canyonlands national park

Out of the Big 5 National Parks in Utah, we had heard the least about Canyonlands and it ended up being both of our favorite park. Maybe it was because we’d heard so little… Expectations and all… Regardless, it was absolutely incredible. Canyonlands National Park itself is so huge is broken up into three main sections. Island In The Sky (the focus of this guide), The Needles (see our guide here), and The Maze (very remote, only visited by 4WD vehicles). This Canyonlands – Island in the Sky 1 Day guide will tackle what active adventurers should do to make the most out of their chance to visit!

Disclaimer: This is not your typical relaxing, I-have-all-the-time-in-the-world travel guide. Ya it would be awesome to spend 2-3 days in each Utah National Park, but let’s be honest no American traveler has the time to do that and see them all! So this guide and all our National Park travel guides are written to the frugal and practical American traveler who has squeezed this adventure into a long weekend or around a holiday. It will be short on park descriptions (you’ll learn all the same fun facts about the park while you’re there) and heavy on the hiking and efficient time planning. Little to no time is set aside for restaurants. It is assumed you’ll make one stop at a grocery store to pick up everything you need to eat on the trail or at your campsite. Our goal is to help you pack as many (usually free) fun-filled things into your cherished vacation time and make the most of potentially a once in a lifetime visit to these spectacular places. If you’re looking for something more relaxed, their are plenty of other awesome travel guides out there for you!

mesa arch sunrise
Yep, Canyonlands is home to Mesa Arch! Now which came first, Mesa Arch or your desktop background?

Itinerary Notes

We’re just going to dive right into it. This itinerary assumes you have 1 full day to spend at Canyonlands – Island In The Sky. It assumes that you’re camping in Moab which is roughly 1 hour from the park entrance. Be sure to grab a park map at the entrance and get ready to explore!

Your Day

  • Wake Up 1.5 hours before sunrise.
  • Drive to Mesa Arch to watch sunrise. Plan to get to the parking area while it is still dark. From the parking area, it is a 1/4 mile to the viewpoint. Mesa Arch is the most popular place in the park so even in the morning it will be crowded.
  • Hike the Gooseberry Trail. This is a steep trail that takes you down into the canyon! It is roughly 6 miles round trip and will take ~3.5 hours to complete. Do it in the morning before it gets too hot!
  • Hike the Grand View Point Trail. This is a 2 mile roundtrip trail to the most spectacular panoramic viewpoint in the park. Having lunch at the viewpoint would be a great idea!
  • Hike/Scramble Aztec Butte – This is a short trail that has a couple fun scrambles and great views. It’s one of the less popular places in the park so you can escape the crowds a little here!
  • Hike up to Upheaval Dome 2nd Viewpoint – This is a 3 mileround trip trail to an interesting geological formation.
  • Green River Overlook – This is a good place to make dinner and watch the sunset. There are also tables at the parking lot for Upheaval Dome.
  • Star-gaze at any trail head parking lot. Green River Lookout and Mesa Arch are good options.

Total Miles: ~14miles

Try to do most of your hiking in the morning and mid-afternoon. It is super hot and dry here and it is very easy to get dehydrated. On that note, be sure to bring more water than you think. Bring at least 4 liters of water per person! And better yet, have a back up 5 gallon water cube in your car!

gooseberry trail canyonlands
This picture is from the top of the Gooseberry trail. You hike down to the mouth of that canyon below!

How to Get There

The entrance to Canyonlands – Island In The Sky just under an hour drive from Moab. Moab is about a 3.5 hour drive from Salt Lake City. You can rent a small, fuel efficient sedan and be just fine. There are no dirt/gravel roads in this itinerary!

Where To Stay

For such a large National Park, there are only 9 campsites at Canyonlands – Island In The Sky so it is unlikely that you’ll find one. You will likely stay at a campsite in or around Moab.

canyonlands island in the sky
Our guide to Moab will have you spending less time driving around looking for campsites and more time exploring!

Around Moab

The closest campsites to the park is at/around Dead Horse Point State Park. There is a decent around of space here so you have a good chance of finding a spot. This is a federal (BLM – Bureau of Land Management) campsite so there will be no running water. You can expect to pay around $20/night. Pros: you’re close to the Canyonland – Island In The Sky entrance. Cons: you’re farther from Moab (where the grocery store is) and not super close to Arches National Park. Plan ahead and grab groceries and bring a full water cube if you want to camp here.

In Moab:

In Moab you have a couple options. You can camp at designated camp sites along the Colorado river off HWY 128 or on top of Slickrock. Both are federal campsites so they will not have running water, both will cost you ~$20/night and they both have their pros and cons.

Camping by the River – HWY 128

Camping by the river is the most convenient location for the national parks and is in a beautiful location. You will make a left just before getting to the town of Moab to get on HWY 128 then there are clearly marked camping areas every 3-5 miles or so. Due to it’s location, it is a very popular spot so if it’s near a weekend and you don’t get there early it can be hard to find a spot. Also, since you are by the river you can expect a lot of gnats as soon as the sun goes down. If you choose to camp by the river, we recommend Grandstaff Campground as it is walking distance to the Grandstaff trailhead, which is a 5 miles roundtrip trail to the incredible Morning Glory bridge!

Camping at Slickrock

Camping on top of Slickrock is a less crowded camping area with an incredible view for sunset since you are up so high. There are also few gnats since you are far from the river. It is around 15 minutes further from the National Park than the campsite off HWY 128 and you will have to drive through Moab to get anywhere. Slickroad is also known as off-road vehicle heaven so there are jeeps, ATVs, and other offroad vehicles rolling around at all times of day. Although, we didn’t have a problem with ATV noise the nights we stayed there, it could be an issue.

aztec butte canyonlands island in the sky
Relaxing after the fun rock scramble to the top of Aztec Butte!

Where To Go Next

The Other Utah National Parks

You’re in luck, we’ve also put together adventure-packed 1 Day American Traveler Itineraries for Canyonlands – The Needles, Arches, Capitol Reef, Bryce Canyon, and Zion National Park.

If you’re looking to plan a week long trip to Utah to see them all, then be sure to check out our epic 10 Day Utah National Park American Traveler Guide!

Helpful Apps

GyPSy

Wishing this travel guide included a little more information and fun facts about the park? No worries, we left that up to the experts. GyPSy is a location based guide service that will provide you with awesome fun facts and park navigation directions as you drive. It costs a total of $10 to download both Canyonlands – Island In The Sky and Arches guides and it is 100% worth it. We named the guide Roger, he sounds like a Roger. So say hi to him for us!

gooseberry trail canyonlands
Roger will tell you all there is to know about the rock formations that you’ll be hiking through!

Maps.Me

Probably our favorite travel app ever made. It has all the hiking trails and walking paths clearly marked and has easy to download offline maps. Whether we are in Colombia or Glacier National park, we know we’ll never be lost with Maps.me. Plus, it’s completely free!

Be sure to open the app and download the map when you have WiFi. You download regional maps by zooming in on a certain area. There’s nothing worse than opening up  Maps.Me once you’re on trail and realizing you forgot to download your map!

AllTrails

An app that gives you trail distances and recent reviews for hiking trails. It’s worth checking AllTrails a day or two before you do a longer hike as it is updated frequently for hikers. It’s basically Yelp for hiking. Plus, it’s free too!

upheaval dome canyonlands
Sunset over the unique upheaval dome structure. It’s one of those things you need to see for yourself

Conclusion

You’re good to go for Canyonlands – Island In The Sky. You’ve got an itinerary broken down into a power-packed yet manageable day. Plus you’ve got all our lessons learned!

So there you have it, our Canyonlands – Island In The Sky 1 Day travel guide! From us to you, happy adventuring!

canyonlands island in the sky
Phew! After all that writing, we’re going to take a minute to soak in the scenery!

Notes

All prices and information are current as of September 2020.

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