Canyonlands National Park is a unique national treasure. The park covers a great deal of land in terms of acreage. In fact, Canyonlands National Park is so large that it is divided into three main districts: 1) Island in the Sky, 2) the Needles, and 3) the Maze. An additional fourth district includes the Green and Colorado Rivers, but for our purposes we’ll cover the main three. Each district within Canyonlands National Park is special in its own way and is worthy of an extended visit. To help you explore this area, we’ve curated a listing of some of the best hikes that Canyonlands National Park has to offer, ranging in difficulty to accommodate beginner to advanced hikers.
Note that there is a vast amount of hikes in each of these districts that we consider bucket-list worthy. If you intend to visit all of three of the main districts, you’ll need multiple days simply because the driving distance between each district can take considerable time. Nonetheless, this article is intended for travelers that may only have limited time in the area and want to hit the high points. Also, if you plan to visit Arches National Park as well, don’t forget to check out our article “Best Hikes in Arches National Park.”
Best Hikes Series: Canyonlands National Park
Island in the Sky District
The Island in the Sky District is the most commonly visited of all of the Canyonlands National Park districts because of how close it is to the town of Moab. As a matter of fact, the Island in the Sky District is only about a 40-minute drive from downtown Moab, making it incredibly convenient. Moreover, it is also very close to Arches National Park, giving visitors an opportunity to see two amazing parks in quick succession. Although visitors to this area have to wade through crowds of tourists at popular viewpoints, the Island in the Sky District is a gem that is not to be missed with its beautiful highlights such as Mesa Arch, Grand View Point, Upheaval Dome, and White Rim Road.
The Island in the Sky District has a number of what we think are some of best hikes in Canyonlands National Park. Check out some of our favorite Island in the Sky District hikes below. You can also find additional information regarding hikes in the Island in the Sky District here.
Mesa Arch is an iconic arch located in the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park, near Moab. Since this is a very quick half-mile hike, it also happens to be extremely popular amongst tourists. Nonetheless, plan to brave the crowds because this hike has eye-popping views of the White Rim and La Sal Mountains in the distance. Also, note that Mesa Arch is fairly close to the park entrance, so you can plan to knock this off of your itinerary quickly and move along to other adventures that await in the Island in the Sky District.
For an extra special visit, we recommend visiting Mesa Arch in the early morning to catch an amazing sunrise vista. However, other photographers will likely have similar ideas, so plan to arrive at the trailhead parking as early as possible.
Murphy Point Overlook
Murphy Point Overlook is another great hike located in the Island in the Sky District. This hike is moderate in length and has absolutely gorgeous views of the Green River, the White Rim, and even the Maze District in the distance. Plus, this hike is often overlooked by the tourist crowds and you’ll notice far less trail traffic.
Now, you may see guide books recommend Grand View Point, which is indeed amazing, but the crowd situation can often be overwhelming. Definitely don’t miss Grand View Point, but instead of hiking around that area, just plan to snap some panoramic pictures at the overlook and enjoy the views. Afterwards, make your way to Murphy Point Overlook for this enjoyable hike.
The Needles District
The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park is particularly well-known for its sandstone pinnacles. You can actually get a good view of them from the Grand View Overlook in the Island in the Sky District, but we highly recommend seeing them up close. Although the drive is about 1.5 hours from Moab, it’s worth every minute because we consider the Needles District to have the best hikes in Canyonlands National Park. Not only will you experience a completely different perspective of Canyonlands National Park, you’ll be treated to fewer crowds and amazing trails.
There are many highlights in the area, but we love the Druid Arch and Chesler Park hikes because they offer a good challenge and cover varied terrain. Further, if you are planning on camping in the area, there is plenty of dispersed camping on BLM land surrounding the Needles District. Alternatively, you can camp at the Needles Campground. Check out some of our favorite Needles District hikes below. You can also find additional information regarding hikes in the Needles District here.
Chesler Park Loop/Joint Trail
The Chesler Park Loop/Joint Trail hike is located in the Needles District. This loop hike is a long day hike because of its 11-mile length and takes you through a wide variety of amazing terrain, such as slickrock, red rock canyon, and grassland. Beginning at the Elephant Hill Trailhead, this hike will take you up close to breathtaking views of the Needles sandstone pinnacles, which give the area its namesake. Without a doubt, the Chesler Park Loop is one of the best hikes in all of Canyonlands National Park because it covers so much beautiful territory and epitomizes everything that makes Canyonlands special. It’s easily our favorite hike of the bunch.
The Elephant Hill Trailhead is also where you begin the hike to Druid Arch. For the very adventurous, you can combine Druid Arch and the Chesler Park Loop into an arduous hike. No matter how you hike it, the Chesler Park Loop is a hike that is not to be missed. Remember, as with all hikes in the Utah desert, since this is a very dry area make sure you bring ample water and avoid the extreme heat.
Druid Arch in the Needles District is awe-inspiring because of its sheer massiveness. The hike to Druid Arch is special because you get an up-close view of a beautiful arch without the extreme crowds, which are more common in other popular areas of the park. In fact, when we hiked to Druid Arch one morning in May, we were the only hikers in the area.
Interestingly, Druid Arch’s name comes from its similarities with Stonehenge. However, from our views at various angles, we saw a slight resemblance with Delicate Arch. Regardless of its similarities, Druid Arch stands on its own with unique features, plus the hike to this beautiful formation is wonderfully rewarding. Although the hike itself is not extremely arduous, it is rather long at 11 miles — so be prepared. As mentioned in the review for the Chesler Park Loop hike above, you can decide to make a longer hike and add in the Chesler Park Loop/Joint Trail with a visit to Druid Arch. In any case, always remember to avoid extreme heat and carry ample water.
The Maze District
The Maze District is an extremely remote section of Canyonlands National Park. Therefore, expect a drive of about 2.5 hours from Moab that is well worth the trip. For most, a visit to the Maze District area includes hiking within the popular Horseshoe Canyon (actually just north of the Maze District) and the Great Gallery with its famous rock art, making it one of the best hikes in Canyonlands National Park. The Maze District is definitely worth a visit if you have the time, predominately because you get the feeling of being in a truly remote desert wilderness with far less crowds than other areas of Canyonlands National Park.
More on Horseshoe Canyon and the Great Gallery follows below. Also, you can click on the following links for maps and more information on the Maze District and Horseshoe Canyon.
Horseshoe Canyon and the Great Gallery
Horseshoe Canyon is located just north of the remote Maze District of Canyonlands National Park. So, for those that are willing to venture beyond the vicinity of Moab, Horseshoe Canyon is one of the best places in the country to see well-preserved pictographs and petroglyphs. The big draw here is the Great Gallery, which is known for its incredible, yet eerie life-size rock art. Conveniently, the National Park Service offers guided hikes of Horseshoe Canyon during weekends in the spring and fall.
Since Horseshoe Canyon is a bit of a ways from Moab you should expect to drive well over two hours to get to the parking area. However, the long drive greatly reduces the number of tourists, which makes hiking a bit more enjoyable and less crowded. It’s certainly worth the time, as the hike to the Great Gallery is indeed one of the best hikes in Canyonlands National Park. Please note that the road into Horseshoe Canyon is quite rugged, so we recommend that you consider taking a 4WD vehicle for better accessibility.
Recommended Hiking Apparel and Gear
All of the referenced hikes in this article are presented as day hikes. Although these hikes are fairly popular, remember that you will still be in a remote part of the country. Therefore, you should always be prepared and carry the appropriate type and amount of gear, clothing, food, water, and other essentials. For certain, make sure that your packing list includes the Ten Essentials.
We typically do a lot of rock scrambling when we’re in Utah. Thus, it pays to have footwear that is up to the task. Approach shoes are particularly useful because they have excellent grip, but are not as heavy as hiking boots. If you are in to rock climbing, approach shoes are excellent options to hike to the crags. Even if you don’t intend to climb, approach shoes simply make a great option for all around red rock scrambling and light hiking.
We are huge fans of La Sportiva’s footwear line, especially their rock climbing shoes. La Sportiva’s Boulder X approach shoes are a great selection because of their versatility and overall high quality construction. We’ve had multiple pairs of the La Sportiva Boulder X’s over the years, mainly for hiking into rock climbing crags, and will keep using these for a long time. If you’re looking for a lighter weight option, consider La Sportiva’s TX Guide, which is built more like a running shoe.
Utah gets hot in the summer, so you’ll likely be opting for shorts if the weather calls for them. As with all hiking clothing, avoid cotton materials because they absorb sweat and soak in moisture. Instead, opt for hiking shorts designed with technical fabrics for their quick drying properties. Look for lightweight designs that can also hold up to regular abrasions and scraping on rocks and brush. And, always remember to wear sunscreen to protect from the sun’s rays.
prAna’s variety of hiking shorts are great because they are quick-drying and typically have a UPF 50+ sun protection rating. Try the Zion Shorts for men or the Olivia Shorts for women.
The sun is very strong in Utah, so wear clothes that protect your skin but keep you cool. For extra sun protection, we like to wear an ultralight, UPF-rated long-sleeve shirt with a hood. Many outdoor clothing gear companies make such shirts (e.g., Patagonia, Outdoor Research, North Face, etc.). Look for extremely lightweight construction made of technical, non-cotton fabrics.
Our go-to hiking shirt in the summer is Outdoor Research’s Echo Hoody because of its UPF sun protection qualities and lightweight (4oz.) breathable construction. The shirt has a hood for added neck protection and has thumbholes to protect your hands from sun exposure, if you are not wearing sun gloves. Outdoor Research also makes different varieties of the Echo shirt (e.g., quarter zip, long sleeve without hood, t-shirt, etc.).
Opt for a day pack that is light, versatile, and carries enough volume for your day hiking needs. For instance, on many of our Utah day hiking adventures, we select a pack with about 20L-25L, which is enough for us to carry adequate water, a packed lunch, and other essentials.
For our day hiking needs in Utah, we like the Osprey Talon 22L (men’s) or Osprey Tempest 20L (women’s) because they are both high quality, lightweight day packs with ample carrying capacity. These two packs are some of Osprey’s best sellers, and for good reason. They are well-made, versatile packs that will last a long time and can be used as much for travel and city use as for hiking purposes.
The Talon and Tempest come in a variety of sizes: 11L, 22L, 33L, and 44L for the Talon and 9L, 20L, 30L, and 40L for the Tempest. But again, opt for a smaller pack for day hiking.
We’ve become accustomed to using trekking poles for most of our hikes. Although trekking poles are optional and a matter of preference, they come in handy on hikes where you gain/lose significant elevation. We recommend considering using trekking poles for added stability. Opt for the lightest weight poles your budget can afford.
We regularly use the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z trekking poles because of their super lightweight construction and overall packability. These poles are some of the lightest on the market and perform admirably. Click here for a more detailed review of the Black Diamond Distance Carbon Z. But, check out Black Diamond’s full Distance trekking pole line-up for a variety of options.
Since most travelers will likely visit multiple areas of Utah, such as Arches National Park, Capitol Reef National Park, etc., we recommend purchasing a guide book that covers areas in addition to Canyonlands National Park. Therefore, our curated list of guide books focuses on books intended to give you a greater value with a wider breadth of information. However, if you’re looking for more detailed and specific guide books on Canyonlands National Park, we included a few of our favorites below. You’ll also find a few National Geographic topographical maps and non-fiction books on the list that are relevant to the area. In particular, check out Desert Solitaire, written by famous former resident and naturalist Edward Abbey, for a fantastic perspective on the area.
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