A Guide to Canyonlands National Park
There may be no destination more otherworldly than Canyonlands National Park.
Canyonlands, one of Utah's "Mighty Five" National Parks, is the largest and arguably most remote park in the state. At 337,598 acres, visitors will have no problem finding solitude amongst the rugged sandstone cliffs, carved deep by the turbulent waters of the Colorado and Green Rivers. And the desert cliffs and spires are among the best lodging in Canyonlands National Park, a stretch of southern Utah's canyon country dominated by impossibly red rock.
The park is divided into three distinct districts: Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the Maze, all of which are confined by the two rivers whose confluence is within park boundaries. For anyone looking to beat the crowds flocking to nearby Arches National Park, Canyonlands is a great option. Much of the park is very isolated, and offers little in the way of amenities or luxuries. The most accessible section of the park, Island in the Sky, is located just thirty-three miles from the nearby town of Moab. Due to it's proximity to this desert town, this section sees the majority of the park's annual visitors.
Where to Stay
Canyonlands National Park offers abundant backcountry and remote wilderness, but minimal amenities for those not familiar with traditional camping (think: tents and sleeping bags). There are two established campgrounds for visitors to choose from here: Squaw Flat Campground at the Needles, and Willow Flat Campground at Island in the Sky. Sites are limited and usually fill during the spring and fall months, so it is important to make a reservation ahead of time.
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Of course, the best campgrounds in Canyonlands National Park will be found in the backcountry. But the multi-day backpacking trip should be attempted only by experienced hikers. While most trails have established sites along them, dispersed camping is also allowed. Backcountry permits are required and should be obtained in advance.
For those not eager to sleep outdoors, the nearby town of Moab offers the best lodging in the Canyonlands area. There are many chain and economy hotels to choose from, in addition to campgrounds, ranches, and bed and breakfasts. Spend an evening at the Adobe Adobe Bed and Breakfast or the Sorrel River Ranch Resort and Spa, which is situated on well over 100 acres of land and outfitted with rustic, handcrafted furniture.
What to Do
Vast Canyonlands offers visitors great backpacking opportunities, and a chance to view one of the darkest night skies in the country (think: incredible stargazing). The Needles is the best district for hiking, as most trailheads are accessible using a two-wheel drive vehicle and water sources are fairly easy to find. In addition to backpacking, a large network of dirt roads offers exceptional mountain biking tours. The nearby Moab Cyclery rents bicycles for different types of riding.
Related: A Guide to Crater Lake National Park
Travelers seeking a bit more structure can also book a tour with Mountain Travel Sobek, a tour operator with a jam-packed Utah Canyon Country itinerary. Visitors can see Canyonlands, Arches, and Capitol Reef in seven days or less, with day hikes, picnics, and plenty of photo opportunities.
When to Visit
Many people choose to visit the park in the spring and fall, when day time temperatures hover between 60 and 80 degrees Fahrenheit (though night temperatures can dip as low as 30 degrees). If visiting during the busier seasons, it is especially important to make all permit and lodging reservations prior to your arrival. For those willing to brave colder weather, winter can be a great time to visit. During this season, there is much less competition for camp sites and lodging. And the desert landscape of Canyonlands is often blanketed in snow, which is just as impressive and photogenic as it is in the blazing summer sun.