One Day in Canyonlands: A Complete Guide

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Canyonlands National Park, located in eastern Utah, is known for its expansive canyon views and rugged desert scenery. The park also has an impressive footprint, spanning 227,598 acres across the barren Colorado Plateau, so if you only have one day in Canyonlands National Park, it can be challenging to know exactly how to spend it.

If you’re trying to plan an awesome day in the park, but aren’t sure where to start, here’s everything you need to know, from where to stay in Moab, what to pack, and what to do in Canyonlands National Park.

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Table of Contents


How to get to Canyonlands

Unless you live within driving distance to Moab, you will likely need to fly in- the two closest airports are Grand Junction, Colorado (a one hour and 50 minute drive) and Salt Lake City, Utah (a 4 hour drive). To get the best deals on airfare (especially to off-the-beaten-path airports like Grand Junction), I swear by using Skyscanner– you can set flight alerts, compare airfares, and other money-saving hacks.

You will also need to rent a car to get to and around the park (unlike some popular national parks, like Zion, Canyonlands does not have a shuttle system)- I recommend booking cars as far in advance as possible to snag the best deals.

View through Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, Utah

Additionally, if you’re someone who prefers to get off-the-beaten-path (in this case, I mean quite literally), you may want to consider booking a high-clearance vehicle with four wheel-drive, as a significant portion of the park is only accessible via unmaintained, rocky roads (although make sure you read the fine print of your rental contract- some companies do not allow rentals to drive off paved surfaces).

Canyonlands is also a popular stop along road trips, including those who are stopping by the Mighty 5 National Parks in Utah (including Zion, Bryce, Capitol Reef, and Arches). Driving through Utah’s landscape is absolutely epic- if you’re considering extending your trip from Moab through other parts of Utah (you totally should!), check out my guide to planning a Utah National Parks road trip.

Scenic Drive along Arches National Park  in Utah

When is the best time to visit Canyonlands National Park?

The best time to go to Canyonlands is April through May and mid-September through October, when temperatures during the day are between 60 to 80 degrees. Summertime temperatures can get pretty sweltering, often exceeding 100 degrees! If you visit in the late summer or early fall (July through early September), be aware this is considered Utah’s monsoon season- you may encounter some serious afternoon downpours.

Alternatively, if you’re not a baby like me and can tolerate cooler weather (highs in the 40s and lows in the 20s), winter in Utah can be a quiet and peaceful time to visit, although you should be prepared to handle ice and snow that occasionally blankets the park this time of year.

What to pack for Canyonlands

I trust you have the deodorant and socks portion of your packing list figured out, but what about the odds and ends that you should bring along that will make your trip to Canyonlands that much better?

Sun protection:

Y’all, that Utah sun can get REAL in Moab. I honestly usually think hiking hats look a bit doofy, but this is one of those instances where the doofiness may be worth it. Consider grabbing a hat like this one (or this one for the fellas- you can totally look like Indiana Jones!), as well as packing sunscreen and sunglasses with UVA and UVB protection.

Couple sitting on the cliffside along Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park in Utah

Hiking shoes:

Most of the terrain you’ll be hiking on at Canyonlands will not be particularly challenging- you’ll usually be hiking on sand or solid rockfaces.. As such, you could probably get away with wearing hiking sandals- I’ve been eyeing a pair of Tevas, which are seemingly beloved by all hippies and vanlifers (women’s or men’s) or alternatively, Chaco’s (women’s or men’s).

If you’ll be visiting in the wintertime, some of Canyonlands’  hikes, especially on rocky surfaces, can get quite icy, so I’d recommend bringing proper hiking boots (I’ve used these Merrell’s for years and men’s equivalent can be found here).

Reusable water bottle:

Did I mention it can feel like an oven in Canyonlands, especially in the summertime? There’s something about Moab’s desert climate that seemingly just sucks all moisture right out of your body. Be sure to stay hydrated and be a friend to our planet by bringing along a big reusable water bottle.

Justin and I also keep a refillable jug of water in our car so that we can refill our individual bottles between hikes. After spending way too much money and creating way too much waste with disposable water bottles, these two purchases have been gamechangers. 

A cooler:

There are no dining establishments in the park. As such, when you’re feeling peckish, you can choose to drive into Moab, which, depending on where you are in the park and how bad traffic is getting into the park (while we were there, they had only one fee station open and the entry line probably stretched for two to three miles), can take at a minimum, about 40 minutes one-way and could probably range up to taking two hours plus!

So with only one day in Canyonlands, if you’re roadtripping to the park like we did, I’d highly recommend packing a cooler (we have one like this and use it all the time for road trips!) to keep in your car with some snacks and on-the-go meals to cut down on costs and wasted time.

A headlamp:

All of the national parks in Utah are renowned for their spectacular stargazing opportunities and Canyonlands, with its wide open skies, is no exception. There are plenty of spectacular locations in the park to look at the 2,500 stars that dot the park’s night sky on moonless nights. But be sure to bring along a headlamp so you can safely get to and from your stargazing spot (fun fact: lots of the popular stargazing spots are along a cliff’s edge that drops down 1,200 feet below!). 

We use these rechargeable headlamps,, which are awesome because they came in a pack of two, we never have to worry about carrying around extra batteries, and they help us not fall into enormous canyons whilst stargazing (knock on wood)! 

A map of Canyonlands National Park:

A lot of the park has spotty cell coverage, at best, and I found that the signage in the Canyonlands can be a bit hit or miss. As such, I definitely recommend downloading offline maps on the Google Maps app before heading here and possibly picking up a map from the fee station (am I the only nerd who likes to collect all of the brochures for the National Parks I go to? Just me? Cool, cool.).

America the Beautiful Pass:

For one car, it costs $30 for a one-week pass into the park. However, if you have plans to stop by a couple of U.S. National Parks within a year span, these fees are waived if you pick up an America the Beautiful Pass, an annual pass that costs just $80 and gets you into more than 2,000 U.S. national parks, forests, shorelines (and on and on). 

The proceeds support the National Park Service and if you plan to go to at least three national parks per year (which usually cost around $30-$35 per car per visit), picking up one of these bad boys is a no brainer. You can either pick one up here, at your local REI, or at most staffed entrance stations at U.S. National Parks.

Obviously, if your adventures this year don’t include some National Park visits other than your trip to Canyonlands National Park, purchasing a pass probably doesn’t make a ton of financial sense. But otherwise, it’s seriously one of the best money saving “travel hacks” that I know!

Hotels near Canyonlands

There are no formal accommodations within the park’s borders. Luckily, unlike some more desolate national parks, Canyonlands is conveniently located about 40 minutes outside Moab, a super cute town with major hippie vibes (my first dining experience in Moab was at a donations-based, all vegan food truck, where there was a mini-drum circle and the majority of the clientele were barefoot- so, yeah, pretty granola).

Word of warning, though- those crunchy vibes come with some sticker shock- even traditional budget accommodations like Super 8 start around $180 a night (and can definitely get quite a bit higher than that). Most hotel rooms in Moab are well over $250 a night for unremarkable accommodations, so with that context in mind, I’d recommend checking out:

  • Archway Inn: This hotel is reasonably priced (for Moab, anyway); has a spectacular location on Moab’s northwestern side, close to both Arches and Canyonlands, while still within proximity to downtown Moab; and a nice pool to cool off during the day. 
  • Hampton Inn Moab: If you’re just looking for a clean, reasonably affordable place to stay and don’t mind staying at a chain hotel, this hotel has friendly staff and is located within walking distance to restaurants and shopping in Moab.
  • Gonzo Inn: Looking for something a bit more boutique? The Gonzo Inn leans in hard to the Southwestern aesthetic and has the perfect location for all the light sleepers out there (*raises hand*)- close to Moab’s main drag, but far enough away to let even the lightest sleeper rest easy.
  • Hyatt Place Moab: If you’re looking for swanky vibes, this new and upscale hotel definitely feels more like a resort than your typical lodging near a national park. With a gorgeous pool overlooking Moab’s soaring canyons, free laundry services, and private breakfast nooks for you to partake in your continental breakfast, this is definitely one of the best places in Moab to get your luxe on. 

Camping near Canyonlands National Park

Alternatively, if you’re looking for a budget stay, camping, whether by tent or RV, can be a great option. Canyonlands has two different campgrounds: the Island in the Sky Campground and The Needles Campground. The Island in the Sky Campground is open year round and first-come, first-serve ($15 per night)- I hear getting a spot here can be sort of like a fight to the death spring through fall.

Tent camping at night in Canyonlands National Park in Utah

Alternatively, certain sites in the Needles Campground are reservable from March through June and September through October, while other sites in the campground remain first-come, first-serve year round ($20 per night). Just be aware the Needles Campground is surprisingly far away from downtown Moab and the rest of Canyonlands (two and a half hours!), so this probably isn’t the best option if you only have one day in Canyonlands.

You can also do backcountry camping in Canyonlands National Park, so long as you get a permit to do so (if you’re interested in backpacking, check out my packing list for backcountry camping beginners). The secret is getting out about how awesome the park is, so snagging a Canyonlands backcountry permit is getting more competitive each year- you should try to reserve your permit up to four months in advance of your trip.

There are quite a few different restrictions around backpacking in the park (for example, you generally are not permitted to dig a cathole (i.e., a hole that you dig and poop in) and instead must bring along a landfill safe commercial toilet system, like Wag Bag, to do your business), so make sure you thoroughly look over the Canyonlands’ Backcountry Camping website before you head out. 

If backpacking isn’t your thing, one of the great things about Moab is that there’s a ton of great free campsites nearby on Bureau of Land Management land, like Lockhart Road Dispersed Camping and Lone Mesa Campground, where you can either tent-camp or boondock in an RV. If you’re an RVer looking for hook-ups, there’s, of course, a decent number of RV parks around (ranging from about $40-$90+ a night), like Dead Horse Point State Park and Moab Valley RV Resort

How to get around Canyonlands

How you get around Canyonlands is pretty simple- as mentioned above, given that there’s no shuttles within the park, you’ll need your own vehicle. However, navigating Canyonlands is a bit more complex, as there are four different districts of the park, each having wildly different accessibility:

  • Island in the Sky is where the majority of visitors enter the park and where the most iconic overlooks and hikes in the park are located. The district gets its name from its appearance, where a flat mesa seems to float amidst the surrounding deep, rugged canyons, some 1,000 feet below.
  • Named after the colorful spires of sandstone scattered across the desert floor, the Needles has more epic scenery, lengthier hikes, and far fewer crowds than Island in the Sky. While The Needles District is literally right next to Island in the Sky, it’s quite a bit harder to get to- you have to access it from UT-211, a two hour drive away from Island in the Sky (which is why it’s so much less crowded!).
  • The Maze in Canyonlands is the least accessible area in the park, with most visitors arriving by 4x4s and backpacking in for a minimum of three days. While you should definitely earmark this area for a future visit, it’s unlikely you’ll have time to see The Maze during a one day trip to Canyonlands.
  • The Green and Colorado Rivers actually divide the three districts above. Given their location at the bottom of enormous and remote canyons, it’s pretty difficult to find a spot within Canyonlands to enter the water. While you’re probably not going to have time to take a dip here if you only have 24 hours in the park, there’s tons of awesome-looking tours departing from Moab that will get you in the water, like this rafting trip down the Colorado River, for when you have more time in Canyonlands.

As you may have gathered from above, you’ll likely only have time to see Island in the Sky and maaaybe The Needles, if you’re a super ambitious go-getter that’s specifically visiting on the summer solstice (and even then…. it’s probably not recommended). If that’s not you, luckily, Island in the Sky is breathtakingly gorgeous, so you won’t feel like you’re missing out!

What to do in Canyonlands National Park in One Day

Now that your bags are packed and your hotel is booked, let’s get to the fun part- what to do in Canyonlands in one day!

1. Mesa Arch Trail

Start your day at inarguably the most famous spot to watch a Canyonlands sunrise- the Mesa Arch trail. This is a flat, 0.7 mile loop trail (more akin to walk) to a sandstone arch on a cliff’s edge, artfully framing the unique red rock formations scattered across the desert floor below.

Woman sitting underneath Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National in Utah at sunrise

During sunrise, the rising sun famously hits the bottom of the arch, which will turn a spectacular fiery red color- because of this effect, photographers flock here to capture this early morning glow (I’ve heard a number of stories about photographers getting pretty territorial about where they put their tripod!).

But if you don’t feel like setting your alarm for 3 AM or fighting to the death with photographers, fear not! Justin and I visited well over an hour after sunrise (around 8 AM in September) and yet still captured the fiery under arch effect, with only a couple of other tourists milling around. So contrary to popular opinion, I’d actually recommend skipping sunrise here and instead, aiming to stop here no more than an hour and a half after sunrise. Extra sleep AND less crowds? Yes, please!

Man looking out over the canyon and rock formations at Mesa Arch Trail in the Island of the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park
Tip: Get here early! As mentioned above, when I visited, there was only one fee station open, resulting in the entry line stretching on literally for miles and miles by mid-morning, and a quick look at TripAdvisor suggests this was not an anomaly. 

Further, there are definitely super popular spots in the park that are flooded with other visitors during the majority of the day (most of which have teeny parking lots)- so early morning is the best time to beat the crowds.

2. Grand View Point

Make the 15 minute drive to another popular spot in the park, the Grand View Point. You’ll walk along a short trail to the lookout, which provides stunning views over Monument Basin, an expansive canyon carved out by the Colorado River.

View from Grand View Overlook in Canyonlands National Park in Utah

You can either just soak in the views here or, alternatively, walk the Grand View Point Trail, a 1.8 mile out-and-back trail along the canyon rim, with absolutely breathtaking views at the Grand View Point Overlook at the very end. This hike is pretty flat and easy and would be a great option for travelers with kids!

3. White Rim Overlook Trailhead

Up for more trying out some of the best hikes in Canyonlands? Make your way about a mile north up the Grand View Point Road and stop at the White Rim Overlook Trailhead. Two of the best hikes in Canyonlands leave from this trailhead and yet, given the crappy signage leading here, both remain relatively uncrowded!

Pick your hiking poison!

White Rim Overlook Trail

This is an easy 1.8 mile out-and-back trail that leads to one of the best vistas in the park, with panoramic views of Buck Canyon and Monument Basin, two of the canyons formed by the Colorado River, with the snow-capped La Sal Mountains looming in the distance.

Couple sitting at the White Rim Overlook along the White Rim Overlook Trail in the Island of the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park in Moab, Utah

I want to flag that the views along this trail are pretty similar to those offered by the Grand View Point Trail, so I’d recommend only doing one of them- with a slight edge to the White Rim Overlook, due to providing views of two canyons for the price of one easy hike!

Gooseberry Trail

If you’re up for more of an adventure, the Gooseberry Trail is a 5.4 mile out-and-back hike that’s surprisingly challenging. Over the course of the first mile of the trail, you’ll drop about 1,000 feet down below the rim of the mesa to the canyon floor and eventually out to the White Rim- which, of course, means you’ll have to climb up that bad boy on your return trip!

The White Rim Road is a rugged 100-mile road that winds around and below the rim of the Island in the Sky’s mesa and is a popular multi-day trip for mountain bikers and adventurous drivers. Since you won’t have time for that during your 24 hours in Canyonlands, I’d say the next best thing is hiking out to the rim (and soaking up all the views that go along with it!).

You might want to consider bringing along trekking poles– they’re a total lifesaver when you’re going downhill and help provide extra stability on the steep, rocky trail.

4. Buck Canyon Overlook

Jump back in the car- if you didn’t do the White Rim Overlook Trail, I suggest continuing to drive north along Grand View Point Road and stopping at the Buck Canyon Overlook to catch those canyon vistas with the La Sal Mountains’ snowy peaks in the background.

Canyon from the Buck Canyon Overlook in the Island of the Sky district in Canyonlands National Park in Moab, Utah

Buck Canyon is also interesting for a bit sadder reason- you’ll be able to see some faint outlines of roads carved out of the top of the canyon below. These are remnants from when this land was used as a uranium mine in the 1950s. While these mining activities have long stopped, the visible roads serve as a good reminder of humans’ impact on this incredibly fragile and gorgeous environment.

If you’ve already been there, done that with Buck Canyon, continue driving north and head towards Green River Overlook. This viewpoint provides vistas of Soda Springs Basin, which was formed by (you guessed it!) the Green River, as well as the elusive Maze District. The views here are spectacular, but careful- it gets super windy here! I lost my beloved adventuring hat to the mighty gusts here- RIP, adventure hat.

View over a canyon from Green River Overlook in Canyonlands National Park in Utah

5. Upheaval Dome

If you’ve had your fill of canyon views, good news- we’re about to switch it up a bit!

You’re going to continue to drive a little over 10 minutes north to Upheaval Dome, a three-mile wide 1,000 foot crater of puzzling origins. The beginnings of the crater are hotly debated- with some scientists arguing that the formation was caused by a meteorite impacting the Earth approximately 60 million years ago, with another school believing that a salty dome pushed its way through the sandstone rock.

Woman's hiking boots overlooking Upheaval Dome in Canyonlands National Park in Utah

In either event, it’s one of Canyonlands’ most unique geological features, which you can access via a fairly easy 1.3 mile out-and-back trail.

There are two overlooks along the trail- the first one being around 0.4 miles in and the second one after 0.7 miles. If you can, I’d highly recommend making it to the second one- you’ll get a view down into the crater, as well as a vista of the northern portion of Canyonlands.

6. Shafer Trail Viewpoint

You’re going to head back towards the entrance of the park to Shafer Trail Viewpoint, which overlooks the iconic Shafer Canyon Road.

Shafter Canyon Road zigzagging down the cliff wall from the Shafer Trail Viewpoint in the Island of the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park

This 18-mile dirt road, only accessible with 4x4s, famously has nail-biting steep switchbacks from the rim of the mesa down to the White Rim Road 1,000 feet below. This viewpoint provides up-close-and-personal views of the road and the surrounding canyon. Word of warning- the parking lot here is tiny, so you may have to wait for a spot!

If you haven’t had your fill of overlooks by this point, you can also make the 0.5 mile drive north to Shafer Canyon Overlook, which provides a closer look at the canyon itself. 

If you’re interested in geology, stopping by the Island in the Sky Visitor Center on your way out of the park, right outside of the park’s entrance. There’s an interesting film about how the topography of Canyonlands was created, educational exhibits, and as always, super helpful rangers that can answer all your burning questions.

7. Dead Horse Point State Park

If your exit from the park lines up with sunset, I’d recommend heading to Dead Horse Point State Park. The eponymous viewpoint in the park is a narrow neck of land, with soaring cliffs in every direction and Canyonlands in the distance (fun fact- it’s also the setting of the final scene in Thelma and Louise, which I do not recommend trying to recreate here).

Sunset at Dead Horse Point State Park in Moab, Utah

Sunset here is absolutely EPIC. Word of warning, though- it’s a Utah state park (and thus, is not covered under the America the Beautiful Pass) and charges $20 per vehicle (which is a bit steep for a view, in my opinion- even a completely stunning one!).

So, if you’d prefer to stay in Canyonlands for sunset, the best places are the Green River Overlook, the overlook at the end of the Grand View Point trail, or the hidden gem, Murphy Point Trail, a 3.4-mile out-and-back trail with incredible views over the western area of the park. 

Couple sitting in backpacking chairs and looking out over the Green River Overrlook at Canyonlands National Park in Moab, Utah

If you’ve still got some energy left in you, you can hang out at your sunset spot to watch the golden light of day fade and see the stars twinkle to life in that wide, open sky. As mentioned above, Canyonlands and Dead Horse Point have some of the darkest skies in the world- and thus, some of the best stargazing as well! Allegedly, on moonless nights, you can even see the rings of Saturn with regular ol’ binoculars from Canyonlands! 

Other things to do in Canyonlands

Looking for other things to do in and near Canyonlands?

Woman standing on Double Arch in Arches National Park in Utah

Consider:

  • Adding on a drive around the White Rim Road- you’ll get to explore parts of Island in the Sky that most tourists never see! You can read about how to get a permit and other logistics about the drive here.
  • Making the trek to one of the other districts of Canyonlands, like the Needles. Some hikes that I’m dying to try in the Needles District include Slickrock Trail, where the mesa of Island of the Sky will loom above you as you peer down into canyons; Chesler Park, for epic views of the striped sandstone spires that the Needles is named after; or the Druid Arch Trail, for a massive arch that looks straight out of Stonehenge.
  • Spending one day in Arches National Park, the other national park that’s conveniently located right in Moab!
  • Looking for a more chill way to spend the day? Drive along the 46 mile Utah Scenic Byway State Route 128 between Moab and Cisco, Utah- you’ll get stunning views of Utah’s scenery AND get to blast that A/C!
  • Hiking the moderate 2.4 mile out-and-back Corona and Bowtie Arch Trail– Corona Arch is almost as epic as the formations in Arches, but not nearly as crowded (and dog-friendly!)!
Couple sitting on a rock and looking at the Druid Arch along the Druid Arch Trail in Canyonlands National Park in Moab, Utah

There you have it- everything you need to know to have an awesome day in Canyonlands National Park. Did I miss any of your favorite viewpoints or hikes? Let me know in the comments below!

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