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

This Utah National Park Is Like a Younger, More Indie Version of the Grand Canyon

It’s basically the nonconformist, hipster canyon park.

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The Grand Canyon may be one of the country’s most popular parks, but the fact Canyonlands is void of tour buses, donkey rides, helicopter tours, and Beyoncé video shoots is all the more reason to visit Utah’s largest—and most unfairly underrated—national park. While it’s pretty close to the quirky desert town of Moab, Canyonlands has more in common with the 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.

The 527-square-mile stretch is dotted with deep canyons, pinnacles, and sky-high spires. And even though Mesa Arch is one of the most photographed landforms in the West, Canyonlands sees a few million fewer annual visitors than well-known parks like Yosemite or Yellowstone. As overtourism continues to be a problem in some of the world’s most beautiful places, the lack of crowds here is particularly refreshing.

Even better, you’re not limited to a sole season. This national park is great to explore any time of the year—as long as you have the right footwear and four-wheel drive, that is. And it’s one more beautiful place to add to Utah’s continuously-growing list of reasons to visit. Here’s everything you need to know about America’s most underrated canyon superstar.

Canyonlands stretches for miles. | canadastock/Shutterstock

When to visit

Unlike some of the more popular national parks that draw 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 during the peak season of summer, you won’t get road rage trying to find a parking spot or have to wade through Old Faithful-esque mosh pits to get a good photo. The only real thing to contend with here is the weather forecast. (Spoiler alert: It can be tricky.)

Come July and August, temperatures can soar to triple digits, while September and early October are notorious for unpredictable afternoon thunderstorms. Late spring, early summer, and fall are the most pleasant times to visit in terms of temperature, but if you’re willing to don a heavy coat in winter, you’ll be rewarded with spectacular peace and quiet. Winter runs from mid-October through April, and snowfall is possible at any time throughout that period. This is when Canyonlands’s vast landscape morphs into a winter wonderland of snow-swept mesa tops dotted with hoof prints from mule deer (which are, essentially, the Utah equivalent of reindeer).

If you’re worried about the heat in summer, venture out in the morning to start your day with sunrise views, or consider visiting after sunset, when Canyonlands shows its chops as a certified Dark Sky Park. And even though Arches and Canyonlands are neighbors, don’t be surprised to find totally different forecasts—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

Where to go in Canyonlands

Canyonlands is split into four areas: 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 close on a map, it can take several hours to drive from one to another—and the fact that there aren’t any river crossings tacks 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 named after panoramas overlooking vast mesas 1,000 feet below, which are surrounded by sandstone cliffs. When draped in fresh snow, they look like huge clouds, making you feel like you’re floating in the sky (thus the name).

Island in the Sky is also home to the park’s most notable sights, hiking trails, and viewpoints, like Mesa Arch (great for families and beginners) and the 2-mile, out-and-back Grand View Point, which sits at the southern nexus of the scenic drive and shows off sweeping views of The Needles and The Maze.

With its sandstone spires and sheer cliff walls, this place is a paradise for climbers searching for serious height. 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 don’t damage rock faces (free climbing and clean aid climbing are the preferred techniques). Precautions are strongly encouraged, so 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

Explore the best of backcountry

The Needles—which earned its name from the giant, needle-like spires jutting out of the mighty mesa—sits in the southeastern sector of the park, in the remote backcountry, meaning you’ll need four-wheel drive. If you’re setting out on foot, hit hiking trails like the Squaw Canyon Loop, Confluence Overlook, and Peekaboo—all of which are on the more challenging side—or take one of the shorter and easier routes off the scenic drive, like Roadside Ruin or Cave Spring. For those with a high-clearance, 4WD vehicle, Elephant Hill is an epic excursion that feels like it should be in Mario Kart. Just don’t get stuck, because towing fees can top $1,500.

The Maze is the ultimate playground for nature-lovers really looking to get off the grid. | Arlene Waller/Shutterstock

Located in Canyonlands’s southwestern section, The Maze is a natural labyrinth that’s the least-accessible district in the park—and one that requires a fair amount of planning, self-reliance, four-wheel drive, and supplies (there’s no water, electricity, food, or gas available in the area).

The adventure begins at the Hans Flat (Maze) 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 3 to 6 hours to get onto the unmarked trails that wind through the canyons of The Maze. Many of the hikes are sure to unnerve anyone with a fear of heights or tight spaces, but determined trekkers will be rewarded with unparalleled views—hikes to the Maze Overlook and Land of Standing Rocks are two particularly spectacular sights that will make the trek worthwhile.

Getting on the water has multiple meanings here, from calm canoeing to intense rafting. | Chess Ocampo/Shutterstock

Wander wildflower fields or ride rapids

In Horseshoe Canyon—a sliver of land that sits west of Island in the Sky, about 2.5 hours from Moab—you'll find spring wildflowers, cottonwood groves, ancient petroglyphs, and slot canyons so perilously narrow that the landscape 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 horseback riding into the canyon from the west rim trailhead. If hiking isn’t your thing, go rafting in Canyonlands and take either a flatwater trip down the Green or Colorado Rivers in the summer, or a whitewater trip in Cataract Canyon.

The skies are so dark and clear, you can see tons of constellations with the naked eye. | Kris Wiktor/Shutterstock

Glimpse galaxies while stargazing

As a certified Dark Sky Park, Canyonlands is home to some of the darkest skies in the country—and you don’t need a telescope to see the show, either. The naked eye is enough to spot hundreds of faraway celestial bodies, while with a simple pair of binoculars, you can see Saturn’s rings.

During the spring and fall, Island in the Sky’s park rangers lead stargazing programs with 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 (but opt for a red light, since it won’t impact your night vision as much), and when you leave the park, drive slowly—much of the wildlife here, like mule deer, like to frolic at night.

Camping comes with guaranteed views. | Mikev23/Shutterstock

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 Island in the Sky has 12 campsites available on a first-come, first-serve basis for a $15 nightly camping fee. The site is equipped with toilets, picnic tables, fire rings, and views for days—but you’ll need to bring your own drinking water (or stock up outside the visitor center spring through fall). The Needles Campground is also open year-round, and features 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, book a room at 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, you’ll be right near downtown Moab, where you can dine and drink at spots like Moab Brewery (order the beer cheese soup), Spitfire Smokehouse (great for brisket and hushpuppies), and Sabaku Sushi, where you can dine on local delicacies like elk tataki, as well as the freshest sashimi you’ll find in the high desert.

Taking the scenic route requires the right wheels. | Gordon Montgomery/Shutterstock

What to bring and other essential tips

Due to how large, barren, and remote Canyonlands can be, this is a park that requires plenty of planning—especially if you plan to visit in the quiet off-season. If you’re going hiking, bring shoes designed to handle loose gravel, snow, or ice—instep crampons are great 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 if you’re visiting a two-wheel drive district (like Island in the Sky), tire chains can be a lifesaver in the winter.

In summer, bring sunscreen and a lightweight, wide-brimmed hat; in winter, along with traction shoes, you’ll want to bundle up with insulating layers, water-resistant outerwear, 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 at visitor centers in Island in the Sky and The Needles, but there’s no running water at The Maze, so plan 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.