Canyonlands Island in the Sky is one of three districts comprising the largest National Park in Utah. The other two districts are Canyonlands Needles and The Maze. Some consider the Colorado and Green rivers another district.
However, when you visit Canyonlands National Park, you’ll see that all three districts come together to create a diverse landscape that is filled with towering sandstone cliffs, deep canyons, winding rivers, and stunning vistas.
Just 32 miles from Moab, Utah Canyonlands Island in the Sky is one of the easiest areas to access within Canyonlands National Park. However, be aware that there are no roads within the park that directly link any of the districts together.
Therefore, while Island in the Sky, The Maze, and Needles all appear to be adjacent to one another on a map, in reality, the travel time between these areas can be anywhere between two to six hours by car. That’s why we feel it’s highly impractical to visit more than one or two districts during a single trip.
We suggest focusing your trip to Canyonlands National Park on one specific district, like Canyonlands Island in the Sky.
This exquisite region sits atop a massive 1500 foot mesa and provides visitors with stunning, panoramic views that stretch out over a 100 miles as you drive between viewpoints along the Island in the Sky’s wonderfully scenic drive. Other fantastic things to do in Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky include visiting the area’s many hiking trails, biking trails, four-wheel-drive roads and backcountry areas that are perfect for both day and overnight trips.
Use this guide to create your list of things to do at Canyonlands Island in the Sky:
- Island in the Sky Travel Tips
- What to Pack for Canyonlands
- Where to Stay Near Canyonlands
- Viewpoints at Island in the Sky
- Canyonlands Island in the Sky Hiking Trails
- 4×4 Offroad Trails at Island in the Sky
- Photographing Canyonlands Island in the Sky
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WHAT TO PACK FOR A TRIP TO CANYONLANDS
To get the most out of visiting this park, you must be prepared with the right clothing and gear.
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.
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 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
- Darn Tough socks
- Fleece jacket
- Buff headbands
- Hand sanitizer
- Flashlight or headlamp
- First aid kit
- Insect repellent
- Camera gear – DOWNLOAD our Camera Gear Checklist!
But above all else, always make sure to carry enough food, water, and other essentials since Canyonlands is a remote park with few services and reliable sources of freshwater.
PLANNING YOUR TRIP TO CANYONLANDS ISLAND IN THE SKY
Tips for Visiting Island in the Sky, Canyonlands
Although Canyonlands Island in the Sky is quite beautiful, it is also in a remote area with very few guest services.
You will find no food, lodging, or gas services available within the park. That’s why you must be prepared and pack everything that you think you’ll need during your trip to Canyonlands Island in the Sky.
And while most Canyonlands Island in the Sky hiking trails are marked by cairns, or small rock piles, as well as signs at trail intersections, some remote trails do not receive regular trail maintenance.
Accordingly, these trails may not be adequately marked, making it imperative for all backcountry hikers to carry a topographic map at all times, as well as a flashlight and basic first aid equipment.
Additionally, you cannot rely on cellular service in Canyonlands since the only areas where texting may be an option are near the visitor center and at some locations along the scenic drive where the La Sal Mountains are visible.
Water is also scarce and only available outside the Canyonlands Island in the Sky visitor center throughout the spring, summer, and fall.
YOU MUST plan ahead and bring at least 1 quart of water per person for short trails and at least 1 gallon of water per person for long trails.
To conserve your supply of water, avoid hiking at either midday or on hot summer days. Please also make sure to apply for any necessary day-use, overnight, or river permits if you want to participate in various Canyonlands Island in the Sky activities.
Where to Stay Near Canyonlands Island in the Sky
There are no lodging facilities in the park (only camping).
• Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Moab – we enjoyed our stay and highly recommend this hotel due to its location close to Canyonlands.
• Red Cliffs Lodge – rooms up to 6 people – located 17 miles from Moab, this lodge is known for its beautiful location, winery and activities like horseback riding, fishing and more!
• Condos south of town – we really like the King size bed in the master, washer and dryer in the unit and a swimming pool/hot tub (just a 5 minute drive south of Moab).
FUN THINGS TO DO AT CANYONLANDS ISLAND IN THE SKY
Viewpoints at Island in the Sky
- Visitor Center Viewpoint
- Shaefer Canyon Viewpoint
- Buck Canyon Overlook
- Grand View Point
- Green River Overlook
Canyonlands Island in the Sky Hiking Trails
- Mesa Arch
- Grand View Point
- White Rim Overlook
- Upheaval Dome
- Whale Rock
- Aztec Butte
- Syncline Loop
- Murphy Point
- Neck Spring
- Murphy Loop
- Wilhite Canyon
- Alcove Spring
- Lathrop Canyon
4×4 Offroad Trails at Island in the Sky
- Shaeffer Trail
- White Rim Road
Photographing Canyonlands Island in the Sky
- Milky Way
No article about Canyonlands Island in the Sky is complete without the tip to visit Dead Horse Point.
This Utah State Park is a MUST STOP. The turnoff road to Dead Horse Point is right before the entrance station to Island in the Sky.
OUR FAVORITE THINGS TO DO AT CANYONLANDS ISLAND IN THE SKY
Mesa Arch is a popular destination for visitors since it is beautiful and takes only 30-minutes to hike there. To access this Canyonlands Island in the Sky attraction, hike the easy 0.5 mile loop Mesa Arch Trail which is marked by stone cairns and driftwood.
You’ll see the arch on the right side, near the edge of the sheer cliff face and can even spot the famous Washer Woman through the crest of the arch. While here though, be sure to carefully watch children since the path can be quite unsteady near the edge.
Grand View Point
Sitting at the southernmost edge of the Island in the Sky scenic drive is the Grand View Point lookout. From here, you can see the majestic White Rim as well as The Maze ,The Needles, and distant mountain peaks. A short, paved, 300 foot sidewalk leads to a spectacular viewpoint. Just beyond this paved platform, follow the trail down a stone staircase.
From this point the trail is a mix of dirt and slickrock marked by cairns to the second viewpoint which is 2 miles, round trip, from the parking area. Be careful not to get too close to the edge and always be sure to keep an eye on children at this viewpoint and along this trail.
Green River Overlook
From the Green River Overlook you can obtain a breathtaking view of the surrounding canyonlands, a view that extends out for hundreds of miles in every direction.
You can even see the Green River meandering through the surrounding canyons in the distance.
Buck Canyon Overlook
The overlook at Buck Canyon is wheelchair accessible and illustrates the 1,000 foot tall, dramatic sheer cliffs that form the mesa.
From here, you can see the cracked sandstone at the bottom of the canyon and the La Salle mountains in the distance.
Before you leave, be sure to turn around and admire the magnificent scenic views that sit behind you as well.
Another fun, intermediate level Canyonlands hike is the Aztec Butte trail, which takes roughly 1.5 hours to hike and is 2 miles long, round trip. However, before beginning this Canyonlands Island in the Sky hike, please be aware that the climb to the top of the butte is quite steep.
Accordingly, hikers will encounter difficult sections where they’ll be forced to ascend steep slickrock pitches and scramble up and down ledges with some exposure. That’s why this Canyonlands hiking trail is not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights. But, the steep climb is worth it since this trail culminates in expansive views of the surrounding landscape.
However, if you’re a more novice hiker, the Spur Trail is a fantastic alternative to Aztec Butte Trail. Just 0.3 miles from the parking lot, this trail is shorter and easier to hike since it takes you up and through a smaller dome. The reward at the end of this trail are two historic Puebloan granaries tucked in an alcove.
Murphy Point Trail
Another perfect beginner’s hike through Canyonlands Island in the Sky is Murphy Point Trail.
This hike is 3.6 miles long (round trip), takes approximately two hours to complete, leads park guests past some lovely, historic corrals, and ends with magnificent views overlooking the surrounding area.
This moderately difficult hike through Canyonlands Island in the Sky has two different viewpoints for you to explore. The first viewpoint is just 1 mile away from the trailhead and takes only 30 minutes to get to.
However, if you want to see some truly fascinating rock formations, then definitely hike to the second viewpoint. Sure, this section adds about a mile to your hike, as well a one hundred foot elevation change, but the landscapes that you’ll see along the way are absolutely worth the effort.
Schaeffer Trail and Potash Road
Schaefer trail is not for the faint of heart! There are some narrow sections in the switchbacks that aren’t wide enough for two vehicles to pass each other, which means someone will need to reverse until there’s a space wide enough to pass safely.
But if you’re looking for an off road experience that doesn’t require a highly modified rock crawler, and you can stomach steep dropoffs, then Schaefer trail is one we recommend.
A four-wheel drive vehicle will succeed in navigating this well maintained road. Start at the top near the entrance to Canyonlands Island in the Sky. This way you can enjoy the views as you descend into the canyon. You’ll tackle the Schaefer switchbacks first. At the bottom, you can continue along the White Rim road to see Musselman Arch.
Or you can turn left onto Potash Road that takes you back to Moab. This road passes by the Colorado River goosenecks, natrual stone arches, and well marked Indian petroglyphs.
White Rim Road
As you visit each overlook in the park, you’ll probably notice a dirt road at the bottom of the canyon and wonder who drives the road and where it goes? Well, this road is the 100-mile White Rim Road, which runs around and beneath the Island in the Sky mesa top.
The complete 100-mile trip usually takes two to three days using a 4WD vehicle or three to four days using a mountain bike. Please be aware that permits are required for all day and overnight trips along the White Rim road.
Those with a high clearance/4WD vehicle can drive down the Shafer Trail switchbacks to the White Rim Road and go as far as Musselman Arch if you’re not up to a tackling the multi-day trip to drive the full length of the road. You can then take Potash Road back to Moab.
On a clear night, make a point to stay in the park after dark and look up to see the sky bursting with stars. Canyonlands is a Dark Sky Park and one of the most popular places for night photography near Moab.
During the spring and fall, we recommend you attend the popular night sky ranger program which includes telescope viewing. Programs at Canyonlands Island in the Sky begin at Grand View Point. Check at the visitor center for details.
Photographing Canyonlands Island in the Sky
Canyonlands Island in the Sky is filled with stunning photography spots. The colors and light on the natural landscape create truly unforgettable, once in a lifetime images.
The best times to take photos at Canyonlands are dawn, sunrise, dusk, sunset and night. During the day the full sun creates harsh light that’s not ideal for landscape photography.
These are our favorite photo spots at Island in the Sky:
- Mesa Arch
- Grand View Point
- Green River Overlook
- Buck Canyon Overlook
- Aztec Butte Granaries
- Schaefer Trail Overlook