Panoramic view of famous Mesa Arch, iconic symbol of the American West, illuminated golden in beautiful morning light on a sunny day with blue sky and clouds, Canyonlands National Park, Utah, USA
Don't sleep on Canyonlands. | canadastock/Shutterstock
Don't sleep on Canyonlands. | canadastock/Shutterstock

Canyonlands National Park Is a Winter Wonderland in the High Desert

Utah's most underrated national park deserves some time in the spotlight.

If you took the Grand Canyon, removed all the crowds, added more snow, and sprinkled in some skyscraping spires, you’d have a recipe for Canyonlands National Park. Located near the charming desert town of Moab in southeastern Utah—reaffirming the in-your-face beauty of this sleeper hit state—Canyonlands actually has a lot in common with that other canyon park. For instance, both colossal chasms were carved by the Colorado River, both are high desert meccas of red-hued earth, and both boast endless vistas of a landscape that looks all too otherworldly to exist on this planet.

However, while Grand Canyon is one of America’s most popular parks, Canyonlands sees about four million fewer annual visitors. You won’t see any giant tour buses, donkey rides, helicopter tours, or Beyoncé video shoots here—in fact, despite being Utah’s largest national park, it’s actually the state’s least visited (and most underrated), which means 527-sq.-miles of topographic tranquility.

That sentiment is especially true in the colder months, when Canyonlands’ vast landscape morphs into a veritable winter wonderland of snow-swept mesa tops dotted with hoof prints from mule deer (which are essentially the Utah equivalent of reindeer). A place of sweeping solitude year-round, Canyonlands in the winter feels as magical as the North Pole. Here’s everything you need to know about America’s most underrated canyon superstar.

enormous stone mesa arch covered in snow in canyonlands national park
Winter visitors' efforts will be rewarded. | LHBLLC/Shutterstock

The best time to visit Canyonlands National Park

Unlike some of the more popular national parks that command the kind of crowds you’d expect to see at a Taylor Swift concert (ahem, Zion), timing isn’t much of a concern for Canyonlands. Even in its peak season of summer, you won’t get road rage trying to find a parking spot or wading through Old Faithful-esque mosh pits to get a good photo. No, the only real thing to contend with here is the weather forecast. Spoiler alert: it can be tricky.

Come July and August, temperatures can swelter in the triple digits, while September and early October are notorious for unpredictable afternoon thunderstorms. Winter pretty much runs from mid-October through April, with snowfall possible at any given moment.

Late spring, early summer, and fall are the most pleasant times to visit in terms of temperature, while those willing to don heavy coats in winter will be rewarded with spectacular peace and quiet. If you’re worried about the heat, venture out in the morning to start your day with sunrise views or consider stopping in after sunset, when Canyonlands shows its chops as a certified Dark Sky Park. Oh, and although Arches and Canyonlands are neighbors, don’t be surprised to find totally different forecasts between the two: Arches is about 2,000 feet lower in elevation.

Golden Hour Light on large rock formation Candlestick Tower and the Island in the Sky from the end of Grand Viewpoint in Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Gaze out across Candlestick Tower and the Island in the Sky from the Grand Viewpoint. | Colin D. Young/Shutterstock

Ascend to the Island in the Sky

Clocking in at about 337,589 acres, Canyonlands is split into four primary sections—Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and Horseshoe Canyon—each with its own terrain, visitor services (or lack thereof), activity options, and very on-the-nose names. Although they may look nearby on a map, it can take several hours to drive from one to another—and the fact that there aren’t any river crossings tends to tack on some mileage.

The most popular district—and the most accessible year-round—is Island in the Sky. Located in the northern section of Canyonlands, it’s so named for the panoramas overlooking vast mesas 1,000 feet below, surrounded by sandstone cliffs that make them look like earthen islands in the sky. When draped in fresh snow, they look like huge clouds, making you feel like you’re floating in the atmosphere.

Island in the Sky is also home to the park’s most notable sights, hiking trails, and viewpoints, including the Mesa Arch and the Grand View Point, which sits at the southern nexus of the scenic drive with views of The Needles and The Maze sprawled out before your eyes.

With its sandstone spires and sheer cliff walls, this place is paradise for climbers unhindered by heights (or the fact that this is where Aron Ralston amputated his own arm after a climb gone wrong, an incident later adapted for the big screen as 127 Hours). Worst-case scenarios aside, if you bring your own gear, you don’t need a permit to scale the rocks in Island in the Sky. Just remember to avoid using white chalk and damaging rock faces at all—free climbing and clean aid climbing are preferred techniques so as to preserve the terrain. Precautions are strongly encouraged (e.g. check the forecast to avoid storms, study your route beforehand, tell others where you’re going, and triple-check all your gear).

a woman gazing out across a large high desert filled with slender, towering rock formations
Say goodbye to cell service and hello to spectacular views. | NPS/C.Gilmore

Head into the park’s remote backcountry

The Needles—which gets its title from the giant needle-like spires that jut out of the mighty mesa—sits in the southeastern sector of the park, providing an even more remote backcountry vibe and a spectacle for those with four-wheel-drive. For a closer look, meander along hiking trails like Squaw Canyon, Confluence Overlook, and Peekaboo (all of which are fairly primitive and quite strenuous, FYI), which will you on a tour of said spires and canyons. Meanwhile, shorter and easier routes off the scenic drive like Roadside Ruin and Cave Spring afford majestic views without necessitating 10 miles of adrenaline. For those with a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle, Elephant Hill is an epic excursion that feels like it should be a course in Mario Kart. Just don’t get stuck, because towing fees can top $1,500.

If The Needles isn’t remote enough, The Maze is the ultimate playground for the anti-social nature-lover. In the nether reaches of Canyonlands’s southwestern section, this all-natural labyrinth is the least accessible district in the park and one that requires ample planning, self-reliance, four-wheel-drive, and an unflappable urge to escape civilization.

The adventure begins at the Hans Flat Ranger Station, which sits at the end of a dirt road about 2.5 hours from Green River, Utah. From there, it can be another three to six hours to get onto the unmarked trails that wind through the canyons of The Maze. The remoteness is no joke, and many hikes are sure to unnerve anyone with a fear of heights and/or tight spaces, but determined explorers are rewarded with untouched nature as far as the eye can see. Hikes to the Maze Overlook and Land of Standing Rocks are two particularly spectacular sights that’ll without a doubt make the trek worthwhile.

a hiker looking at pictographs
The Great Gallery's pictographs are believed to be up to 4,000 years old. | Scott Smith/Getty Images

Stroll through wildflower fields and ride the rapids

In Horseshoe Canyon—a sliver of land that sits west of Island in the Sky about 2.5 hours from Moab or 1.5 hours from Green River—you'll find spring wildflowers, cottonwood groves, ancient petroglyphs, and slot canyons so perilously narrow that it resulted in 127 Hours, essentially doing for canyons what Jaws did for the ocean. Here in this far-flung wonderland, you can hike to the pictograph-clad Great Gallery or go on a horseback ride into the canyon from the west rim trailhead. If hiking isn’t your jam, you can also go rafting in Canyonlands, with flatwater trips on the Green or Colorado Rivers in the summer and whitewater trips in Cataract Canyon.

a starry night sky
Camp beneath the stars or get a ranger-led tour of the cosmos. | Brad McGinley Photography/Moment/Getty Images

Gaze into the cosmos

As a certified Dark Sky Park, Canyonlands is home to some of the darkest skies in the country. At night, the wide-open sky erupts with stars like an explosion of hydrogen and helium confetti. You don’t need a telescope to see the show, either. The naked eye is sufficient for spotting hundreds of faraway celestial bodies, while a simple pair of binoculars is good enough to spot Saturn’s rings.

During the spring and fall, Island in the Sky’s park rangers lead stargazing programs, helping visitors spot constellations through telescopes at Grand View Point. Similar stargazing meet-ups take place sporadically at The Maze and The Needles, with locations varying and start times dependent on sunset.

Of course, you’re also welcome to stargaze on your own. The darkest skies happen during a new moon, so plan your trip accordingly. Be patient (it can take up to 30 minutes for eyes to totally adjust to the darkness), bring a flashlight (though opt for a red light since it won’t impact your night vision as much), and when you leave the park, drive slow—much of the wildlife here, like mule deer, like to frolic at night.

tent
Setting up camp here might even feel more luxurious than a five-star hotel. | Chris Bennett/Getty Images

Where to stay near Canyonlands National Park

When it comes to lodging in and around Canyonlands, you basically have two options: the comforts of a hotel or the rugged extremes of a tent. And in the winter, the latter can be an ordeal.

Open year-round, the Willow Flat Campground in the Island in the Sky has 12 campsites available on a first-come, first-served basis. It’s got toilets, picnic tables, fire rings, and views for days, though you’ll need to BYO drinking water. The Needles Campground is also open all year, with 26 individual sites and three group sites. RVs can stay at both campgrounds, but the drive can be harrowing.

If you’d prefer not to be at the mercy of Mother Nature, might we suggest Element Moab? The closest hotel to both Arches and Canyonlands, it’s a haven of cozy comforts, jacuzzi soaks, and even a little soul-searching. Plus, it’ll put you in close proximity to the quaint confines of downtown Moab, where you can dine and drink quite well. Our favorites: Moab Brewery for house-brewed beers and beer cheese soup, Spitfire Smokehouse for brisket and hushpuppies, and Sabaku Sushi for elk tataki and the freshest sashimi you’ll find in the high desert.

a snow covered canyon and rock formation
The off-season might just be the best season. | Elena Kapitsa/Shutterstock

What to bring and other essential tips

Due to how huge, unvisited, and remote Canyonlands can be, this is a park that requires plenty of planning, especially if you elect to visit in the chilly off-season. If you plan on hiking, bring shoes equipped for loose gravel, snow, or ice; instep crampons are miracle-workers fit for any season, and hiking poles are never a bad idea. The same applies to your car, too. Much of the park is only accessible to 4WD vehicles, but even if you’re visiting a two-wheel-drive district (like Island in the Sky), tire chains can be a life-saver in the winter.

Come summer, bring sunscreen, a lightweight wide-brimmed hat; in winter, along with traction shoes, you’ll want to bundle up with insulating layers, water-resistant materials, gloves, and protection for your ears; and at all times of the year, bring way more water than you think you'll need. It’s also worth noting that there’s no gas or food in the park, so fuel up beforehand. You can get water year-round at visitor centers in Island in the Sky and The Needles, but there’s no running water at The Maze, so prepare accordingly.

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Matt Kirouac is a travel writer with a passion for national parks, Disney, and food. He's the co-founder and co-host of Hello Ranger, a national parks community blog, podcast, and app. Follow him on IG @matt_kirouac.