instead of picking and choosing from the options above, you can do them all, then add Peekaboo Trail in Needles. Peekaboo is an out-and-back 10 miles from the Squaw Flat Trailhead and you’ll get to cut through sandstone canyons, do some light scrambling and even use a couple wooden ladders.

Then there’s the Maze. Three days is probably the minimum you’ll need to explore the ultra-remote west district of Canyonlands, up to a week. (Up to the rest of your life.) Test your backpacking grit, your self-sufficiency, your 4X4 capability and your gear in the Maze — the last part of the Lower 48 to get mapped — in case you need to escape your inbox or the authorities for a while.

Hidden Gems: Horseshoe Canyon & Chesler Park Loop

Petroglyphs — rock etchings, as opposed to rock paintings, which are called pictographs — are the big draw for the smallish number of people heading to Horseshoe Canyon. (I mean, the scenery is pretty incredible, too, but that sort of comes standard around here.) Created sometime before 1300 CE, experts estimate the drawings that cover the Great Gallery are the works of Ancestral Puebloan culture. Other artifacts left by Paleoindians in this area are estimated to date as far back as 9000–7000 BCE.

Another relatively untrafficked way to get real with that Canyonlands appeal is the Chesler Park Loop. It’s a tough 11-mile journey in the Needles district with five different trailheads. Most popular of these is the Joint Trail on the west side of the park. Here you’ll find lots of narrows and gaps and other claustrophobic fun.

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