Canyonlands National Park in One Day
When visitors come to Moab, Utah, they’re usually there to see the famous arches of Arches National Park, the world-renowned mountain biking, or the amazing river rafting.
Canyonlands National Park seems to be an afterthought to many people. “Oh, there’s another national park here? Cool, let’s drive out there for a couple of hours to check it out.”
If you really want to see all of Canyonlands National Park, you really need to spend a few days here. Why? The park is divided up into three “districts”, none of which can be easily accessed from the others in a short amount of time. So, really, to see it all you need at least a day for each district.
What if you only have one day to explore Canyonlands? Try this Canyonlands itinerary, exploring the more popular Island in the Sky District.
Canyonlands National Park one-day itinerary
For more information on this park, these hikes, and surrounding parks, check out Moon Handbooks Zion & Bryce: Including Arches, Canyonlands, Capitol Reef, Grand Staircase-Escalante, & Moab.
Sunrise at Mesa Arch
You’ve probably seen the photos. The sun rises in the middle of an archway, illuminating the bottom of the arch in a brilliant orange. Yeah, this is Canyonlands’ Mesa Arch. And don’t let the pictures fool you. Think you’ll be the only person here? If you’re not arriving at the trailhead at least one hour before sunrise you can just head back to your hotel or camp for coffee and breakfast. You won’t be able to squeeze in amongst all the other photographers.
But if you do make it, and if you don’t need to be in the photographer’s line, it sure is a sight to see. Get there EARLY.
After Mesa Arch, stop at the viewpoints on the west side of the main road to get some good morning light on the canyons to the west.
This short Canyonlands hiking trail takes you to two separate Native American ruins. It’s not an easy hike; scrambling to the top of Aztec Butte takes some balance and grippy shoes. The trail is short though; you can explore all of it in two miles and just over an hour.
From the trailhead take the first left to Lower Butte. Climb on top of this, following the trail and staying to the west (right). Eventually you’ll see a worn trail descend to a ledge below the top. Scramble down to the ledge and explore some old granaries hidden in the overhang.
Return down the butte and to the trail fork, this time turning left towards Aztec Butte. Scramble up where the trail is worn into the rock for the easiest route. And be careful, it can be slick! Stick to the right upon reaching the top and circle the butte in a counter-clockwise direction. You’ll see a small, well-preserved stone structure on the east side of the butte and get some great views of the canyons on the west side of the butte.
It should be late morning now as you continue west to Upheaval Dome. This fascinating geological wonder is still unexplained – no one knows for certain exactly how it formed. Multiple theories abound and interpretive signs will explain all of them to you.
Grab your lunch and head up the trail to the first viewpoint. This first half-mile is relatively easy and provides some great views into the dome. Continue for another half-mile to the second overlook; this one is slightly more difficult with steeper, slick rock but it’s nothing technical. The second overlook has some shade and provides even better views into the crater.
If you’re feeling spry, you can try the 8-mile Syncline Loop Trail to hike completely around the crater. This trail is difficult with some steep, slick sections. Recommended for experienced hikers only. This trail will take approximately four hours.
East side viewpoints
It should now be afternoon after checking out Upheaval Dome. Take some time to relax and drive back up towards the Canyonlands visitor’s center. There are some short trails along the way that you can check out if you’d like. From the visitor’s center, now drive south along the main road towards the Grand View Point Overlook.
As you make this drive south, you’ll get some great views of the mountains and canyons to the east. The sun will be at your back for the best photographic light. Take your time to check out all of these viewpoints and the short spur trails along the way.
Your goal is to get to the Grand View Point Overlook about an hour before sunset.
Now that you’re at the Grand View Point Overlook in late afternoon you’ll be able to photograph the shadows and evening light over the Needles District. You’ll also be able to see the confluence of the Green River and Colorado River.
A short hiking trail proceeds west from the parking lot and will take you to another overlook with amazing views to the west. Hike out here, take some photos, and continue back to the parking lot as the sun slips below the horizon.
Got more time?
There’s just so much to see in Moab other than Arches National Park. After Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky District, you should spend another day to check out the Needles District further to the southeast. The Maze District to the southwest is mostly for OHVs.
Dead Horse Point State Park is only a few minutes drive from Canyonlands Island in the Sky and also has some great views of the Colorado River. It’s a very well-maintained park with great facilities and short trails.
Did I miss anything for a one-day itinerary of Canyonlands’ Island in the Sky District?