If you fancy the kind of views you get at the Grand Canyon without the crowds, then Canyonlands is a place you should definitely put on your itinerary. This huge national park is split into three areas: the popular Island in the Sky (on top of the mesa), the less visited Needles (on the valley floor) and The Maze (which we didn’t visit because we didn’t have a 4x4 vehicle). To go from one part of the park to the other takes over two hours by car!
To make the most of Canyonlands, we recommend covering both areas across two days. There’s so much to do and even in two days you’ll barely scratch the surface but it’s still guaranteed to wow you. Canyonlands has one of our favourite hikes in the whole of Utah - the Chesler Park/Joint Trail which is not to be missed!
Here’s our take on the best hikes to do if you only have a couple of days in this stunning part of Utah.
Canyonlands National Park Hikes - Island in the Sky
Island in the Sky is the most convenient section of Canyonlands to visit as it is considerably closer to Moab than the Needles. This means it can easily slot into an itinerary including Arches, Dead Horse Point and fossil hunting in Moab.
Whilst Island in the Sky has some great hikes, none matched the Chesler Park/Joint Trail in the Needles section of Canyonlands. However, don’t let this put you off as Island in the Sky is still home to some of the best views in Utah.
The iconic view - Mesa Arch
Distance - 0.5 miles (0.8 kilometres)
Difficulty - Easy
Time - 10 minutes each way (max)
Type of Track - Return (there & back again)
Starting & End Point - Mesa Arch Car Park
Mesa Arch is a haven for landscape photographers, especially at dawn where the stories of not being able to get a space for your tripod are infamous. At sunrise, the arch looks directly to the horizon - framing the mountains, the canyon and the sun.
However, the main attraction is seeing the underside of the arch turn a deep orange as the sun comes up. It is hard to deny that it is a special place. If - like us - you don’t fancy battling the crowds in the wee hours, then head there at sunset for a much quieter experience.
The hike to Mesa Arch is short and easy, in fact let’s face it, is 0.25 miles really even a hike? But you can’t miss it! It is essentially a dirt path to the arch and back to the car park. It’s a pretty spot though and there are plenty of rocks to climb around the area for some great views.
For a scramble and some history - Aztec Butte
Distance - 2 miles (3.2 km)
Difficulty - Medium
Time - 50 mins
Type of Track - Return (there & back again)
Starting & End Point - Aztec Butte Car Park
If you ask one of the Park Rangers which walk is a must do they all point to Aztec Butte. This huge rock formation in the middle of the park is visible as soon as you start driving in.
The primary reason it’s a must is because it’s a fun scramble uphill. The path at first is a normal sandy track, but soon you’ll have to start climbing a steep incline up slick rock. This becomes harder as the track goes along and soon you’ll be looking for any semblance of a foothold or place which isn’t slippery sand covered rock!
At the top there’s a small loop that shows off the views as well as some Indian ruins. The walk back down is also a slip and slide affair, but it’s all part of the fun!
For some truly epic views - Grand View Point
Distance - 2 miles (3.2 km)
Difficulty - Easy - moderate
Time - 1 hour
Type of Track - Return (out there & back)
Starting & End Point - Grand Viewpoint Car Park
If you want the best views of the canyon, then head to Grand View Point.
This easy hike will take you along the cliff edge with epic views throughout. The trail winds through some pretty desert landscape and the kind of canyon vistas that people would be raving about if it weren’t in a country with so many spectacular canyons!
The trail gently undulates, but is in pretty good condition and should be doable for most people. There are plenty of places along the way to stop and take in the views.
In case you haven’t had enough views! - White Rim Overlook
Distance - 1.8 miles (2.8 km)
Difficulty - Easy to Medium
Time - 45 minutes
Type of Track - Return (out and back again)
The White Rim Overlook trail heads downhill from the picnic area to a sensational viewpoint, looking back towards Moab, the La Sal Mountains and Dead Horse Point. The trail is in good condition and has some ups and downs but nothing too strenuous.
Whilst the view is stunning, it is fairly similar to what you will have seen at Mesa Arch, it is however much less popular so you might very well have this one to yourself.
Getting to Island in the Sky
Island in the Sky is only 40 minutes from Moab. You can combine it with Dead Horse Point which is 20 minutes away if you have limited time in the area.
Entrance Fee for Canyonlands National Park
The good news is that the ticket for Canyonlands covers both Island in the Sky and Needles. This is even better if you have an Annual National Parks Pass, which will cover your entry for both.
Entry to Canyonlands is $30 per car or $20 per motorbike. The ticket is valid for up to 7 days and covers everyone in the car.
Canyonlands National Park - Needles
We can’t understand why everyone isn’t talking about the Needles. We absolutely loved it, in fact it totally blew us away and there were hardly any other hikers around! This area may be a long way from any town, but it offers such a unique and wild experience that is well worth the journey.
We decided to do one long trail in the day we had here, but plenty of people choose to camp and explore this beautiful place in more depth. Here’s our account of one of our favourite hikes in the whole of the Southwest.
Chesler Park / Joint Trail
Distance - 10.7 miles (17.33 km)
Difficulty - Strenous
Time - 5 hours
Type of Track - Loop
Starting & End Point - Elephant Hill Car Park
Want to explore a wild landscape full of valleys, unique rock formations, fun scrambles and an epic slot canyon with no one around? Then the Chesler Park and Joint Trail loop is the hike for you.
This track is amazing and we hardly saw anyone else all day. The landscape is so unique and there was never a dull moment in the five hours we were on the trail.
Almost immediately you’ll be hiking on slick rock following the cairns (which are easy to spot) and admiring all the hoodoos which are visible in every direction. The trail has some ups and downs both on rock and stairs so you have to be comfortable with uneven terrain. The views are gorgeous throughout and it isn’t long before you reach Chesler Park. This is the point at which if you want a shorter hike you can turn back, but unless you have to we don’t recommend it as the next section is the most spectacular of the whole walk.
The section through Chesler Park to the Joint Trail can be walked in either a clockwise or anticlockwise direction. We’d recommend heading anticlockwise which is the opposite way to the direction we chose. This would mean you get the harder part of the loop out the way first when your legs are fresher.
Heading anti clockwise to begin the loop will mean you’ll be walking up and down on more slick rock and the hoodoo views get better and better. You’ll then head along a Jeep track for just under a mile, road walking is normally something we’d hate but there weren’t any cars and the scenery is terrific, it doesn’t really feel like a road.
Once you hit the Joint Trail you’ll head through a very narrow (but not frighteningly so) slot canyon. This was the highlight of the entire hike. The canyon is mind blowing and also gorgeously shaded if you’re hiking in hot weather. We didn’t see another soul on this entire stretch and it felt a million miles from civilisation, heavenly! It’s pretty much flat easy walking, with just one small section where there is a log with steps grooved into it to help you get up or down depending on which direction you have taken.
There is only one point in the canyon where you could go wrong and that’s a left hand turn if coming from a clockwise direction where a side trail has been marked with a cairn. You’ll then see some huge boulders which we thought were the route up and were a little tricky to climb. This isn’t the way so don’t worry if it looks intimidating, head back to the main trail and the real way is easy!
Once you’re through the canyon you’ll have the easy section to come if you headed anticlockwise, it’s almost entirely flat and easy walking on a narrow sandy path through some of the most fabulous scenery we saw in Utah (and that’s saying something!).
You’ll then be back where you started the loop at Chesler Park and retrace your steps back along the first part of the hike to the car park. We were feeling exhausted the day we did this hike but we both agreed we wouldn’t have missed it for the world.
Where to stay for Canyonlands National Park
If you’re not camping in the park, the town of Monticello is the closest to the Needles section of Canyonlands. If you don’t mind a longer drive you could also visit from Moab.
We chose to stay in Monticello and were glad to shave a little off the driving time, although there is limited dining options in the town.
Monticello - Blue Mountain Horse Head Inn
We really liked this little motel, with comfy clean rooms and a good shower. The owners were really friendly and had left the heating on for our arrival on a freezing cold night in March which was incredibly welcome. The wifi worked well and there was a microwave for if you’ve brought your own food.
Island in the Sky
Moab is by far the best option for Island in the Sky, but if you prefer you can visit Needles from here as well.
Hotel Downtown Moab
We stayed in the Hotel Downtown Moab and whilst it had a few issues we thought overall it was great value. The rooms are big, comfy, clean and fairly modern (something we didn’t really experience in this price bracket very often). So we loved it until the wifi didn’t work for our whole stay (although they did refund us $30 for this) and we found some of the staff to be really unfriendly. If it hadn’t been for this we would have given it a fully glowing review.
The place I was actually going to book before it sold out was Expedition Lodge as it had fabulous reviews so you might want to check that one out too.
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Are you planning a trip to Utah? Would you take the 2 hour round trip and 11 mile hike in the Needles? Let us know in the comments below!