When people think about exploring the grandeur of Utah, Zion and Bryce Canyon national parks immediately come to mind. But there is a lesser-known jewel in the southeast corner of the state.
Canyonlands National Park is a gorgeous landscape made up of desert, mountains, canyons, and rivers. Of the state’s five national parks, it is the least visited, with 2019 seeing fewer than 750,000 visitors throughout the entire year. This guarantees visitors a quiet vacation, free of crowds, as they enjoy everything the park has to offer.
Where Is Canyonlands National Park?
The park is situated in southeast Utah, just outside of Moab, which features a variety of campgrounds and hotels. Canyonlands is open 24 hours a day, stretches more than 500 square miles, and is divided into four districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze, and the park’s rivers.
Because of how spread out the districts are, most visitors do not jump around and explore more than one per day. The park’s entrance fee covers a full week of access to the park, encouraging multiple days of visiting.
Island in the Sky is the district most accessible from Moab, and therefore the most recommended for those only popping in for a short visit. Beautiful views of sandstone cliffs are visible from looping scenic drives and overlooks. There are also two popular hiking paths: a hike to Mesa Arch, where you can look out at miles of canyons and mountains, and a hike to Grand View Point, which features gorgeous views of the other districts and their mountains.
One of those other districts, The Needles, is named after colorful, striped spires of sandstone that dominate the area. This area has hiking trails and campsites for overnight trips, as well as 50 miles of expert-level backcountry roads. Roadside Ruin and Pothole Point are popular hiking paths with incredible views, and Cave Spring offers an exhibit filled with stunning prehistoric rock paintings.
The third district is The Maze, a trail-heavy landscape and the least accessible district of the park. The roads and pathways are notoriously difficult, and beginner outdoorsmen are encouraged to avoid this area. Expert hikers almost always spend several days exploring The Maze, sometimes not exiting the park for an entire week.
Those districts are divided up by the Green River and Colorado River, which both run throughout the entire park and are considered a district in themselves. They’ve carved canyons into the landscape, and their corridors are markedly shadier and greener than arid areas above. In addition to the hiking, climbing, and camping, Canyonlands has amazing boating opportunities, everything from private river trips to guided boat tours.
When Should You Go?
Canyonlands National Park is open throughout the entire year, meaning the cold, snowy winters replace the usual dry and hot summers, and many of the park resources become unavailable. The trails are covered in snow and ice, and roads may become impassible if the snow piles too high. Campgrounds remain open, but there is no park-provided water, and gas and food resources also close. While the views of the snow-covered mountains are breathtaking, much of the park experience is limited during the winter.
With hiking, driving, climbing, and boating options throughout every level of adventuring experience, everyone can find something to do at Canyonlands National Park. As the least visited park in Utah, visitors experience all the benefits of the state’s gorgeous landscapes without any of the downsides of hectic crowds and noise.
Want to stay awhile? Here’s our guide to spending the perfect weekend in Moab.