8 Bucket List Adventures in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks

If you’re looking to explore Canyonlands and Arches off the beaten path, you’ve come to the right place!  Growing up in Utah, there was no shortage of places to explore.  My husband grew up traipsing across the state behind his grandpa who knew the intricacies of places that most people had never even heard of.  It nurtured in my husband a strong desire to get off the beaten path, escape the crowds and push his limits.  Now with our family in tow, he’s taken us on some pretty incredible adventures in Utah, and some of the absolute best have been in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.  

The adventures we’re sharing below are all bucket list worthy trips, whether they take you a day or a week.  If you want adventure in Arches and Canyonlands, these are the top adventure activities in these Utah National Parks.  

Biking the 100-Mile White Rim Trail, Canyonlands National Park

Biking White rim trail

Biking the White Rim Trail in Canyonlands National Park is an unforgettable adventure that immerses you in some of the most spectacular landscapes the American Southwest offers.  We bike A LOT and this is one of my all-time favorite places to ride.  Our entire family loves it so much that we’ve done this 100-mile trail 3 times in the last 3 years.  This 100-mile loop challenges and rewards with its mix of tough climbs, thrilling descents, and unparalleled views of towering red rock cliffs, vast canyons, and striking plateaus. It’s the best way to get into the backcountry of canyonlands while still really appreciating and soaking in the scenery. 

The trail demands preparation and respect, as remote sections require self-sufficiency, especially with water and repair equipment. Most cyclists will have a support vehicle or 2 since carrying your gear and being so remote present a unique set of challenges.  Camping along the trail is one of my favorites with no nearby light pollution, giving you some of the best night skies in a National Park.   

The trail is all on the 4×4 White Rim dirt road.  While there are some sections that are quite technical for a car, there’s nothing overly challenging on a bike, other than very long days in the saddle.  

biking White rim trail

 Most people ride the White Rim in three to four days, camping along the way, however, if you want a real challenge and are in excellent shape consider doing White Rim In A Day (WRIAD).  We did this with our teens (who are competitive cyclists) last fall and it was one of the most memorable adventures we’ve ever been on. 

If you’re interested in doing the White Rim, but need support, consider going with Western Spirit Tours.  They handle everything from providing the bikes to cooking gourmet meals for guests!

Backpacking Through the Needles District, Canyonlands National Park

backpacking canyons needles disrict

Backpacking through the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park will instantly make you feel small in the very best sort of way.  Walking through deep canyons, around fins and spires, and exploring remote arches is one of the best ways to see The Needles District of Canyonlands. The trails here weave through the backcountry, offering solitude and a profound connection with nature, far from the crowds that are common in most National Parks.  With routes ranging from the relatively easy Chesler Park Loop (our favorite and perfect for kids) to the more challenging Big Spring to Squaw Canyon Loop, backpackers of all levels can find a path that suits their abilities and adventurous spirit.

The most challenging part of backpacking in Canyonlands National Park is the access to water.  Except during periods of high rain, there is usually never any water in the backcountry, so you’ll need to carry in everything you need.  Considering that the temperatures and environment can get pretty extreme, you’ll be looking at needing close to 1 gallon of water per person each day.  Most backpackers in Canyonlands only spend 2-3 days in the backcountry since bringing in more water can simply be too much weight.  We love to camp at the EC2 site since it’s far enough in to get away from the crowds, but not too far to carry in your water.

Navigating the Needles’ backcountry requires a good map, a compass, and sometimes even GPS, as the trails can meander through complex formations and over slickrock, making the area feel more like a maze than a trail at times.  Advance permits are required for all overnight trips and ALL waste must be carried out with you.  

needles canyonlands with kids

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Rafting Cataract Canyon, Canyonlands National Park


If you’re looking for a major adrenaline rush, the rafting through Cataract Canyon in Canyonlands National Park is just the thing.  This trip combines intense white-water rapids with the serene beauty of one of Utah’s most majestic landscapes. The trip through Cataract Canyon will have you floating down the Colorado river through deep sandstone canyons and ancient rock formations.   The trip starts off calm and flat, but the river soon shifts as you enter Cataract Canyon and the rivers speed and intensity grow. The heart of Cataract Canyon presents a challenge even for seasoned rafters, with over 30 rapids ranging from class III to V, promising to get everyone wet and challenge everyone in the boat.  

In between the rapids, the river’s gentler sections offer opportunities for swimming, side hikes to ancient ruins, and come calmer moments to soak in the beauty of Canyonland.  Each night you’ll be camping along the riverbank under the vast, starlit sky and sharing stories and experiences around a campfire.

Canyoneering Arches National Park

While most people associate Canyoneering with Zion National Park, Arches has some really amazing canyoneering areas if you have the skills.  If you’re willing to venture off the beaten path to a canyoneering route in Arches, you’ll escape the crowds and have a one of a kind adventure.  

canyoneering with kids utah

There are 10 canyoneering routes in Arches National Park and while none of them go through tight slot canyons, you’ll be doing plenty of scrambling and rappelling through the park.  There are a few potholes and mud sections on some routes, but several of the canyons are completely dry.  There are a few more technical routes, but some of them are great for novices and we’ve even taken our older kids on a few.

If you want to go Canyoneering in Arches, you’ll need a permit and proof of your canyoneering experience.  

Where can you canyoneer in Arches?

There are 10 different routes for canyoneering in Arches National Park.  Here are the areas where you will find canyoneering routes:
Fiery Furnace
Great Wall
Lost Spring Canyon
Park Avenue
Petrified Dunes
The Windows

Hike The Fiery Furnace, Arches National Park

Hiking the Fiery Furnace in Arches National Park is an adventure that’s as exciting as the name sounds. It’s not just another Arches hiking trail – it’s a hands-on scramble through a maze of sandstone that keeps you guessing at what’s around the corner. This place is basically a playground for our family, and everyone loves scrambling around on the rocks and the challenges that hiking here presents just make it more exciting. If you have adventurous kids or teens like we do, this place is AMAZING! The towering canyon walls, steep fins, and towering spires create a natural labyrinth, complete with narrow slot canyons and hidden arches that feel worlds away from the park’s more traveled paths (and especially the crowds)

Fiery furnace hike

Despite its daunting name, the Fiery Furnace is surprisingly cool, thanks to the shade provided by the tall rock walls. It’s a stark contrast to the open desert trails elsewhere in the park. It’s easy to get turned around in here, and your GPS won’t be much help with the sandstone cliffs towering above you. But that’s part of the fun!  Nearly everyone who visits here gets at least a little bit lost and as long as you’re prepared to do some serious rock hopping and squeezing through tight spaces, you’re in for a treat.

The rules are pretty straightforward: stick to the washes or rock surfaces to protect the fragile desert floor, don’t climb on the arches, and keep your group size to six or less.  You’ll need to reserve a permit online before you go and everyone who goes in has to watch an informational safety video before they enter. Also, keep in mind that everyone in your party has to be age 5 or older, so if you have younger kids, you’ll need to wait a while.

In the Fiery Furnace, you make your own path, sometimes following arrows that suggest a route, other times choosing your own adventure. It’s a place where dead ends might just lead you to the most breathtaking views, and where a little bit of scrambling rewards you with complete solitude.  While there’s no official map, a good sense of direction and a spirit of adventure are all you need to discover the wonders of the Fiery Furnace.  If you’re planning to spend some time in Arches, this is one of the best places to get away from the crowds and to really experience the raw and wild nature of Arches National Park.  If you are looking for a great itinerary for going to Arches National Park make sure to read our 1, 2, and 3-day itineraries.

4×4 Drive up Elephant Hill, Canyonlands National Park

needles canyonlands

Driving up Elephant Hill in Canyonlands National Park’s Needles District is an off-road adventure that will put your 4×4 driving skills to the test.  This trail is renowned for its challenging terrain, featuring tight switchbacks, steep grades, and technical sections that require careful navigation and a capable vehicle. The route starts at Elephant Hill and most drivers continue on to the Joint Trail or to Chestler Park.  The beginning of the trail is intimidating with some steep sections to get up Elephant hill and several technical sections that often require the help of a spotter.  While this trail used to be even worse, in the last 10 years the parks service has filled in some of the more difficult sections with concrete to make the route just a little bit easier.  Every time we’ve been here, there have been a line of cars waiting for their turn to drive up the hill, so plan on getting there early.

While having a capable 4×4 vehicle is important, the most important thing you’ll need are excellent off-road driving skills.  We’ve done the trail in stock SUV’s and had few problems but have also seen others with very high clearance speciality off-road rigs really struggling.  Before you drive here, practice on some other sections of technical driving around Moab.  


Drive the Schafer Trail, Canyonlands National Park

Driving the Shafer Trail in Canyonlands National Park is an unforgettable journey that takes you through some of the most dramatic landscapes the American Southwest has to offer. This iconic backcountry route, known for its breathtaking vistas and heart-pounding switchbacks, offers a unique way to experience the rugged beauty of Canyonlands. You’ll see the road from above which will likely make you part excited and part nervous when you see how steep it is as it descends down to the White Rim Road. To be honest, drives like this make me pretty nervous with the steep dropoff and narrow road, so I’d much rather bike this road instead (though the climb back up is BRUTAL). The trail itself, a mix of packed dirt and rock, requires a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle and a steady hand at the wheel, especially on the narrow sections with sheer drops.

biking white rim canyonlands with kids

Along the way, you’ll be treated to panoramic views of the Colorado River, the White Rim, and the surrounding canyon country that stretches as far as the eye can see.  The Shafer Trail also serves as a gateway to other adventures within the park, including the White Rim Road, providing options for further exploration.  You can drive the Schafer Trail to the Potash Road, but to continue farther you’ll need a backcountry permit.

Other Adventures Nearby:

Paddle the Green River Through Stillwater Canyon

If you love spending time on the water, but don’t want the fast pace of Cataract Canyon, then plan a river trip down Stillwater Canyon, farther north in Canyonlands.  The trip typically starts at Ruby Ranch or Mineral Bottom, meandering through the calm but powerful currents of the Green River. As you paddle downstream, the towering canyon walls rise dramatically, showcasing layers of geological history and offering a spectacular display of colors at sunrise and sunset.  The trip can take anywhere from 4-8 days and can be done in a raft, canoe, or kayak.  This Canyonlands river trip takes you through some of the most remote and breathtaking landscapes in the American Southwest, providing an unparalleled viewpoint that few other visitors ever see.  

rafting with kids muddy creek

Along the way, the landscape is dotted with natural wonders, including majestic arches, ancient Native American rock art, and intriguing rock formations. While you’ll spend plenty of time on the water, part of the beauty of a trip like this is taking the time to slow down and get out and explore the canyon around you.  There is no shortage of viewpoints to hike to, side canyons to explore, and incredible rock formations. 

Paddling Stillwater Canyon requires some paddling experience on multi-day rivers, but not many technical skills, so many people do this trip as a self guided adventure.  If you have backcountry experience and want the solitude of a desert river, Stillwater Canyon is hard to beat!

Regardless of how you like to explore, you can find a little bit of everything in Canyonlands and Arches National Parks.  Whether you want to bike, canyoneer, raft, or hike, you can find epic adventures in these Utah National Parks.

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