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. The diverse landscape of Canyonlands National Park includes towering sandstone cliffs, deep canyons, winding rivers, and stunning vistas.
Island in the Sky is only 32 miles from Moab, Utah which makes it the easiest way to see Canyonlands National Park. There are no roads within the park that directly link any of the districts. They may appear close on a map, but travel time between districts can be two to six hours by car. It’s impractical to visit more than one or two districts in a single trip.
Canyonlands Island in the Sky sits atop a massive 1500 foot mesa. Visitors can often see over 100 miles from the viewpoints along the scenic drive. Other activities here include hiking trails; biking trails; four-wheel-drive roads and backcountry areas for day or overnight trips.
PLAN YOUR TRIP TO CANYONLANDS ISLAND IN THE SKY
Canyonlands Island in the Sky is a remote area with few services. There is no food, lodging, or gas available in this park.
Pack everything you’ll need during your time in the park. Water is only available outside the visitor center from spring through fall.
Plan ahead and be aware that some areas and activities require a day-use, overnight or river permit.
Canyonlands is located in a high desert region where the weather can change quickly. Be prepared for a variety of conditions within a single day.
The most popular times to visit are spring (April through May) and fall (mid-September through October), when the weather in Canyonlands is more temperate.
Do not rely on cellular service in Canyonlands. Texting may be an option of communication in areas with limited service near the visitor center and some locations along the scenic drive where the La Sal Mountains are visible.
Remember to purchase the US National Park Pass – it’s a good deal!
THINGS TO DO AT CANYONLANDS ISLAND IN THE SKY
Mesa Arch is a popular destination for visitors. To access the arch, hike the easy 0.5 mile loop trail across slickrock and dirt.
The trail is marked by stone cairns and driftwood. The arch is right on the edge of a sheer cliff. Be sure to watch children carefully here. You can see the famous Washer Woman rock feature through the arch.
- At sunrise be prepared to share the small area with many photographers and other visitors. Practice patience and courtesy with everyone trying to capture the same image.
- If you want a good spot to photograph the event, you must arrive at least 1 hour before sunrise. Use a headlamp to navigate the trail in the dark.
- Stay well after the sun rises. The red glow under the arch lasts a long time. Take the time to photograph various angles of the arch. Eventually, you may get the arch to yourself after everyone leaves!
- March to October you can photograph the Milky Way above Mesa Arch.
Grand View Point
The sweeping scene at Grand View Point illustrates why the park is called Canyonlands.
The path from the parking area to the overlook is fully paved and accessible for the first 300 feet. 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 for 2 miles round trip. Be careful to not get too close to the edge. Watch children at this viewpoint and along this trail.
- Sunrise photos at this location are magnificent. Capture the sun as it rises to get sunbursts.
- Focus on smaller sections of the white rimmed canyons.
- Walk along the rim to find interesting elements to add to the composition.
- Add people into the scene to show scale.
Green River Overlook
The breathtaking view from this overlook goes on for hundreds of miles to the horizon.
You can see a sliver of the Green River in the distance winding through the canyon it created.
PHOTO TIP: The view here is expansive. It’s hard to get it all into one image. Focus in on smaller sections to show more detail.
Buck Canyon Overlook
The overlook at Buck Canyon is wheelchair accessible and illustrates the dramatic sheer cliffs 1,000 feet high that form the mesa. From here you can see the cracked sandstone at the bottom of the canyon, the washer woman rock formation and the La Salle mountains in the distance. Don’t forget to turn around to see the magnificent scenic view behind you as well.
A fun Canyonlands hike is the Aztec Butte trail which is 1.7 miles round trip to the top where you enjoy expansive views. The climb to the top of the butte is steep. There are some difficult sections where hikers should be comfortable ascending steep slickrock pitches and scrambling up and down ledges with some exposure. The trail to the top of the butte is not recommended for anyone with a fear of heights.
A good alternative is the spur trail just .3 miles from the parking lot. It’s a shorter and easier hike as it climbs the smaller dome. The reward at the end of this trail are two granaries tucked in an alcove.
PHOTO TIP: In order to get both granaries in the image along with other elements like the tree and sky – find the small, level ledge just below the tree and photograph from that spot. BE CAREFUL as it’s on the edge of the rock!
White Rim Road
As you visit each overlook in the park, you probably see a dirt road at the bottom of the canyon and wonder who drives the road and where it goes. It’s the 100-mile White Rim Road that runs around and below the Island in the Sky mesa top.
Those with a high clearance/4WD vehicle can drive down the Shafer Trail switchbacks to the White Rim Road. Points of interest along the trail include Musselman Arch and the Colorado River Gooseneck.
The complete 100-mile trip usually takes two to three days by 4WD vehicle or three to four days by mountain bike. Permits are required for all day and overnight trips on the White Rim road.
Where to Stay Near Canyonlands
We use Airbnb (here’s a $40 coupon) or Hotels.com to rent accommodations that have a kitchen. Cooking our meals saves us quite a bit of money compared to eating out, and it’s much healthier! If we can’t find somewhere to stay with a kitchen, we find places that have a microwave and fridge at the minimum. You would be surprised the meals you can prepare in a microwave.
- Purple Sage, Red Rocks Unit – This is our preferred accommodation since it’s walking distance to the Main Street shops and restaurants, it’s newly remodeled and always clean, it has bike storage, laundry, hot tub – and we love having a kitchen to cook our meals to save money!
- Moab Flats – great condos for the same reasons above.
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