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How to Spend One Day in Canyonlands National Park

(Last Updated On: November 29, 2021)

Located near Arches National Park, Canyonlands National Park is Moab’s underrated destination. However, many people don’t know that all you need is one day in Canyonlands National Park, and since it’s lesser-visited, it’s easier to visit without the crowds that Arches has.

From epic rim hikes to viewpoints that will take your breath away, Canyonlands is filled with epic things to fill your day there. As long as you plan your day ahead of time and develop a game plan, you can easily see the highlights with one day in Canyonlands National Park. 

Read on to start planning your Canyonlands itinerary!

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entrance sign to Canyonlands National Park

All About Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands is located outside Moab, one of the best places to visit in Utah, and is filled with tons of red canyons and rock formations, as the name suggests. Think of similar views to Black Canyon of the Gunnison or Grand Canyon, but even redder and desert-like.

This park comprises four different districts: Island in the Sky, the Maze, the Needles, and the Rivers. To spend 1 day in Canyonlands National Park, you’ll want to focus on the more popular and easily accessible part of the park: Island in the Sky district.

view of the mountains through Mesa Arch

How to Get to Canyonlands National Park

Because Canyonlands is near Moab, there are quite a few ways to get there, especially if you’re coming from Colorado.

Fly Into a Nearby Airport

One option is to fly in, which is the most popular way to get to Canyonlands. Some nearby airports include Grand Junction Regional Airport, Canyonlands Field, and Salt Lake City International Airport. You can take public transportation to the park or rent a car from each of these if you need.

If you’re flying in from outside of the southwest, then your best bet will be to fly into SLC because it’s a bigger airport.

Drive

To get to Island in the Sky and Canyonlands by car, you’ll want to take UT 313. The best thing about taking a car is that you’ll be able to stop off at tons of incredible viewpoints along the way, giving you tons of freedom in comparison to the other options.

Take the Amtrak

You can also take the Amtrak if you want. You’ll want to get off at Grand Junction using the California Zephyr line. From there, you can take public transportation shuttles or rent a car to get from Moab to Canyonlands.

Shuttle Bus

Another affordable way to get to Canyonlands is to take the shuttle bus. You can usually grab a shuttle bus from Grand Junction, or you can get a tour shuttle bus from downtown Moab if you want.

Best Time to Visit Canyonlands National Park

Don’t mistake thinking that summer is the best time to visit for one day in Canyonlands National Park because it’s not. This is the busiest time for the park, especially in the Island in the Sky area.

In addition, Moab hotels tend to get pretty expensive in the summer because everyone flocks to Arches National Park in the warmer months.

Instead, try to visit in the fall. The weather is great during this time, and Moab’s tourists are starting to die down a bit, so accommodations aren’t super expensive anymore. The heat is nowhere near as bad as it gets in the summer, and the days are still reasonably long.

Visit in the winter if you genuinely want to avoid the crowds. This is the least popular time to visit even though Canyonlands is one of the most epic national parks to visit in winter!

red canyon rocks with mountains in the distance

Places to Stay Near Canyonlands National Park

There are many great hotels if you’re wondering where to stay near Canyonlands National Park. Here are a few to consider, depending on your budget.

Big Horn Lodge – $

Big Horn Lodge is an excellent 2-star motel to stay in if you’re visiting Canyonlands on a budget. Average nightly rates are around $80, depending on the time of year that you visit. Rooms here are also pet-friendly!

Click here to book your stay at Big Horn Lodge!

Element Moab – $$

Element Moab is the perfect place to stay; I stayed here during my trip to Canyonlands and can’t recommend it enough. It’s down the road from Arches, so it’s closer to Canyonlands, and prices are usually around $150 per night.

Click here to book your stay at Element Moab!

Fairfield Inn & Suites – $$$

If you’re looking for a place in a great location and you have a bigger accommodation budget, consider staying at Fairfield Inn & Suites. Prices are usually around $220 per night, and there’s a pool, free wifi, and complimentary breakfast.

Click here to book your stay at Fairfield Inn & Suites!

canyon with snowy mountain behind

Camping Near Canyonlands National Park

One of the best ways to experience nature while spending one day in Canyonlands National Park is camping. Below are some of the best campgrounds near Canyonlands.

Island in the Sky Campground (Willow Flat)

To stay right in the park, you’ll want to stay at Island in the Sky Campground. There are twelve different campsites here, but each one is first come, first serve, so you want to get there early. What’s also great is the campground is open all year.

For just $15 a night, this campground is a great place to stay at an affordable rate if you want to stay central.

Note that there aren’t many amenities at this campsite; you’ll genuinely be off-grid.

orange rock formations in national park

Kayenta Campground

Right in Dead Horse Point State Park is Kayenta Campground. This campground is super close to Canyonlands and is the perfect place to stay if you want to visit both the state and national parks.

Sites here are $50 per night, and there are 21 campsites that are great for RVs and sprinter vans. This campsite costs a bit more than Willow Flat because there are more amenities, like charcoal grills and eating areas.

Sand Flats Recreation Area

Another great option is the Sand Flats Recreation Area. Located in Utah, this rec area has 9000 acres with tons of campsites throughout, perfect for spending one day in Canyonlands National Park. The average cost for a stay here is around $60.

Tips for Visiting Canyonlands National Park

When visiting Canyonlands in just one day, you really have to pay attention to some of the top tips. Below are the ones that will help you have the best day possible.

desert view with canyons in background

Get There Early

First up, you have to get there early. No matter what time of year you visit, some of the best views of the canyons are early in the morning when the warm sun reflects off the red rocks and sand around you.

In addition, you can avoid most other visitors by visiting right in the morning. Plus, what’s more peaceful than going on a hike as the sun is rising? 

Know That It’s Quite a Drive From Moab

While most people stay in Moab when visiting Canyonlands National Park, just know that it is quite a bit of a drive from Moab. From downtown Moab, the drive is about 35 minutes or 30 miles to Canyonlands National Park. It’s not as close to Moab as Arches is.

desert view on sunny day

Stay Hydrated & Stay Cool

This is another of the national parks in the USA that happens to be pretty open. There aren’t shady spots, so you need to be super careful if you’re visiting when it’s hot and humid outside.

It’s recommended that you drink about one gallon of water while you’re there. Try also to bring a cooler to keep some extra bottles cold too in case you need it. It’s better to be overprepared for your trip!

You Can’t Miss the Sunrise

There’s nothing better than catching the sunrise in Canyonlands National Park. Remember, this means getting there about 40 minutes before the sunrise because of the drive from Moab unless you’re camping or staying closer nearby.

The best spot for catching the sunrise there is at Mesa Arch. It’s only a short hike from the nearby parking lot, making it an okay hike to do when it’s not quite light out yet.

Get an America the Beautiful Pass

You can save yourself tons of money by buying an America the Beautiful Pass. This pass covers your entrance fee to all national parks in the USA and costs $80.

Purchase one online or at a local REI. I purchased mine at REI and use it all the time.

Note that you only need one pass per car, and it’s valid for twelve months after purchase. Try to purchase it at the beginning of the month to get your money’s worth!

view into canyon from above

Double Check to See If You Need a Permit

Some of the hikes in Canyonlands National Park require you to have a permit. If you’ll be doing more challenging hikes, then it’s best to double-check to see if you need one or not.

Take Lots of Snacks and Pack a Lunch

You do have to pack your own food to visit Canyonlands, or you won’t have any food for the day. There’s a City Market in downtown Moab – stop there to grab some snacks at an affordable price. You can even grab easy to go lunches there, too or support a local restaurant in Moab.

When I visited, I stopped by the City Market and grabbed a bag of chips and deli meat, cheese, and bread, so my friend and I would have food for the day.

Visit Popular Sites First

Another tip to avoid the crowds is to visit all of the busy spots earlier first. They tend to get super busy around mid-day, especially sites like the visitor center and the Mesa Arch in particular.

What to Pack for One Day In Canyonlands National Park

To have a successful day in Canyonlands, there are a few things you should consider packing. Below are my recommendations. 

Camera

The views in Canyonlands are spectacular. Remember them and share them with others by bringing a camera. You don’t need a super fancy camera, but if you want an excellent camera recommendation, I highly recommend either a Canon EOS M100 or a Canon EOS M50.

view of inside of canyon in Canyonlands

Water Bottle

You should consider bringing at least one 32 ounce water bottle per person. The best water bottle options are Hydro Flasks or Nalgenes. Hydro Flasks, in particular, will keep your water cold all day, even if it’s hot outside.

Sport Sunscreen

Even if you’re visiting in winter, because of the lack of shade, you need to get sunscreen. The lotion is better for the environment than the spray, so that’s a great option to go with. Sports sunscreen is even better because it won’t rub off if you get sweaty on your hike.

Hiking Boots

So many people try to do hikes with sneakers on. It’s not good for your ankles, and sneakers aren’t meant for hikes! Definitely try to purchase a pair of hiking boots for your trip so that you can feel safer on your hikes.

trees overlooking the canyon

Where to Eat Near Canyonlands National Park

There are many great places to eat near Canyonlands National Park. Below are some of Moab’s best restaurants.

Moab Diner – $

The Moab Diner is easily the most popular place to eat near Canyonlands National Park. This is a traditional diner with great prices and even tastier foods. The ambiance is very casual, and it’s a great spot to go for a hearty meal, especially if you are visiting with families.

Zax Restaurant – $$

Zax Restaurant is an American restaurant with classic meals like salads, burgers, pizza, and soup. This restaurant is known for its outstanding service, and they’re open for both lunch and dinner.

Desert Bistro – $$

For classic southwest food, head straight to Desert Bistro. As one of the best places to eat with one day in Canyonlands National Park, this restaurant has fantastic food. There’s outdoor seating, a wine cellar, and excellent service.

Moab Brewery – $$

If pub food is what you’re in the mood for, you have to check out the Moab Brewery. In addition to a brewery filled with local drinks, there’s a restaurant with tasty pub food. Plus, Moab Brewery is located right downtown, so it’s super easy to get to.

valley at the bottom of the canyon

What to do During One Day in Canyonlands National Park

Below, learn about the best things to do in Canyonlands National Park. Pick and choose the ones you’d most like to do, especially if you end up doing a half day in Canyonlands National Park instead.

Go on a Hike

Canyonlands is filled with incredible hikes. Below are some of the top ones that you won’t want to miss out on. You most likely won’t be able to do all of these in one day, but you can pick and choose what to do in Canyonlands National Park for hikes.

Mesa Arch Trail

First up is the popular Mesa Arch Trail. The trail is super short, only about 0.7 miles from the parking lot. It’s uphill at first, but then it’s pretty flat right over to the arch. Through the arch, you can see right out to the canyonlands.

This is an easy loop trail with only 88 feet of elevation, which is why it’s such a popular trail to do in the park.

If you’re wondering what to see in Canyonlands, you can’t miss Mesa Arch.

Mesa Arch

Grand View Point Overlook Trail

To see Canyonlands National Park in one day, definitely consider checking out the Grand View Point Overlook Trail. This is a simple rim hike with only 160 feet in elevation gain, so it’s not super difficult.

The trail is rated as easy and is about 1.8 miles round trip out and back.

grand view point overlook

White Rim Overlook Trail

The White Rim Overlook Trail also has epic views, and it’s less than 2 miles round trip. This trail is also rated as easy, so it’s perfect for all age levels visiting the park. Like other hikes on this list, there aren’t spots for shade along the way, so bring lots of water.

Upheaval Dome Trail

The Upheaval Dome Trail is only 1.3 miles round trip out and back. The elevation gain is only about 220 feet. This trail is moderate; some of the terrain is steep, so bring a pair of hiking poles if you can. 

The views are breathtaking at the end!

Aztec Butte Trail

Another shorter trail that’s great for one day in Canyonlands National Park is the 1.7 mile Aztec Butte Trail. The elevation gain is about 250 feet, so it’s not terrible, but it is ranked as moderate because it can be difficult getting down it because it can be steep.

Wilson Arch Trail

A beautiful arch to visit near the park can be seen via the Wilson Arch Trail. This is the shortest recommended trail at only 0.6 miles. You can easily do this one in combination with some other hikes during the day.

This hike is technically outside of the park, so it’s a great one to do on your way there or on your way back.

Buck Canyon Overlook

Buck Canyon Overlook is a top-notch viewpoint that you don’t have to hike to get to, which is why it’s not listed under hikes. The overlook offers some of the most incredible views of the canyonlands, and it’s super easy to get to. The walk from the parking lot is only 0.1 miles.

Island in the Sky Visitor Center

No trip to the national park is complete without visiting the Canyonlands visitor center. Not only is this a great spot to stop so that you can learn more about the park, but you can also talk with the park rangers and see what’s going on and if there are any trail route changes.

If you have a national parks passport, you can also get it stamped in the visitor center. Purchasing one of these is a great way to see how many national parks you’ve visited.

The souvenir shop is also here, where you can purchase everything from water bottles to stickers to bring home.

view of rock formations from trail

Shafer Canyon Overlook

Shafer Canyon Overlook is right across the street from the visitor center and isn’t that far from the entrance. This view is truly the first great view that you’ll come across in Island in the Sky, and you can walk right over to it from the visitor center.

This overlook does have sheer drop-offs, so you have to be careful when you’re there. Don’t get too close to the edge!

Dead Horse Point State Park

Right before the entrance of Canyonlands National Park is Dead Horse Point State Park. While not technically part of the national park, no trip to Canyonlands is complete without stopping here.

The top spot to visit in Dead Horse Point State Park is Dead Horse Point, a river bend in the canyon that will take your breath away. There are also many hikes and other viewpoints throughout the park that you can visit if you have the time.

Suggested Canyonlands One Day Itinerary

  • Wake up early and drive from Moab to Canyonlands. Grab coffee and snacks along the way. Get to the park before sunrise!
  • Head straight to Mesa Arch to do the hike and catch the sunrise. You’ll beat the crowds that later in the day brings.
  • Hike the Grand View Point Overlook Trail. Stop for lunch at one of the great views along the way.
  • Next, do the Aztec Butte Trail and take in the fantastic scenery.
  • Head to the Island in the Sky Visitor Center. Learn about the park and meet with rangers.
  • Walk over to Shafer Canyon Overlook and snap some photos.
  • Head to downtown Moab to grab dinner at one of Moab’s best restaurants.
  • Drive back towards Canyonlands and go to Dead Horse Point State Park. Make your way to Dead Horse Point to catch the sunset and stargaze.

How to Get Around Canyonlands National Park

Once you’re in the park, you have to get around the park by driving, especially in Island in the Sky. You’ll mostly just be driving Island in the Sky Road to get around, and the drive is exceptionally scenic. You can also bike the road if you prefer.

It’s entirely possible to spend one day in Canyonlands National Park. Just plan in advance, book your Moab accommodations ASAP, and have a blast! What do you most want to put on your Canyonlands road trip itinerary?

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