National parks are amazing. Everyone can vouch for that. In order to make the most of a trip to such a park, you need to do your research in advance. If you are planning to visit Utah and go to Canyonlands, then you’ll find this ultimate guide to Canyonlands National Park – Island in the Sky very useful! It is written by David and Jamie, Photo Jeepers, and includes the top 10 things to do in Canyonlands National Park – Island in the Sky, restaurants, accommodation options for Island in the Sky, and precious tips from people who go there often! Don’t forget to check out these other guides too: your complete travel guide to Moab, Utah and a complete travel guide to Arches National Park, USA.
Canyonlands is the largest national park in Utah and is divided into districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze and the Colorado and Green rivers. The landscape at each district is diverse and includes steep sandstone cliffs, deep canyons, winding rivers, and breathtaking vistas.
Canyonlands Island in the Sky is the most accessible and easiest way to see this National Park. It is only 32 miles from Moab, Utah and sits atop a massive 1500 foot mesa. Visitors can often see over 100 miles in any given direction from the many viewpoints along the scenic drive. The panoramic landscapes from Island in the Sky encompass thousands of square miles.
The park offers hiking trails, four-wheel-drive roads and backcountry areas for day or overnight trips.
TOP 10 THINGS TO DO
Mesa Arch is one of the most popular sites in the park, especially at sunrise. The parking lot and trailhead conveniently located right off the main road. The easy 0.5 mile loop trail is marked by stone cairns and driftwood along slickrock and dirt. The arch is at the edge of a sheer cliff so watch children carefully. You can see the famous Washer Woman rock feature through the arch.
Sunrise is a popular time for people to visit the arch. You will share the scene with other photographers and visitors. You must arrive early to get a good spot to photograph the event. The red glow under the arch lasts a long time. Most people leave right after sunrise. Take time to enjoy the scene and you may get the arch to yourself once everyone has moved on!
Grand View Point
The sweeping scene and views of canyons at Grand View Point provide the answer as to why do they call this place Canyonlands. This overlook provides another stunning location to watch the sunrise.
From the parking area you can walk along the fully paved and accessible path for about 300 feet to the overlook. There is a trail just beyond this platform that descends down a stone staircase. The trail from this point is about 2 miles round trip. The path is flat with a mix of dirt and cairn-marked slickrock along the edge of the canyon rim. Do not get too close to the edge and always watch children along this trail.
Green River Overlook
The Green River overlook showcases a vast landscape. Look closely to see the Green River in the distance as it winds through the canyon it created. You can see views for a hundred miles to the horizon. The road you see running along the bottom is the White Rim trail that traverses 100 miles around the Island the of the Sky mesa.
Shafer Canyon Overlook and Switchbacks
The most amazing thing you will see from the Shafer Canyon Overlook is the road that hugs the steep cliff as it travels to the canyon floor. To see this best, walk a short distance from the parking area. If you’re lucky, you can watch cars or bicycles traveling the road.
If you have a high clearance/4WD vehicle and feel brave, drive down the Shafer Trail to the White Rim Trail and explore Musselman Arch.
Buck Canyon Overlook
This overlook provides another view of sheer cliffs 1,000 feet high, deep canyons and landscape that stretches to the horizon. The path is wheelchair accessible to the view point. Be sure to enjoy the 360 degree view all around you at this location. .
Canyonlands Island in the Sky comprises layers of sedimentary deposits from ancient seas, rivers and winds.
But Upheaval Dome has a different geology because the rock layers are dramatically deformed and pushed upward to create a circular dome.
To read about the two theories for what caused Upheaval Dome, take the 1.7 mile round trip hike to the overlooks and read the illustrated panels there. Decide for yourself what cause the three-mile wide 1,000-foot deep crater.
The trail to the top of Aztec Butte is 1.7 miles round trip and includes steep sections along slickrock. Hikers should be comfortable scrambling up and down ledges with some exposure. At the top of the butte you see Trail Canyon, the Island in the Sky mesa and beyond. This trail is not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights.
The spur trail at the .3 mile mark leads to two granaries tucked in an alcove. This trail is much easier and climbs a smaller dome and is best for hikers looking for a shorter and easier hike.
Dead Horse Point State Park
Dead Horse Point is not part of Canyonlands Island in the Sky, but due to its close proximity to the park, it has been added to this list. It is a small Utah State Park just north of the national park entrance gate. We highly recommend driving the 4 miles and paying the separate entrance fee to see the views! .
The legend of Dead Horse Point is that local cowboys rounded up wild horses and corralled them on the plateau. They were left too long without water and all the horses died of thirst. The area became known as Dead Horse Point because of this event.
Stop at the pullouts and walk the rim trail to enjoy the breathtaking view. The plateau towers 2,000 feet above the gooseneck bend of the Colorado River. The well-photographed scene at Dead Horse Point cannot be seen at any overlook in Canyonlands just a few miles south.
White Rim Road
At the top of Island in the Sky mesa, as you look down from the viewpoint, you see a dirt road at the bottom of the canyon and wonder who drives the road and where it goes. The 100-mile White Rim Road runs around and below the Island in the Sky. For those who have a mountain bike or four-wheel drive vehicle, It provides a more intimate experience to enjoy the white rim canyons, Musselman Arch and Colorado River Gooseneck to name a few points of interest. Trips usually take two to three days and permits are required for all trips on the White Rim road.
There are hundreds of miles of four-wheel-drive roads in Canyonlands that access campsites, trailheads, and viewpoints in the park’s backcountry. Before heading out on any dirt road, understand the guidelines for off-road travel in the park. Research the route as roads in the park range in difficulty from intermediate to extremely technical.
Most vehicle rental agreements do not allow driving on these type of roads. There are many Jeep rental outfitters in Moab, Utah if you want to experience off-road driving. Please follow their advice and only tackle the trails they recommend based on your off-road driving experience.
PLACES TO EAT
There are no restaurants or stores in Canyonlands National Park. The nearest restaurants and stores are in Moab, Utah, about four miles from the park entrance. There are several areas with picnic tables in the park.
The restaurant serves breakfast all day with home-style lunch and dinner menu items. Ice cream is served from their old-fashioned counter. Expect friendly service, affordable prices and generous portions.
Zax uses a wood-fired brick oven to bake their pizzas. The buffet includes all you can eat soup, salad and pizza. Also on the menu are burgers, sandwiches and fries along with a large selection of microbrews from craft breweries around Utah.
Milt’s Stop & Eat
Milt’s resembles a typical American burger joint from the 1950’s. The burgers use beef that is grass-fed and hormone-free The menu also includes hotdogs, sandwiches and fries. Enjoy a malted milkshake or banana split for dessert.
Twisted Sista’s Cafe
Twisted Sista’s is open for lunch, dinner and tapas. The restaurant offers a variety of options for gluten free, vegetarian and vegan diners. The menu includes soups, salads, sandwiches and meat entrees.
PLACES TO STAY
There are no lodges in Canyonlands National Park. There is one 12-site campground that includes Picnic tables, fire grates and vault toilets. There is no water. It is first-come, first served.
The nearest hotels and camping options outside the park are in Moab, Utah, about 32 miles from the park entrance.
Moab Rim Campark
Lazy Lizard International Hostel
Hotel Moab Downtown
Homewood Suites by Hilton
Holiday Inn Express & Suites
Sorrel River Ranch and Spa
Condos with a kitchen
- Canyonlands National Park is a remote area – there is no food, lodging, or gas available in this park.
- Pack everything you’ll need during your time in the park. Water is only available outside the visitor center from spring through fall.
- Do not rely on cellular service in the park. Texting may be an option in areas with limited service. Limited service may be available at the visitor center and at some locations along the scenic drive.
About the authors: David and Jamie, Photo Jeepers:
David enjoys photography and exploring areas off the beaten path in the jeep. Jamie plans and organizes the travel itineraries and details. We share our photos and stories to Inform and Inspire you to explore new places and capture your adventure with photographs. Follow their travels on their blog, Facebook, instagram and Pinterest as well.