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Discover the Best of Canyonlands in Just One Day – Island in the Sky Itinerary

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Last Updated on May 27, 2024 by Sarah Puckett

Sarah at Grand View Point hike in Canyonlands National Park
Grand View Point

Canyonlands National Park is a breathtaking expanse of rugged canyons, towering mesas, and stunning arches that beckon outdoor enthusiasts and nature lovers alike. With so much to see and do in this vast wilderness, planning the perfect one-day Canyonlands National Park itinerary can be a daunting task.

From sunrise hikes to sunset vistas, there are countless ways to experience the beauty of Canyonlands in just 24 hours.

Join us as we guide you through an unforgettable day in Canyonlands National Park!

Follow the seven Leave No Trace principles: plan your hike in advance, stick to designated trails, carry out all your belongings, dispose of waste properly, leave natural areas untouched, minimize the impact of campfires, show consideration for fellow hikers, and avoid approaching or feeding wildlife.

Overview – One Day Itinerary in Canyonlands National Park – Island in the Sky

  1. Sunrise at Mesa Arch (0.6 miles)
  2. Grand View Point Overlook (1.8 miles)
  3. White Rim Overlook (1.8 miles)
  4. Buck Canyon Overlook
  5. Green River Overlook
  6. Aztec Butte Trailhead (1.6 miles)
  7. Whale Rock Trail (0.8 miles)
  8. Upheaval Dome Trail (1.3 miles)
  9. Island in the Sky Visitor Center
  10. Shafer Canyon Overlook Trailhead
  11. Sunset at Dead Horse Point State Park

Total hiking miles: 7.9 miles throughout the day.

Island in the Sky – Canyonlands National Park Map

How to Spend One Day in Canyonlands National Park – Island in the Sky District

1. Sunrise at Mesa Arch

After entering the park, drive down Grand View Point Road until you get to the parking area for Mesa Arch, a 27-foot long natural arch.

Picture this: a majestic rock arch perched on the edge of a canyon, offering jaw-dropping views of the surrounding landscape. Mesa Arch isn’t just any arch—it’s a photographer’s paradise, especially during sunrise when the morning light creates a magical glow. Trust me, I’ve been there myself, and the experience is nothing short of awe-inspiring.

This is a very popular destination for sunrise photography in Canyonlands National Park, and it’s only a short walk (0.6 miles) round trip, meaning you will be sharing sunrise with other people. Be sure to respect other visitors and take turns at the arch or avoid posing in front of the arch when others are trying to photograph!

Sarah and Tim sit under Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park
Mesa Arch

2. Grand View Point Overlook

After watching the sunrise from Mesa Arch, drive to Grand View Point at the end of Grand View Point Road for a short 1.8-mile round-trip hike to the Grand View Point Overlook.

Imagine standing at the edge of a vast canyon, with panoramic views stretching as far as the eye can see. That’s exactly what you’ll experience at Grand View Point Overlook. It’s like nature’s own IMAX theater, offering jaw-dropping vistas of the rugged canyons and mesas below.

This is one of the best views in Canyonlands National Park!

3. White Rim Overlook Trail

A short drive from Grand View Point is the White Rim Overlook trailhead. This short 1.8-mile hike leads to another stunning east-facing vista into the canyon and down into Monument Basin. Look closely for the road below and you might see some Jeeps on White Rim Road, a 4×4 scenic drive into the canyon. With so much to take in at the White Rim Overlook, the views are simply iconic!

4. Buck Canyon Overlook

Drive north on Grand View Point Road and stop for a quick look at Buck Canyon Overlook. This overlook offers stunning views of Buck Canyon, with its intricate network of cliffs and canyons carved by the meandering river below. As you gaze out over the landscape, you’ll be treated to panoramic vistas of the surrounding desert terrain and distant mountain ranges. This overlook requires no hiking, making a quick and easy stop for your one-day Canyonlands National Park itinerary.

5. Green River Overlook

Again continuing north on Grand View Point Road, turn left onto Upheaval Dome Road and then another left onto Green River Overlook Road. Hike the short trail to Green River Overlook, and take advantage of the toilets if needed!

This viewpoint offers mesmerizing vistas of the Green River as it winds its way through the rugged landscape, carving out deep canyons and valleys along the way. Along with the Colorado River (which also carved out the Grand Canyon), the Green River is responsible for creating the canyons in Canyonlands National Park.

From this vantage point, you can also see Soda Springs Basin and the Maze district.

6. Aztec Butte Trailhead

Driving down Green River Overlook Road the way you came, turn left onto Upheaval Dome Road. You’ll get to Upheaval Dome itself shortly, but first, you should stop at Aztec Butte Trailhead for a quick 1.6 round trip mile hike to ancient granaries used by the Pueblo people.

This trail leads to the summit of Aztec Butte, offering captivating views of the surrounding desert landscape. Along the way, you’ll encounter ancient Ancestral Puebloan ruins, including granaries built into the cliffsides, providing a glimpse into the area’s rich cultural history. As you hike, keep your eyes peeled for unique rock formations and desert flora, adding to the trail’s scenic beauty. With its combination of natural wonders and cultural significance, the Aztec Butte Trail promises an unforgettable experience for hikers of all levels.

7. Whale Rock Trail

Hike the short and fun 1.3 miles round trip Whale Rock Trail for unique views of the park and a fun climb atop the rock.

This unique hike takes you up the side of a massive sandstone dome, offering panoramic views of the surrounding landscape. As you ascend, you’ll be treated to expansive vistas of the Island in the Sky district, with its towering cliffs and rugged terrain.

Whale Rock in Winter in Canyonlands National Park

8. Upheaval Dome Trail

This 1.3-mile round-trip trail ascends to Upheaval Dome, a distinctive geological feature known for its circular depression, which has intrigued scientists for generations. The trail leads to two primary viewpoints: the initial Upheaval Dome overlook offers a sweeping vista of the entire formation, while the second provides a closer examination of its inner layers.

Two theories abound regarding its origin: one posits a meteorite impact, while the other suggests it’s a salt dome formed by subterranean salt movements.

Upheaval Dome by It Must Be F/8 sourced via Canva

9. Shafer Canyon Overlook Trailhead

At this last overlook before the Visitor Center, you can walk out on a large plateau looking out over the White Rim and Dead Horse Point State Park.

10. Island in the Sky Visitor Center

Time permitting, stop at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center to browse the gift shop and read the exhibits to learn more about the unique geology of Canyonlands National Park. This is also where you’ll find the best bathrooms in the park.

Tip: Don’t miss the Visitor Center Overlook for one last epic view of Canyonlands National Park and the Island in the Sky!

11. BONUS: Sunset at Dead Horse Point State Park

After you leave Canyonlands National Park, I have one more adventure in store for you. Near the entrance to the Island in the Sky district is a turn-off for Dead Horse Point State Park. This is the BEST place to catch the sunset in Moab without any hiking required.

This is where we recommend ending your one-day itinerary through Canyonlands National Park, plus a bonus stop at Dead Horse Point State Park!

Deadhorse Point State Park sunset
Dead Horse Point State Park at Sunset

Frequently Asked Questions

How to Get to Canyonlands

Canyonlands National Park beckons, but how do you get there? Here’s a brief overview to help you reach this iconic destination.

By Car: Drive from Moab, Utah, via Highway 191. It’s about 40 miles north to the Island in the Sky district or south to the Needles district. Access the Maze district via rugged 4WD roads from Highway 24.

By Air: Fly into Grand Junction Regional Airport (GJT) in Colorado, about 110 miles northeast of Moab, or Salt Lake City International Airport (SLC) in Utah, approximately 230 miles northwest of Moab. Rent a car and enjoy a scenic drive to the park.

By Tour Bus or Shuttle: Choose guided tours or shuttle services from Moab to Canyonlands National Park. Some operators provide transportation and insights into the park’s natural and cultural history.

Here are some recommended tours in Canyonlands National Park:

When is the Best Time to Visit Canyonlands?

Canyonlands National Park offers year-round beauty, but timing your visit can enhance your experience. Let’s explore the optimal seasons for exploring this majestic destination.

Spring (March-May): Mild temperatures, blooming wildflowers, and fewer crowds make spring ideal for hiking and camping.

Summer (June-August): Despite scorching temperatures, early mornings and evenings provide opportunities for outdoor activities like hiking and river rafting.

Fall (September-November): Cooler temperatures, colorful foliage, and fewer visitors make fall perfect for hiking and enjoying stunning vistas.

Winter (December-February): Though colder, winter offers a quieter experience with snow-capped landscapes, ideal for photography and wildlife viewing. This is our personal favorite time to visit the park, as the temps are cool enough for long desert hikes and crowds are minimal.

No matter the season, Canyonlands National Park offers unparalleled beauty and adventure. Whether you prefer the vibrant colors of spring, the warmth of summer, the golden hues of fall, or the tranquility of winter, there’s a perfect time to explore this natural wonder. Plan your visit accordingly and immerse yourself in the awe-inspiring landscapes of Canyonlands National Park.

Does Canyonlands National Park charge an entrance fee?

Entrance fees for Canyonlands National Park vary: $30 for a private vehicle, $25 for motorcycles, and $15 for individuals on foot or bike.

For those intending to explore multiple national parks within a year, we highly advocate for the America the Beautiful Pass. Priced at $80 annually, it grants unlimited access to over 2,000 federal recreation sites, including Canyonlands. Perfect for adventurers traversing various parks, the pass includes entrance fees for both the holder and accompanying passengers in a non-commercial vehicle, presenting substantial savings and boundless opportunities to discover the natural wonders of America.

 >>> Buy your National Parks Pass from REI here

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America The Beautiful National Parks Pass at REI

How many days do you need in Canyonlands National Park?

It varies! You can take in the key attractions of the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park within a day or even less. As the most frequented section of the park, it’s conveniently close to Moab and offers an abundance of easy hikes, making it popular for visitors seeking iconic canyon views.

If you’re keen on tackling longer day hikes such as Druid Arch or the Chesler Park loop in the Needles district, planning a 2-day stay in Canyonlands National Park is advisable.

To fully explore all four districts of Canyonlands National Park, I’d suggest dedicating a week or more to your visit. This allows ample time for extensive drives between districts and the opportunity to embark on lengthy hikes in areas like Horseshoe Canyon, the Needles, and the Maze.

Chesler Park Hike Canyonlands National Park
Hiking in the Needles District

How to Spend a Half Day in Canyonlands National Park

If you only have a half day in Canyonlands National Park, I recommend prioritizing these stops/experiences in the Island in the Sky District:

  • Sunrise at Mesa Arch
  • Short hike to Grand View Point
  • Short hike to White Rim Overlook
  • Short hike to Upheaval Dome

How to Spend Two Days in Canyonlands National Park

Follow this 1-day itinerary in Island in the Sky district, and then spend the second day exploring the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park following this itinerary:

  • Drive from Moab to the Elephant Hill Trailhead
  • Hike the Chesler Park/Joint Trail
  • Hike the Roadside Ruins Trail
  • Visit Newspaper Rock National Historic Site
  • Return to Moab (or wherever you are headed next)
Chesler Park Joint Trail Needles Canyonlands National Park
Chesler Park/Joint Trail

Can you do Arches and Canyonlands in One Day?

It’s possible, but it’s a whirlwind! You can squeeze in highlights from both Canyonlands and Arches National Parks in a single day, especially if you’re short on time. Arches, known for its iconic rock arches and formations, is conveniently close to Moab and can be explored in a few hours. Delicate Arch and the Windows Section are must-sees if you’re on a tight schedule.

Next, head to Canyonlands, focusing on the Island in the Sky district, which offers stunning canyon views and easy-access overlooks. Spend the remainder of your day here, taking in the majestic landscapes and perhaps embarking on a short hike like Mesa Arch.

While a one-day visit allows you to glimpse the beauty of both parks, keep in mind that you’ll only scratch the surface of what they have to offer. For a more immersive experience, consider dedicating separate days to each park or extending your stay to fully appreciate their wonders.

Here’s a one-day itinerary for Arches National Park, if you decide to give each park their own day to explore!

Delicate Arch at sunrise
Delicate Arch at sunrise

Where to stay when visiting Canyonlands National Park?

Choosing accommodation while exploring Canyonlands National Park hinges on your preferred district to explore.

Typically, however, many visitors opt to stay in Moab during their Canyonlands excursion. Situated closest to the Island in the Sky District, Moab serves as a convenient base. Plus, with its proximity, day trips to the Needles District are easily manageable from here.

Where to Sleep in Moab

>>Read our review from our stay at Sorrel River Ranch Resort and Spa

What to Pack for Canyonlands National Park

We’ve compiled an extensive packing list for your Canyonlands National Park journey, but here’s a quick overview of the essentials:

  1. Opt for comfortable, moisture-wicking attire crafted from synthetic or merino wool fabrics.
  2. Pack lightweight, breathable long-sleeved shirts and pants to shield against the sun and abrasions.
  3. Ensure you have sturdy hiking boots or shoes with reliable traction.
  4. Don’t forget a wide-brimmed hat and UV-protective sunglasses for sun safety.
  5. Consider lightweight gloves for additional sun and scratch protection.
  6. Bring along a well-fitting backpack to carry crucial gear such as water, snacks, a map, sunscreen, and a first aid kit.

Final Thoughts

Our hope for you is that by following this one-day Canyonlands National Park itinerary, you can experience some of the park’s most iconic sights and create memories that will last a lifetime!

While time may be limited, prioritizing key attractions such as Mesa Arch in the Island in the Sky district and a scenic drive along the Grand View Point Road offers a glimpse into the park’s majestic beauty. Additionally, embarking on a short hike like the Grand View Point Trail allows for a deeper connection with the rugged landscape and provides opportunities for breathtaking photo opportunities. Though a single day may only scratch the surface of all that Canyonlands has to offer, it promises a memorable and inspiring introduction to this remarkable national park.

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