Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky District, Utah

Canyonlands National Park is a huge park in canyon country, Utah, United States. It is some of the most rugged landscape anywhere on earth and offers a traveler many opportunities for site seeing, hiking and adventure. The area is basically the confluence of two large rivers, the famous Colorado River and the historic Green River. South of the confluence is some of the best white water in America, the infamous Cataract Canyon. Rafting this canyon is a multi-day experience.

Green River, Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky District, Utah
Green River

Most of Canyonlands National Park is remote territory that requires a significant investment in time, long hikes and/or 4WD trails that can take hours. Despite this, there are things to see and do that do not require major time commitments or physical exertions.

3 Parks in 1

Canyonlands National Park is comprised of three districts. These three areas back up against each other but are reached via different roads each about 100 miles apart. The three districts are Island in the Sky, the Needles and the Maze. You cannot travel between these three districts without exiting each and taking the long way around.

Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky District Map, Utah
Island in the Sky District Map

Island in the Sky District

The most accessible and subsequently most visited district is the Island in the Sky District. It is so named because the area features a high plateau the looms over the surrounding canyons below. To the east is the more scenic area that includes the White Rim. There are several areas of interest to the visitor and if you only take shorter hikes, you can see the district in a few hours. The evening is a neat time to see it as the shadows in the canyons lengthen and provide some dramatic lines as well as the nice evening color is nice and the high vantage gives a good view of the sunset. Sunrise is equally nice for the same reasons, and Mesa Arch provides a memorable shot in the morning.

Island in the Sky can be enjoyed by auto with short hikes for those who can’t commit to a longer hike. There are several short hikes that are also worth your time. Short hikes from various parking areas along the road offer great views of the valleys and eroded landscape that exists on all sides of island. Make sure to drive the entire length of the road and view each one.

Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Island in the Sky District, Utah
Mesa Arch

Mesa Arch

Mesa Arch is one of the most photographed parts of Canyonlands National Park. This arch is situated on the edge of a cliff that allows for a great view of the valley beyond right through the arch. Read more about Mesa Arch here.

Upheaval Dome

Upheaval Dome, Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky District, Utah
Upheaval Dome

Another location that offers a nice shorter hike is Upheaval Dome. Geologists still debate over what caused this strange feature, with opinions ranging from a volcano to a meteor strike. It is clearly different from the eroded landscape about and appears as more of a wound. You can take a look yourself with a 1 mile round trip hike with 351 feet of elevation gain to gain a good view point. A second viewpoint is .5 miles further on. A trail circles the entire crater and there is also a spur trail into the center.

False Kiva

The less known False Kiva is located off of a trail not far from Upheaval Dome – this is on my to-do list and I will write about it when done. Until then, you can find a nice write up here.

Shafer Trail & White Rim Trail

Shafer Trail, Canyonlands National Park, Moab Utah
Shafer Trail

One overlook is Shafer Canyon Overlook, which looks out over the Shafer Trail Road, a crazy dirt road that features steep drop-offs and switchbacks as it descends from the high plateau down to the canyon below. You can probably drive this in a passenger car, but check conditions. I wouldn’t go much farther on the roads beyond without a high clearance vehicle. This route leads to Potash on the left and to the White Rim trail on the right.  Read about our trip on the White Rim trail here.

Dead Horse Point State Park

A nice companion stop to Island in the Sky is Dead Horse Point State Park. It overlooks the Colorado River and portions of Canyonlands National Park and other areas that are public lands. It will require a $15 day use fee per car.

Needles District

The Needles District is so named due to a large concentration of needle-like spires and hoodoos that are common here. These orange and white sandstone features are only part of the attraction, as there are narrow slot-canyon trails and some of the world’s best off-road trails here. Elephant Hill and Devil’s Kitchen are amazing spots if you can get to them. There are also excellent trails to hike – most of the best ones take several hours but can be done in day hikes. Overnight hiking is also available if you want to go to more far-flung destinations. There is a limited amount of paved areas here that make the trip worthwhile if you have some extra time to make the drive out but are not able to make longer hikes. Needles is a wild area and is perfect for those who want to get away from civilization for a day or longer. I have not spent a lot of time here yet – hopefully I can flesh this out soon when I make a visit.

Maze District

If Needles is wild, then the Maze District is even more so. This area of twisted canyons is only reachable from the west following long unpaved roads. The roads and the trails are less developed than the other districts of Canyonlands National Park. Nearby to the Maze District is Goblin Valley State Park, a neat park worth a stop, and there are numerous slot canyons nearby to it. The Maze District is another area that I hope to spend time at in the future – but I haven’t had the right vehicle yet.

Horseshoe Canyon

To the west of the Islands in the Sky District is the Horseshoe Canyon unit of Canyonlands National Park. Getting to this place takes a good bit of driving and a 7.2 mile round trip hike that drops 660 feet. The reason for this unit’s existence is to protect some excellent rock art. The hike will pass several examples, including the Great Gallery featuring 20 unusual life-size human-like figures and other animal or unidentified objects – over 80 in all. It is recommended you do this hike in the spring or fall to avoid the excessive summer heat. To read more detail about this hike, go here.

Directions

To get to Island in the Sky, go north on highway 191 from Moab, Utah. After about 11 miles, turn left onto Utah 313 – you should see a sign for Canyonlands National Park. You’ll arrive at the entrance to Canyonlands National Park in about 14.6 miles.

Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky District, Utah

To get to Needles, get to highway 191 between Monticello and Moab, Utah. Go west on highway 211. You will arrive at the Needles district in about 32 miles.

The Maze district is only reachable with unpaved roads. Go to highway 24, either south from I-70 or north from Hanksville, Utah. About 16 miles north of Hanksville, turn on the dirt route of Lower San Rafael Road, Hans Flat Road and National Park 777 to Recreation Road 633. This takes you to the Hans Flat ranger station. From here, the roads become 4WD only.

To get into any portion of Canyonlands National park requires a $10 per car fee (which is good for a week) or a previously purchased annual park pass.

The town of Moab is a natural base of operations if you are in the area. Arches National park is just north of Canyonlands National Park and is an amazing destination that should be included in your visit to the area. There are many other things to do in the surrounding country.

I’ve posted a hi-resolution gallery of pictures from Canyonlands here.

To read about other National Parks in America, go here.

Utah features some of the most interesting terrain in the world. Read about things to do here.

Author

IT pro by day, avid traveler and photographer by night.

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