One Day in Canyonlands: Expert Itinerary for A Quick One-Day Visit

When you’re planning a trip to Canyonlands for a day, every moment counts!

This sprawling National Park is Utah’s largest of the Mighty 5 with several distinct districts, so note for even the most ambitious of travelers that just one day in Canyonlands is not enough to see it all.

To best use your time, you’ll have to focus on just one area of Canyonlands — and tackle it with a well-planned, one-day itinerary.

I have been living in the Moab area for more than a year now and have spent countless days and nights exploring the wonders of the area and I still can’t believe how absolutely spectacular it is!

In fact, Canyonlands is so spectacular that I often find myself lost for words, and even the most mesmerizing pictures still don’t do the stunning landscape justice.

Long story short, it’s one of those places that you have to see with your own eyes, but even once you’re here you might have a hard time believing that you’re not dreaming!

If you’re ready to start planning your perfect day in Canyonlands, let’s get right to it!

The author, Nicole Westcott, sitting atop a great viewpoint in Canyonlands national park
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For starters, Canyonlands is the largest national park in Utah… which is saying a lot, considering the fact that there are five of them!

At a whopping 528 square miles, the massive Canyonlands park is divided into four districts; Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and The Rivers that divide them.

Soaring an incredible 1,000 feet above the other districts, the Island in the Sky district is not only the most scenic, but it also just so happens to be the most accessible.

The author, Nicole Westcott, at sunrise in Canyonlands national park

A 45-minute scenic drive from the popular town of Moab, the region’s tourism hub with plenty of accommodations, takes you right to its entrance and from there, you can get on with exploring its trails.

As you soak in the natural beauty up here, you can look down upon breathtaking views of the other three districts.

However, in my time here, I’ve noticed a few common misconceptions when it comes to Canyonlands National Park, any one of which can seriously put a damper on your plans.

But have no fear! After reading this itinerary, you’ll have all the info you need to make sure you show up to the park with confidence….and, most importantly, lunch!

Key Things to Know About Spending a Day in Canyonlands

There is nowhere in the park to get food.

The author, Nicole Westscott, holding a cup of noodles ramen in a cup, with a snowy trail in front of her

I highly recommend you come prepared with something(s) to eat.

A burrito from local favorite restaurant, Gilberto’s, makes a great portable lunch, but if you’ve got trusty favorite trail foods, go ahead and pack those.

The most important thing is to bring enough to keep yourself fueled up for your day in Canyonlands.

The last thing you want is to reach the top of a scenic overlook… only to find that you’re too hungry to enjoy it and there’s a 45 minute drive back to town!

Don’t forget to fill up the gas tank.

Sensing a trend here? The best part of Canyonlands is getting away from it all into nature, but that does mean you’ll be, you know, away from it all!

The park’s lack of  amenities means it’s super important to come prepared with everything you need.

Fill up the gas tank before you start your day because the scenic drive can turn into a scenic nightmare when there isn’t a gas station in sight. 

The weather can be extreme.

The author, Nicole Westcott, sitting in a snowy landscape while wearing winter clothes like a hat, boots, gloves

I know, right? Deserts are famously hot, you don’t need me to tell you that.

But hang in here with me for a second;  what many people don’t realize is that deserts can also get extremely cold.

Winter is a great time to beat the crowds (especially at the more-crowded Arches National Park).

That said, if you’re going to be spending your day outside at Canyonlands, be sure to prepare for temperatures in the teens and even snow storms that can close the park entirely. 

There are four districts of Canyonlands National Park.

I know I’m repeating myself here, but this is a big one!

I can’t tell you the number of times I’ve run into someone who was scrambling to make a last-minute plan for the day because they accidentally drove to the wrong district.

So when you are plugging “Canyonlands” into your GPS, go ahead and double-check that destination to make sure you get to the right spot!

For this Canyonlands itinerary, plug in “Island in the Sky Visitor Center” to orient yourself.

All right, enough of the logistics – let’s get on to your Canyonlands adventure!

Your One Day in Canyonlands Itinerary

Start your day with a sunrise hike to Mesa Arch.

Photo of people gathering around the Mesa Arch area at sunrise to take photos in a wintry landscape

When in Canyonlands, this is an absolute must-see stop!

Wake up early, grab breakfast to go and take that coffee in a travel mug, because you’re in for an unforgettable sight. 

Sure, Mesa Arch has great views at any time of day but watching the epic sunrise through the arch is a memory worth fighting (yourself out of bed) for. 

Plus, it’s only a 15-minute walk to the arch! Talk about a great reward to effort ratio. 

The incredible view here makes  it an extremely popular spot, yes even at sunrise, so get there early to score a spot in the tiny parking lot.

Make that short hike, then sit back with a coffee in hand and let the sunrise blow your mind. 

Who sleeps in on vacation anyways?

Walk to Grand View Point.

The author, Nicole Westcott, walking on a trail alone in the winter, towards a viewpoint in Canyonlands national park

The name speaks for itself and people are listening!

Another fan favorite, Grand View offers breathtaking views in every direction, with just a short 1.8-mile roundtrip hike.

Walking high along the cliff of a mesa, you can look down through geologic time to admire endless canyon layers, the river that has slowly carved its way through it, and if you’re really lucky, the mystical effect of a cloud inversion. 

This trail doubles as a viewpoint, so don’t be alarmed if you arrive at the trailhead and see a conga line of cars following you in. 

Most people are just coming for a picture, and a majority of the others won’t hike all the way to the point… even though it’s not that far. 

In other words, if you want to beat the crowds, just keep walking.

There are plenty of places to find solitude on this trail so if a certain section feels too congested, just find another.

With each view better than the last, this is a trail that rewards persistence!

Alternatively, hike to White Rim Overlook.

Feeling like checking out a hidden gem, or just not willing to take a chance with crowds? 

Some may say that the White Rim Overlook trail (a 1.8-mile roundtrip hike) isn’t as grand, but I think it’s pretty darn close.

And that’s a small price to pay to have a place as magical as Canyonlands to yourself. 

Eat lunch with a view.

The author, Nicole Westcott, walking with a beautiful view behind her

Time to bust out the bagged lunch!

The White Rim Overlook has an absolutely ridiculous (in the best sense of the word) picnic area that can take any bagged lunch and turn it into a gourmet dining experience. 

There’s just something indescribably special about eating a simple sandwich while soaking in a gorgeous canyon view…. And to think, you don’t have to pay extra for it! 

Just remember to clean up after yourself and keep an eye on the ravens. These birds show no mercy.

Leave your food unattended for a minute to run to the bathroom? Kiss that gourmet dining experience goodbye!

Swing by the Visitor Center.

A view of the landscape in Canyonlands on a one day trip to the park

I am a big believer in going to the visitor center when visiting a national park.

Somehow, though, I’m also the person who is guaranteed to be out on the trail before sunrise!

It’s a tricky balancing act, but in my experience, this is the best way to make the most of your stay, so I encourage you to do the same! 

Stop by to get your souvenirs and stick around for a bit to learn more about the park.

It’s one thing to see the amazing scenery, and something completely different to learn its geological history and really start to understand the amazing sights you’re seeing.

Even if all that hasn’t convinced you, you’ll at least want to stop by the Visitor Center to fill up on water.

It’s the only place in the park where you can, and the last thing you want is to find yourself on a hot trail with an empty canteen! 

Visit the mysterious crater of Upheaval Dome. 

Looking out at the wintry view of Upheaval dome for a spectacular view

Everyone loves a good mystery and Upheaval Dome is one for the ages. 

This, well,  mysterious crater has stumped geologists since it was first discovered and to this day, there’s not an explanation that is set in stone. 

Was it an ancient salt bubble? The impact of a giant meteorite? The world may never know! 

To see this curious wonder for yourself, take the Upheaval Dome trail to the first overlook (0.6 miles roundtrip) to get a look inside the crater. 

If your inner detective feels the need for further inspection, continue on to the second overlook (1.2 miles roundtrip) to investigate the canyon around it. 

Just be prepared to work up a sweat!

This uphill hike might be short, but it offers zero shade and the hot summer months mean that the workout packs quite a punch! 

Challenge yourself at Aztec Butte.

The author, Nicole Westcott, hiking in a mountainous area of the park in winter

This is one of my absolute favorite trails in the park. It’s got everything I want and none of the things I don’t.

Wide sweeping views, an archaeological site, a fun climb, not too long (just 1.4 miles roundtrip), and not a crowd in sight. 

Yep, you heard me. This bad boy is the place to go if you want to avoid crowds entirely. In fact, there are rarely ever more than a couple of cars in the parking lot.

Now, I know what you are thinking. If this hike is so great then why is no one here? There’s two big reasons. 

First off, it isn’t really advertised so it flies under the radar of most visitors. Let’s keep it that way and let this be our little secret, okay?. 

Number two is that it is a bit of a challenge. They say nothing worth having comes easy, and Aztec Butte is living proof.

Start by making the side trip to the granaries. This is a great way to admire the ancestral Puebloan structures while you are still feeling fresh, and it can help gauge your comfort level with rock scrambling. 

This side trail has just a few small sections where you may need to use your hands to help you climb over rocks.

The main trail up to Aztec Butte has a lot more of this so you definitely want to make sure you’re confident and warmed up t before you continue on.

The last section of the trail takes you right up the butte in a steep scramble that requires good traction and plenty of water. 

It’s quite the workout to make it to the top but once you do, you’re instantly rewarded with gorgeous views (and bragging rights!) from one of the highest hike-able points in Canyonlands National Park . 

Admire the Green River Overlook. 

The author, Nicole Westcott, looking over a stunning view

When a park sits atop a mesa that is more than a thousand feet taller than the surrounding landscape below it, you’re literally surrounded by striking views in all directions. 

But even with one jaw-dropping vista after another, there’s one particular location that’s permanently engraved in my memory.

The Green River Overlook is just that: an overlook with a view of the Green River cutting its way through the canyon more than a thousand feet below. 

Somehow, though, it is also so much more. It’s one of those rare places in the natural world where you can feel small in the best possible way. 

It’s a prime example of the power of water, and an opportunity to listen to nothing but the sound of wind blowing past your ears. Just a couple steps out of your car, and you’ll be surrounded by complete and utter wonder. 

After all, there’s a reason I keep getting drawn back again and again to Green River Overlook on my visits to Canyonlands. It just doesn’t get much better than this. 

Catch the sunset at Dead Horse Point State Park. 

The author, Nicole Westcott, watching the sunset at the neighboring park, dead horse point state park

Now, I know this is a guide for Canyonlands but I can’t wrap up without at least tipping you off to the park’s extraordinary next-door neighbor. 

A quick side trip to Dead Horse Point State Park pairs perfectly with a day trip to Island in the Sky because, well, they’re pretty close to each other, but far from just about everything else.

While there are plenty of ways to spend your time in the state park, it’s mostly known for its sunset point.

In fact, the park is literally named after it – Dead Horse Point. 

Even though you probably wouldn’t drive all the way from Moab just to visit it, it’s well worth the short side trip from Canyonlands.

You know what they say about two birds and one stone, right?

As an added bonus? Dead Horse Point is huge. No, seriously huge. 

Breathe a sigh of relief; this isn’t a spot you’ll have to worry about the usual nightmare of being crammed together at a viewpoint at sunset.

This isn’t the place where you’ll be lumped in with a bunch of noisy people, each trying to raise their cameras higher than the person in front of them. 

At Dead Horse Point, there are plenty of little places to escape the crowds and still get a spectacular view.

It’s like Mother Nature carved out the perfect natural amphitheater for you to lounge around and take in the type of sunset that only exists in this wide-open desert landscape!

One quick note about logistics: There’s a $20 fee per vehicle to enter Dead Horse Point State Park and your National Park Service pass (or your Canyonlands Day Pass, Interagency, Senior, South East Utah Group, etc.) won’t cover admission. But I promise you, it’s worth it!

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