The Canyonlands is the most overlooked and underrated National Park in Utah, which is easy to understand given that there are 4 others to compete with.
It doesn’t help that Canyonlands has Moab next door to steal some of it’sthunder too. I’m not here to rank it amongst the other parks in Utah, as each one has it’s own unique features and incredible vistas, but I will say it does have the best name, no contest.
The Canyon Lands is so large, 527 square miles, that it is broken up into three sections; Island in the Sky, The Maze, and The Needles. We’ll highlight the top features from each section, but whichever one you go to, be sure to bring either your hiking boots, climbing gear, mountain bike, or off-road jeep to take advantage of the one-of-a-kind terrain.
To Make things easy on you, we’ll list the top must-do attractions in each section of the park:
Island in the Sky
The Island in the Sky is the easiest part of the park to access due to it’s proximity to Moab, which also makes it the busiest. But don’t let the crowds scare you away, most the tour busses and retired National Park tourists stick to a couple main attractions.
1) Mesa Arch
Mesa Arch is the most famous and also the most popular attraction at Canyonlands. This is where you want to be at the break of dawn, the sun rises right through arch. So, get your can out of bed early, if you made it all the way to Canyonlands, don’t be too lazy to miss the sunrise at Mesa Arch.
2) The White Rim Road
The White Rim Road is an off road trail that stretches 71.2 miles around The Island in the Sky. If you have a few days you can mountain bike the road, or if you’d like to do it in a day bring your off road vehicle. Once you descend down the park and onto the White Rim Road you’ll rarely cross paths anyone else the rest of your trip. If you your biking, plan on 3 to 5 days to complete the whole trail and there are no services down there so you’ll need to pack enough food, water, and toiletry needs to get you through the journey. Camping permits are required and you can get them here: : http://www.nps.gov/cany/planyourvisit/backcountrypermits.htm
3) Murphy Point
Murphy Point offers the best views of the Island in the Sky. The 1.5 mile hike to the point deters most people who go to the Grand View Point Overlook, which makes Murphy Point even more special, chances are you will be left alone with just your group and the view. Plan some time to spend at the overlook to take it all in. The magnificence of The Island in the Sky is breathtaking.
4) Alcove Springs Hike to Moses and Zeus Rock
You won’t read about this hike in many review sites, which is why we like it. We hiked 11 miles and saw one other person. The trail immediately drops you down switchbacks through red rock and onto the canyon floor. Once you reach the base, you’ll follow the dry river bed until you arrive to the picturesque Moses and Zeus Rock.
The Needles district is more remote than and takes longer to get to than Island in the Sky. The trail system is more extensive than the system in The Island in the Sky. The top things to do in The Needles are all hikes, as the viewpoints are all better at the Island in the Sky.
1) Druid Arch
Druid Arch is the most popular feature in The Needles, and for good reason – It is an impressive site to see. Druid Arch is a free standing rock formation that creates 2 arches and is more in the shape of a Stonehenge formation on steroids than a typical Canyonlands arch formation. It is located at the mouth of Elephant Canyon and is 11.2 miles round trip.
2) Chesler Park Loop
You’ll need 4-wheel drive to get the trailhead of the 5.4 mile loop. Take the trail clockwise so that you save the best views for last. If you’d like to do some backcountry camping this is one of the best places in the park to do it. The two best parts of the hike are Chesler Park Overlook which is about .7 miles off the main trail, but well worth the .7 mile walk, and the Joint. The Joint is is large crack between rock formations that you’ll have to shimmy your way through in spots. There are couple points in the Joint where if you’re a NFL lineman or have a large backpack you might need to do some twisting and turning and shoving and pulling to get through.
3) Slickrock Foot Trail
The Slickrock trail is a 2.4 mile lollipop loop that will tour. We love this this hike because it stays high and gives you a view of the Southeast corner of park and many major landmarks including; Six-shooter Peak, Elaterite Butte, Cathedral Butte, the La Sal Mountains, Ekker Butte, Little Spring Canyon, Big Spring Canyon, and of course the Needles.
The Maze is the most remote and rugged section of the Canyonlands. All the trailheads are accessed by dusty 4-wheel drive roads and Backpacker.com listed it among America’s 10 most dangerous hikes. All visitors must be equipped with their own survival gear and self rescue equipment. Only a small fraction of Canyonland visitors venture to The Maze and rarely do visitors spend less than three days in the Maze due to the great effort and planning it takes to get there. But all who go to the maze unanimously agree that it is well worth the trouble. Permits are required for all overnight trips in The Maze. You’re not hardcore unless you live hardcore, and those who go to The Maze are hardcore.
1) Cataract Canyon
Cataract Canyon the best river rafting in the country. Cataract Canyon begins at, “The Confluence,” where the Green River and the Colorado River unite, thus doubling the force of the river. The River takes you through a 112 miles of carved out canyon walls, through relaxing and soul-stirring vistas and through the class III-V rapids; Mile Long, Satan’s Gut, and Big Drop. The best time of year with peak water flow is May and June.
2) Rock Formations
There are so many unique and awe inspiring rock formations in The Maze that we are listing “Rock Formations” as one all inclusive item for all the formations. You may not have time to see them all but some of our favorites are: Dolls House, Chocolate Drops, Joints, The Fins, Chimney Rock, Tibbets Arch, Standing Rock, Whitmore Arch, and The Plug. There are incredible formations scattered throughout The Maze, plan your backpacking accordingly to see as many as you can.
3) Horseshoe Canyon
Horseshoe canyon is the easiest trail to access in the Maze. Pets are prohibited on the trail, but you can take a horse, I guess as long as the horse isn’t your “pet.” The option to horseback ride through Horseshoe Canyon makes it one of the most unique experiences available at the Canyonlands. This is likely as close as you will ever get to being in an old western cowboy movie. The Great Gallery of Horseshoe Canyon is one of a kind.