Canyonlands National Park Must-Sees: Hikes, Views, and Landmarks, from Island in the Sky to Horseshoe Canyon

by Amy Myers
canyonlands-national-park-must-sees-hikes-views-and-landmarks-from-island-in-the-sky-to-horseshoe-canyon

As the largest of the national parks in Utah, the Canyonlands has a little bit of everything, from rivers and canyons to hoodoos and arches. It’s the one-stop destination for red rock adventures with excitement waiting at each trailhead, overlook and footpath.

Surprisingly, Canyonlands National Park saw the smallest number of visitors of the Utah national parks in 2019. The park didn’t even break a million like the other four. While Zion, Capitol Reef, Bryce and Arches all have incredible attractions of their own, Canyonlands is the unsung hero of them all. Within its 257,000 acres, the park has a wider variety of rock formations, historical sites and breathtaking views. You’ll almost feel like you’ve seen all five parks in just one visit.

The Canyonlands’ relatively low visitation numbers are actually a blessing in disguise, though, especially if you plan on visiting during the busy season. In the height of the summer, you won’t be fighting nearly as many crowds to get to the park’s most popular attractions, like Mesa Arch or Upheaval Dome. That means more room to spread out, take photos and enjoy the serenity of the landscape.

Hot Tips for Staying Cool While Exploring Canyonlands National Park

  • Bring and drink at least a gallon of water. It’s great to be prepared and have water on hand, but unless you’re actively and frequently sipping, all you’re doing is adding extra weight to your journey. Just think, the more water you drink, the less you have to carry!
  • Pack a few bandanas, too. If you or someone in your group is feeling the heat, a great remedy is to douse a bandana or hat in water. Don’t ring it out – heat evaporates with water, so the more you have on your head or neck, the better.
  • Spread out your hikes and don’t overestimate your group’s abilities. No matter which national park you travel to this summer, each one poses its own unique challenge simply because it’s in a climate or environment we’re not used to. Keep this in mind when you’re creating your itinerary, and take the first day slowly. Once you gauge your and your crew’s abilities then you can ramp up the schedule.
  • Plan your visits early in the morning and late in the afternoon. Utah’s national parks don’t have many tall trees to provide a break from the sun. With temperatures regularly reaching the 80s and 90s in the summer, that midday heat can be incredibly dangerous. Begin your first hikes of the day early in the morning and plan to be off the trail by noon. Then come back for a sunset hike or two when the canyons can provide a bit more shade and relief from the heat.
Sunrise behind Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park, Utah. (Photo by: Joe Sohm/Visions of America/Universal Images Group via Getty Images)

Canyonlands has four districts, but the two with the most versatile hiking options are Island in the Sky and the Needles. These two districts are also the most accessible. The Maze, which is the most remote section of the park, is reserved for experienced and independent backcountry explorers that are able to perform a self-rescue if necessary. Meanwhile, Horseshoe Canyon is a bit friendlier but doesn’t so much have trails as it does sites of American Indian rock markings.

That said, here are some of the trails that are sure to give you the best views of Canyonlands National Park:

  • Roadside Ruin (easy)
  • Mesa Arch Trail (easy)
  • Grand View Point Trail (easy)
  • Upheaval Dome via Crater View Trail (moderate)
  • Slickrock Foot Trail (moderate)
  • Confluence Overlook Trail (moderate to strenuous)
  • Gooseberry Canyon Trail (strenuous)
  • Chesler Park Loop (strenuous)

Canyonland National Park’s Can’t-Miss Trails in Island in the Sky District

Located in the northeast region of the park, Island in the Sky district tends to be the first stop for Canyonlands National Park visitors. With a wide range of difficulties among its trails and plenty of gorgeous overlooks, it’s easy to spend days exploring this district.

For those traveling with little ones, this is probably the area you’ll want to stick to. The trails are more thoroughly marked, and a few trails even have geological, historical and botanical guides that add a bit of education to the trip.

Mesa Arch Trail

  • Length: 0.7-mile loop
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Elevation: 88 feet
  • Duration: 20 minutes

If it’s the first on our list, it should definitely be the first on yours, too. The Mesa Arch Trail is a quick and easy walk to a stunning viewpoint through the Canyonlands’ most popular archway. The mesa, itself, sits on sandstone cliffs that reach roughly 1,000 feet above the surrounding terrain. Like a rainbow of red rock, the arch provides the perfect opportunity for a family photo or meditative moment.

Many tourists choose to take this trail early in the morning for a sunrise hike, as the sun will peak right through the gap in the arch, igniting the copper-colored landscape. It makes for a magical experience that will awaken your wild side and make you consider leaving civilization altogether.

Grand View Point Trail

  • Length: 1.8-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Elevation: 160 feet
  • Duration: 45 minutes

Just down the road from Mesa Arch is Grand View Point Trail, another top-of-list item for many Canyonlands visitors. The name speaks for itself – you won’t find views quite like this anywhere else. At the top of this gentle climb, a desert portrait awaits with miles of sandstone formations spanning across the arid oasis. Here, you can truly appreciate the nuances in the layers of the rocks. Even panoramic photos can’t do this viewpoint justice. You can only truly experience the beauty that lies here when you see it in person.

If you plan on making this hike your first of the day, consider bringing some snacks or a backcountry brunch so that you can spend a little more time at the overlook.

Upheaval Dome via Crater View Trail

  • Length: 1.3-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Elevation: 266 feet
  • Duration: 40 minutes

The Upheaval Dome is one of the most puzzling formations in all of Canyonlands National Park. Unlike the hoodoos, arches and colored layers, the “dome” at the center of this hike wasn’t created through erosion or uplift. In fact, scientists still aren’t quite sure how this mass of white rock came to be.

The dome is a mysterious pale rock formation in the center of a crater. The cream-colored creation juts high against the blown walls of the crater, signifying that something large and fast smashed into the area. It’s possible that the dome was the result of a meteorite blowing the softer, surrounding rocks out of the area and leaving only the strange stones in the middle. With its origins still unknown, the attraction reminds us just how much we have to learn of this world.

This hike is well worth the visit, but be warned that there is no shade or break from the sun the entire way. There is some rock scrambling involved at the second viewpoint, so take the climb slow and make sure you have solid footing before continuing.

Gooseberry Canyon Trail

  • Length: 5.4-mile out-and-back
  • Difficulty: strenuous
  • Elevation: 1,400 feet
  • Duration: 5.5 hours

The Gooseberry Canyon Trail is the steepest in all of the Island in the Sky district, taking hikers through grueling switchbacks and slippery scree slopes. With all of these obstacles, sturdy footwear and hiking poles are absolute necessities. Once you reach the Gooseberry Canyon overlook, you’ll get to see incredible views of the vast canyons and the jagged cliffs that make up the national park.

On the way in, you’ll be losing elevation almost the entire way down, which means you’ll need all of your strength and energy for the way back. Start this hike early in the morning so you have plenty of time to take breaks without exposing yourself to the hottest parts of the day. Pay attention to the cairns to stay on track, and be sure to hydrate thoroughly before heading back to the trailhead.

Best Hikes in the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park

Unlike the variety you’ll find in the Island in the Sky district, the Needles district tends to have just one type of hiking trail within its borders – long and strenuous. However, the views are well worth the effort. No matter which trail you choose in this district, you’ll find expansive, colorful vistas. The 360-degree views offer the best perspective of the red rock country and the contrast of the lush, green desert flora against the sunset-hued geological structures.

There are a couple of short trails in the Needles district that offer just as many views. But know that these options will be a bit more crowded. If you plan to visit the Needles district this summer, make sure you prepare yourselves for a more difficult trek and more time in the heat with extra snacks, water and sun protection.

Slickrock Foot Trail

  • Length: 2.4-mile loop
  • Difficulty: moderate
  • Elevation: 137 feet
  • Duration: 1 hour

The Slickrock Foot Trail is one of the few shorter trails in the Needles district and is a must-add for families that have the time and energy to complete this hike. At the trailhead, you can pick up a geological guide that takes you through the various structures visible from the pathway. There are four viewpoints along the footpath, all providing different perspectives of the landscape.

The trail’s name describes the smooth sandstone features typical of the region. Even in dry weather, Slickrock Foot Path is true to its name, so careful footing is imperative along the route. Luckily, with minimal elevation, though, there aren’t too many spots that will make you lose traction.

Confluence Overlook Trail

  • Length: 10-miles out-and-back
  • Difficulty: moderate to strenuous
  • Elevation: 1,371 feet
  • Duration: 4.5 hours

For most of the Confluence Overlook Trail, you’ll be traveling across dry, open country, surrounded by plenty of flat-topped rocks and sandy patches. Then, like a mirage in the desert, olive-tinted waters will appear at the end of the trail as the Colorado and Green rivers merge into one, easily cutting a smooth path through the sandstone canyons.

Along this route, you’ll run into quite a few rock scrambles and changes in elevation. So, you’ll want to start this trail early in the morning. Be sure to stay on only rocky surfaces – there is a lot of biological soil along the sides of the established trail.

Chesler Park Loop

  • Length: 11-mile loop
  • Difficulty: strenuous
  • Elevation: 1,820 feet
  • Duration: 5 hours

If there’s only one strenuous trail you decide to try while exploring Canyonlands National Park, make it the Chesler Park Loop. This trail is definitely among the most popular in the Needles district, and for good reason. The route takes you through deep, narrow fractures in the rocks to an overlook where a panoramic view of the Needles formations, distant mesas and faraway snow-capped mountains await you. Many have even described the scenery as a page out of a Dr. Seuss book.

Hikers that have completed this route suggest taking this trail counter-clockwise so that you won’t have to battle as many uphill slopes on the way back.

Roadside Ruin

  • Length: 0.3-mile loop
  • Difficulty: easy
  • Elevation: 3 feet
  • Duration: 5 minutes

A quick walk back in time, the Roadside Ruin route is an easy attraction that you can tack onto your itinerary. At the center of the trail is one of the most well-preserved ancient structures in the country. Around 950 CE, Pueblo populations in Mesa Verde and Fremont communities were growing. As a result, these farming groups were in search of new, fertile land with a reliable water source and lots of natural vegetation.

Those that remained at the site became local Ute and Pauite tribes who created a grain silo that to the unsuspecting bypasser would resemble a massive beehive. This structure is still intact today and demonstrates the innovative nature of these farmers. Also at the attraction is a plant identification guide that points out vegetation that served as staples in the lives of pueblo populations.

Outsider.com