The largest of Utah’s five national parks, Canyonlands is a stunning landscape filled with remote valleys and gorges. Over the centuries, the park’s trademark rock formations have been carved by the constant flow of the Colorado River, giving the place an otherworldly feel. Visitors to the park will discover sweeping vistas of windswept mesas, colorful buttes, improbable rock arches, and towering spires.
Whether you’re looking to explore its vast and wild backcountry or simply relax at a quiet campsite, Canyonlands is a must-visit. Here’s what you should know before you go.
Why Visit Canyonlands National Park in an RV?
Canyonlands National Park is divided into four distinct districts comprised of more than 337,000 acres of extraordinarily diverse and rugged terrain. Those regions include Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and Rivers.
Each of those locations has its own unique topography and allure. For instance, Island in the Sky offers some of the park’s most accessible hiking trails and best scenery while Rivers provides access to the Green and Colorado rivers and their tributaries for kayaking and rafting.
Part of the challenge when visiting Canyonlands is that none of the districts connect to one another. That means you must leave the park and re-enter from a different location to visit each district.
That involves a lot of driving, particularly if you’re staying in nearby Moab, which is just 32 miles from Island in the Sky, but more than 145 miles from The Maze. This makes it challenging to take in everything the park has to offer on a single visit.
But thanks to two campgrounds inside the park—one in The Needles and one at Island in the Sky—and numerous other locations in the surrounding area, exploring Canyonlands is much easier with an RV. A camper can serve as a mobile basecamp, providing a place to eat and sleep as you wander from one district to the next. Staying nearby means much less time in the vehicle and more time in the great outdoors.
When to Visit Canyonlands National Park
Attracting an average of 750,000 annual visitors, Canyonlands is a popular choice for national park lovers. Most of those visitors arrive in the busy summer travel season, which runs from late May to early September. The campgrounds fill up quickly and popular trails get crowded during that time. Be prepared for more traffic and long lines.
Fortunately, Canyonlands is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. This allows the park to have a quieter offseason with fewer visitors. The park is far less busy and easier to navigate during the late fall, winter, and early spring.
Canyonlands National Park in Spring
Spring brings warm, sunny days and cold, clear nights to Canyonlands. The change of seasons puts the desert wildflowers in bloom and brings a surge of visitors back to the park. April tends to be quiet, but the number of visitors begins to grow in early May. Still, the trails often remain relatively quiet and empty and it’s easy to find solitude if you wander away from the parking lots and visitor centers.
Canyonlands National Park in Summer
The summers are hot and dry in Canyonlands, with the mercury routinely climbing above 100ºF. If you visit in June, July, or August, be sure to bring plenty of water and stay hydrated while hiking, climbing, or paddling. Late season thunderstorms can be intense and strike suddenly. Heavy rain can lead to flash flooding, particularly in the Rivers District.
Despite the heat, the summer crowds are the largest of the year, and campgrounds fill up quickly. The park’s main roads—which offer incredibly scenic drives—are often jammed with vehicles, so be prepared for longer drive times. Summer is also an excellent time to visit the Rivers district and float the Colorado or go whitewater rafting in Cataract Canyon.
Canyonlands National Park in Fall
Autumn is a pleasant time of year to visit Canyonlands. The days are warm—but not overly hot—and the nights are cool but usually not freezing. The park remains busy but isn’t nearly as crowded as during the summer. The crowds noticeably thin out by November and traffic jams become less frequent. Fall is a great time to hike the park’s many trails or even embark on a backcountry backpacking trip.
Canyonlands National Park in Winter
Winter is incredibly quiet in the park, with few visitors braving the cool days and cold nights. The campgrounds remain open, but snow can sometimes make the roads impassable. Be sure to check the National Park Service website for updates on weather and potential road and trail closures.
Visiting Canyonlands during the winter can be incredibly rewarding, provided you’re prepared for the weather conditions. The park is nearly empty and the trails are often completely abandoned. But the visitor centers are also closed and fewer park rangers are on duty. Use caution when traveling through the park during this time of year, but make sure you relish the peace and quiet while you’re there.
Where to Stay in Canyonlands National Park
As mentioned, the National Park Service operates two campsites in the park. The Willow Flat Campground is in the Island in the Sky district and The Needles Campground is found inside its namesake district.
Willow Flat has 12 campsites, all of which are RV-accessible and available year-round. The Needles campground offers 29 total campsites, of which 26 can accommodate an RV.
Tips for Booking a Campground in Canyonlands National Park
- Visitors can make reservations to stay at the Needles campground from mid-March to mid-November via recreation.gov or by calling 877-444-6777. At any other time of the year, it operates on a first-come, first-served basis
- All sites in the Willow Flat Campground are available on a first-come, first-served basis
- No water is available at Willow Flat, but there are toilets, picnic tables, and fire pits
- The Needles campground offers potable water on a seasonal basis
- Both locations have vault toilets all year round, but neither campground provides showers or electrical hookups
Staying Outside The Park
While staying inside the park is very convenient, there are several RV parks in the area that provide excellent alternatives. Most of those locations offer more amenities and are often easier to book.
Here are some of the top options:
- Canyonlands RV Resort and Campground: 70 full hookup sites about 40 minutes from Island in the Sky
- Spanish Trail RV Park: 81 full hookup sites about 45 minutes from Island in the Sky
- Shady Acres RV Park: 88 full hookup sites about an hour from Island in the Sky
- ACT Campground: 21 full hookup sites about 42 minutes from Island in the Sky
How to Get Around
The park’s four districts have unique characteristics and getting around is different in each region. The Island in the Sky is by far the most accessible, which also makes it the most crowded. It offers the most paved roads of any of the regions, including a 34-mile roundtrip drive to Grand View Point with stunning views along the way.
The road meanders along the edge of a canyon, revealing breathtaking vistas around every turn. Expect the drive to take more than an hour each direction, but it’s worth it. Extend the experience by stopping at scenic turnouts to snap photos and soak in the landscape.
The other districts all have a few paved roads, usually leading to the visitor centers located in each region. For instance, in The Needles, there is a 6.5-mile drive that culminates at the visitor center located at the Big Spring Canyon Overlook. Along the way, there are several spots to stop and access trailheads if you’re looking to stretch your legs on a hike.
Getting around Canyonlands isn’t especially difficult, and navigation is easy. But because the districts don’t interconnect, it does require a lot of time in your vehicle. If you have limited time in the park, focus on a single area, with Island of the Sky being the top choice for first timers. But if you have plenty of time—and don’t mind driving—all four districts are accessible, particularly if you’re camping in an RV and using it as your roving basecamp.
Places to Go in Canyonlands National Park
The number of places to go and things to see inside Canyonlands National Park can be overwhelming for visitors, with too much to take in on just a single visit. But the can’t miss locations include:
- Grand View Point: The views from this scenic overlook will help you understand how the park got its name. A maze of canyons and gorges stretches out to the horizon, with a stunning array of rock formations on display. This is a popular place to take in the sunset.
- Mesa Arch: Other than Grand View Point, Mesa Arch may be the most iconic location inside the park. Reaching the stone monument requires a short half-mile hike but comes with a reward of absolutely breathtaking views. Behind the rock formation sits Buck Canyon, plummeting some 1,200 feet below. For a truly unique experience, get here to watch the sunrise.
- Horseshoe Canyon: Located in a remote section of the park, Horseshoe Canyon requires a bit of effort to reach, including driving along dirt roads. The region is home to some of the most well-preserved rock art found anywhere in North America, including a life-size figure that dates back thousands of years. The Canyon is also a great place to catch the wildflower bloom in the spring.
- Green River Overlook: This is another scenic overlook with views of one of the rivers that sculpted the park’s landscapes. The easy-to-reach location offers a similar setting as Grand View Point, but with a more sprawling display of the topography.
• Aztec Butte: Stretch your legs on this 1.7-mile out-and-back trail that wanders past ancient Native American ruins. The hike to the top of the butte itself requires some scrambling, but the top offers good views to go along with the archaeological sites.
- Explore The Maze: The Maze district gets its name from the numerous interconnecting gorges and canyons that cover the region. Hiking through this area is one of the truly great experiences inside the park, although it is not for everyone. Entering The Maze is only recommended for experienced hikers and backpackers, as it can be a bit disorienting.
- Buck Canyon Overlook: Yet another scenic vista to have on your list of places to visit. At Buck Canyon, you’ll get a sense of the geological history of Canyonlands, with layers of stratification—in a variety of red, pink, and orange hues—on display.
Things To Do
For outdoor enthusiasts, Canyonlands National Park has an incredible array of activities to offer. Top options include:
- Hiking and Backpacking: The park has hundreds of miles of trails to explore, with some routes covering less than a mile and others wandering deep into the backcountry. If you plan on camping in a remote location overnight, you’ll need a permit. Otherwise, you’re free to trek wherever you like. Top trails in the Island in the Sky district include Mesa Arch (.5 miles), White Rim Overlook (1.8 miles), and Whale Rock (1 mile). In The Needles, give Slickrock (2.4 miles), Peekaboo (10 miles), and Druid Arch (11 miles) a go.
- Mountain Biking: Most national parks don’t allow mountain biking, but Canyonlands has hundreds of miles of jeep roads where riding is permitted. Visitors can even go bikepacking, carrying all of their gear with them for an overnight journey into the heart of the park. In the Island in the Sky district, the 100-mile long White Rim Road is a popular choice for riders, while Elephant Hill is the ride of choice in The Needles. The Maze has a variety of dirt roads to ride, offering a more technical and demanding experience.
- Off-Roading: The Canyonlands off-road trails are popular amongst 4×4 owners looking to drive into remote corners of the park. The same routes that appeal to mountain bikers apply here, too, with some incredible scenery to be found far off the beaten path.
- Paddling: The Colorado and Green Rivers offer excellent stretches of flatwater for kayaking and canoeing. These waterways allow visitors to delve deep into the canyons and gorges, visiting places that aren’t accessible on foot. The two rivers come together near Cataract Canyon, creating Class III to V whitewater for guided rafting trips.
- Climbing: The Island in the Sky is a mecca for rock climbers, offering hundreds of world-class routes. The district has climbing options for everyone from complete beginners to experienced veterans focusing on free climbing or with a minimal use of aids.
- Horseback Riding: Horses may be ridden on all backcountry roads and can be used to access Horseshoe Canyon. However, there is a lack of water in many sections of the park, and riders are encouraged to keep this in mind before setting out.
- Stargazing: The complete lack of light pollution, along with clear and open skies, makes Canyonlands a great place for stargazing. Visitors are often amazed by the celestial light show that happens most nights above the park, with thousands of stars on display. Bring a telescope or just sit and look up in wonder; either way, you won’t be disappointed.
What to Bring and How to Prepare
In order to get the most out of your visit to Canyonlands National Park, here are a few things you should know about what to bring and how to prepare.
- Food and Drinks: While the Canyonlands visitor centers do offer a few basic supplies for purchase, like snacks and cold drinks, the park doesn’t have many resources to provide visitors. That includes basic items such as sunscreen, bug spray, and basic first aid supplies. That means you’ll need to bring the things you need for the length of the stay, including food, drinking water, and firewood. Considering the drive back to Moab is at least 30 miles, be sure to pack accordingly.
- Clothing: Elevations inside the park range between 3700 and 7120 feet, causing temperatures and weather patterns to fluctuate wildly from one district to the next. Even if you’re visiting in the summer, it is a good idea to bring layers of clothes along. Having a warm jacket at your disposal can be invaluable, as conditions can change very quickly.
- Power and Water: As noted, the RV campsites in Canyonlands National Park do not have hookups of any kind, although potable water is available at The Needles campground on a seasonal basis. Fill your fresh water tanks and charge the batteries on your RV before entering the park. If necessary, bring a portable power station to help keep gadgets charged and functioning. The use of gas-powered generators is allowed between the hours of 8:00-10:00 AM and 4:00-8:00 PM.
- Internet and Cell Service: Wi-Fi is available at the Island of the Sky and The Needles visitor centers, although outages occur frequently. There is no wireless internet service of any kind in The Maze. Cell service is also very spotty throughout the park, and reliable connections are rare. Visitors may find themselves completely out of contact while traveling throughout Canyonlands. The use of two-way radios and CBs can be beneficial for groups traveling together.
Brief History of Canyonlands National Park
The Canyonlands has been a place of significant natural beauty and historical importance for centuries, but it wasn’t until the 1950s that someone thought to preserve the location for future generations. Bates Wilson—the superintendent of nearby Arches National Park—was scouting the area near Moab when he discovered what is now The Needles district. Not long after, he began lobbying the Park Service to create a protected wilderness there.
Wilson’s request went largely ignored until Secretary of the Interior Steward Udall flew over the area in 1961. On his way to Grand Canyon National Park, Udall spotted the stunning high desert landscapes of southeast Utah from the window of his plane. Intrigued by what he saw, he soon launched efforts to make the region a protected space.
Over the next four years, Utah Senator Frank Moss pursued the creation of a national park in the area that is now Canyonlands. Before he could make that dream a reality, he introduced multiple pieces of legislation to the US Senate in an effort to appease conservationists and commercial developers. Eventually, his bill was passed and sent to President Lyndon B. Johnson.
On September 12, 1964, the president signed a law establishing Canyonlands National Park. Not long after, Bates Wilson became the park’s first superintendent, realizing his long-awaited dream. Since then, Canyonlands has welcomed millions of visitors through its gates.