Two Days at Canyonlands National Park: Itinerary and Guide

We recommend two days at Canyonlands National Park exploring the Island in the Sky district: scenic drive, hiking, river rafting, and off-roading!

Use this Canyonlands National Park guide to plan your 2-day trip: things to see and do, best time to visit, what to pack, and where to stay.

2 days at Canyonlands National Park

This guide will focus on visiting Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky since it’s the closes district to Moab, and offers a ton of things to see, do, and photograph!

If you have the time, spend One Day at Needles Canyonlands National Park as well!

As you’re planning your Utah National Park road trip, this two day itinerary will allow you to check off Canyonlands Island in the Sky and Dead Horse Point State Park from your bucket list!

The Canyonlands Island in the Sky mesa sits atop sandstone cliffs over 1,000 feet above the surrounding terrain. Every overlook offers a different view of the spectacular landscape.

For our photography lovers, here’s a complete Canyonlands National Park photography guide for taking pictures at Island in the Sky.

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A Photo Tour of Canyonlands National Park

Take a visual tour through Canyonlands National Park (and Dead Horse Point) to see the stunning landscape in the parks!

Best Time of Year to Visit Canyonlands

We get asked often about the best time to visit Canyonlands National Park. The answer all depends on things you want to do.

Before creating your Canyonlands itinerary, it’s important to know the Canyonlands National Park weather and what activities you can do when visiting during the spring, summer, fall and winter.

Canyonlands Spring Weather

Springtime weather and temperatures vary quite a bit from month to month. When visiting in the spring, it’s important to pack for all types of weather because you never know when the weather will change.

It is not unusual to get rain or even snowfall in March at Canyonlands. We recommend you watch the weather and pack a winter coat, winter hat, and winter gloves when visiting in early spring. A fleece jacket, hat, and gloves should be fine later in the spring.

Canyonlands Summer Weather

In the summer at Canyonlands the temperatures will be HOT! Since the temperatures are brutal this time of year, plan your outdoor activities for the cooler mornings and evenings!

With the hot summer temperatures, you’ll want to protect yourself from the sun by wearing a sun hat, sunscreen and sunglasses. It’s important to stay hydrated and carry a hydration pack or a refillable water bottle in your backpack.

Enjoy the cooler evenings by stargazing at Canyonlands, a popular location for milky way photography!

Canyonlands Fall Weather

The weather in the fall starts to cool down making it a great time to explore the park because it will be cooler in the mornings and evenings, and the daytime temperatures aren’t too hot compared to the summer.

With the cooler temperatures at night, you will definitely want to bring a fleece jacket, warm hat and gloves for the nights and early mornings. 

Fall is a nice time to be in the park on a sunny day when the air isn’t stifling! The fall months are still busy so hit the trails in the morning or late afternoon.

Canyonlands Winter Weather

We love visiting Canyonlands in the winter, but there are some drawbacks: the visitor services are reduced and you’ll need to be more self-reliant in the winter. And we know the cold winter weather may not be for everyone.

During the winter it is especially important to dress in layers. We recommend an insulted winter jacket, warm hat and gloves if you’ll be doing any outside activities. Here’s the full list of the outdoor winter clothing we use!

We enjoy Canyonlands National Park photography in the winter – check out these awesome photographer gloves and rechargeable hand warmers we use!

snow at Canyonlands in the winter
Snow at Canyonlands in the winter

How to Get to Canyonlands Island in the Sky From Moab

To reach Canyonlands Island in the Sky from Moab, head north on US 191 for 10 miles. Turn left onto UT 313 and continue on this road for about 22 miles to reach the park entrance.

The drive takes about 40 minutes to get from Moab to Canyonlands Island in the Sky.

Itinerary for Two Days at Canyonlands National Park

This 2-day itinerary will focus on visiting the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands. Check out the difference between Canyonlands Island in the Sky vs Needles.

The next two days will be spent taking sunrise and sunset photos, exploring the Island in the Sky Scenic Drive, hiking the trails, river rafting on the Colorado River, and off-roading!

When hiking in Canyonlands, your safety depends on your good judgment, adequate preparation, and constant awareness.

  • Stay on the trail.
  • Stay back from cliff edges.
  • Observe posted warnings.
  • Please watch children.

Before you set out on any Island in the Sky Hikes, be sure you pack the proper gear, plenty of water and healthy snacks.

Day 1 at Canyonlands National Park

Here’s what we recommend for visiting Canyonlands the first day of your vacation.

Sunrise at Island in the Sky

The unique landscape results in jaw-dropping Canyonlands National Park photography! You’ll need to plan ahead in order to get to the park in time for sunrise. Since you’ll be driving in the dark, you might need to drive a bit slower than you would during the day. 

We recommend giving yourself 1.5 hours from Moab to get to either Grand View Point or Mesa Arch to photograph sunrise.

sunrise at Grand View Point Canyonlands
Sunrise at Grand View Point in Canyonlands

Grand View Point at Sunrise

At the end of the Island in the Sky scenic drive is the Grand View Point lookout. From here, you’ll see great views of the White Rim road below and The Maze, The Needles, and mountain peaks in the distance. 

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.

Anywhere at this overlook is the perfect spot for sunrise to capture the sun coming up on the horizon. Check out our Sunrise Photography Tips!

Sunrise at Mesa Arch in Canyonlands

Mesa Arch at Sunrise

If you’re up for a bit of a hike, then consider Mesa Arch at sunrise. It’s a popular destination for visitors and photographers since it’s an iconic view and only takes 30-minutes to access the arch. The trail is an easy 0.5 mile loop 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.

Our best tip for photographing Mesa Arch: stay after sunrise! The golden glow on the under side of the Arch continues for quite a while, and you can capture awesome photos when all the other photographers have left.

Due to the popularity of Mesa Arch, you’ll need to plan ahead and arrive WELL BEFORE sunrise or the appearance of the milky way in order to get a good spot. The area for taking the iconic Canyonlands shot is small.

Island in the Sky Scenic Drive

Use this Google map of the Canyonlands Island in the Sky scenic drive points of interest to navigate around the park.

Canyonlands Scenic Drive map

After you’ve captured your sunrise photo, you’ll explore the rest of the overlooks and viewpoints along the Island in the Sky scenic drive to enjoy and photograph the spectacular landscape at this park!

The paved scenic drive and spur trails total about 20 miles. Plan to spend 1-2 hours to see all the overlooks. Your time doing this will depend on how long it takes you to photograph each viewpoint.

Here’s a list of the points of interest we recommend along the Grand View Point road and scenic drive at Island in the Sky starting from the entrance. Some of the locations we list below are not overlooks, but are Island in the Sky hikes that take you to cool things to see.

The hard part for you is deciding what Island in the Sky hiking trails and activities you want to do today.

Visitor Center Viewpoint 

We recommend you stop at the Canyonlands Island in the Sky Visitor Center. You’ll love the view of this first overlook. It’s also good to talk to the rangers about road and trail conditions as well as any ranger programs scheduled for the time you visit.

Schafer Trail at Canyonlands Island in the Sky
Schafer Trail at Canyonlands Island in the Sky

Shafer Canyon Overlook

Shafer Canyon Overlook is a great place to see the crazy switchbacks people traverse riding or driving on Shafer Trail Road. 

The Shafer Trail road is a fun adventure we have scheduled for the Day 2 itinerary. It’s definitely a once-in-a-lifetime experience!

Washer-Woman-through-Mesa-Arch-at-Canyonlands-by-Photo-Jeepers (1)
Washer Woman seen through Mesa Arch

Mesa Arch Trail

Since you can’t view Mesa Arch from the scenic drive, it does require you hike about 1 mile there and back. Mesa Arch is one of the most popular sunrise photo spots at Canyonlands Island in the Sky. We consider this a must-do hike for your 2-day itinerary at Canyonlands.

Mesa Arch is a popular spot so if the parking lot is full, don’t risk parking outside a designated stall. Instead, keep trying at other times during the day.

Aztec Butte granaries at Canyonlands Island in the Sky
Aztec Butte granaries at Canyonlands Island in the Sky

Aztec Butte

You can see Aztec Butte from the road, but you can’t see the panoramic views atop the butte. This hike has very steep sections so it’s not for anyone afraid of heights!

An easier hike off the main trail takes you to some granaries tucked away in the rocks. We consider this one of the best hikes at Island in the Sky to see a fascinating piece of history! You should be able to fit this short hike into your Canyonlands itinerary for the first day.

Green River Overlook at Canyonlands Island in the Sky
Green River Overlook at Canyonlands Island in the Sky

Green River Overlook

The Green River Overlook is located at the end of the paved road past the Willows Campground. The views you’ll see atop the 6,000 foot elevated plateau are incredible! The landscape here features the water-carved canyons created by the Green River.

It’s just a short walk along the paved trail to the overlook, making it wheelchair accessible. This overlook is the best spot at Island in the Sky to watch and photograph the sunset.

upheaval dome at Canyonlands Island in the Sky
Upheaval Dome at Canyonlands Island in the Sky

Upheaval Dome Hike

No one knows what created the Upheaval Dome feature at Canyonlands. One theory suggests that the crater must have been left due to meteorite activities, while another says the formation was created when a salty dome forcibly pushed its way to the sandstone rock.  

It’s a moderate hike that takes about an hour so you’ll need to decide if you can fit this longer hike into today’s schedule.

Buck Canyon Overlook at Island in the Sky
Buck Canyon Overlook at Island in the Sky

Buck Canyon Overlook

The Buck Canyon Overlook offers panoramic views of the Colorado River Basin with its numerous canyons and the White Rim in the foreground. In the distance, you can also enjoy an expansive view of the La Sal Mountains. 

This spot does not require a strenuous hike. It is also wheelchair accessible. The views from here look so surreal that you sometimes find yourself getting lost in the moment. And don’t forget to look behind you because that direction is also picture-worthy.

Grand View Point at Canyonlands Island in the Sky
Grand View Point at Canyonlands Island in the Sky

Grand View Point Overlook 

The Grand View Point sits at the southernmost edge of the Island in the Sky. From here, you can see the dramatic views of the White Rim Road, LaSal Mountains, Needles District of Canyonlands, Abajo Mountains and the Maze District.

From the parking lot there’s a paved 100-yard trail to the first viewpoint. This trail is accessible to wheelchairs.

There’s another trail beyond the first viewpoint that takes you to a second viewpoint about 1 mile away. The easy hike follows a trail that’s not paved, has some rock stairs, uneven surfaces and cliff edges so be sure to watch children carefully! Again you’ll need to decide if this is a trail you want to explore based on the time.

Dead Horse Point State Park at Sunset
Dead Horse Point State Park at Sunset

Sunset at Dead Horse Point

Next on the Canyonlands National Park itinerary is a visit to Dead Horse Point State Park. Return back to the park entrance to leave. Drive north along UT 313 toward Moab for about 4 miles. Turn right on UT 313 to reach Dead Horse Point State Park.

Dead Horse Point is a spectacular Utah State Parks you can’t miss! The stunning views of the bend in the Colorado River, dramatic vertical cliffs and canyons you’ll see at Dead Horse Point cannot be seen from Canyonlands Island in the Sky.

Yes, there is a day-use park fee to visit Dead Horse Point because the US National Park pass is not valid here since it’s a Utah State Park. But we feel the additional fee to visit this park is well worth it to view this iconic scene!

There might be quite a few people there to watch the sunset, but there is plenty of room along the canyon rim for everyone to have a great view!

Milky way over Mesa Arch in Canyonlands

Stargazing at Canyonlands

Dead Horse Point State Park and Island in the Sky are the best areas to go stargazing due to their location on the high plateau.

If you’ll be staying the night in the Moab area, we encourage you to take time for stargazing at Canyonlands or Dead Horse Point! We recommend you use a headlamp with red light for navigating around in the dark.

We really like Mesa Arch and Grand View Point for photographing the milky way at Island in the Sky. Anywhere along the rim at Dead Horse Point is great!

Rafting the Colorado River through Canyonlands
Rafting the Colorado River through Canyonlands (NPS photo)

Day 2 at Canyonlands National Park

Here’s what we recommend for visiting Canyonlands the second day of your vacation.

Canyonlands Half-Day River Rafting the Colorado River

Take a half-day jet boat or river rafting tour down the Colorado River into Canyonlands National Park. You’ll get the unique experience to see Canyonlands from the river!

Jeep driving on the White Rim Road in Canyonlands
Jeep driving on the White Rim Road in Canyonlands

Half-Day Canyonlands Island in the Sky 4×4 Tour

From Moab this tour follows the Potash Road Scenic Byway on the way to Canyonlands. You’ll see ancient Native American rock art that was carved into the cliffs by the Ancestral Puebloans.

Soon you’ll reach the dirt jeep trail that leads up to the Island in the Sky district. Along the way, you’ll stop at vistas such as Fossil Point and Musselman Arch.

The tour also travels along a section of the White Rim trail to see Gooseneck Overlook. You’ll then wind up the switchbacks of the famous Shafer Trail to the Island in the Sky mesa before driving back to Moab.

Sunset at Green River Overlook
Sunset at Green River Overlook

Sunset at Green River Overlook

From the Green River Overlook you can get a breathtaking view of the landscape for hundreds of miles in every direction. You can even see the Green River meandering through the canyons.

The viewpoint here faces southwest, making it a great location to track the sun as it sets on the horizon.

You’ll want to capture the red-orange glow of the light as it falls on the landscape. And look for creative ways to photograph this location.

Arches Canyonlands guides and maps

BUY AT AMAZON: Arches and Canyonlands Guides and Maps

Plan Your Canyonlands Vacation

Where to Stay Near Canyonlands

There are no lodging facilities in the park, but there are campgrounds:

  •  Holiday Inn Express Hotel & Suites Moab – we enjoyed our stay and highly recommend this hotel due to its location close to Canyonlands.
  •  Purple Sage – our all-time favorite place to stay in Moab – walking distance to shopping, full kitchen, and only 8 units so you don’t feel lost in a large hotel.
  •  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!
  • Townhomes south of Moab – we really like the townhomes in Spanish Valley with kitchen, washer and dryer in the unit and a swimming pool/hot tub (just a 5 minute drive south of Moab).
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