A Complete Guide to Canyonlands National Park

The Needles District of Canyonlands.
The Needles District of Canyonlands. Posnov / Getty Images


In 1869, geologist and explorer of the American West, Major John Wesley Powell, passed through what is now Canyonlands National Park. After traversing the depths of the canyon walls, the miles of slickrock spread between spires, buttes, and arches that look like the entrances to an alien world, he described an indescribable place to those who hadn’t tread the world of rock themselves.

“The landscape everywhere away from the river is rock cliffs of rock, plateaus of rock, terraces of rock, crags of rock—ten thousand strangely carved forms,” Powell said. “The stream is still quiet, and we glide along though a strange, weird, grand region.”

Not much has changed since Powell’s journey through Canyonlands—which was established as a national park in 1964. With over 337,798 acres under its sandstone belt, it’s officially the largest national park in Utah (beating out crowd favorites like Arches and Bryce Canyon).

Because of its vastness—and the two rivers that carve the canyon walls—Canyonlands is split into three distinct regions. Each of these “districts” have their own merits to be explored: Island in the Sky (a mesa that rests 1,500 feet above the rest of the canyon’s terrain), The Needles (named for the vibrant, sharp spires and towers of sandstone that create a forest of rock in the canyon), and The Maze (as its name hints, is the least accessible area of the park).

A winter sunrise illuminates the underside of Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Parks, Utah.
A winter sunrise illuminates the underside of Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Parks, Utah. Chase Dekker Wild-Life Images / Getty Images

 

How to Get There
Most folks visiting Canyonlands from out of state find it easiest to fly into Salt Lake City International Airport and make the drive out to the park—which is a little less than four hours with no stops. Then, your home base outside the park all depends on what district you want to visit. According to the National Park Service, the Island in the Sky district is the closest district to Moab, UT—since it only takes 40 minutes to drive to reach Island in the Sky via UT 313. You can reach the Needles district in the southeast corner of the park via UT 211—which is only an hour’s drive from Monticello, UT. Unfortunately, there are no roads within the park that cross the rivers to directly link any of Canyonlands’ districts—so you have to choose one and stick to it (unless you’re on a week-long trip) since traveling between districts can take anywhere between two to six hours by car.

What to Expect

Cayonlands is a high desert environment. Don’t be surprised to experience a 40-degree change in temperature during a 24-hour period. Because of the extreme (and variable) weather, the most popular seasons to visit are spring (April-May) and fall (mid-September-October). During these months, temperatures are much more manageable (think daytime average highs between 60 and 80 degrees and lows between 30 and 50 degrees). Temperatures exceeding 100 degrees in a landscape that offers no shade and no water for respite plague summertime months. But regardless of what time you visit the park, be sure to bring layers, clothing that protects you from the sun, and plenty of water. Within park boundaries there are no ranger stations or water sources—and the Colorado and Green rivers are too silty to filter well. That means what you have with you when you enter the park better be enough to get you out of the park.

If you have an America the Beautiful pass, that will get you into the park for free (but not cover any permit fees). Entrance fees for everyone else are $25 per car, $15 per motorcycle, or $10 per person (no parking needed)—however, children 15 or younger get in for free.

Anyone planning to sleep in the park overnight must reserve a campground.

Druid Arch, Chesler Park Trail, Canyonlands
Druid Arch, Chesler Park Trail, Canyonlands Joel Rogers / Getty Images

 

What to Do

Drive the White Rim Trail
The White Rim road is a 97.2-mile, high-clearance, 4×4-only road that encircles the entire Island in the Sky district of the park. It’s not a trek for the faint of heart—and takes 2-3 days to complete if you plan to take side hikes and camp. The White Rim runs along some of the sheerest and most dramatic edges of the park—with direct views down into Monument Basin, across the desert to the La Salle Mountains, and of the Green and Colorado rivers as they wind through the canyons.

Rent a 4×4 Jeep or truck from Canyonlands Jeep and Car rentals (and get the insurance!). Currently, internet reservations receive a 10 percent discount for a 3-6 day rental, while a rental of 7 or more days receives a 20 percent discount. Just be sure that when you take off on that White Rim that you’re prepared for any obstacles that might put a damper on your progress of covering 100-miles in the backcountry (because towing out here is as pricey as it gets). Bring all tools necessary to fix minor auto mishaps: a full socket set, tire kit, full size spare, air pump, saw or grinder, high lift jack, extra fuel, extra lubricants, and spare parts.

Feel like tackling a 100-mile road on two wheels instead of four? The White Rim is one of the only national park trails where there is an exception to the no-mountain bikes rule. Unless you’re a master-survivor, hardcore MTB-er extraordinaire who can ride 100 burly miles of slickrock and 3-miles uphill switchbacks, we recommend you sign up for a guided ride (that supplies all the food and water you could need in a support vehicle!). A four-day guided ride of the West Rim with Western Spirit Cycling only costs $950 for a four-day tour so you can past through Musselman Arch, Little Bridge Canyon (prime Bighorn Sheep habitat), Lathrop Canyon, Candlestick Tower, and Upheaval Dome and not even worry about setting up your own tent before the sun sets.

Hike to Druid Arch
This 11- mile round trip hike sets you up with some of the most spectacular views in Canyonlands. The trail meanders through the canyon bottom with deep sand before a steep climb out of canyon (which requires some scrambling) brings you to Druid Arch—one of the most alien-looking rock formations in the entire park (and definitely one of the best Instagram photo subjects you’ll ever get). There are three backpacking camping sites along the trail for overnight trips.

White water rafting in Cataract Canyon
White water rafting in Cataract Canyon Kerrick James / Getty Images

Raft the Colossal Cataract Canyon
Sure, Canyonlands is in the desert. But one of the most unique (and memorable) ways to experience the harsh and beautiful environment is from the rivers that shaped it. Adventure Bounds USA is a family-owned small business that has been running river trips on the Colorado Plateau for more than 50 years. Their 3-day rafting trip of the Colorado River takes you down through the heart of Canyonlands and into Cataract Canyon—home of some of the largest whitewater rapids in the country. The trip will run you $845 per person (kids are only $790 and groups of 10 or more get a discounted rate of $770 per person). Your raft guides will show you perfect side hikes for the afternoons when you get off the river, set up camp, and cook rib-sticking meals like include barbecued chicken and pork chops after a long day of paddling.

Unwind in Moab
It’s a religious experience to re-emerge from the remote hear of Canyonlands and return to civilization—aka Moab, Utah. Your first stop should be Milt’s Stop and Eat for an extra-large, extra cold marshmallow shake to replace all the calories that an adventure in the desert burns.

After a sweet treat, treat yourself to a night of re-charging, sleeping pad-free sleep at the Moab Springs Ranch—the oldest homestead in the area. The 12-acre estate boasts bungalows and townhouses that guests stay in between trips to the pool and hot tub, naps in hammocks, and hikes to the top of nearby Arrowhead Hill or on the Slickrock Mesa Trail—located right outside Moab Springs Ranch’s back door. The property is about as close to a desert oasis as it gets—especially considering the property’s dedication to sustainability and conservation. The design and build has resulted in high energy efficiency buildings and practices of the hotel minimize energy use, waste, and water consumption and the vineyard and gardens are free of the use of pesticides. Book your stay here, starting at $240 a night.