things to do at canyonlands national park

5 Things to do in Canyonlands National Park For First Timers

I’m going to show you list of 5 things to do in Canyonlands National Park and it’s a list that follows a specific order that’s awesome for any first time visitors here as it allows you to see some of the most popular and incredible places here and in a very short period of time (often in one day or less).

My one day in Canyonlands experience:

canyonlands national park overlook 07

I visited to this park for the first time in early 2020 and it was actually a half day visit more so than one day because earlier, I had been to Arches National Park (which is actually very close to Canyonlands).

Because I only had the half day to explore it, I stopped at the welcome center and asked the rangers what the best places to see in Canyonlands National Park were given the time constraints.

To my surprise, there were a lot and in the short period I was in this park, I was surprised at how many amazing spots I was able to see and in fact, I completed them so quickly that I even had time to check more places out too!

This wasn’t because of my pace, but because the way you can explore Canyonlands National Park is such that most of the hikes, overlooks and best places in the park aren’t far from one another (as you’ll see shortly), so if you’re on the fence about visiting this park because of time constraints, don’t let that stop you because you can really accomplish a lot in that time, let alone one day. And to prove it:

Here are the 5 best things to do at Canyonlands National Park in one day:

things to do at canyonlands national park

With the one day I had to explore this park, here are the places I explored:

  1. Upheaval Dome.
  2. Green River Overlook.
  3. Grand Viewpoint Overlook.
  4. Mesa Arch (the most iconic spot in Canyonlands National Park).
  5. Drive through the White Rim trail by car (deep into the Canyonlands area).

The last area I didn’t do because I honestly didn’t know it was possible to explore the lower regions of Canyonlands National Park. It wasn’t until I looked up information on this area that I saw it was possible and it will be done the next time I go!

But in terms of the other 4 spots, I saw them in that order and it filled up my day at this park so much that I couldn’t believe I could get so much accomplished. I suspect you will feel this way too, but at the same time very fulfilled in knowing you did so much.

Here’s the beauty of these 5 spots you can see in Canyon Lands National Park Utah:

These 5 locations in the park are pretty close by to each other if you are using a car to reach them, and the activities you can accomplish when visiting these spots will make you feel like you saw the entire park (of course, there’s a ton more to explore here, but still). Basically here’s what to expect as you explore these places:

  • You’re going to do short but very scenic hikes.
  • You’re going to stand at the insanely beautiful viewpoints.
  • You’re going to see the famous Mesa Arch that all the pictures of Canyonlands always show off.
  • And more.

And all of this again, will be done in a single day at this park. So let’s get started. Enter the park first, and make sure you get a map of it at the welcome station. It’ll come in handy.

Here is a Canyonlands National Park map and the best way to see it:

canyonlands national park map new 02

I have to look for the copy I got but until I find it, here’s the official Canyonlands National Park map which will help you pinpoint these destinations. You can get them for free at the welcome center anyway when you go.

Here’s how to determine what to do in Canyonlands National Park (best way to explore it):

There are 3 different ways to explore this park and depending on how much time you have to visit it and/or what your goals are will determine which option is best:

Option 1: Exploring the northern section of Canyonlands National Park (best for one day trips).

You will basically be at the top of Canyonlands National Park and will see the best sights, including the famous Mesa Arch. It’s great for short hikes, seeing amazing sights and exploring a lot of the park in a single day. The majority of suggestions in this article cover sections of this area of the park.

Option 2: Exploring the southern (or eastern) end of Canyonlands National Park, aka the Needles District (where the best hikes in Canyonlands National Park are).

This area can only be accessed from the eastern side. If you are looking for a multi day trip, camping adventures and amazing hikes that take you inside the heart of the park, this is where you’ll want to stop at.

Option 3: Exploring the bottom of Canyonlands National Park (The famous White Rim scenic drive).

You will be on the famous White Rim Trail. You can drive it or even mountain bike on it. It’s 100 miles long and goes through the park. This is best for anyone looking to explore the “sea level” region of the Canyonlands Park. The best way to access this trail is from driving into the northern side of the park. Entrance to the White Rim Trail is available there and it exits out near a mountain called “The Knoll”.

1) Begin your one day at Canyonlands by traveling to Upheaval Dome:

canyonlands national park upheaval dome 05

Upheaval Dome is a beautiful, short, and very scenic hike that takes you to 2 different overlooks that surround a large canyon within which a large, light green mountain lies. It literally looks like a meteor hit this place and I have never in my life seen such a strange land formation, that was also so beautiful to look at. I did both hikes, as they were pretty short and easy to manage (1/4 mile for one and 1/2 mile for the other):

Getting there from the welcome center takes about 15-20 minutes on car, and once you reach it, a large and beautiful parking lot will indicate you’re in the right spot. From there you can elect to travel up the shorter 1/4 mile hike to see Upheaval Dome from one angle, or travel the slightly more beautiful and longer 1/2 hike to see it from a different point of view. Having done both, I can tell you both hikes are worth it. It only took my friend and I about 45 minutes to do both hikes.

Note: There is another similar “crater hike” like this in Death Valley National Park but that is about a 7 drive from Canyonlands and on the subject of similar spots, Canyonlands is often compared to the Grand Canyon but they are really not the same (see this Canyonlands vs Grand Canyon post for details).

2) Next, see Green River Overlook:

canyonlands national park green river overlook 03

After seeing Upheaval Dome, get back to your car and begin driving in the direction of the welcome center (back). About 10 minutes from Upheaval Dome is where you’ll find the next awesome destination, which is Green River Overlook:

This location has a viewing area that safe to check out, and there’s hiking to the left and right you can explore, but be careful, because the drop in this area is ridiculously high. There is a fence area near the drop you can stand behind, but I wanted to get a little closer to the edge here to get that awesome photo. Obviously, be careful.

3) Go to Grand Viewpoint Overlook (my favorite):

canyonlands national park grand viewpoint overlook 04

Out of the 4 places I explored at Canyonlands National Park, this was the most scenic and fun in my opinion. The drive to this area is very close to Green River Overlook (about another 10-15 minutes) and once you get there, you’ll also find a large parking lot.

From there, you can hike for 1 mile and see incredible views of the Grand Viewpoint Overlook and let me just say this hike is one of the most exciting ones I’ve ever done. It feels like you’re hiking on a balcony overlooking this beautiful area. Here is how it looks there:

But that viewing spot you see above is just the tip of the iceberg. Remember, the trail continues to 1 mile and if you follow it all the way to the end, you’ll hike up to a beautiful scenic overlook that gives you a 360 viewpoint of Canyonlands National Park.

I’ll never forget how I sat there, by myself, listening to the wind, the silence of the area and just letting the awe of this place overtake me. It was truly a humbling, therapeutic and spiritual experience to say the least. Out of all the hikes in this park, this was my favorite. See my list of the best hiking trails to explore in Utah (this one is on the list).

4) Head to Mesa Arch:

canyonlands national park mesa arch 01

By the time I finished hiking back from Grand Viewpoint Overlook, the sun was setting and the time to visit the last spot was at hand:

Mesa Arch, which is the most famous spot in this whole park (see more famous arches in Utah here). I wanted to time my visit to this spot right around sunset, hoping to see how the sun sets at this beautiful arch, only to realize I made a mistake and that if I wanted to see the iconic moment this place is known for, that I’d have to visit Mesa Arch at sunrise, not sunset, considering that the arch points to the east, not west. Never the less, hiking to this spot was very easy, at only 1/4 of a mile and the hike to it is very simple to reach for most people.

5) Finish up with a drive through the White Rim trail:

canyonlands national park white rim trail 05

If you’ve been carefully analyzing the photos in this post so far, you may have noticed little dirt trails at the bottom of Canyonlands Park (if you look at it from the overlook pictures). I certainly did when I was at this park and I wondered if they were available to drive to the public or if they were for park staff.

Well it turns out this place is publicly accessible, is called the White Rim trail and you can get down to the base of the park. The entrance to this trail is available at the entrance of the park and it is also used by mountain bikers and joggers. Now this trail is 100 miles long so depending on how much time you have and which direction you are headed to next, you may either want to do the full trail on a different day or perhaps a shorter version of it before turning back.

And that completes your itinerary of what to do in Canyonlands National Park:

There are certainly a plethora of more things you can do at Canyonlands but considering the time constraints, I am very satisfied with the amount of hiking, sightseeing and viewing I did at this park and I believe you will too if you follow this simple itinerary. The only thing I would suggest adjusting is that if it’s possible for you to visit the Mesa Arch at sunrise, do it, and see this spot first, before visiting the other locations on this list. The good news is that they are all so close by car, that you really won’t spend too much time getting to each location and hiking there is not only beautiful but short as well, so you can easily fit in multiple locations at this park in a single day like I did.

Is good footwear and hiking gear required for Canyonlands National Park?

one day in canyonlands new 09

It certainly helps on some hikes that are at the top of this park, but for many popular hikes (like in the northern section of Canyonlands), the trails are easy to walk on in casual sneakers and even sandals. But I would recommend still wearing decent hiking shoes and other gear if you plan to do a hike that requires a bit more actual challenging hikes and scrambles, especially the ones in the eastern part of Canyonlands (Needles area).

Questions about Canyonlands NP:

Is Canyonlands worth visiting?

Absolutely. Canyonlands is an incredibly beautiful park that has it’s own unique landscapes and it’s also close to Arches, but is a lot less crowded than it.

How much time do you need to see Canyonlands National Park?

One day is enough to see multiple places in Canyonlands National Park but if you want to stay longer, it’s recommended to do it for 2-3 days.

Can you drive through Canyonlands?

Yes there is a main drive called the White Rim Trail that takes you through Canyonlands National Park.

Which part of Canyonlands is best?

Most people prefer to visit the northern part of Canyonlands as it offers access to the most sights and hikes. But there is also the White Rim Trail and Eastern end of the park that also have a lot to offer.

What is the best time of year to visit Canyonlands National Park?

I recommend visiting Canyonlands National Park in the winter. The weather is amazing then and you will hardly find any crowds anywhere there.

Other places to see near Canyonlands National Park:

  1. Mighty 5 National Parks
  2. Coyote Gulch 
  3. Grand Staircase Escalante National Monument

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