From the towering sandstone spires of the Needles District to epically sweeping views of mammoth red rock canyon systems there is a wide variety of things to do in Canyonlands National Park.
With over 330,000 acres of park to explore, you can visit Canyonlands countless times and never do the same thing twice. This park is utterly epic and I’ll show you the most incredible things to do in Canyonlands for any ability.
The best parts about Canyonlands National Park is the wide variety of activities for all skill levels. Plop down your tripod and catch a glimpse at some of the most legendary landscape photography spots in the country. Or embark on a multi-day backpacking adventure in the mighty Maze District. Plus anything you can imagine in between.
Canyonlands National Park is a must-stop spot for me every time I visit Moab. Each park district has a distinct flavor that caters to varying tastes and abilities.
As an expert in playing in this iconic landscape, you’re guaranteed to get the best advice about the best things to do in Canyonlands.
In fact, I get paid to write about the outdoors for my day job (yea, #livingthedream, I know). This means I not only know how to move like a seasoned pro through this landscape, but I’m an expert at beating the crowds in Canyonlands National Park too.
My mission is to empower you to see the best of Canyonlands like a local, not a tourist. So this guide to what to do in Canyonlands is jam-packed with expert level advice and tips for making the most of your time in this iconic landscape.
About this Guide to Things to do in Canyonlands National Park
Get ready for the best advice about what to do in Canyonlands. Inside this post you’ll find:
- Tips about when to visit Canyonlands
- Information about where to find Canyonlands
- The best things to do in Canyonlands National Park
- Additional planning resources
When to Visit Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park is open year-round, but by far the best time to visit is during the spring and fall months.
The weather is typically warmer, but not too hot and the weather is generally clear. Spring can get a little rainy, but the desert comes to life with beautiful greens and wildflower blooms.
Winter is another great time to visit Canyonlands if you don’t mind the cold. It’s certainly a bit too cold to really enjoy backpacking or camping (temps are regularly below freezing), but there are far fewer people and you’ll generally have the park to yourself.
For comparison, we spent sunrise on Christmas Eve at the famous Mesa Arch, and there were only about 15 other people around. Typically this area is completely swamped, so having some space was truly priceless.
Avoid Canyonlands National Park in the summer. It’s too hot to really maximize your time (you’ll feel like you’re walking around in a furnace) and the place is absolutely crawling with tourists who don’t know any better.
Pro Tip: It’s $30 to enter the park from any entrance. If you’re visiting more than one park, consider snagging an America the Beautiful Pass.
Where is Canyonlands National Park?
Canyonlands National Park is MEGA HUGE. And there are three distinct districts within the park. Each district has its own entrance.
The most accessible entrance is the Island in the Sky District. At only about a 40-minute drive from downtown Moab, it’s also the most popular district. Simply head north out of Moab and turn left onto BLM Road 313. Follow the road until you hit the park entrance. Signs mark the way.
The Needles District of Canyonlands is the second closest district. At an hour and a half from Moab, you can still manage to visit for a day trip.
Head south on Highway 191 from Moab and turn right (west) on BLM Road 211. Signs will light the way here as well. You’ll travel through Indian Creek until you reach the Needles entrance.
The third major entrance into Canyonlands is the Maze District – a remote district in the park for serious adventurers. This route is far more removed from the rest of the park and requires a 5.5-hour drive out of Moab. You’ll need a high clearance 4×4 vehicle just to reach the park entrance and a permit is required.
The Best Things to do in Canyonlands by District
With such varying landscapes and terrain, there’s certainly plenty of things to do in Canyonlands National Park. For simplicity’s sake, I’ve broken up the highlights by district so you can choose whatever works best for your Moab itinerary.
Island in the Sky
As the most accessible district in the park, Island in the Sky in Canyonlands features plenty of easier hikes, scenic driving, viewpoints, and famous multi-day 4×4 roads.
Experience THE Most Epic Sunrise at Mesa Arch
Mesa Arch is the embodiment of the beautiful scenery in Canyonlands and sunrises here are pretty darn epic.
The arch glowing with pre-dawn light is the perfect activity in Canyonlands to start the day. Moreover, the contrast of the purple hues of the La Sal Mountains against the reds of Buck Canyon below makes for a pretty sweet view (the kind that gets your jaw on the ground).
The best part? The Mesa Arch trail is one of the best hikes in Canyonlands, so you’ll be treated to a saga of stunning views along the way. It’s also a pretty short and easy hike, which makes it one of the best things to do in Canyonlands for those who don’t necessarily want to do a ton of hiking.
Approximate Time: The hike takes roughly 20 minutes out-and-back, but you’ll spend around one and a half to two hours at the arch.
Get Wowed by the Beauty of Grand Viewpoint
Canyonlands is humongous, and if you’re looking to do one of the best hikes in Moab, the Grand View Point trail will get you running into some of the best things to do in Canyonlands National Park in one go.
Along the way, you’ll be greeted with layers upon layers of red and white rock formations, giant mesas, canyons, and desert landscapes that look as though they belong on Mars.
Once you reach the end of the trail, The Grand View Point Overlook, you’ll be able to catch sight of the Green River and Colorado River canyon systems (warning: you might never want to leave this spot!).
Approximate Time: 1 hour
Bike or Drive the White Rim Road
Whether you’re looking to break a sweat or see some of the coolest highlights in any Canyonlands itinerary, a drive or biking adventure along the White Rim Road is one of the most scenic drives in Moab.
The White Rim Road is a 102-mile dirt road loop that will get you weaving through some of the top landmarks of Island in the Sky. You can either opt to do a section of the trail or make an adventure of it and treat the entire loop as a road trip.
If you love mountain biking, you can bring along a support vehicle and bike the mighty White Rim Road. This is the ONLY trail in the entirety of Canyonlands that allows mountain biking.
Approximate Time: It’s impossible to do the whole loop in just a day, so plan at least two nights for it for both drivers and bikers.
Permit Required: You’ll need a permit to access White Rim Road. Day-use permits are available as well as overnight permits.
Catch a Sunset at Thelma and Louise Point
Speaking of the White Rim Road, if you happen to be a cinema buff and would love to feel like Thelma and Louise on the movie’s final scene (don’t drive your car off the cliff, though), you can actually visit that exact spot in Canyonlands!
Aside from the fact you can check out the place where a classic was filmed, you’ll also fall head over heels in love with the views of the Colorado River down below. This is one of the best things to do in Moab that not many people know about!
The Needles District in Canyonlands is all about getting up-close and personal with amazing rock formations. Literal spires (also called hoodoos) form weird and wacky canyon systems that you could spend an entire lifetime exploring.
This area is great for beginners to expert hikers alike, as well as 4×4 enthusiasts.
Backpack the Desert
Backpacking the Canyonlands is a must on any Moab itinerary if you’re looking for a rugged experience. The Needles offers an array of sublime desert hiking trails that few other places in the world can beat.
A few days spent exploring and making your way through the area will give you the chance to stumble across majestic sandstone spires piercing the sky, towering red rock hoodoos, and some of the most magnificent desert landscapes Moab has to offer
Backpacking in Canyonlands isn’t that tough if you’re used to rugged mountain hikes. The trails are well marked for the most part and there’s a variety of beautiful camping sites to spend the night in throughout your adventure.
Approximate time: Multi-day
Permit Required: A backcountry permit is required to backpack The Needles. Permits book out months in advance during the busy season, so make sure you get yours in advance.
Go on an Epic Hike
There’s an endless array of hiking trails for both the intrepid hiker as well as newbies who just want to get a taste of what this lesser-visited district in Canyonlands is all about.
Whether you’re looking to do a mix of several easier routes or go all-in with a more challenging hike, the Needles offers over 60 miles of interconnected trails, so you’ve got a ton of options to choose from for your itinerary. These are the ones I recommend getting started with:
- Chesler Park
- Squaw Canyon
- Druid Arch
- Elephant Canyon
Test Your Driving Skills on a Backcountry Road
The Needles offers about 50 miles of backcountry roads and if you’re up for the adventure, you’re in for a drive of your lifetime. All roads lead to campsites, trailheads, and many of the coolest landmarks in the park, so it’s a wonderful way to get more close and personal with Canyonlands.
Do note that these roads are for experienced drivers only – they’re rugged and car damage is extremely likely if you don’t know what you’re doing (towing is expensive!).
Approximate Time: Driving times can range from thirty minutes to 3 hours.
Permit Required: A day-use permit is required for single-day trips on several roads (but not all of them). An overnight permit is needed if you plan on overnighting in The Needles.
Climb the Six Shooter Peaks
If you’re up for testing your climbing skills, the Six Shooter Peaks are ideal for that. The Six Shooters are two dazzling desert towers located just east of the Needles and they’re considered the perfect place for newbie mountaineers to try their hand at climbing in Moab.
Both peaks (South and North Six Shooter Peaks) tower high over the Bridger Jack Mesa, a spot in Moab known for its beauty as well as ancient history which you’ll find pieces of along the climb (think massive dwellings and petroglyphs on every major rock).
Approximate Time: Half Day
The Maze is a rugged, wild area that is largely unmapped and doesn’t have many permanent facilities. This area is perfect for those that want a cross-country desert adventure and have a burly vehicle to handle the rough terrain.
There are NO services for hours, you’ll need to bring in all of your own water, food, emergency supplies and extra gasoline.
Go on a 4 Wheeling Adventure
Thought the four-wheel-drives in the Needles were too easy? If you’re up for a more challenging adventure, the roads in The Maze are sure to please.
They’re extremely difficult and not for the faint of heart. If you’ve got plenty of driving experience on backcountry roads, this is one of the coolest things to do in Canyonlands National Park for adventurous souls. These are my favorite roads:
- Teapot Canyon
- Golden stairs
- Maze Overlook
- Happy Canyon
Approximate Time: Driving time can range from 30 minutes to 5 days depending on the road.
Permit Required: A backcountry permit is required to overnight in The Maze.
Do Some SERIOUS Backpacking
If you’re looking for the real deal and are up for the challenge, backpacking the Harvest Scene is one of the most sublime experiences the Canyonlands has to offer. For one, you’ll get to hike through places most don’t venture into, and you’ll also get to experience the excitement of some serious desert camping.
The trail is one of the few loops in the Maze and it’s also the longest hike in the district. The highlight of the trail is getting to one of the most famous rock art panels in the world (Harvest Scene), but you’ll also stumble across two gorgeous canyons along the way.
This cross-country hike provides some of the most glorious and secluded views in the Canyonlands (the Maze is considered one of the most inaccessible areas in the continental USA, so that should give you a pretty good idea of what this place is all about!)
Do note that this adventure is only recommended for expert backpackers as it’s extremely rugged and sparsely marked by cairns. Moreover, it requires some steep climbs and goes over slick rock and canyon washes.
Approximate Time: Multi-Day
Permit Required: Permits are required for all overnight trips into The Maze.
Additional Moab Planning Resources
Planning a trip to Moab? Use these expert-level resources so you can go on the adventure of a lifetime like a local, not a tourist:
- Arches Vs Canyonlands National Park
- The Most Amazing Camping near Moab
- Amazing Hikes in Arches National Park to Add to Your Bucket List