Last Updated on March 2, 2020
Canyonlands National Park is a stunning parkland in Utah, close to the city Moab. This national park is famous for its stunning natural rock formations, such as the Needles, and its magnificent canyons. One of the most significant and well-known features of Canyonlands is the Island in the Sky, which is a huge mesa.
The park is predominantly arid desert that lies next to the Colorado River and Green River. The park is divided into four separate districts; the combined rivers, the Maze, the Needles, and the Island in the Sky.
The unique terrain of Canyonlands National Park means it is a popular area with tourists, especially those who enjoy outdoor pursuits. One of the best ways to see the stunning landscape and its various natural features is to hike in the area.
There are many excellent hiking trails at Canyonlands, with both short and easy hikes and challenging trails suited to experienced hikers. Here we have compiled a list of ten of the best hiking trails in Canyonlands National Park along with some useful tips for staying and hiking in this area.
Gear Checklist – What to Bring When Hiking in Canyonlands National Park
If you are visiting Canyonlands National Park and plan to hike during your visit, don’t forget to pack the following pieces of gear:
- Quality hiking boots– There are many trails with rugged terrain, slippery areas, and mud. Your ankles and feet need the support of good quality hiking boots.
- Trekking poles– Some sections of the trails involve scrambling over rocks and in some sections, you may cover muddy areas. Taking trekking poles along with you will help you
- Sun protection– For many sections of the trails in Canyonlands National Park you are exposed to the elements. Wearing a high sun protection factor sunscreen is vital and you should also wear sunglasses and a sun hat.
- Water and snacks– The temperatures can get very high in this area, especially around midday. Water is essential to stay hydrated and to cope with the exertion of hiking over uneven terrain in high temperatures.
- Bear spray– It is highly unlikely that you will encounter a bear. However, there are occasions when they wander down from the nearby mountains. Carrying bear spray is a sensible precaution to take.
- Travel insurance– Getting insurance for your trip is important, especially when you are visiting remote areas.
Where to Stay Close to Canyonlands National Park
As Canyonlands National Park covers a vast area, this is somewhere you should spend several days so that you can explore several areas of the parkland. If you plan to spend several days in the area, you will need to find accommodation and the type you choose will depend on your budget and the type of experience you want from your trip. No matter which option you choose, it is best to book in advance as this is an area that is popular with tourists.
The preference of many hikers is to pitch a tent at a campsite, either because this is the cheapest option or because they enjoy the camping experience.Willow Flat Campground is a popular option in the northern section of Canyonlands, while The Needles District Campground is one of the best in the southern section of the parkland. Another option is Squaw Flat Campground. However, there are many other campsites located throughout Canyonlands National Park.
If you have a limited budget but you are not a fan of camping, the next cheapest option is to stay in a hostel. The best hostel in the Moab region of Utah is The Lazy Lizard Hostel. This is a popular place to stay for people who are visiting either Canyonlands National Park or Arches National Park.
Another option is to stay in a hotel and there are many amazing hotels in this area. Staying in a hotel is more comfortable than a hostel and they often have facilities, such as pools and restaurants. Most of the hotels are on Highway 191, which runs between Canyonlands National Park and Arches National Park. If you prefer a homelier environment, there are also many bed and breakfasts.
To add an extra element of magic to stopping in this beautiful part of the world, you may prefer a luxurious hotel. If you want to relax at the end of a day hiking, Sunflower Hill Luxury Inn is a good option. This country-style accommodation has a library, a pool, and a hottub.
1. Mesa Arch Loop Trail
Distance: 1.12 km
Elevation: 22.86 m
Duration: Under one hour
Start and end points: Starts and ends on Grand View Point Road
Best time to hike: Any time
The Mesa Arch Loop Trail is by far the most popular trail in Canyonlands National Park. Not only is it the easiest and most accessible, it also includes the Mesa Arch which is one of the most distinguished features of the area. Photography enthusiasts take this trail to photograph the famous sunrise views from this point, so it is busy even in the early hours of the morning. The trail begins and ends at Grand View Point Road and it is well marked and easy to follow. Once you reach the edge of the plateau, you will enjoy spectacular views of the countryside.
2. False Kiva
Distance: 4.02 km
Elevation: 243.84 m
Duration: 2 hours
Start and end points: Alcove Spring Trailhead to False Kiva and back
Best time to hike: Year-round
Despite not being an official trail and not being included on any park maps, this is still one of the most popular trails in the area and park rangers will happily direct you. From the starting point at Alcove Spring Trailhead, you take the most obvious trail towards the tall butte and follow it to the bottom of a small canyon. There is then a steep section before the trail levels out, although it is blocked by some stones. You will go over a short rock ledge to arrive at False Kiva, which is a circular wall of stone. There is also an archaeological digging site at this location which is roped off. To return to the starting point, you retrace your steps.
3. The Needles Loop Hiking Trail
Distance: 32.19 km
Elevation: 1,219.2 m
Duration: A full day +
Start and end points: Starts and ends at Squaw Flat Campsite
Best time to hike: March to October
The Needles has many trails, but experienced hikers attempt the Needles Loop Hiking Trail. This connects with several hiking trails and covers most of this district of Canyonlands. This is a challenging hike that would take at least a full day if you made an early start and some people attempt it over two days. There are several potential starting points for this loop trail, but the best option is Squaw Flat Campsite. The hike starts on the perimeter of the park and takes you to Lost Canyon before linking with Squaw Canyon Trail. You then reach Chesler Park, which is the highlight of this trail for most people as it is a large, grassy meadow surrounded by the needle rock structures with a stunning view of the Maze district. You then hike towards Elephant Hill before beginning your loop back to the starting point. If you want to split the hike into two days, you will need a permit to spend the night in the parkland.
4. Murphy Point
Distance: 5.79 km
Elevation: 45.72 m
Duration: 2.5-3 hours
Start and end points: Murphy Point parking lot to Murphy Point Overlook and back
Best time to hike: March to October
The congestion at this trail is low as it is one of the lesser visited trails, even though it is breathtakingly beautiful. There are cairns to mark the way, but you can wander off the trail a little to admire the surrounding area. It starts from the dirt parking lot for Murphy Point and you hike until the trail splits where you take the right towards Murphy Point Overlook. When you reach the edge of a cliff, take the left-hand path towards the sandstone section of the hike. Here, you can enjoy panoramic views of the parkland. Although this is a short hike that probably takes only two hours to complete, you should allow longer to allow you to take your time admiring the views.
5. Aztec Butte
Distance: 1.93 km
Elevation: 90.22 m
Duration: 1.5 hours
Start and end points: Upheaval Dome Road to Aztec Butte and back
Best time to hike: Any time
This short hike is one of the easiest to complete in Canyonlands National Park, although there is short scramble up some slickrock slopes. Heading from the trailhead on Upheaval Dome Road, you will head down past the first butte and then take the left spur trail where you will see a cairn marking the steps to the left which lead down to stone granaries set in a beautiful spot. Continue down the spur trail to the main trail and then up the slickrock scramble to the top of the butte where you can admire views of the La Sal Mountains. You can retrace your steps back to the starting point.
6. Upheaval Dome Hike
Distance: 2.57 km
Elevation: 36.58 m
Duration: 1.5- 2 hours
Start and end points: Upheaval Dome parking lot to Upheaval Dome and back
Best time to hike: March to October
In terms of distance, this is an easy hike. However, it is better described as moderate due to several steep climbs and a couple of spots where you will scramble over slickrock. At the start of the trail, you will go through a wash and up a hill before the trail splits three-ways. Continue straight ahead towards the overlooks. Once you have climbed the first overview, you will have excellent views over Upheaval Dome. Follow the trail around the rim of the crater and over several rock bluffs where you can enjoy views of the crater from a different perspective before heading back the way you came.
7. Horseshoe Canyon and the Grand Gallery Trail
Distance: 12.71 km
Duration: 6-7 hours
Start and end points: Horseshoe Road to the Grand Gallery and back
Best time to hike: September to April
The dirt track to the trailhead is long, but it is worth making the effort to drive out for this hike as it features one of the best collections of rock art in the world. It is best to avoid completing this hike in summer as much of the trail is exposed and it is a difficult hike in extreme heat. Close to the trailhead are dinosaur tracks, which you should look out for. The trickiest part of the hike is the descent into the canyon floor. Once you have reached the canyon floor, you will find four galleries, that feature unworldly figures made of rock. It is believed that many of these are more than 3,000-years-old. Some of the galleries feature ancient art combined with 20th-century graffiti.
8. Grand View Point Hike
Distance: 1.44 km
Elevation: 25.9 m
Duration: One hour
Start and end points: Starts and ends at the parking lot at the Grand View Point Overlook
Best time to hike: Anytime
This is one of the shortest, easiest and most accessible hiking trails in the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park. Most people complete this short trail to enjoy the spectacular views from the Grand Point Overlook. Some of the landmarks you will see in the scenery include Green River, Colorado River, Monument Basin, and Junction Butte. Most of the trail is flat, although there are a few steps and rocks to navigate. This is a there-and-back trail, so once you have finished enjoying the views, you just retrace your steps to the starting point.
9. Conference Overlook Trail
Distance: 16.73 km
Elevation: 61 m
Duration: 7-8 hours
Start and end points: Big Spring Canyon Overlook to Conference Overlook and back
Best time to hike: September to March
This is a challenging hike due to its length, although the terrain covered is not that difficult. However, although there is little elevation gain, there are many ups and downs throughout the hike that some people may find challenging. This a full day hike that you should only attempt if you are an experienced hiker with a high fitness level. The trail goes from Big Spring Canyon Overlook and there are many spectacular views along the way. When you reach Conference Overlook, you can enjoy the unique view of the meeting point of Green River and Colorado River. You will also see some of the oldest rock layers in Canyonlands National Park.
10. Salt Creek Canyon Trail
Distance: 53.11 km
Elevation: 304.8 m
Duration: Three days
Start and end points: Cathedral Butte to Squaw Flat Trailhead
Best time to hike: Spring and Fall
This is probably the most challenging of all the trails in Canyonlands National Park and it will take you three days to complete. As this involves an overnight stay in the parklands, you will need a permit to complete the hike. This is one that only experienced hikers and backpackers should attempt. This is a one-way, shuttle hike, so you will need transport to return to your starting point or take a two-day return hike. There are many points of interest along this trail, including Kirks Cabin, the first Native American ruins, rock art, Angel Arch, and Lost Canyon. Although it is possible to complete this hike in three days, you could spend a week competing the hike if you want to admire all the views and explore the historic landmarks.
A Few Tips for Hiking at Canyonlands National Park
The following tips will help to keep you safe and make your hikes at Canyonlands National Park enjoyable.
- Try to hike early in the morning or late in the afternoon. At midday, the temperature rises, and this makes hiking difficult.
- Sun protection is essential when hiking at Canyonlands National Park. You should always wear sunscreen, a sun hat, and sunglasses.
- Watch out for the critters. Canyonlands is home to many species of wildlife, some of which are potentially dangerous. These include black widow spiders, snakes, and scorpions.
- Beware of the bears. While it is unlikely you will encounter a bear, there are occasions when they wander down from the mountains. If you are camping, keep your tent well away from your food storage area as the bears are attracted to travelers food. You should also carry bear spray.
- Always carrying water with you is vital. You should refill your water bottles at the hotel or campsite before embarking on a hike as there are no opportunities to refill your water supply along the way. You should take a minimum of one liter of water per person with you.
- Check local guides and trail maps in advance. Similarly, check if any trails are closed before setting off on your hike.
- Get a National Park Pass if you are traveling in a car. This allows you to park at any of the parking areas in the national park.
- Don’t mess with the rocks. It is an offense to deliberately mark the rocks in any
- If you are taking a dog, check in advance which trails they are allowed on as there are restrictions in place. Some trails do not allow dogs and other allow dogs on leads.
Hopefully, we have given you some inspiration for which hikes to undertake during a visit to Canyonlands National Park and out tips will help you to make the most of your visit. The hikes are varied and interesting, with each having its own points of interest and unique features. Try to include as many of our suggested hikes as you can in your itinerary, so you can enjoy a broader experience of this area and its stunning landscapes.