Several weeks ago, I had the great opportunity to visit the Mighty Five National Parks of Utah, which includes Canyonlands National Park. The trip was part of an ongoing project with Marriott International, The Americas, to highlight some incredible places around the country, including our national parks. Few would disagree that there is something almost magical about America’s National Parks. Often called America’s Best Idea, each park is the result of years of tireless work on behalf of concerned citizens who wanted lands they felt to be unique and undeniably special to be protected forever. The National Park System represents the North American model of conservation, which itself was a hard concept to introduce to the general public more than a century ago but today is the standard by which similar parks around the world are judged. Reserving lands for posterity was not a popular idea at the time, but thanks to a handful of forward-thinking individuals, we as a country have now saved some of the planet’s most incredible natural and cultural wonders, including Canyonlands. To help inspire you to visit or just better plan your own trip, here are a few things you should know about Canyonlands National Park.
Canyonlands National Park & Getting There
Exploring the Park in Two or Three Hours
One of the many reasons why I love visiting the National Parks is how accessible they are even if you don’t have a lot of time to visit. Sure, you could spend many days exploring Canyonlands but that’s not a luxury everyone can afford. Just because you don’t have a lot of time doesn’t mean you can’t see the best of the parks. Decades ago a concerted effort was made to create driving loops in almost every National Park to allow visitors to easily and quickly see the best or most popular features of each park. So, if you just have two or three hours yes, you can still experience the best of Canyonlands with ease. One thing to keep in mind about the National Parks of the West though is just how big they are. Even though driving loops exist, the vast size of the parks themselves means you still have a lot of driving to do even if only to see the highlights. Before the trip I purchased a National Parks Annual Pass, which is honestly a smart thing to do if you plan on visiting two or more parks in a year. Not only did it save me money, but it made getting in and out of the parks easier as well. Before tackling the driving route, I stopped off at the visitor’s center to learn more about Canyonlands and which stops along the loop I thought made the most sense for me to see.
Getting to Canyonlands is pretty easy, even if you aren’t visiting all Mighty Five National Parks. Moab, where the park is located, is a popular recreation spot and many people plan vacations just to spend time there and experience the region. I drove from Denver, which admittedly probably isn’t the most common route, but was a very scenic drive. The most convenient option is to fly into Salt Lake City and then make the easy 3-½ hour drive south to start your adventure.
Canyonlands National Park is massive; almost on a scale that is hard to comprehend. The Park comprises 337,598 acres of colorful canyons, mesas, buttes, fins, arches, and spires in the heart of southeast Utah’s high desert. Canyonlands is split up into four sections and each one definitely has its unique personality. Thanks to its proximity to Moab and for the peculiar features found there, the most popular to visit (and the one I’m highlighting today) is Island in the Sky district.
What I love about Canyonlands is how primitive and raw it feels. This is unadulterated backcountry in its purest form and to experience it, if only briefly, is a true joy. The Island in the Sky Mesa rests on sandstone cliffs more than 1,000 feet above the surrounding desert terrain. That means the scenes from the various overlooks provide views that are constantly changing and totally unique. If you only have a few hours, Island in the Sky is the easiest section to visit and there are many great spots and even short hikes to enjoy. Just keep in mind that the entrance to the park is about 25 minutes from the main road and there’s a fantastic state park along the way (Dead Horse Point), so give yourself plenty of time to enjoy the area. There’s a lot to love about exploring Canyonlands National Park, but some of my favorite spots include:
Scenic drive: I toured the entire mesa top on the 34-mile round-trip scenic drive, stopping all the time at overlooks and even to tackle short hikes. From my own experience, the drive is easy to follow, wasn’t too busy and of course features some incredible spots.
Mesa Arch: One of the Park’s most recognizable sights, it’s also a very easy 0.5-mile hike to reach. This cliff-edge arch has stunning views towards the La Sal Mountains and is perfect at sunrise.
Shafer Canyon Overlook: I almost drove past this viewpoint, but I’m so glad I stopped. The overlook isn’t as popular as some of the others, which means you can usually have a fairly private experience. Like many of the other overlooks, it perfectly encapsulates the many geological features that make Canyonlands so very special.
Buck Canyon Overlook: This is one of those spots that seems impossible to capture, be it mentally or on film. This stop features incredible scenery carved out by the Colorado River with the ever-present La Sal Mountains in the background.
Green River Overlook: This is one of the best spots to better appreciate the incredible forces of nature that created the desert landscape over the eons. The river may be somewhat far away, but this is a wide-angle look at the beauty it has created.
White Rim Overlook & Hike: This is an easy hike as long as you have enough time. It’s almost 2 miles round-trip, and the rangers at the park suggest you give it between 1 ½ – 2 hours to hike. Walking to an east-facing overlook you’ll see views of the Colorado River, Monument Basin and La Sal Mountains and you’ll get the best light in the late afternoon.
Grand View Point: This is one of those “mandatory” stops that all visitors to Canyonlands include, and with good reason. It’s usually one of the last stops for people driving the scenic route and from here you can see the White Rim, mountains and features in both the Maze and Needles sections of the park. Throughout the day rangers give geology talks and there’s even a moderate hike that takes you an additional mile to another viewpoint. It’s a great capstone to a wonderful day spent exploring the Park.
Moab & Where to Stay
One reason Canyonlands is so popular is because it’s very accessible. Located just a few miles from Moab, this small town is the ideal home base to enjoy not only Canyonlands, but also Arches National Park as well as a whole host of other fun recreational activities from rafting to Jeep adventures. Since it’s a major tourist center, there are plenty of places to spend the night but here are two you should keep in mind.
SpringHill Suites Moab: This was one of my favorite hotels of the trip, thanks in large part to how expertly they’ve brought the natural elements into the hotel experience. Set among the region’s famous red rocks, every room enjoys stunning views at this new 99-suite hotel. It’s that suite experience that always makes SpringHill a great option for me; I love having the extra space to spread out and just relax after a long day of exploration. Add in complimentary breakfast and one of the closest locations to both Arches and Canyonlands and you have a hotel experience that is hard to beat.
Fairfield Inn & Suites Moab: Located next door to the SpringHill Suites, the Fairfield enjoys the same stunning location and access to the parks, as well as shared amenities like the large and inviting pool. Also like their sister hotel, the Fairfield has thankfully fully embraced its location, making the experience feel unique and bespoke. Add in amazing views of the red rocks and the Colorado River below and you have another incredible hotel to call home for a few days.
Canyonlands National Park is one of the country’s great natural treasures and it should be a place everyone has on their travel bucket list. No matter how you choose to experience the park, just make sure you take the time to experience its grandeur in person for a trip you’ll never forget.
To learn more about Utah’s Mighty Five National Parks, please be sure to listen to the episode of the Explore the World Travel Podcast I devoted to them.