I visited Arches National Park a couple of times before I ever made the trip over to Canyonlands National Park. In the time of coronavirus, social distancing is key, even when you’re out in the vast expanses of nature. After hiking to Delicate Arch at sunset the night before, I needed an escape from the crowds. I decided to visit Canyonlands National Park, the often overlooked other national park that is pretty close to Moab, the adventure capital of Utah.
And wow, was I blown away. My expectations were relatively low. I mean, I’ll be honest, I was underwhelmed by the freakin’ Grand Canyon. That was the national park Teddy Roosevelt himself said every American had to see before they died. Canyonlands probably gets, at most, a tenth of the attention that Grand Canyon does, so how great could it really be? Pretty damn great, it turns out.
After an exhausting day that included Colorado National Monument, the drive to Moab from Grand Junction, Arches National Park, Mill Creek Waterfalls, and then Arches National Park again, we were pretty beat. We planned on getting to Canyonlands around 7 AM to beat the heat, but sleep turned out to be the much more appealing option. The unbearable Moab heat eventually became too much to ignore and we started packing up our tent and hit the road by 9 AM. We got to Canyonlands a little after 10 AM, only a few hours later than initially planned.
Already, it was a stark contrast to our adventures at Arches the day before. The visitor center had around a dozen parking spots, and half of them were available. There was no line to get into the park, and everywhere we went, there was parking available. If you are looking for a more responsible, socially-distanced getaway, then Canyonlands National Park is exactly what you’re looking for.
Quick Things To Know Before Visiting Canyonlands National Park
Like all national parks, Canyonlands is included in the annual pass. I recommend getting it if you plan on visiting quite a few of them. At $80 for a 12-month pass, it’s hard to beat. Otherwise, it’ll be anywhere from $20-30 for a vehicle to enter each national park. Get the annual pass. You’ll get your money’s worth and beyond.
To get to Canyonlands National Park, you’ll need to head up 191 past Arches National Park. It’s the same turn off as Dead Horse Point State Park, but you’ll want to go straight all the way. It’s about 15 miles or so to the entrance, and you’ll be doing a lot of driving so make sure to have plenty of gas.
And a quick note about Coronavirus restrictions! Honestly, of all the national parks I’ve visited on this trip, Canyonlands National Park felt the most normal. I talked to a park ranger and he said it’s been slower than usual, likely due to the pandemic. However, Arches definitely didn’t feel slow. Canyonlands is super spread out and most of the trails are quite open. It’s pretty easy to avoid people and social distance, but on narrow stretches, bring a face mask or a buff.
The most crowded trails we did were Grand View and Mesa Arch, and even those felt desolate compared to our hike to Delicate Arch the night before. Like I said, Canyonlands is the perfect responsible and social-distanced getaway, but still be considerate of others and bring a mask.
There are a few different regions of the park, but for most people, a day trip calls for a visit to the Islands in the Sky region. I’ll be covering that region specifically in this guide.
How to Spend a Day at Canyonlands National Park
It could take weeks to properly explore Canyonlands National Park, but thankfully, there are many highlights that can be checked off with a quick day trip. Many of the hikes mentioned here are very short, allowing you to comfortably squeeze all of them in within a day, or even half a day if you’re in a rushed pace.
Shafer Canyon Overlook (My Favorite View of the Day)
You get an absurd amount of reward for relatively little activity here. Just across from the visitor center, you’ll get one of the most jaw-dropping views of the entire park. The hike takes seconds, although you’ll want to stay forever to catch every angle of the layers and layers of desert, canyons, and mountains. Be sure to look down and watch the cars weave through the treacherous dirt roads along the cliff. It was anxiety-inducing, yet mesmerizing.
Mesa Arch (Short Hike with a Great View)
This is the most famous view in all of Canyonlands National Park. Apparently, it’s a great spot for sunrise. Photographers flock here to catch first light hitting the underside of the arch, making for a surreal scene. As much as I love photography, I love sleep more. We ended up doing the Mesa Arch trail a little before noon, which was still pretty great. The weather was cool enough where we weren’t miserable, and the hike only took about 45 minutes, including stops for photos and a quick snack.
You’ll get some insane views of the vast canyons and wide-open spaces from here. The arch makes for a great framing device, acting almost like a window to the epic landscapes.
Grand View (Overlook and Trail)
This is where we spent the brunt of our time on our short day trip to Canyonlands. The hike is about 2-miles roundtrip, although we weaved every which way to get all the views possible. It starts off along the rim of one canyon but eventually, you’ll be able to get views of both sides of the cliff. Reach the very end for the best panoramic views of the day.
You get a little bit of everything on this hike. However, it’s also one that you should be prepared for. You’ll be exposed for the entirety of this hike. Bring sunscreen and a raincoat, just in case. It gets really windy up here, so you’ll have to be extremely careful when tiptoeing along the rim of the canyon. Don’t do anything dangerous, because a fall here could be fatal.
Upheaval Dome (WTF moment of the trip)
Have you ever seen an impact crater before? At 10 kilometers in diameter, a hike around the rim of Upheaval Dome is pretty mind-blowing. To get to the first overlook, you need only hike .3 miles. It took us six minutes to get to that first view point since we were in a bit of a rush, but the views were worth the huffing and puffing. There is another overlook about .5 miles further up the trail, but we didn’t have a chance to make it there. Looking into the history behind Upheaval Dome is pretty fascinating. Make sure to read up so you know exactly what the hell you’re looking at.
Other Random Stuff
My favorite thing about road tripping through national parks is not having a plan. Just stop whenever something sounds interesting, and there are plenty of interesting spots at Canyonlands National Park. The four I mentioned above were highlights that you should absolutely prioritize. However, if you’ve got the time, why not stop at the many overlooks and other attractions? There’s a rock shaped like a whale. You can make the short hike up to Aztec Butte. Stop by a viewpoint that gives you stunning views of the Green River, or of the Orange Cliffs. If you’ve got all day, take all day. Canyonlands National Park is absolutely breathtaking, so take advantage of Arches’ much-lesser-visited neighbor while you’re here.
What To Bring To Canyonlands National Park
It gets hot in Moab. Sunscreen. On a cloudy, windy day, it can also get cold. Extra layers. And if it rains? Yikes. Just stash everything in your car and come prepared. Most of the popular trails are well maintained, so although we wore hiking boots, they honestly aren’t necessary. Our entire in Moab, we probably downed gallons and gallons of water each day. It’s the only way to combat the sweltering heat and high altitudes. Make sure to bring plenty of water on a day trip to Canyonlands.
Oh yeah, and definitely bring a camera. You’re going to be taking a ton of pictures.
Canyonlands National Park Photo Gallery
And my favorite part of every post, the pictures.