Canyonlands National Park is a vast park of 527 square miles, making it the largest in Utah. It contains some of the most rugged land in the contiguous United States. In just a few hours, you can see incredible panoramic views with a ton of diversity. The best part is, it’s without all the crowds that the neighboring parks have. This one day in Canyonlands itinerary will show you all the best things to do in Canyonlands National Park including recommendations for sunrise and sunset.
Land Acknowledgement: Ute Land. Find what Native Land you are visiting by using the app Native Land! I encourage you to read the history and culture of the Indigenous people who’s land you are visiting as well as donating and financially supporting if you are able.
- Why Visit Canyonlands National Park?
- Best Time to Visit | One Day in Canyonlands
- Weather in Canyonlands National Park
- Getting to Canyonlands NP
- Car Rental
- One Day in Canyonlands Itinerary Map
- One Day in Canyonlands
- One Day in Canyonlands Itinerary
- 1. Mesa Arch at Sunrise
- 2. Green River Overlook
- 3. Buck Canyon Overlook
- 4. Shafer Trail Viewpoint
- 5. Island in the Sky Visitor Center
- 6. Upheaval Dome
- 7. Grandview Point Overlook at Sunset
- Alternative Sunset Hike: Murphy Point
- OVERVIEW: One Day in Canyonlands
- Where to Stay when visiting Canyonlands National Park?
- Other Nearby and Southwest Adventures
- Summary of One Day in Canyonlands
Why Visit Canyonlands National Park?
If you want to see panoramic views from over a thousand feet above the surrounding landscape, rock arches, spires, winding mining roads and more…you do not want to miss one day in Canyonlands.
I’ll be honest, the first time I passed through Moab, I completely wrote off Canyonlands NP. I went to Arches National Park and fought my way through crowds to see the iconic views. When I finally visited Canyonlands, it was so refreshing, since it has way less traffic and equally as incredible views.
Canyonlands also has a LOT of options depending on what you’re into. The park is divided into three districts, including Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze. In this post, i’ll be covering the Island in the Sky District, which has the most accessible viewpoints and trails from Moab.
Best Time to Visit | One Day in Canyonlands
This is not always a direct answer, because it depends on what you prioritize. I went in March to avoid crowds and would highly recommend it. We had sunny warm weather during the day, but nights and mornings were chilly.
If you want the best weather in Canyonlands National Park:
Travel between May-September
If you want to go during off-season to avoid the crowds:
Travel between September-April
Weather in Canyonlands National Park
|December-February||40° F / 20° F|
|March-April||57° F / 35° F|
|May||73° F / 49° F|
|June-August||88° F / 64° F|
|September||79° F / 56° F|
|October||65° F / 43° F|
|November||49° F / 32° F|
Getting to Canyonlands NP
Closest Airports to Moab
- Canyonlands Field (CNY): 30 minute drive to Island in the Sky Visitor Center
- Grand Junction Regional Airport (GJT): 2 hours from Visitors Center
- Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC): 4 hours from Visitors Center
You will need a vehicle! There is no shuttle system available in Canyonlands National Park. No special clearance or 4×4 is needed for this itinerary! There is a total of 20 miles of paved road in the Island in the Sky district.
One Day in Canyonlands Itinerary Map
One Day in Canyonlands
First, there are a few important things to note before we dive into the itinerary.
In peak summer season, the high temperature can reach over 100 degrees F. If you are traveling during this season, I recommend avoiding hiking during the midday heat.
And please, stay hydrated!! I usually bring along Nuun Tablets or Liquid IV to add to my water for extra electrolytes in hot desert climates.
Secondly, crowds of people are not as big of an issue at this park, but it still has its fair share of people on weekends and during summer break. Here are some tips to further avoid crowds.
- Become a morning person. Sunrise hikes are when I find the least amount of crowds! And when I can actually get a parking spot.
- Pack a lunch and eat at non traditional times. Use these times to go to a viewpoint that is normally busy, and eat earlier or later. Because a lot of people will be going out to lunch or dinner at normal lunch and dinner times.
- If your schedule is flexible, go during the week rather than on a weekend
Leave No Trace
Thirdly, be sure you pack out what you bring with you (including nut shells, fruit peels, food waste, etc)! Stay on the trail to prevent erosion, and damage to fragile ecosystems. Respect wildlife and other people you may encounter while visiting. National Parks have seen a massive increase in visitors, so it is very important everyone does their part.
What to Expect:
This short itinerary will have a mix of everything! Scenic drives, walk ups, easy hikes, and challenging hikes! I encourage you to make this your own and take what you want from this guide. My tendency when planning is creating a full itinerary, so if that’s not your style, subtract whatever doesn’t excite you! Even just driving through this park is spectacular.
Expect NO cellular signal while here except at the visitor center. I have AT&T and had very spot service, but never really enough to look anything up or route anywhere. Download your offline maps!
This itinerary is only covering the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. It would be very challenging to do multiple districts in a day, and Island in the Sky is the most accessible and popular. But do look into the other districts such as The Needles and The Maze districts if you’re looking for an off the beaten path adventure.
If you have any additional concerns/questions about Canyonlands National Park, the Island in the Sky Visitor’s Center is a great place to get answers and is open year round.
Island in the Sky Visitor District of Canyonlands National Park sits on a massive mesa 1,000 feet above the surrounding terrain, and 2,000 feet above the Green and Colorado Rivers. This is why all the views here are incredible, and also why this District of the National Park does not connect with the other Districts.
One Day in Canyonlands Itinerary
1. Mesa Arch at Sunrise
0.7 miles roundtrip, 88 ft elevation gain
While Canyonlands is not as popular as Arches National Park, Mesa Arch attracts quite the crowd. Your best chance of seeing this beauty without a large stream of people coming and going is at sunrise. You should still expect to see photographers stationed there bright and early with their tripods, but sunrise is the most ideal option if you want photos.
Mesa Arch is a beautiful arch perched on a cliff edge with views of the vast expanse of desert and rock formations beyond. Popular viewpoints are usually popular for a reason, and Mesa Arch is no exception.
Visitors typically spend 30 minutes to 1 hour here.
2. Green River Overlook
0.2 miles roundtrip, 6 ft elevation gain
Green River Overlook is an incredible expansive scenic view you do not want to miss! It’s short, paved trail makes this overlook extremely accessible. It is only a 5 minute drive from Mesa Arch, so you have no excuse not to go!
It is recommended that for the best lighting, visit an hour after sunrise or at sunset. Viewing this overlook shortly after sunrise allows the sun to streak above the canyon hills.
Visitors typically spend 15-30 minutes here.
3. Buck Canyon Overlook
0.1 miles, No elevation change
Buck Canyon Overlook is a quick, easy stop to see a view to the east. It provides lovely views of the canyon, Colorado River, and the La Sal Mountains in the distance.
Visitors typically spend 15-30 minutes here.
4. Shafer Trail Viewpoint
Drive up spot
Shafer Trail Viewpoint was a personal favorite of mine. I love the views of the winding mining road wrapping down the canyon walls. It made for some interesting photos and really helped portray the scale of the canyons.
The parking is pretty limited, so if it’s occupied when you drive by, move on and come back to it!
Visitors typically spend 15-30 minutes here.
5. Island in the Sky Visitor Center
I don’t know about you, but I personally really enjoy checking out the visitor center at National Parks. I buy my postcard, and car sticker and maybe even a t-shirt if I’m feeling it.
This should be right around lunch time or a late lunch if you are following this itinerary. It’s a great way to get some wifi and plan out the rest of your day.
6. Upheaval Dome
There’s a couple options here that I’ll lay out for you. Upheaval Dome area offers unique views of a crater and uplifted rock formations. There are also plenty of picnic tables here to enjoy your lunch!
Hike to Upheaval Dome First Overlook via Crater View trail
This is the shorter of the two options at 0.7 miles roundtrip and 108 ft elevation gain. This will give you a glimpse of the unique views and allow you to stretch your legs on a quick hike!
Hike to Upheaval Dome Second Overlook
On the same trail as the first overlook, you can continue on for an additional 0.5 miles and 100 feet elevation to see a better view of the terrain!
Tip: Make sure you bring lots of water as there is no shade on this hike.
7. Grandview Point Overlook at Sunset
1.8 miles roundtrip, 160 ft elevation gain
I thoroughly enjoyed watching the sunset here. Located at the very end of the Canyonlands Road on the mesa, it provides incredible views from all sides. The views along the trail are incredible as well.
Yes, it can get a little crowded, but I found there to be plenty of options to post up for sunset here and had no trouble getting photos that I wanted.
Alternative Sunset Hike: Murphy Point
3.4 miles roundtrip, 147 ft elevation gain
If I went back, this is the spot I would view sunset. With this trail being a little bit longer than Grand View Point, it reduces the crowds significantly. It also boasts the BEST view in the whole Island in the Sky district.
If you have it in you to hike a little further than Grand View point, you’ll be rewarded with views of the Candlestick Tower, Turks Head, Soda Springs Basin, and the distant Maze district.
You can actually pitch your tent here by obtaining a backcountry permit at the visitors center! This is definitely on my bucketlist now.
OVERVIEW: One Day in Canyonlands
- Mesa Arch
- Green River Overlook
- Buck Canyon Overlook
- Shafer Trail Viewpoint
- Upheaval Dome
- Grandview Point or Murphy Point
Where to Stay when visiting Canyonlands National Park?
There are a lot of options near Canyonlands National Park in Moab, Utah. But, because of how busy Moab can get, I highly recommend making reservations in advance, especially during the peak tourism season.
$15 per night
This is the only drive up campground in Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands NP. And this is not one that you will be able to reserve unfortunately. It is first come first serve and typically does fill up fast. Because of this, I’d recommend getting there early and wait for a spot to become available.
$40-$50 per night
This camping area is walking distance to the Colorado River and biking distance to downtown Moab and has lots of scenic views.
$50-$70 per night
This Campground has a lots of camping and glamping options. And each Tent sites allows up to 6 people.
My first visit to Moab area was rather spontaneous and there was NO reservable camping left! However, luckily I knew about BLM camping, which is essentially primitive camping with no amenities.
If you’re new to BLM camping and finding free campsites, check out my article: How to find the Best Free Camping
Backcountry Camping Options
Canyonlands has quite a bit of backcountry camping available, however, it is mostly in the Needles District. But, as mentioned above in the hiking recommendations, Murphy Point is viewpoint in Island in the Sky that allows you to pitch your tent.
Permits ARE required for any backcountry camping in Canyonlands National Park and more information can be found HERE.
- Murphy Point
- Shafer Campground
- Syncline Campground
Most of the RV campgrounds listed above also offer cabin options if you are looking for something rustic, but are not into camping!
DISCOVER MOAB has a list of Moab Hotels and Motels that you can filter through
Rent luxury glamping sites at Under Canvas Moab
For a more adventurous stay check out Basecamp Adventure Lodge
And lastly, Talking Mountain Yurts, with bike and ski trails right outside your doorstep
Other Nearby and Southwest Adventures
Check out some of my other itineraries for nearby and Southwest Destinations!
- Arches National Park
- Dead Horse Point State Park
- Capitol Reef State Park
- Bryce Canyon National Park
- Zion National Park
Summary of One Day in Canyonlands
In conclusion, Canyonlands is absolutely a destination that is worth checking out. This itinerary will allow you to really get a sense of the beauty of Utah’s largest National Park, and offers a variety of different activities. I personally would love to go back and do some star gazing here!
And let me know in the comments if you are planning a trip here or if you’ve already been!
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