The Canyonlands are an incredible and very distinct part of Utah's natural landscape. It's the largest national park in Utah and garners a reputation as such, as it's also one of the most visited by avid hikers, as well. With areas separated by canyons and rivers, it's fairly easy to distinguish between the four main park districts - but reaching them is another story entirely.

This guide delves into the how's and what's of Utah's Canyonlands National Park, along with why a hiker would want to visit each district and what there is to do there. Along the way, hikers will experience landscapes they could never even dream of, and see pieces of history that have long-embedded themselves into this 300 million-year-old landscape.


Day Passes, Permits, & Camping In Canyonlands National Park

The entrance to the park is pretty straightforward despite the fact that it encompasses 340,000 acres of land. With that being said, there are some permits and passes that one should be aware of beforehand:

  • Canyonlands National Park Entrance Fee: $30 per car, $25 per motorcycle, or $15 per person (hiking or biking with no vehicle)
  • Southeast Utah Parks Annual Pass: $55, good for an entire year of visiting parks in Southeast Utah
  • America is Beautiful National Parks Pass: $80, good for entry into any national park in the U.S. for one year

When it comes to permits, hikers won't need to worry about obtaining one if they're just hiking for the day. However, anyone who plans on spending any time in the park that exceeds one full day, or plans to do more than hike, should be obtaining one of these:

  • Overnight Backcountry Permit: $30, should be purchased by those planning on spending overnights in the park. Reserving a permit is suggested for heavily trafficked trails.
  • Day Use Permits: Acquired upon entry to the park and are the cost of admission; suitable for use by those who are biking (traditionally or with a motorcycle) or going four-wheeling.
  • River Permits: $30 for the reservation fee + $20 fee/person; required for those who plan on taking a river trip.
  • Horseback Riding Permit: These are free with admission similar to day use permits, but overnight trips require an extra $30 fee.

Planning on camping in the Canyonlands? That's easy enough - there are only two fees campers need to worry about. However, it is recommended that camping reservations are made well in advance, as there are only a certain number of campsites in each area. Those who are planning to go backcountry camping require backcountry permits (see above). Regular camping fees are as follows:

  • Island in the Sky & Willow Flat Canyonlands Campground: $15/night
  • The Needles & Squaw Flat Campground: $20/night

Related: Where To Stay In Moab Desert To Give You A Taste Of Its Best Sights

Canyonlands National Park: The Four Main Districts

In total, there are four main districts that hikers can visit throughout Canyonlands National Park. These have been shaped for millions of years by the rivers that run through them, thus hollowing out deep gorges and highlighting scenic plateaus from which to take in the views. The four main park districts are as follows.

Newcomers to the Canyonlands should head to Island in the Sky since it serves as a good introduction to this landscape and all that it has to offer. Here, hikers will find trails that are rated as fairly easy for beginners but still offer incredible vistas. This district earned its name due to the main mesa that towers 1,000 feet above the canyons beneath it. Many of the roads throughout Island in the Sky are paved and the trails are short; it's also home to White Rim Road, which is a well-traveled 4x4 route.

Points of interest include:

  • Grand Point View, a paved 1.8-mile out-and-back trail with views of the White Rim, the Needles, and the Maze.
  • Mesa Arch Trail, an easy trail that's just under one mile featuring scenic views of the Mesa Arch.
  • Green River Overlook, a roadside stop that gives visitors beautiful views of the Green River below.

The Needles: Challenging Hikes With Rewarding Views

The Needles is a more remote section of the park that's known for its moderate to difficult hiking trails. With that being said, many of the trails offer alternative options with various overlooks that allow hikers to customize their own routes. For those who have hiking experience and are confident in their abilities regarding rock scrambles and inclines, the Needles might be the perfect place to start with for its breathtaking mesa views.

Points of interest include:

  • Chesler Park Loop, arguably the most scenic hike in the park and can be done in addition to the hike to Elephant Canyon and Druid Arch. The trail tops out at just over 10 miles and can be a day trip for those who start early.
  • Druid Arch, for those who choose to either skip the junction to Chesler Park Loop or hike the loop in addition to Elephant Hill Trailhead, this will be either a 10 or 14-mile hike to the incredible Druid Arch overlook. Views of the Needles are the best from this hike's final overlook.
  • Cave Spring, at just over half a mile, this hike brings hikers to prehistoric rock paintings via a trail and two ladders.
  • Roadside Ruins, while most trails are considered moderate in the Needles, this roadside stop leads to the ruins of a structure left behind by the indigenous people of the area.

The Rivers: Water Recreation On The Colorado & Green River

Interestingly enough, these rivers are also what divides the park into its separate districts. This is why each district in the park must be reached by the roads outside and around it, and why the districts are not connected to one another within the park. Those visiting the Canyonlands with the intention of traversing its canyons via these rivers have plenty of options. There are locations upstream for calmer activities such as kayaking, canoeing, and paddleboarding, while white-water conditions downstream are perfect for whitewater rafting trips.

  • Tip: Consider booking these trips with a tour company or a guide who knows the rivers, and their conditions, well.

The Maze: Perfect For 4x4s And Biking

There truly is something for everyone at the Canyonlands, and that includes those who would rather explore this landscape on four wheels (or two). It's recommended that those visiting the Maze come prepared with a 4x4 vehicle since the road itself is rough and rugged. According to The Cure For Curiosity, it's actually more unusual for visitors to spend less than three days backcountry camping in the Maze.

With that being said, the Maze is considered one of the most dangerous places for hiking in the U.S. Its steep canyon drops (some of which actually require ropes to repel down), maze-like topography (thus, the name), and deep gorges with steep hiking on trails that are often unmarked make it a true challenge.

Points of interest include:

  • The Maze Overlook Trail, those who are nervous about starting out in the Maze will be happy to find the most well-traveled route in the park (although it still should not be underestimated), topping out at 8 miles.
  • Horseshoe Canyon, this trail is home to the Great Gallery and features an incredible display of rock art, topping out at 7 miles. A map is recommended for this hike, as GPS routes can be confusing in this area of the park. 

Choosing a specific area of Canyonlands National Park to explore should depend heavily on one's skillset. Truth be told, there are no 'bad' parts of this park, and each district awards visitors with unique and breathtaking views of one of the region's most beautiful national parks.

Next: Denver To Moab: See It All Via Train On The Rocky Mountaineer