Best time to visit: Spring and Fall
Recommended Hikes: Elephant Canyon, Mesa Arch, Grand View Point, Druid Arch, the Joint Trail
Ideal For: Hiking, Backpacking, Auto-Touring, Camping, Off-Road Motor Sports
Where to stay: Moab
Canyonlands is a massive, rugged landscape. It is one of the most underrated national parks in the country and you should plan at least two full days to see it. At it's heart is the confluence of the Colorado River and the Green River, which come together in a "Y" shape that divides the park into three districts: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the Maze. The "Island in the Sky" and the "Needles" districts are both easily accessible from Moab but require up to an hour of driving to reach. The "Maze" is not easily accessible from Moab - it is remote and requires advanced planning, high-clearance 4WD, and self reliance to visit. Spring and fall offer the most pleasant weather, but Canyonlands can be enjoyed year around. Expect some snow during winter months.
Must See Attractions:
Grand View Point - Located in the "Island in the Sky" District, Grand View Point is a must-see for every visitor. The tip of the plateau offers a 270-degree view of the vast canyons below. It's one of the best views in Utah! Read more about reaching Grand View Point here.
Mesa Arch - A popular photography spot and another must-see in the "Island in the Sky". The view of the arch faces east so this is a popular photography spot during sunrise. Its a half-mile round-trip hike from the parking area. Read more about Mesa Arch here.
Elephant Canyon - The premier attraction of the Needles District. Elephant Canyon is a great place to see the "Needles" up close. Seeing Elephant Canyon requires 5 miles of hiking at a minimum, so bring plenty of food and water. Outstanding day hikes to Druid Arch and the Joint Trail both begin at the Elephant Hill trailhead.
Canyonlands exists in a very fragile desert ecosystem. It is crucial to stay on hiking paths and not wander off trail as delicate, biological soil crust covers the desert floor. These living structures are not dirt! They can take decades to form and they play an important role in the ecosystem. Please don't step on them!
The "Needles" is better for hiking, the "Island in the Sky" is better for viewpoints/auto-touring. There are exceptions, but this is a good rule of thumb.
It takes a long time to drive from one district to another. DO NOT try to see both the "Island in the Sky" and the "Needles" in the same day, choose one or the other or split them into at least two separate days.
The "Maze" is the most remote district - driving here from Moab will take 5+ hours, one-way. There is no drinking water available and it's mostly only accessible to high-clearance, 4WD vehicles. Read more about the Maze on the park's website here.
A trip to Canyonlands can be combined with a trip to nearby Arches National Park. Moab is a perfect location to stay to be able to see the "Needles", the "Island in the Sky", and Arches.
Drinking water is available at the visitor centers in the "Island in the Sky" and the "Needles", but not at trail-heads. Bring your water bottle to fill up.
There is no shuttle service at Canyonlands.
Where to Stay:
Moab. It's a small town but it caters to the tourist crowd looking to explore Canyonlands and Arches. There are hotels, campgrounds, and RV parks here, as well as stores, restaurants/bars, and places to book tours and adventure activities/off-road vehicles. If you want to do a lot of hiking in the "Needles" however, the best option is to camp in the district to avoid the long drive from Moab.
Drive times from Moab to national park entrances are: 40 minutes to the "Island in the Sky", 90 minutes to the "Needles", and 10 minutes to Arches National Park.
There are campgrounds in each district of the park - they are first-come, first-served, but some of the sites in the "Needles" campground can be reserved online in advance here. According to the park website, the campgrounds fill up early every single day during spring and fall.
There is a small private campground just outside the "Needles" entrance which is a good option if the campground in the park is full. Their website is here.
Hiking in Canyonlands:
Elephant Canyon - If you have just one day in the "Needles" district, see Elephant Canyon. It requires a hike into the heart of the needles rock formations, and there is a network of trails to choose from once you get there. The trailhead is called "Elephant Hill" and it can be reached via well-maintained dirt road. There is a pit toilet at the Elephant Hill trailhead, but no water.
There are two primary options in Elephant Canyon that are both world-class hikes. One goes to Druid Arch and the other goes to the Joint Trail.
Druid Arch is massive - much larger than any arch you will find in nearby Arches National Park. The arch is surrounded by an amphitheater of sandstone, making this area a fantastic endpoint to the hike. There are a few easy rock scrambles and a short ladder you have to climb to see the arch. Read more about this hike here.
The Joint Trail is a grid of cracks in the rock that begins as a slot canyon and then becomes a cavernous arena of giant boulders. This is one of the coolest endpoints to a hike I have seen to date, and the trail to get here crosses through Chesler Park which is awesome in its own right. Read more about the hike here.
If you are in excellent shape and you carry a lot of water, you might be able to see both Druid Arch and the Joint Trail in a single, 14-mile loop hike. I personally prefer the Joint Trail, but they are both truly incredible. You will not be disappointed either way.
Another popular hike in the Needles District runs out to the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers - I haven't done this one so I can't comment on it, but you can read more about here.
Island in the Sky District
Upheaval Dome - Another Island in the Sky hike, but one that can safely be skipped in favor of any of the above. Scientist speculate that the Upheaval Dome was formed by a meteor impact, although this theory is contested. Read more about the hike here.
There are a few options to hike down into the canyon from the "Island in the Sky". From what I have read, the trails are pretty steep and rugged with no shade or water.