the maze view from our half-day in canyonlands

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After a disappointing start to our day, we arrived at Canyonlands National Park in the early afternoon. We only had a half-day to see Canyonlands but were able to see the park and even fit in several short hikes.

Learn why we were turned away from Arches in our Arches blog post.  Canyonlands was our second choice of National Parks in Moab but it definitely deserves more props than it gets. 

Canyonlands is the largest national park in Utah and it is located 32 miles from Moab in the high desert.   Moab is also home to two other famous parks: Arches National Park and Dead Horse State Park.  Sadly, Canyonlands is usually the second or third choice of visitors, who typically flock to Arches. 

Check out our other Moab posts to learn what to do outside the National Parks or where to eat in Moab on a budget.

Half-day in Canyonlands or Arches: Which is better? 

You may be wondering which is better Canyonlands or Arches? For us the answer was easy, Arches was overcrowded and closed to new visitors on the day we visited.   Canyonlands was open and the crowds were reasonable. 

Canyonlands was better than Arches because we could actually visit the park. 

canyonlands national park entrance sign

What is Canyonlands known for? 

The 337k acre park consists of four unique sections: Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and Horseshoe Canyon.   We visited the most accessible and visited area, Island in the Sky. 

Needles and the Maze are more remote and require either backcountry hiking permits or 4×4 vehicles.    Horseshoe Canyon is about 2.5 hours from Moab and access is via a 30-mile graded dirt road.

Canyonlands is best known for its breathtaking views of the canyons, mesas, and buttes eroded by the Colorado River.   

island in the sky canyonlands national park moab utah

What is there to do in Canyonlands? 

A few of the most popular activities in Canyonlands include hiking, technical rock climbing, off-roading, and backcountry camping.  Canyonlands, a dark sky park, is also great for stargazing.  

We did several short hikes in the park during our half-day visit to Canyonlands National Park.   

Can you drive through Canyonlands? 

Canyonlands Island in the Sky division is perfect for driving and the Gypsy Guide app made it much more enjoyable. The paved park road has many scenic viewpoints highlighting various areas around the island including a view of the Maze. 

canyonlands national park

How to plan your trip to Canyonlands?

Since we’d planned to spend our day at Arches, we didn’t know much about Canyonlands prior to our arrival.  Thankfully, we purchased the Gypsy Guide app combo for Arches and Canyonland so we were already prepared for the park.  

Gypsy explained the park’s most popular attractions and shared interesting stories as we drove. The app uses our phone GPS even when we don’t have cellular service.  

Island in the Sky District

As we crossed the land bridge from the mainland to the Island in the Sky, Gypsy explained the “island” was historically used by local ranchers to freely graze livestock herds all summer without the worry of losing them.  The “island” is a sandstone mesa resting on thousand-foot-high cliffs.  

cliff view from our half-day in canyonland

How long does it take to drive through Canyonlands? 

If you have very limited time, you could drive through the park with stops at a few scenic overlooks in 2 hours or less.

the maze canyonlands national park moab utah

However, we were able to drive through Canyonlands Island in the Sky division, including short hikes, in a half-day.  It was an enjoyable, unrushed pace and allowed us plenty of time to see the park. 

We are two active adults so you may want to arrive an hour or two early if you are traveling with children or anyone that needs a little extra time at stops.  Definitely pack drinks and snacks since the Visitor Center offers limited drinks and food.  

view from whale rock of canyonlands national park

Half-Day in Canyonlands 

Since we started the day mid-morning and were turned away at Arches, we only had the afternoon at Canyonlands. 

buttes at canyonlands national park

Half-day in Canyonlands: What can you not miss in Canyonlands? 

Thanks to Gypsy’s guidance, we were able to prioritize our time and see the top attractions:

  • Shafer Canyon Overlook
  • Mesa Arch
  • Whale Rock
  • Upheaval Dome
  • Grand View Point

Shafer Canyon Overlook  

Shafer Canyon Overlook, had a large flat area with great views of the surrounding canyon. 

shafer canyon overlook canyonlands national park

While we were there, we saw a really curvy dirt road leading down into the canyon.   

shafer trail canyonlands national park moab utah

We later learned the Shafer Trail was once used by the Mormon Shafer family to move their livestock herds from the summer pastures atop the mesa into their winter pastures further inside the canyon.  Today the Shafer Trail is a recreational 4×4 path that many visit in rented Jeeps.   

Mesa Arch 

Mesa Arch is one of the top photographed locations in Canyonlands.  It is a very popular sunrise spot with photographers. Unfortunately, we were in the park for the afternoon so we missed the sunrise at Mesa Arch. 

mesa arch canyonlands national park moab utah

We joined many other park visitors on the quarter-mile path to Mesa Arch.  The area had been fairly well trampled and there were many well-worn paths to the arch.  We did our best to protect the fragile biological soil crust by sticking to the established trail.  

I understood why Mesa Arch was so popular when we saw the arch.  Mesa Arch framed the beautiful La Sal Mountains in the distance like a red rock picture frame. 

mesa arch canyonlands national park moab utah
close up mesa arch view at canyonlands national park moab utah

I’m sure the sunrise view would have been even more beautiful.  Midday, it was so crowded we had to snap our pictures quickly between other visitors posing in front of the arch.  

Kara at Mesa Arch Canyonlands National Park
How long is the hike to Mesa Arch? 

After spending the majority of our day sitting in the car, Kevin and I chose to take the longer, less traveled path back to our car.  The whole trail is 0.7 miles with minimal elevation gain but does include some stairs. 

The trail had several identification labels containing interesting facts about the local vegetation. They provided education and entertainment while we walked the trail.   

If you are looking for a shorter walk, the out and back option, directly to the arch is around half a mile.  The trail is a bit rocky and uneven but we saw all ages and fitness levels on the way to the arch. 

trail to mesa arch canyonlands national park

Can you hike Whale Rock if you are scared of heights? 

Based on guidance from Gypsy, we also chose to take the Whale Rock hike.    The one-mile trail is rated moderate by the National Park Service and leads up the side of whale-shaped sandstone dome.    

kevin leading the way at whale rock canyonlands national park

I have a fear of heights and was a bit trepidatious of the “steep drop-offs” described in the NPS brochure.   The majority of the hike was fun and manageable for those with a fear of heights.  

My anxiety was only triggered when Kevin wanted to cross from the back of the whale to its head.  This required walking along the edge of the dome, with a steep drop-off.  I decided to sit down on a nice wide flat area along the whale’s back and wait while he explored.   

kevin on the whale's head at whale rock canyonlands national park moab utah

Despite the temporary moment of panic during the hike, I really enjoyed the sweeping views of the Island in the Sky district from the top of the ‘whale’s back’.    

view from whale rock canyonlands national park
back view from whale rock canyonlands national park moab utah

What is Upheaval Dome? 

Our final hike in Canyonlands was the moderately rated one-mile trail to Upheaval Dome.  Upheaval Dome is a scientific mystery and several theories exist to explain the oddly shaped three-mile-wide disturbance in the rock.  

My favorite theory is that a large meteor landed millions of years ago causing a crater that eventually collapsed.  

Upheaval Dome is really odd-looking since the area surrounding the crater alternates between peaks and valleys of rocks, called anticlines and syniclines. 

Grand View Point

people having lunch at canyonlands national park

Grand View Point is the southernmost point of the “island” and the last stop on the park road. There is a short paved trail leading to spectacular views. Beyond the paved path, there is an additional one-mile unpaved trail leading to a second viewpoint.

grand view point canyonlands national park

Is a half-day enough in Canyonlands?

Despite only having a half-day at Canyonlands, we had a great experience at the park.  The Islands in the Sky district was significantly less crowded than Arches and equally as beautiful. 

scenic overlook during our half-day in canyonlands

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