Canyonlands National Park was our second stop in our Mighty 5 Road Trip through Southern Utah. We truthfully where not sure what to expect at Canyonlands since it is overshadowed by its much more popular sister park Arches National Park.
Our original plan was to visit Canyonlands National Park and finish our day at Dead Horse Point State Park due to the glowing reviews of sunset over Dead Horse Point Overlook.
As with any road trip half the fun is the unexpected adventures that pop up when you least expect it. We visited Utah in December, during the winter season and while we expected some snow, we were blown away at how much it snowed. Now we know what some people might think, its Utah of course its snows in the winter! And you would be right to think that but while we expected “according to the weather forecast” just 1 to 2 inches of snow, it would go on two snow on and off for 2 to 3 days straight!
Canyonlands National Park is around 45 minutes away from Moab and if you are in town visiting Arches National Park, it is worth making the stop here as well. We did our drive up to Canyonlands after a full day of snow and must say thrilling is an understatement for the drive. We would highly discourage anyone to drive this road if it has recently snowed and you do not have traction devices for your car since the roads where slick.
Unfortunately for us, once we arrived at the top of Island in the Sky Visitor Center, we were informed all trails had been shut down due to deep snow. Luckily, the Ranger we talked to was incredibly helpful and provided us with some options on where else to hike that day, which included Grandstaff Trail a local trail in Moab. (Check That Out Here!)
We did complete a small “hike” while at Canyonlands and took short walk down the Shafer Canyon Road. This is normally a 4×4 Jeep Road but due to all the snow it was closed to all vehicles. The Park Ranger we spoke to recommended it as a quick hike to see if we could get below cloud coverage and see some of the canyon. While the hike was nothing spectacular it was still nice to get out of the car and see some of the park while we were here.
Our time at Canyonlands National Park did not work out how we had hoped but that is part of road trip adventures. While having an itinerary is great and we recommend it, you must also be open to changing plans on the fly due to circumstances that are out of your control.
One Day Itinerary for Canyonlands (aka our Wishlist for when we return)
Even though we did not get a chance to hike or complete our planned One Day at Canyonlands we did put a lot of time into our research for the park. Below you will find an amazing way to spend a perfect one day at Canyonlands: (and someday, we will make this happen for ourselves as well)
- Drive to Island In The Sky Visitor Center
- Shafer Canyon Overlook – Quick walk from visitor center parking lot
- Mesa Arch – 30 min
- Upheaval Dome – 1-2 hours
- Green River Overlook
- Grandview Point – 30 min
- Catch Sunset at Dead Horse Point State Park – 20-30 minutes away
Canyonlands National Park Visitor Center
Just like every other park we visit the Visitor Center was our first stop in this trip which was especially important due to the sheer amount of snow that we got overnight. The Visitor Center is one of the first places you will see once you enter the park and is a great spot to go to the restrooms before you start your hiking day.
The most important reason for checking in at the visitor center with the park rangers is to check trail conditions as well as any surprise warnings that could change your plans and the trails you take. Depending on the time of year, some roads might be closed due to snow, some trails could have been washed away due to rainfall or construction could have shut down certain parts of the park. Rangers will always have the most up to date information and if you are lucky might have tips to make the most out of your day at the park!
Shafer Canyon Overlook
The Shafer Canyon Overlook is going to be one of the best photo spots you will get whether you want to hike or not. If you will not be doing much in the park besides driving to viewpoints then walking across the visitor center to this overlook is a must!
Mesa Arch Hike
While Arches National Park is best known for its arches across the entire park, Canyonlands has a few of its own as well.
The Mesa Arch is arguably the most popular trail at Canyonlands and for good reason. The Arch is on a 0.5-mile loop making it very accessible to all visitors. The spot is incredibly popular for sunrise photos so if you are wanting to get out there to catch the sunrise get ready to be out there early and definitely not alone.
Upheaval Dome Trail
This will be the longest hike in the park and one that offers something very unique!
Upheaval Dome is a large crater that was most likely formed by a meteorite strike million and billions of years ago. Although there are quite a few different theories on what actually happened no one has truly settled on what actually created this.
The first viewpoint is a 1-mile out-and-back hike from the parking and picnic area – but be warned it’s a steep trail. You can add on another out-and-back mile to reach a second viewpoint with an even more incredible perspective of the dome.
Give yourself at least an hour for this hike, and depending on your physical fitness and pace, be ready for it to take closer to two hours. Depending on the time of year, be sure to protect yourself form the hot summer Utah sun and in the winter months watch out for the biting cold.
Green River Overlook
The next stop of the trip is one that we were extremely sad to miss out on due to the snow and cloud coverage.
The Green River Overlook views will make you feel like you are in another planet like several of the stops on the Mighty 5 Road Trip.
We cannot wait to be able to visit Canyonlands again to take in these views in person.
The last stop at Canyonlands would be Grandview Point and like the name says it offers some GRAND views. Unlike some other scenic points at Canyonlands, you will only need to walk down the short trail to get the best views.
The view from the parking lot is more than enough for most people but the 2 mile out and back trail should knock out any questions for why they call this Grandview at Canyonlands. From the viewpoint at 6,080 feet elevation, you can see distant mountains, canyons, basins, and the White Rim Road.
Dead Horse Point State Park
On the way out of Canyonlands and heading back to Moab for the night, stopping at Dead Horse is almost a non-negotiable.
If you have the time to spend a day here then great, but if you are on a tight schedule and trying to complete the Mighty 5 in a week then just a quick sunset view will have to suffice.
The best spot at Dead Horse is what Dead Horse is best known for, and that is a view you will not regret. 2,000 feet above a gooseneck on the Colorado River with the amazing red canyon walls as far as the eye can see will make for one great ending to any day.
Grandstaff Trailhead – Hidden Gem
While a day at Canyonlands National Park did not turn out how we had hoped, sometimes finding the silver lining in things is part of what we do. The Park Ranger we talked to at Canyonlands recommended us to backtrack to Moab and check out Grandstaff Trailhead.
We had never heard of Grandstaff before and had no plans to explore this area of Moab since it didn’t fit our schedule. In hindsight, we wish we had looked more at state trails that where outside of National Parks since Utah has so much more to offer than just the Mighty 5.
The Grandstaff Trail is popular with locals as a 4.65-mile round trip to Morning Glory Bridge which is the 6th largest natural rock span in America.
We only planned a few miles on the trail and so did not make it to Morning Glory Bridge but according to everyone we asked you definitely should make the trek out there.
The first part of the trail as relatively flat and quite easy to go fast on but be careful during the winter season since ice and snow can make this extremely slippery. Plenty of sections on the trail were covered in pure ice which could result in a fast drop off into the small stream that follows the trail.
Scenic Byway 128
This might have been the best surprise all day through such a crazy snow filled day. After doing a quick hike at Grandstaff we decided to keep going down Scenic Byway 128 to see how far it went and catch some views off the Colorado River.
We will say it once and we will say it again, Utah arguably has some of the best scenic byways in the entire world. The drive on 128 by the Colorado River is just amazing and the snow falling and ice forming on the water just made it so much better.
On top of an amazing drive, we realized how many tent and RV spots are off 128 and we hope to be able to stay at one someday soon.
We are excited to one day be able to come back to Canyonlands and experience it to the fullest. At the same time, we are glad that we got to experience an amazing local trail and drive down such an amazing scenic byway. This is why we love road trips and the unexpected challenges that come along with them.