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AARP’s Guide to Utah’s Canyonlands National Park

Hiking, camping and biking are among the many outdoor activities at Canyonlands National Park

spinner image sunrise seen from under mesa arch in canyonlands national park
The Mesa Arch at sunrise in Canyonlands National Park.
Jeff R Clow / Getty Images

Nowhere are the shape-shifting powers of water, wind and rock more dramatically on display than in Canyonlands National Park (CNP) in southeast Utah. This immense expanse of the Colorado Plateau has been etched by the Green and Colorado rivers into a relief panel of chiseled buttes, twisted rock spires and deeply incised canyons.

Here, millions of years of geologic upheaval, compression and erosion have left behind a magical landscape where you can peek into caves; wander between rock formations resembling castles, towers and fantastical creatures; and slip through canyons narrow enough to touch both sides.

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Human history also comes alive in CNP, with archaeological evidence of human habitation dating back more than 10,000 years. Native tribes, pueblos and communities are associated with the land, in a region that served as hunting grounds for early hunter-gatherers and then home to the Ancestral Puebloan people. This heritage is still apparent in the park, with ancient cliff dwellings, petroglyphs and pictographs, and trails that have been traveled for centuries.

Canyonlands was established as a national park in 1964. It owes much of its more recent history to the role of mining in this part of the American West.

spinner image a map of utah showing the location of canyonlands national park
Getty / AARP

Fact Box

Location: Southeast Utah

Acreage: 337,598 acres

Highest point: 7,180 feet (above Big Pocket in the Needles District)

Lowest point: 3,900 feet (on the Colorado River)

Main attraction: Stunning canyon views and unusual rock formations

Entry fee: $30

Best way to see it: By car

When to go: April through early June and late August through October, for more temperate weather

But uranium, not gold or silver, lured fortune-seekers to this isolated and intimidating region — the chemical element was in high demand during the 1950s and early ’60s.  Ultimately, however, little uranium was mined here, although the 1,000 miles of roads funded by the Atomic Energy Commission opened up the inner canyons to exploration and convinced locals that this geological wonderland deserved protection and preservation. 

The largest of Utah’s five red rock national parks at 337,598 acres, CNP is essentially three parks in one, separated by the Green and Colorado rivers, which come together in a confluence near the center of the park.   

No roads connect the sections of the park (each has its own entrance), and no bridges span the rivers. 

Depending on your time and how much you want to explore on foot or driving, you may do as most visitors do and limit your experience to just two sections: Island in the Sky, a high mesa that comprises the park’s northern end, and The Needles on the park’s southeast side, named for its impossibly spindly rock spires.

The third area, the rugged and remote labyrinth of canyons on the park’s southwestern side deservedly called The Maze, requires four-wheel-drive to go beyond the ranger station and is a favorite among advanced hikers (steep and unmarked trails) and backcountry campers.

Within the park boundaries, the Colorado River shoots through the sheer-sided chasm of Cataract Canyon, creating Class V rapids. While Big Drops and Satan’s Gut challenge even the most experienced rafters, quieter stretches provide plenty of fun for families and novice rafters.

Plan your trip

The closest major airport to CNP is Grand Junction Regional Airport, 122 miles northeast, while the closest national hub is Salt Lake City, 247 miles northwest. Tiny Canyonlands Regional Airport in Moab, the closest big town to the park, is served by SkyWest Airlines in partnership with Delta Air Lines and United Airlines. 

Sitting atop a mesa more than 1,000 feet above the surrounding lands, the Island in the Sky district is one of the most popular of CNP’s sections. There, a scenic drive zigzags around the rim, providing one dramatic canyon view after another. When arriving from Moab in the north, many  visitors start at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center just inside the park. There you can see fauna, flora and geology exhibits; watch an introductory video to the park; and check out the schedule of ranger programming.

The Needles, named for its layers of spiky sandstone striped in gold and ocher, has its own visitor center inside the entrance to this section, about 74 miles southeast of Moab. The Maze, on the park’s western side, is served by the Hans Flat Ranger Station, where you’ll find a small selection of books and maps, a vault toilet and a picnic table.  There are no paved roads there, although the unpaved path to the station is navigable with two-wheel drive; its other roads require a four-wheel-drive, high-clearance vehicle.

As a high-desert region of the Colorado Plateau, CNP experiences extreme climate and weather fluctuations. It’s not uncommon for days to top 100 degrees in summer, with nighttime temperatures dropping into the 40s and 50s. Spring (April and May) and fall (September and October) are temperate and pleasant, with daytime temperatures ranging from 60 to 80 and nights dipping from the 50s down to the 30s. In the winter, daytime temperatures average 30 to 50 degrees, while temperatures at night average 20 to zero. The region also experiences a monsoon in late summer and early fall with sudden heavy rains and possible flash floods. 

Winter is an overlooked opportunity to visit CNP, and not just because you’ll share the landscape with fewer people. “Take that beautiful red rock and the gorgeous blue sky, put a dusting of powder white snow on it, and you’ll see it’s even more stunning,” says Karen Garthwait, CNP’s interpretation specialist. The park is an all-season hiking destination since snow accumulation rarely exceeds more than a few inches deep, but Garthwait recommends winter hikers use traction devices on their shoes since trails can be slippery.

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There is some cellphone coverage along the Island in the Sky scenic drive, depending on carrier, but cell service is limited to nonexistent in the canyons and on remote trails. There is little to no service in the Needles, and almost none in The Maze, except at the ranger station. Wi-Fi is available at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center.

spinner image a woman hiking near the needles rock formation in canyonlands national park utah
Hiking trails wind among the rock towers in the Needles district of the park.
HagePhoto / Aurora Photos / Getty Images

Things to do

Take a driving tour: You’ll find the park’s top views strung along Island in the Sky scenic drive, which makes a Y shape, with access to  Whale Rock. Because the shapes and perspectives shift so much as you move around the mesa, you won’t want to skip any of the main overlooks which include Green River, Buck Canyon and Grand View Point.

Go hiking: Hundreds of miles of trails varying in length and difficulty thread through CNP’s diverse terrain. The most-visited are in Island in the Sky, including the Mesa Arch Trail, a 0.6-mile  easy hike round trip leading to the park’s iconic photo op, as the cliff-side arch frames the canyon below. Another hike in this section is the moderately challenging, 1.4-mile Aztec Butte Trail, which traverses a flat and sandy wash before ascending around 200 feet to reach an Ancestral Puebloan archaeological site . At Grand View Point, the southernmost end and turnaround point of the Island in the Sky scenic drive, the level and comfortable 1.8-mile Grand View Trail winds along the mesa rim between expanses of slickrock and stands of gnarled and stunted piñon. Thanks to the elevation, this is one of the best views in the park. 

In The Needles district, trails spiderweb among the spindly rock towers and gnarled outcrops. “When you’re in The Needles, you’re actually down in the canyon, walking among all these otherworldly landforms and sculptural formations instead of looking down on them from the mesa,” Garthwait says. “[This also means] many of the trails are easier because there’s less elevation change since you don’t have to hike down into the canyon and back up.” Her top pick for a shorter hike: the Cave Spring Trail, a 0.6-mile round trip past  a natural underground spring with prehistoric rock markings and the remnants of a historic cowboy camp. Other favorites include the Chesler Park Trail, a 5.4-mile loop through knobby sherbet-colored hoodoos, and the 8.6-mile Lost Canyon Trail, which loops among eerily twisted formations.

Watch sunset or sunrise: The park’s two popular spots for sunrise and sunset viewing are Grand View Point Overlook and White Rim Overlook, the last two stops on the Island in the Sky scenic drive. The Grand View Point Overlook has great views just steps from its parking lot, but it’s an easy 1.8-mile hike to White Rim’s overlook, where fewer people interrupt the peace of the dusk. 

spinner image the milky way seen from beneath an arch in canyonlands national park in utah
Visitors can stargaze all night inside the park.
Brad McGinley Photography / Getty Images

Go stargazing: Designated an International Dark Sky Park from DarkSky International, formerly the International Dark-Sky Association, in 2015, CNP goes a level beyond with a Gold-Tier designation, reserved for the parks with the darkest skies. The park stays open all night so stargazers can see the spectacle, with stargazing programs scheduled during summer. Some are listed in the park calendar, but it’s best to check at the Island in the Sky Visitor Center for updated activities. 

Garthwait encourages visitors to take a DIY approach to stargazing. “Every night that isn’t a cloudy night there is a dark-sky show in the park, whether there is a ranger there or not,” she says. “[On a moonless night] all you have to do is pull off the road, turn your back to the direction of Moab, where there’s a little glow, and you’ll see stars and constellations you’ve never seen before.” 

Go cycling: An ever-expanding network of mountain-bike trails has turned the area into a bucket-list destination for riders. “You’re surrounded by [trails] here everywhere you look, and there is so much to do at every skill level,” says Brandon Lake, CMO of Moab Adventure Center and Western River Expeditions, outfitters that lead biking and other tours in and around CNP. One of Lake’s favorite rides is the Dead Horse Point Singletrack Loop trail, which starts in Dead Horse Point State Park north of CNP and continues into the park, winding over terraced buttes that afford dramatic views of the valley spreading below. Experienced mountain bikers come to the park specifically to ride all or part of Island in the Sky’s White Rim Road, which drops into the canyon and traces a 100-mile loop along the  mesa, its ragged red cliffs towering above.  

Go river rafting: Some visitors choose to see CNP and its iconic Cataract Canyon on rafting trips. “Accessing Canyonlands by river is a way to get down in the heart of the canyon and see some things in the park that you wouldn’t see otherwise,” Lake says. Wildlife sightings are common, with bighorn sheep frequenting the slopes above the river and bald eagles soaring overhead. Western River Expeditions offers two- and four-day trips to the canyon, both traversing the stretch of the Colorado River from Moab. Shorter rafting experiences that explore stretches of the Colorado River outside the park are available from Moab Adventure Center and other Moab-based outfitters, such as Mild to Wild Rafting and Adrift Adventures.

Lake suggests that older adults and those who prefer tamer rafting inquire about J-Rig trips. “These J-Rigs are really big rafts with a lot of different seating flexibility, and people can sit 20 feet back in the raft if they want a quieter experience,” he says.

spinner image people camping in canyonlands national park utah
Canyonlands has two small first-come, first-served campgrounds.
Fred Lord / Alamy Stock Photo

Where to stay and eat

There are no lodging facilities in CNP, only two small first-come, first-served campgrounds that fill up fast. Willow Flat Campground ($15 per night), near the Green River Overlook in Island in the Sky, has 12 mesa-top campsites. Its amenities include fire rings and vault toilets. There is no water, however. The Needles Campground ($20 per night) has 26 sites scattered among the area’s characteristic knobby rock towers, many shaded by gnarled juniper trees. It also has picnic tables, fire rings and vault toilets (flush toilets in summer). Water is available at the campground spring through fall. 

You won’t find any dining inside the park.

Gateway towns

Most visitors to CNP base their stay in the lively outdoor adventure hub of Moab, the largest town (population 5,321 ) near the park. Once a ranching community and later a base of uranium mining, Moab has transformed into a hipster hangout with the arrival of mountain bikers and outdoor adventurers. It now buzzes with lively brewpubs and a constant stream of festivals and events, such as the Moab Folk Festival in November. 

Never gone mountain biking before and want to try it? Rent a bike from one of Moab’s many cycle shops and ask directions to the Courthouse Wash Loop, an easy seven- to 10-mile (depending on preference) circuit around a wide-open bluff northwest of Moab. “It’s gentle terrain with a little bit of singletrack, a little bit of slickrock, a little bit of everything, so you can experience what riding here is all about,” Lake says.

Moab offers a wide range of lodging options as well as an up-and-coming food scene for some creative dining. Amenities at the affordable Best Western Plus Canyonlands Inn, in the heart of Moab, include a pool, bike storage and electric-vehicle charging. Mobility-accessible rooms feature roll-in showers, safety bars and wide doorways to accommodate wheelchairs.

The moderately priced, Hoodoo Moab, Curio Collection by Hilton, has rooms designed for wheelchair accessibility as well as audio alerts in the elevators and braille room numbers. 

Come morning, before heading into the park, fuel up on pastries, huevos rancheros or a sunrise panini at Love Muffin Café.  After your exploring, quench your thirst with ales, IPAs and stouts and savor flavorful burgers in the capacious dining room at Moab Brewery, or line up for crispy fried chicken and waffle fries at Doughbird.

If you’re planning to focus most of your time in the park’s Needles District, the quiet mountain town of Monticello, 49 miles southeast of the Needles park entrance, offers budget-friendly lodging options, but little else. The Monticello Inn is ADA-friendly, with its wheelchair-accessible lobby, restaurant and rooms with refrigerators and microwaves. There’s a large heated indoor pool, too.

En route

Dead Horse Point: Take a slight detour on the way to Island in the Sky from Moab to Dead Horse Point State Park. The park provides one of the best views in the area from a peninsulalike spur that sticks out over a branch of the same Colorado River canyon country as CNP.

Drive the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway: When traveling to CNP from the north, replace the more direct U.S. Highway 191 with a tour down state Route 128, the Upper Colorado River Scenic Byway. The route traverses broad valleys that may look familiar from starring roles in numerous Western films and presents a stunning photo op at a the red rock Fisher Towers silhouetted against the La Sal Mountains. 

Visit Arches National Park: Most people traveling to CNP combine their visit with Arches National Park, 26 miles to the northeast. The two parks make a perfect complement, doubling the fantastical appeal of water-carved, wind-burnished and ice-chiseled rock markings.

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