Canyonlands 2-Day Itinerary: Your Guide to Island in the Sky and Needles

While Canyonlands is the least visited National Park in Utah, it’s one of our family favorites.  We go here more than any other Utah National Park, and if you know what to look for, you can find some pretty incredible adventures off the beaten path in Canyonlands.  This Canyonlands itinerary will take you through a day in each of the most popular areas of Canyonlands National Park.  As Utah locals, we come here several times a year and keep discovering more and more to explore here, and we’ve put together the best Canyonlands itinerary for you!

neddles district canyonlands

Getting Around Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands is a National Park that’s set up differently than most other parks, because of the deep canyons and the Colorado and Green Rivers flowing through it, making a lot of it impassible by car.  There are three different sections in Canyonlands:  The Island in the Sky in the northeast, The Needles to the southeast, and The Maze to the west.  

canyonlands white rim moab utah

Since the driving distances between the three sections are longer, we recommend committing to one district and spending a full day there.  The Needles District and the Island in the Sky District are the most popular places in Canyonlands, so we’re going to focus on visiting there.  The Maze is very remote and rugged and will require a solid 4×4 vehicle and a good knowledge of the backcountry.  Because a visit to the Maze is more specialized, we’ll save that for another article, since it’s not an area that we recommend the average visitor go.

1 Day at Island in the Sky Itinerary

Island in the sky is about 40 minutes northwest of Moab. It’s location is easy to get to and it’s packed with backcountry adventure. However, unless you have a backcountry permit, you really can do all of the highlights of Island in the Sky in just one day. Here’s where you should go:

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Starting Your Island in the Sky Canyonlands Day at Mesa Arch

If it’s your first visit to Canyonlands, you won’t want to miss sunrise at the iconic Mesa Arch. The path is only 0.5 miles, easy even before the sun peeks over the horizon. As daylight breaks, it is filtered through Mesa Arch, illuminating the canyon below in an array of orange hues. It’s nothing short of breathtaking as you watch the sun kiss all the different canyons below.  While you will be up nice and early, don’t expect to have the arch to yourself since sunrise at Mesa Arch is incredibly popular with photographers. Experiencing the sunrise here underscores the sheer beauty you are about to explore, making it an essential start to our 1-day itinerary in Canyonlands National Park.

Exploring Grand View Point Overlook: Easy Path to Unforgettable Views

After catching the sunrise at Mesa Arch, head over to Grand View Point Overlook. The 2-mile round-trip trail is a breeze and totally worth it. Imagine yourself walking this easy path, each step bringing you closer to some of the most stunning views in Canyonlands National Park. When you get there, the panoramic views will blow you away. Be sure to take plenty of photos – you’ll want to remember this part of your one-day adventure in Canyonlands.

Discovering the Secrets of Upheaval Dome

By midday, make your way to Upheaval Dome, a place full of mystery. Experts are still debating whether it was created by a meteorite impact or a collapsing salt dome. You’ve got two hiking options here. The first trail is a short, 1-mile hike to an overlook, great if you’re short on time. If you’re more curious, take the 1.8-mile trail to the second overlook. As you hike, you’ll get wrapped up in the mystery of what formed this unique landscape, adding some intrigue to your day.

Upheaval Dome crater in Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA.

Lunch with a View at Island in the Sky

Pack a lunch and head to the Green River Overlook. The wide, sweeping views make any meal feel special. It’s the perfect spot to relax, enjoy the scenery, and recharge. Taking a break here is essential – appreciating the vastness around you is just as important as the hikes. When planning your day in Canyonlands, don’t forget to set aside time for this peaceful moment. It’s not just about eating; it’s about soaking in the beauty around you.

Afternoon Adventures in Canyonlands

Your afternoon can be filled with more exploring. You might want to tackle the Shafer Trail Road, but remember, you’ll need a high-clearance vehicle. This road winds through the park’s rugged terrain, offering breathtaking views you’ll remember long after. Another option is the hike up Aztec Butte, where you can explore ancient Puebloan granaries. This hike gives you a glimpse into the rich cultural history of the area. These activities will make your one day in Canyonlands even more memorable.

biking white rim canyonlands with kids

Shafer Trail Road 4×4 Adventure

Before driving the Shafer Trail Road, stop by the visitor center for current conditions and road advice. This route requires a high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicle. As you drive, you’ll be treated to unique views and a deeper appreciation of the canyon’s depth. The road isn’t too technical, but its narrow with steep cliffs, so some off-roading experience is necessary, as well as some courage. The views from this trail are unlike any others in the park, offering a fresh perspective on Canyonlands. If you have a permit, you can drive the entire White Rim Road (most people do this in several days). Otherwise, take the turnoff for Potash Road to exit the park.
Read all about driving the White Rim Road and Biking The White Rim Road with Kids

canyonlands white rim moab utah

Exploring Aztec Butte: A Journey into the Past

The Aztec Butte hike isn’t named for the Aztec people but for the ancient Puebloan people. This moderately challenging trail offers stunning views and a glimpse into ancient Puebloan granaries. The hike is about 1.5 miles with a 250-foot elevation change. Plan on spending about 1.5 hours here, including time to explore the granaries. There’s some scrambling involved, but it’s worth it to visit this unique part of Canyonlands. Remember, visitors aren’t allowed to enter the granaries or touch any archaeological remains.

Ending Your Canyonlands Itinerary: Murphy Point at Sunset

End your day in Canyonlands with a sunset at Murphy Point. The hike is easy, just 1.8 miles round trip, and the views are absolutely worth it. As the sun sets, the sky transforms into vibrant colors, providing a perfect ending to your adventurous day. The cool evening air and the shifting hues of the horizon create a simple yet profound experience. As the last light fades, you’ll get one of the best views of the canyons below at Murphy Point.  While many people recommend going to Grand View Overlook at sunset, we think that Murphy Point has the best views and it’s rarely crowded!

1 Day Itinerary for Visiting Canyonlands Needles District

Canyonlands Needles District is more off the beaten path than Island in the Sky, and is about a 1.5 hour drive from Moab.  Unless you’re planning to camp in or near Canyonlands, you’ll want to hit the road early to beat the heat.  

The Needles gets its name from all of these needle like spires in this section of the park

Newspaper Rock Historic Site

Plan to be at Newspaper Rock by 7am to avoid the heat.  Newspaper Rock is about 30 minutes before you get to Canyonlands, so if you’re staying in Moab, plan to leave around 6am.   Located along UT-211, Newspaper Rock is a state historic monument featuring a large rock panel covered with petroglyphs created by ancient Native American cultures. The petroglyphs date back over 2,000 years and offer a fascinating glimpse into the lives and stories of the people who once inhabited this area. Spend about 15 minutes here to admire and photograph the rock art, appreciating the intricate carvings and imagining the stories they tell.

Chesler Park Hiking

Next, drive to the Elephant Hill Trailhead inside of Canyonlands, which is about 45 minutes from Newspaper Rock. The road to Elephant Hill is a bit rough (just a rutted out dirt road), so be prepared for a bumpy ride. You will stop at the trailhead parking lot where the Elephant Hill 4×4 trail begins.

Our recent family backpacking trip in Chesler Park

Once there, begin your hike to Chesler Park, one of the most spectacular destinations in the Needles District. This 6-mile round-trip hike is moderately difficult, involving some scrambling and narrow sections, though it seems to be easier for kids than adults. The trail meanders through colorful spires and sandstone formations, offering stunning views at every turn. Aim to start hiking by 8:30 AM to avoid the peak heat.

Chesler Park is a vast, open meadow surrounded by the iconic Needle formations. Hike to the far south of it, and you’ll enter a maze of slot canyons and feel like you’re in another world.  It’s well worth the hiking to get out there.  Make sure you take at least 2 liters of water per person, snacks, sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, and a map or GPS (you won’t get cell service there). Starting early ensures you can enjoy the hike and return before the afternoon heat intensifies.

slot canyons canyonlands national park

Picnic at Big Spring Canyon Overlook

After your hike to Chesler Park, drive to Big Spring Canyon Overlook (and blast your A/C if it’s hot outside). This spot is easily accessible by car and offers breathtaking views without requiring a strenuous hike. Big Spring Canyon Overlook provides a sweeping view of the rugged canyon landscape, with its deep gorges and towering rock formations. Spend about 30 minutes here enjoying the scenery.  This is one of our favorite places for a picnic lunch!!  There are lots of big rocks around, so find a shady spot at the base of one of them.

Canyonlands needles district utah desert

Wooden Shoe Overlook

Your next stop is Wooden Shoe Overlook, just a short drive away. This overlook provides a fantastic view of a rock formation that resembles a wooden shoe, standing out starkly against the desert backdrop. It’s a quick stop, so spend about 15 minutes here taking photos and soaking in the unique landscape. This is one of the park’s iconic formations and makes for a memorable photo opportunity.

Cave Spring Hike

By around 3:00 PM, head to the Cave Spring Trailhead for the Cave Spring Hiking Trail. This 0.6-mile loop trail takes about 30-45 minutes to complete and is an easy hike suitable for all ages. The trail features historical cowboy artifacts, a cave with springs, and a climb up two ladders for a panoramic view of the area.

It’s a short hike and one of the only ones that we recommend in the mid-afternoon heat because it’s so easy and simple. The cave spring itself is a cool, shady spot that provides a refreshing break from the heat. Although it’s a short hike, the sun can still be intense, so continue to carry water, wear sunscreen, and a hat. Take your time and enjoy the historical aspects of this trail, which offers a glimpse into the park’s cowboy past and Native American heritage.

Wrapping up The Needles District

By 4pm, your time in The Needles is wrapping up and you  can head back into town for dinner.  If you’re looking for an Iconic place to have a picnic dinner with a view over Canyonlands, head to the Needles Overlook.  It’s off of a dirt road to the North of Canyonlands, but the sunsets here are out of this world.  There are shade structures at the top as well for you to beat the heat under. To get ot the Needles Overlook, you’ll go off of Highway 191 about 30 minutes to the West.  

Safety Tips for Canyonlands National Park

Just because the desert looks empty, that doesn’t mean it’s necessarily safe. Here in Utah, we here tons of news reports every year about people who get into trouble because they’re not prepared when the visit the desert. Don’t let that be you! Plan ahead, and if you’re unsure what to bring, grab our FREE Canyonlands packing list!

Stay on Designated Trails and Roads

Cryptobiotic soil, also known as biological soil crust, is a living ground cover that is crucial to the desert ecosystem. It prevents erosion and retains moisture. When hiking, always stay on designated trails and roads to avoid damaging this fragile soil. Walking off-trail can destroy years of growth in seconds.

Bring Plenty of Water

The desert environment can be extremely dehydrating. It’s recommended to carry at least one gallon of water per person per day. Dehydration can set in quickly, especially during the hot summer months. Ensure you have enough water for everyone in your group and plan for additional supplies in case of emergencies. Do not carry a water filter as a backup since there is almost no fresh water here.

Have Adequate Gas

There are no gas stations within Canyonlands National Park, so make sure your vehicle has a full tank before entering. The remote nature of the park means that running out of gas can lead to a dangerous situation. Plan your fuel needs carefully, especially if you’re exploring any off road areas.

Wear Sun-Protective Clothing

The sun in Canyonlands can be intense. Wear lightweight, long-sleeve shirts, long pants, and a wide-brimmed hat to protect your skin from harmful UV rays. Sunglasses with UV protection are also essential to protect your eyes. Apply sunscreen with a high SPF to any exposed skin and reapply it regularly, especially after sweating.

Pack Plenty of Food and Snacks

Bring enough food to sustain you for the duration of your visit, plus some extra in case of delays. High-energy snacks like nuts, dried fruit, and energy bars are excellent for keeping your energy levels up during hikes. A balanced meal plan will help you maintain energy and focus, essential for safe navigation and enjoyment of the park.

Carry a Detailed Map and Compass or GPS

Cell service is unreliable or nonexistant in many parts of Canyonlands. Always carry a detailed map of the area and a compass or GPS device. Know how to use them and plan your route in advance. It’s easy to get disoriented in the vast, rugged terrain (especially in the slot canyons), so reliable navigation tools are crucial.

Dress in Layers and Be Prepared for Weather Changes

The weather in Canyonlands can change rapidly. Mornings and evenings can be chilly, even in the summer, while midday temperatures can soar. Dress in layers so you can adjust to changing temperatures. Pack a lightweight jacket or sweater for cooler times of the day.

Know Your Limits and Pace Yourself

Canyonlands’ trails vary in difficulty. Choose trails that match your fitness level and experience. Overexertion can lead to exhaustion or heat stroke, especially in the summer. Take regular breaks, drink water frequently, and don’t push yourself beyond your limits. Listen to your body and turn back if you’re feeling unwell.

Prepare for Emergencies

Carry a first aid kit that includes bandages, antiseptic wipes, pain relievers, tweezers, and any personal medications. Know basic first aid procedures and be prepared to treat minor injuries or illnesses. A whistle and mirror can be lifesavers if you need to signal for help. Inform someone outside the park of your itinerary and expected return time.

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