Canyonlands Hikes at Island in the Sky and Needles

Canyonlands National Park is 527 square miles of beautiful, rugged landscape that has been transformed into a multitude of canyons, mesas, buttes, and arches by the erosion of the Green and Colorado rivers.

Hiking is one of the best ways to explore this amazing national park. There are Canyonlands hiking trails for all levels: easy, moderate and strenuous.

Here’s a list of the best Canyonlands hikes found at the Island in the Sky district and the Needles district.

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To get the most out of visiting this park, you must be prepared with the right clothing and gear.

DOWNLOAD our Canyonlands National Park packing list for summer and winter.

Hiking Shoes – Injuries from improper footwear is a common problem that casual visitors and hikers encounter. To make your trip as safe and enjoyable as possible, avoid smooth-soled shoes and only wear sturdy shoes with ample tread. 

Check out the Merrell Moab hiking shoes we use.

Hydration and Food – Due to the high desert and altitude in Southeastern Utah, you should drink at least one gallon of water per day, and always carry water with you during all hiking activities.

Eat plenty of healthy snacks and food.

→ We use Camelbak hydration packs or carry Hydroflask bottles in our packs.

Lip Balm and Lotion – Utah’s high elevation and dry air can be hard on your skin. You’ll want to carry lip balm with sunscreen and hydrating lotion to apply as needed when you’re out exploring the trails.

Clothing – Summers in the park mean soaring temperatures, unrelenting sunlight, and low humidity. To keep cool, wear light colored, loose fitting UV protection clothing that does not absorb sunlight. Also avoid sun burn by wearing a wide brimmed hat and by generously applying sunscreen to any parts of your body that are exposed to the sun.

During the winter, wearing the right clothing is important to stay dry and warm. Take note that snow and ice can accumulate and make popular trails quite slippery. That’s why trekking poles and traction devices for your shoes are essential. It’s also just as easy to become dehydrated in the cold as it is in the heat. It’s important to carry plenty of water during the winter, and not just during the summer.

National Parks Pass – Before you visit Arches National Park be sure to pack your The America the Beautiful Annual Pass.

Other items we recommend – US national parks packing list

Canyonlands Hikes at Island in the Sky

Canyonlands has something for everyone and boasts hundreds of miles of scenic trails to explore, but Islands in the Sky district is the most accessible of all the districts.

Below you’ll find a list of some of the best hikes in the Islands in the Sky.

Mesa Arch, 0.5 miles, Easy

One of the most iconic landmarks of the Canyonlands, this short beginner hike will take you about thirty minutes and leads to the spectacular cliff-edge Mesa Arch.

Mesa Arch sunrise at Canyonlands

Especially popular among photographer’s, the Mesa Arch trail is a .7-mile loop to the famous sunrise spot offering a stunning view of a scenic canyon vista and daytime views toward the La Sal Mountains.

Grand View Point, 2 miles, Easy

Canyonlands National Park’s Grand View Point showcases some of the best panoramic views. The views here encompass miles of the Green and Colorado river canyons; red rock cliffs, ravines, and mountain ranges can be seen on the distant horizon.

The Grand View Point trail is an easy in-and-out hike that follows the canyon edge of Island in the Sky mesa and takes about an hour and a half. At the viewpoint, an outdoor exhibit highlights the features of The Needles, the La Sal and Abajo Mountains, Mountain Basin, and White Rim Road. NOTE: The cliff edges do not have rails to watch children!

White Rim Overlook, 1.8 miles, Easy

Near the south end of the Canyonlands Island in the Sky district sits the White Rim Overlook. This trail takes about an hour and a half and is best viewed in the late afternoon.

The overlook gets its name from the layer of white sandstone that forms at the edges of the canyon rim. The contrast of the white rock against the surrounding shades of red-orange cliffs is exquisite. There is extremely limited trailhead parking here but it’s worth it for the spectacular panoramic view from the overlook.

Murphy Point, 3.6 miles, Easy

A much longer hike, Murphy Point provides excellent wide views off the western end of Island in the Sky. Downhill most of the way, this Islands in the Sky hike leads you past a historic corral on the mesa top.

You’ll enjoy panoramic views of the Green River, Candlestick Tower, and the White Rim Road.

Upheaval Dome, 1 mile to 1st overlook, Moderate

The total trail is 1.7 miles but it’s a short, steep, under a mile hike to the first overlook; the second overlook adds a mile. The Upheaval Dome Trail is thought to be the most unique geological feature in Utah.

A 3-mile-wide area with a 1000-foot-deep crater with rocks pushed together in the center to make a dome-shaped structure. To truly appreciate it, this is one you’ll have to see in person. You can learn all about the dome at the exhibits at the end of the trail.  

Whale Rock, 1 mile, Moderate

The Whale Rock hike leads you up the side of a large, rounded sandstone rock that some would say resembles a whale.

This trail is a fun one to climb and the handrails make it easier to navigate. The Whale Rock Trail rewards you with broad views of the Canyonlands Island in the Sky.

Aztec Butte, 2 miles, Moderate/Difficult

One of the most interesting hikes in the Island in the Sky district, the Aztec Butte trail is short but challenging at times. You’ll be required to hike up ledges and slickrock which can be difficult. Grasslands will lead you to a loop around the top that provides spectacular views into Taylor Canyon.

Early on, the trail splits with Aztec Butte to the right and another smaller butte to the left before dropping below the rim to see two Puebloan structures called granaries. These are a unique find and both have been well-preserved. The hike is 1.8 miles if you continue to the second butte, 1.3 miles if you skip it. View structures from a distance; entering, touch and climbing on the sites is prohibited.

Syncline Loop, 8.3 miles, Difficult

The difficult Syncline Loop Trail follows the canyons around Upheaval Dome and is one of the premier Canyonlands Island in the Sky hikes. Highly trafficked but challenging, most of the park’s rescues occur on this trail.

With a steep 1,300-foot elevation change, Syncline Loop requires experienced hikers to navigate sharp ledges, massive boulders, and steep slickrock. Rewarding in the end, this hike is not for the inexperienced.

This trail is perfect for those wanting to do an overnight but works well for a long day hike, too.  Make sure to carry plenty of water, a flashlight, and a map. To keep the sun at your back hike this trail clockwise.

Alcove Spring, 11.2 miles, Difficult

About a half-mile from the trailhead a spring sits under a large cove where Alcove Spring got its name. Accented by towering sandstone walls, Alcove Spring Trail passes through two-large alcoves before taking you to the Zeus and Moses spires.

Of all the difficult trails leading off the mesa Alcove Spring is considered the most moderate but is still strenuous and challenging. Allow yourself a full day to tackle this trail.

Gooseberry Canyon 5.4 miles, Difficult

Canyonlands National Park’s steepest trail, Gooseberry Canyon descends an incredible 1500 vertical feet. Your destination is visible right away and may not be ideal for those who fear heights, but you can turn around on this out-and-back trail at any point. The views and scenery here are stunning but it will challenge your hiking abilities, only experienced hikers in great shape should tackle this trail.

Remember, if you go down, you’ll have to venture back up. The Gooseberry Canyon trail is unique because it lets you hike among the Canyonlands, below the level of the mesa, instead of viewing from overlooks above; you get a vastly different experience and perspective. When you descend don’t forget to look up, you’ll be amazed at how far you’ve come.

Canyonlands Hikes at The Needles

The Needles district makes up the southeast corner of Canyonlands National Park and gets its name from the hundreds of colorful spires that dominate the area.

The Canyonlands Needles are home to a multitude of arches, canyons, and cliffs all surrounded by a rough, rugged landscape. Strong hikers can tackle most of the Needles hikes in a day but combined with others on the loop make for a much longer trip. There are camping areas in the Needles district for those who want to stay overnight and spend more time exploring the Needles trails.

→ CHECK OUT this great resource about backpacking for beginners!

Roadside Ruin, 0.3 miles, Easy

This easy, kid-friendly trail is short with only a few stone steps to navigate. The Roadside Ruin trail is highly trafficked but in good condition. Here you’ll get to see a Puebloan-era storage structure that was once used to store food.

The Roadside Ruin trail guide explains the ruins and points out the native plants you’ll see along the way.

Pothole Point, 0.6 miles, Easy/Moderate

Although short, this trail is uphill and has uneven footing so might be considered moderate for some. Pothole Point is a short loop trail that crosses communities of sandstones with natural depressions called potholes. The potholes have tiny, sensitive ecosystems that come to life as water collects within the pothole. There are days when you might see tadpoles, snails, beetles etc.

To preserve these delicate potholes, it’s important to walk around them and avoid putting anything in them, even when they are dry.  There are no trail guides, but small rock piles (cairns) show the way. Panoramic views from the trail are memorable and this trail offers one of the best viewpoints of the Needles.

Cave Spring, 0.6 miles, Easy/Moderate

A short loop that winds around a white and red sandstone mesa, there’s a lot to see on this trail. Here you’ll pass Cave Spring, prehistoric rock paintings, well-preserved pictographs, and a historic cowboy camp with many original artifacts on display.

You will climb two wooden ladders on the Cave Spring trail, one of which that takes you to a 360-degree panoramic view of the Needles district. This trail is easy for those who have no problem climbing the two ladders and the sandstone rock but might be challenging for children or the elderly. It is recommended that you take the trail clockwise so you’re climbing up instead of down the ladders.

Slickrock Foot Trail, 2.4 miles, Moderate

A moderate trail with most of the hike on the hard slickrock surface that gives the trail its name. This trail offers stunning views of the canyons and the Needles. Grab a brochure at the trailhead to help you identify the landmarks along the way.

You’ll appreciate the spurs to the 4 great overlooks with amazing views. This is a good beginner hike with lots of potential for exploring, the strategically placed cairns make it easy to pick the trail back up. I recommend this trail in the morning or evening as you are exposed to the open sun and heat on this trail.

Chesler Park Loop Trail, 10.4 miles, Moderate/Difficult

This moderate trail is fun and popular because of its diversity in the landscape. The Needles Chesler Loop Trail has you climbing up and down over rock formations, through sand and various rock terrain, slit canyons, and grasslands.

This is a beautiful trail with lots to explore and stunning panoramic views of the Needles. Please keep in mind that a four-wheel-drive vehicle is required to get to the trailhead.

Druid Arch, 11 miles, Difficult

A favorite of the Canyonlands Needles hikes, Druid Arch is located about 5 ½ miles from the Elephant Hill Trailhead and offers one of the most spectacular views in the Needles district. The Druid Arch trail will have you scrambling through high desert, canyons, a maze of needles, up a steep ladder and a rock wall to get to the arch. The scrambles keep you on your toes but are fun and well worth it in the end.

The uniquely shaped Druid Arch is named for its resemblance to the large rocks of Stonehenge and is notable for both its height and sharp angular shape. A high bench near the end of Elephant Canyon offers a spectacular view of the arch but don’t forget to stop and take in the beautiful scenery at Elephant Canyon.

Confluence Overlook Trail, 10 miles, Moderate/Difficult

Crossing through Big Spring Canyon, the Confluence Overlook Trail takes you through miles of open desert, areas of slickrock and deep packed sand, and ends at a dramatic cliff overlook with magnificent panoramic views of the Colorado and Green River confluence.

These two rivers define the three districts of Canyonlands National Park. At the overlook you can see the two rivers 1,000 feet below for a grand view. Make sure to check out the colored sandstone spires and a huge red butte along the trail.

Squaw Canyon to Lost Canyon Loop, 8.7 miles, Moderate

The Squaw Canyon / Lost Canyon loop trail is combined for a pleasant hike that’ll take you over sandstone hills and slickrock, through a creek crossing, up a ladder, and through some challenging sections as you navigate between the two canyons.

You’ll see spectacular views and diversity along the trail. Slickrock, grasslands, tree-lined canyons, mesas, buttes, and mountains can all be seen from this scenic trail. Backcountry campsites are available at both Lost Canyon and Squaw Canyon, but a permit is required.


arches and canyonlands itinerary optin

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