Canyonlands National Park Things to Do

  • View of arch through tree line
    View of arch through tree line
    by BruceDunning
  • Eroded flat surface in water flow area
    Eroded flat surface in water flow area
    by BruceDunning
  • Eroded buttes are plentiful
    Eroded buttes are plentiful
    by BruceDunning

Most Recent Things to Do in Canyonlands National Park

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    Island in the Sky: Good stuff to know

    by goodfish Updated Jan 21, 2014

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    The Island in the Sky unit of Canyonlands NP is 32 miles from Moab and the park has another 20 miles of paved scenic road. Figure on driving 40 miles within the park as the road doesn't loop; you'll double back on all branches. Park entry fees are $10 per vehicle, $5 per motorcycle or bicycle, or use your annual NPS park pass if you have one. Entry fees are good for a week and cover the Needles unit as well (no entry fee needed for the Maze or Horseshoe Canyon). Entry fees do not cover camping, river use or other permits so see the NPS website on those.

    There is one small campground (Willow Flat) open year-round on a first-come, first-served basis. It has 12 sites with picnic tables, grills and toilets but no water, firewood or hookups. Site fees are $10.

    The Visitor Center at the park entrance is open 9:00AM - 4:30 PM daily with some longer hours March - Oct. You can talk to a ranger about the best activities for your abilities, get backcountry permits and maps, and purchase bottled water (no drinking water sources within the park). There's no restaurant so pack your own food and water for the day and bring a bag to pack out your trash.

    http://www.nps.gov/cany/planyourvisit/index.htm

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    Island in the Sky: White Rim Overlook Trail

    by goodfish Updated Nov 28, 2013

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    This is another easy two-miler that weirdly doesn't show up on the park website. The trailhead starts at the White Rim Overlook and picnic area parking lot and meanders along slickrock (follow the cairns) to a point as drop-dead gorgeous as Grand View's. Stretching 1,200 feet below is another perspective of Monument Basin and White Rim Plateau. At the end of the trail is a huge sandstone hoodoo rock that makes a great perch for scenery gazing, and braver souls can go out even further onto some flat outcroppings. We spent WAY too much time here, too.

    Note: the end of this trail has unprotected edges and long, long drop-offs

    http://www.nps.gov/cany/planyourvisit/iskyshorthikes.htm

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    Island in the Sky: Shafer Overlook

    by goodfish Updated Nov 28, 2013

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    This is an easy, unpaved stroll to a really fabulous overlook right across from the visitor center. From here you can see the Shafer Trail Road - built in the early 1900's as a horse trail and then used to move uranium ore - that winds down into the canyon to connect with 100-mile White Rim Road. You need a high-clearance 4X4 to travel both of those so don't try it in your minivan, OK? Hang up your car and it'll cost you over $1,000 to have it hauled out. You can mountain-bike them if you have two wheels and the time: RT takes 3-4 days. Have a jeep? 2-3 days will do ya. And a camping permit. Otherwise, just enjoy the view.

    http://www.nps.gov/cany/index.htm

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    Island in the Sky: Mesa Arch Trail

    by goodfish Updated Nov 28, 2013

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    Mesa Arch, canyonlands
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    A one mile RT hike to leads to a 50-foot span of rock that is probably the most photographed spot in the park. A graceful opening perfectly frames the La Sal Mountains, several dramatic towers and an interesting arch below. Look closely at the three formations just left of center in my second photo: the tall thin formation on the right is Monster Tower. Right next to it is Washerwoman Arch: you can just barely see the vertical hole under what looks like the woman's arm. Behind both of these formations is Airport Tower.

    This is an easy one with a gradual 100 ft gain in elevation. Your biggest challenge will be trying to get a shot sans humans as it's one of those places that draws like flies the folks who cannot seem to EVER shoot ANYTHING without someone positioned squarely in front of it. Dedicated photographers will come here at sunrise to capture the most visual drama - but so do 100 other shutterbugs. I read that the best time is at dawn in winter when the sun peeks over the horizon at an optimal position and there are fewer competing lenses to contend with.

    http://www.nps.gov/cany/planyourvisit/iskyshorthikes.htm

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    Island in the Sky: Scenic drive and overlooks

    by goodfish Updated Nov 28, 2013

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    Green River Overlook, Canyonlands
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    Island in the Sky really needs to be explored from the trails or unpaved bike/4X4 roads to get the full effect but if you have mobility issues or are pressed for time, you can get a taste from the pullovers and a few overlooks along the 20 miles of paved scenic road. Buck Canyon, Green River and Grand View overlooks are all accessible to wheelchairs and strollers and all provide jaw-dropping views for the camera. The scenic road is in 3 branches and all require doubling back to the park entrance - no loops. Bring a cooler along for lunch at the White Rim Overlook or Upheaval Dome picnic areas - they both have a few covered tables and vault toilets (but no water).

    The 32-mile drive to the visitor center from Moab is pretty scenic too: lots of red rock and a few pull-overs here and there as well. Monitor and Merrimac Buttes viewpoint on Hwy 313 is a nice one.

    http://www.nps.gov/cany

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    Needles: Joint Trail

    by goodfish Updated Nov 28, 2013

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    If you are planning on doing the Chesler/Joint Loop, this is a continuation of my previous tip with thanks again to David and Utah Trails for the borrowed link to the useful guide (below).

    At the end of a jeep road spur on the south side of Chesler park, you transition from wide open space with towering rock formations down into a section of subterranean keyhole caves and a very narrow fracture that runs for about a 1/4 mile or so. The narrow opening in the rock that is the entrance is an uphill climb from the end of the road, through a narrow opening in the rock, and descent down a flight of conveniently placed steps: you'll run into a large keyhole that's almost a subway except for the narrowest of fracture in the ceiling. Previous devotees of the Joint have made it a temple of sorts with offerings of cairns to show their appreciation and the way forward (or out, if you're doing this hike clockwise).

    Follow other cairns through, taking right or left turns as they indicate or where you are forced to - you'll be doing some scrambling over large rockfalls here and there - until you reach a 300-ft section of fracture that's under 2 feet wide in places but with sides rising 50 feet high. Follow along to another nicely placed stairway at the end and up into open air. Follow along the trail that finishes the Chesler Park loop - going left at the fork that otherwise heads to Druid Arch on the right - and return to the loop's starting point to retrace your way back to the Elephant Hill parking lot. Do be careful not confuse that fork with a lefthand path to the CP3 - CP5 primitive campsites: that turnoff is just BEFORE the lefthand fork you'll take on the Chesler/Joint trail.

    Do NOT attempt to do the Joint with rain in the forecast. We got caught down here in an unexpected downpour and while not in a critical section, got a good look how much rushing water can fill the narrow fracture passage in a short time. It also made scrambling out one soggy, slippery pain in the (insert body part): see my warnings and dangers tips. That fracture is also difficult to squeeze through with large backcountry packs.

    http://www.utahtrails.com/CheslerPark.html

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    Island in the Sky: Aztec Butte trail

    by goodfish Updated Nov 28, 2013

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    Aztec Butte, Canyonlands NP

    This was a hoot as it's up the sides of two slickrock buttes to the ruins of some ancient grainaries and one heck of a view. It's bigger than it looks here - the picture was from some distance away - and the backside is nearly a sheer drop straight into the canyon.

    It's about a 2-mile trek RT from the parking lot to the top of the butte, with a 225 ft. elevation. The top is flat but you used to be able to work your way down and around the canyon side to some of the grainary sites (see bottom pix of my title page). Unfortunately, a section on the larger butte has become unstable so hikes are limited to the smaller of the two. I'll update this tip if they decide to reopen it.

    http://www.nps.gov/cany

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    Island in the Sky: Grand View Point Trail

    by goodfish Updated Nov 28, 2013

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    This is a fun one with drop-dead fabulous panoramas. The trailhead for the 2-mile RT hike is at the southernmost end of the scenic drive, and the trail follows the mesa edge all the way to a narrow point. From there you can see for miles and miles in every direction: the far-away La Sal mountains to the east, Monument Basin way down below, Junction Butte rising from the canyon floor, and the more remote sections of the Maze and Needles.

    The trail is fairly level and no sweat to navigate (follow the cairns) but we spent a LOT of time dawdling along the rim taking pictures and gawking over the view so allow twice as much time for this easy two-miler than you think you should. There's also an overlook close to the parking area that's wheelchair/stroller friendly.

    Note: much of this trail has unprotected edges and long, long drop-offs

    http://www.nps.gov/cany/planyourvisit/iskyshorthikes.htm

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    Needles: Tse' Hane - the rock that tells the story

    by goodfish Updated Nov 28, 2013

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    This isn't inside the park but along the road in so you can't miss it: look for the "Newspaper Rock" sign. Close to the parking lot is a large section of flat rock with 2,000 years of petroglyphs etched into its desert-varnished surface. Petroglyphs are found all over the Southwest but it's unusual to find a collection this large in such an easily accessed spot - you usually have to do some hiking/scrambling to get to them.

    You'll often see images like these referred to as "rock art" but the peoples who painstakingly pecked them into the sandstone likely had little time for decorative leisure. Some archeologists think they were a form of worship while others believe they could be records of important historical or astronomical events. Or all of the above. So while none of them really know for sure what the squiggles, footprints, animals and otherworldly anthropomorphic (human) forms mean, they have a rough idea how old they are and which groups of people carved them by the age of other artifacts found nearby and specific attributes of the images themselves. For instance, bows and arrows first appeared in this region around 500 A.D, and horses not until after the Spanish brought them in the mid 1500's. Sometimes the age of the surface they've been etched into is a clue, and older figures are darker than more recent additions. The carvings here are said to range from undetermined B.C. Archaic to A.D. 1300 Ancestral Puebloan with later images (see the horses and riders?) and some unfortunate modern graffiti scattered about.

    Whatever they mean, this is one very noisy piece of rock. The ancient (and some not-so) people had a LOT to say about this spot and the visible chatter makes you wish you could hear with your ears what you see with your eyes!

    Please don't touch the carvings as oils or other residue on your hands can damage them. And don't even think about adding to the graffiti; there are big fines for that.

    http://www.publiclands.org/explore/site.php?id=1880

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    Needles: Good stuff to know

    by goodfish Updated Nov 28, 2013

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    This unit of Canyonlands is more remote than Island in the Sky: 75 miles from Moab and about 50 from Monticello. Hikes here are either very short or very long with just one 2.5 and another 6-miler in between. That said, if you're wanting to do more than one day of exploring, you'll need to camp or plan on putting in some road time. The way in is paved and there's a scenic drive of sorts but if you're unwilling or unable to get out of the car, this is not the unit for you; go to Island in the Sky.

    You do need a pass ($10 per vehicle for 7 days, $5 for bikes) to hike here and it's $15 a night for a spot at Squaw Flat campground. Group sites are available as well: see the website. This is a very popular location with backpackers and there are lots of designated, primitive sites scattered around the park that fill quickly during the spring/fall seasons so apply for your permit well before your trip.

    It has a small visitor center (open 9:00 - 4:30 with longer hours in warmer months) for maps, chats with the rangers, drinking water and restrooms but no food. Drinking water is also available the Squaw Flat campground but nowhere else so bring plenty with you.

    There are also a number of primitive roads for 4-wheeling but they're not for novices and cost over $1,000 to be towed out if you hang yourself up. These can also become impassable after heavy rains. Nope, your own two feet are the best method of transport here!

    http://www.nps.gov/cany/planyourvisit/needles.htm

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    Horseshoe Canyon: the hike

    by goodfish Updated Nov 28, 2013

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    Besides the pictographs, one of the big paybacks of Horseshoe is the canyon itself. You descend 750 feet of winding dirt and slickrock to the floor and follow a wash between towering sandstone cliffs, past interesting alcoves and among rabbitbrush and wildflowers. Ancient peoples inhabited this place many thousands of years ago and in the quiet between echoing canyon walls, you can imagine them hunting for game, collecting water, and taking refuge against the weather in the nooks and crannies. They also painted mysterious, ghostly figures that puzzle and captivate hikers and archeologists alike.

    You'll be walking in the wash of Barrier Creek, if it's dry, or on a cairned path beside it if there has been a recent, heavy rain. You will have to cross it several places so be prepared to get wet, muddy feet if water in the wash is running but it shouldn't be any deeper than that. And if rain has been REALLY heavy the road to the trailhead would have probably been impassable to begin with.

    It's easy to just ramble along enjoying the scenery but don't forget what you came here for! There are 4 sections of pictographs on the route and you need to keep your eyes open to find some of them (see next tip).

    http://members.virtualtourist.com/m/p/m/215b42/

    This will be a hot one in the summer months, and that 750 feet DOWN must go UP again at the end of the day: a hat, sunscreen and lots of water are gotta-haves. The hike is about 7 miles RT and it's recommended to allot 4-6 hours.

    http://www.nps.gov/cany/planyourvisit/horseshoecanyon.htm

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    Needles: Chesler Park/Joint Trail Overview

    by goodfish Updated Nov 28, 2013

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    We drove the 75 miles from Moab just to do this one as the raves were irresistible: it's consistently rated a 5-star for scenery, and some call it one of the best hikes in the U.S. It's also supposed to be the most popular route in the park although we saw less than a dozen people on its entire 11-mile length. I'll cover some specifics about both trail sections in separate tips but here's some general info to know before you go:

    Chesler Park is a fun journey over a ridge in Elephant Canyon to a huge and astonishing "city" of pinnacles and hoodoos rising from grassy meadowland. Joint takes you deep into fractures as narrow as 2 feet wide. Together, they create more drama than you can shake a trekking pole at. You can do either trail individually but will be retracing all of your steps unless taking a different (and probably longer) loop back to the trailhead than the Chesler/Joint combination. By doing these two as a loop, you will still retrace 3 miles of ground but have another 8 that are one-way. 11 too much for you? Then just do the 6-mile RT to Chesler Park (3 in and 3 out) as it'll be the shortest of the two to access. 11 too little for you? Add another 4 miles by tacking on a spur to Druid Arch.

    The trailhead starts at the end of 3 miles of dirt road at the Elephant Hill parking area. There are vault toilets but no water: make sure your packs are well stocked with what you need to rehydrate and refuel. Averages are 5-7 hours to do the loop depending on how speedy you are and how many photo stops you make. It took us about 7 but we had a little complication with the weather...

    I'm including a very nice route description, with thanks to David Day and Utah Trails, as the park directions are a little sketchy and it's nice to know more exactly where you are along the way. Ignore the bit about taking the 4-wheel drive road in as the Elephant Hill section is described in the park materials as "one of the most technical 4-wheel-drive roads in Utah." Due to recent heavy rain, it wasn't even passible by jeep when we were there.

    And speaking of rain, do NOT do the Joint if there are any all-day showers in the forecast. If there is a chance later in the day, do the route clockwise and go into the Joint early so you're well out of there before the clouds open. The route I've provided is counterclockwise and has the Joint towards the latter half of the hike; just reverse it. Yup, we got caught in an unexpected downpour and just guess where we were?? I repeat: do NOT do the Joint unless it's sure to be a dry day...

    http://www.utahtrails.com/CheslerPark.html

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    Horseshoe Canyon Overview

    by goodfish Updated Nov 28, 2013

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    Other than the Maze, the Horseshoe Unit is the most remote section of Canyonlands to access. This is a detached piece of the park some 120 miles from Island in the Sky (by the most commonly used west entrance) and the last 30 miles of that is dirt road: it is a long way from anywhere. But along the walls of this canyon are some of the most stunning and archeologically important pictographs on the continent and the primary reason to make the trek. I'll cover specifics of the 7-mile RT hike in following tips but here are some good things to know before putting this one into your planner.

    Reaching the parking area from Moab takes about 2 and 1/2 hours. That can be a bit shorter or a bit longer depending on the condition of that 30 miles of dirt road. You can usually do this with a 2-wheel drive car but a recent, heavy rain could make it impassable to any vehicle, or slow going for those without 4-wheel drive/high clearance. There is another entrance from Green River that's 47 miles of dirt and can have the same access issues but is closer to Moab.

    We chose to stay in the tiny town of Hanksville - about 50 miles from the trailhead - to cut some drive time and be within shoutin' distance (for vast, middle-of-nowhere Utah) of Goblin Valley State Park and another excellent hike at Little Wildhorse and Bell canyons: highly recommended. There are a couple of stations for refueling the car, 2-3 basic places for refueling the tummy, one decent motel, and that's the extent of Hanksville but hey, it worked for us.

    Except for a vault toilet at the trailhead, there are no facilities here at all so food, water, etc. needs to be brought with you. And do bring plenty of water as there is little shade on the trail. Other than any other hikers you'll encounter, you're totally on your own so prepare accordingly: see my warnings and dangers.

    Camping is allowed at the trailhead but not in the canyon itself, and hiking/camping are free: you don't need a park pass.

    For all of its various little challenges, this is one terrific hike that's a must-do for anyone interested in the archeology of the Southwest. See my next review for details on the trek to the pictographs.

    http://members.virtualtourist.com/m/p/m/215b42/

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    Horseshoe Canyon: the pictographs

    by goodfish Updated Nov 28, 2013

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    I'd been crazy to do this hike for years and had some tense moments when heavy rains closed the access road with no clear idea when it might be passible again. But we got lucky: the crews had 'er in shape by the time we hit Hanksville. Yay.

    As beautiful as this canyon is (see previous tip) these images are the stars of the show. They are very ancient - between 2,000 and 9,000 years old - and very rare; incised petroglyphs are much more common to this area. These particular groups of paintings are so important that the name of canyon in which they were found is used as the identifier for others of the same genre: Barrier Style. Archaic hunter/gatherers could have dabbled them on around the same time the pyramids of Egypt were being built or even earlier, and their positions under rock shelves or in the walls of alcoves clearly indicate that they were created to last a long time. No one really knows what they mean but many theories suspect that they were shamanistic in nature and symbolistic of death and rebirth or transformation into animal spirits. That newer images were not superimposed by later peoples (except modern vandals) may support this view - they were apparently respected as sacred and maybe even feared.

    I can go along with that; they are definitely unsettling to see. Eerie armless, legless anthropomorphs - some with staring eyes or horned heads - hover menacingly above your head and cluster in dark recesses. The largest and most impressive grouping - the Great Gallery - has been nicknamed the "Holy Ghost Panel" for a large figure with huge empty sockets in a skull-like head surrounded by blind and featureless "mummies".

    There are four pictograph groupings on this trail:
    High Gallery: on your left and high on a canyon wall shortly after reaching the canyon floor
    Horseshoe Gallery: on your right and just beyond High Gallery
    Alcove Gallery: on your left, about 1/2 mile from Horseshoe Gallery
    Great Gallery: about 1 and 1/4 miles from Alcove

    None of them are marked so to have some idea where to start looking for them on the trail, make a rough sketch of the map in the parking lot kiosk and bring it along. At the Great Gallery viewing site there should be two metal boxes marked "Open me" containing binoculars and some background literature. This is really not a difficult hike although some of it is through sand, and infrequent water in the wash could make for boot-soaked crossings. The most strenuous piece is the climb out so save a good amount of water for that stretch if doing it on a hot and sunny day. And please do not touch the fragile paintings - those at Alcove have been sadly abused enough.

    http://www.nps.gov/cany/planyourvisit/upload/HorseshoeCanyon.pdf

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    Needles: Chesler Park

    by goodfish Updated Nov 28, 2013

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    So as promised in the previous tip, here's the skinny on the Chesler Park portion of Chesler/Joint. This portion of the loop is about about 4.5 miles in length and a real honey. It has its share of big ups and downs but not much for elevation change; a good thing for this flatlander.

    The trail to the park travels over sections of slickrock, sand and dirt, down into Elephant Canyon, up through a narrow opening or two, and past fantastic hoodoo and pinnacle formations of layered deep reds, bright oranges and pale yellows. And just when you think it can't get any better, you reach the wide-open meadow of Chesler Park itself. *Gasp* It is one truly magnificent panorama. It defies words. Below you stretches a fantastic, alien city of monoliths, towers and caprocks that look for all the world like a set in a sci-fi movie. Here is the best spot for a bag lunch and a long, long look from your perch but be careful lest you gaze away some serious daylight here!

    It's at this point that you can either turn around and retrace your steps 3 miles back to the parking area or continue on the Joint. If choosing the latter, there are still 8 miles to go so tear yourself away and drop down into the "city" itself to circle around the needles 1.6 miles or so to a short section of 4-wheel road that signals an upcoming turnoff to the Joint. After about 1/4 mile or so on the road you'll see the sign: you'll be heading east .5 miles to the next amazing stretch of this loop...

    Although there's some good signage at critical points, you need to watch carefully for the cairns that mark the trail over large sections of slickrock. I'm including the same link from the previous tip (thank you to David Day and Utah Trails) that gives a good route description and which direction to turn at forks to other trails.

    http://www.utahtrails.com/CheslerPark.html

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Canyonlands National Park Things to Do

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