Canyonlands National Park encompasses 257,640 acres of rugged land. Divided into four districts by the Green and Colorado Rivers, two canyons separate the very different parts of the park: The Needles on the east, The Maze on the west, the two rivers, and the most visited area, Island in the Sky on the north. We’ll cover the Island in the Sky in this guide.
As one of Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks, your visit can be part of a 5 park road trip loop, as part of a multi-day visit to Moab, or Canyonlands can be your sole destination. Located in the high desert of the Colorado Plateau, the park receives less than 10 inches of rain a year. The arid conditions mean average temperatures are in the mid to high 90s in June, July, and August. We visited mid-May and found it a perfect time to go. Here’s what we recommend for visiting with kids.
How to Get to Canyonlands National Park
Located in southeast Utah, Canyonlands National Park – Island in the Sky is a short drive from Moab. From US 191 north of Moab, UT 313 leads to the Island in the Sky entrance of Canyonlands. Moab to park entrance is 32.5 miles or about 40 minutes.
- 123 miles west of Grand Junction, CO, or about a 2 hour drive
- 244 miles south east of Salt Lake City, Utah which is almost a 4 hour drive
- 364 miles west of Denver, Colorado, or close to a 6 hour drive
Best Things to Do in Island in the Sky – Canyonlands National Park with Kids
- Drive the 34-mile Scenic Drive
- Mesa Arch Hike
- Green River Overlook
- Visitor Center Viewpoint
- White Rim Overlook Hike
- Shafer Canyon Viewpoint
- Grand View Point Hike (with older kids)
Best Island in the Sky Overlooks and Viewpoints
- Visitor Center Viewpoint – You won’t have to travel far for your first great vista. Right across from the visitor center, the first viewpoint is a must stop.
- Schaefer Canyon Viewpoint – the view of the switchbacks of the 4WD road below might inspire you to drive it or book a tour!
- Grand View Point – drive to the furthest point of the scenic drive to view the La Sal Mountains, White Rim Sandstone, Monument Basin, Abajo Mountains, and views of The Needles.
- Buck Canyon Overlook – provides a nearly 180 degree view of the canyon. View is 200-300 feet from the parking lot.
- Green River Overlook – located past the Willows Campground at the end of the paved Green River Overlook Road
Canyonlands Island in the Sky Hiking
Easy Hikes with Kids
- Mesa Arch, 0.5 miles. Mesa Arch is a great sunrise spot and looks out towards the La Sal Mountains. You can complete this trail in about 30 minutes.
- Murphy Point Overlook, 3.6 miles. Expect 2 hours to complete. Includes views of Candlestick Tower, the Green River, and the White Rim Road.
- White Rim Overlook, 1.8 miles. Enjoy this trail in the late afternoon with views of the Colorado River, Monument Basin, and the La Sal Mountains. Plan on 1.5 hours.
- Grand View Point, 2.0 miles. Out-and-back trail following the canyon edge.
- Neck Spring, 5.8 miles. Peaceful hike as you descend into the canyon and back up. Enjoy two springs and remnants of ranching. Be sure to follow the cairns marking the trail.
- Aztec Butte, 2.0 miles. When you come to the fork in the trail, be sure to follow the left split to view two ancestral Puebloan granaries.
- Whale Rock, 1.0 miles. Leading up the side of a sandstone dome, this trail has a steep drop-off but gives sweeping views of the Island in the Sky.
- Upheaval Dome, 1.8 miles. A short but steep trail to views of Upheaval Dome.
- Lathrop, 13.6 to 21.6 miles. The full trail includes open grasslands, a 1600 feet descent into the canyon, and onto the White Rim Road, and onto the Colorado River. Backpacking permits required.
- Murphy Loop, 10.8 miles. Full-day hike with a 1400-foot elevation change.
- Gooseberry, 5.4 miles. The steepest trail in Island in the Sky, Expect rough switchbacks across sheer cliffs.
- Wilhite, 12.2 miles. Primitive trail with a 1600-foot descent.
- Alcove Spring, 11.2 miles. Descends 1300 feet to the base of Moses and Zeus towers.
- Syncline Loop, 8.3 miles. Challenging trail with steep switchbacks, climbing through boulder fields, and a 1300-foot elevation change.
Auto Touring and 4WD White Rim Road and Shafer Canyon Road
Adventurous families with 4WD vehicles can explore the unpaved 100-mile White Rim Road. To fully enjoy the drive, plan on a 2-3 day road trip. Backcountry permits are required to camp at one of the 10 camping sites along the road. While the extreme scenery is beautiful, the road is not for the faint of heart. Switchbacks, steep inclines, drop offs with no guard rails, and necessary slow speeds make this road an intense experience.
Shafer Canyon Road is a 18-mile road from Canyonlands that connects with either White Rim Road or Potash Road. Four-wheel drive is a must again as the road, much like White Rim Road, has many tricky and dangerous areas.
If you like the idea of seeing the breathtaking vistas but not keen on driving the challenging roads, you can book an off-roading guided tour and leave the rough roads to hired vehicles and guides while your family enjoys the views.
How Many Days Do You Need at Canyonlands National Park?
Your big family can cover Canyonlands in a day, maybe less depending on how much you hike. If you arrive at the park early, you’ll find the line at the entrance station shorter. Head to the Mesa Arch parking lot right away to hike to the arch.
One Day Itinerary
- Hike Mesa Arch
- Hike a moderate trail or 2-3 more easy trails
- Visit every overlook
- Stop at the Visitor Center, open year-round, and earn a Junior Ranger badge
Hike to Mesa Arch. Drive to Grand View Point or Green River Overlook.
Hike the Grand View Point, Mesa Arch, and Upheaval Dome Overlook trails. Drive to Grand View Point, Green River Overlook, and Upheaval Dome.
Entrance Fees for Canyonlands National Park
We highly recommend buying an America the Beautiful pass for $80. The pass is good for one calendar year and is your ticket to more than 2,000 federal recreation sites. Having a pass will allow you to pop in for a few hours in the evening and again the next morning.
If you have a 4th grader, check out the FREE Annual 4th Grade pass which is good for the duration of the school year through the following summer (September-August).
Current U.S. military members and their dependents in the Army, Navy, Air Force, Marines, Coast Guard, and Space Force, as well as Reserve and National Guard members, qualify for a free annual pass.
Can You see Arches and Canyonlands in One Day?
It is possible to see Arches and Canyonlands in one day, although I don’t recommend it. However, if your family is not into hiking or has mobility limitations, there are plenty of gorgeous outlooks, viewpoints, parking lots, and pull-outs to view the beauty of both parks in one day.
Tips for Visiting
Personally, I liked Canyonlands more than Arches but your opinion may differ. Here are my tips for visiting Canyonlands with your big family.
- View the park map before you visit to plan your activities.
- Check the NPS site for Ranger programs including talks at the visitor center and overlooks.
- We recommend covering the park first thing in the morning (before 9) and then visiting Dead Horse Point State Park. The state park has a great picnic area and restrooms with indoor plumbing.
- Families can check out an Explorer Pack from the visitor center filled with activities and supplies to help you have fun in the park. Deposit required, packs contain binoculars, hand lens, and guide.
- Some of the darkest skies can be seen in the national parks. Enjoy the great conditions for stargazing. Bring a star chart to help you find the constellations and Milky Way or join a Park Ranger event.
- Since the overlooks don’t have fences or railings, discuss with your kids before they get out of the car your expectations and comfort level of walking with them near cliff edges.
- Trails aren’t stroller friendly, if you have littles, you’ll want a baby or toddler hiking backpack carrier.
- Pack plenty of water and snacks. While there is a water filling station at the visitor center, there isn’t anywhere else in the park to fill up water bottles.
- Mesa Arch is best at sunrise. Green River Overlook and Grand View Point is great at dusk.
- If you want to visit at sunrise, remember to add in travel time to the park and time to get through the entrance.
Where to Stay Near Canyonlands National Park
Check out our list of hotels in Moab for big families. During this visit, we stayed at the Comfort Suites.
Camping and RVing
Willow Flat Campground in Island of the Sky has 12 sites, first-come, first-served. There are toilets, picnic tables, and fire rings but no water.
If you don’t mind staying a little further out or if you plan on staying three or more days in the Moab area, a vacation rental can make a great base for your vacation.