12 Best Hikes in Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park Overview

Southern Utah has some of the most gorgeous and expansive landscapes in all of North America and Canyonlands National Park is no exception. Intricate canyons carved by the Colorado and Green Rivers and the buttes and mesas that rise above them should make this one of the top parks to visit on your bucket list. The 12 best hikes in Canyonlands National Park listed below are separated by the 3 districts of the national park: Island in the Sky, Needles, and The Maze. Each area has beautiful geological features to feed your adventure seeking with endless hiking, backpacking, rafting, biking, horseback riding, and rock climbing options.

Nearest Metro AreaMoab, UT
Area Size337,598 acres
EstablishedSeptember 12, 1964
Hiking Trails209 miles

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Trailhead Traveler’s Recommended Best Hikes in Canyonlands National Park

Mesa Arch Trail (Island in the Sky)
Mesa Arch Canyonlands
Mesa Arch Canyonlands, Photo by G. Lamar

While it is difficult to say that a 1/2 mile stroll is at the top of the best hikes in Canyonlands National Park, no visit would be complete without seeing Mesa Arch up close. Mesa Arch is a spectacular low angle arch sitting on the edge of a cliff perfectly framing the vast geological canyons below. Sunrise is a very popular and crowded time to hike the trail because the sun rises perfectly behind the arch setting up the ultimate photo. The trailhead is located on Grand View Point Road near the Upheaval Dome junction.

  • 0.5 mile loop
  • 50′ elevation gain
  • Easy
Druid Arch Trail (Needles)
Druid Arch
Druid Arch, Photo by John Fowler

The first 3 miles of this trail is shared with Chesler Park Loop (below) and can be turned into an all-day adventure if you plan ahead. The views along the way make this one of the best hikes in Canyonlands National Park but the last stretch makes it one of the more incredible hikes that you will ever do. The last 200 yards you will have an extremely steep climb over slippery terrain and as a result many hikers do not make it all the way to the arch but the effort is well worth it. The trailhead is located at the southwest end of the Elephant Hill parking area.

  • 10.2 miles out and back
  • 1050′ elevation gain
  • Strenuous
Syncline Loop + Upheaval Dome Trail (Island in the Sky)
Upheaval Dome, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Upheaval Dome, Photo by Ken Lund

Another great hike in the Island in the Sky area, the Syncline Loop is recommended to be hiked clockwise for more afternoon shade, which you’ll be sure to need. The loop follows the canyons around Upheaval Dome and includes steep switchbacks and tricky unmarked sections – hikers need to follow cairns in order to find their way. The out and back to the Upheaval Dome overlooks, starting from the same trailhead, provide some of the best views of the area. The huge crater is widely speculated as to how it was created but regardless of the reason, this trail is one of the best hikes in Canyonlands. The trailhead for both trails can be accessed from the parking area at the end of Upheaval Dome Road.

  • 11.1 mile loop
  • 1600′ elevation gain
  • Strenuous
Horseshoe Canyon to the Great Gallery (The Maze)
Great Gallery, Horseshoe Canyon Unit, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Great Gallery, Horseshoe Canyon Unit, Photo by Ken Lund

Yes, this hike is in the middle of nowhere and maybe difficult to reach but that is what makes it such an unforgettable adventure! Horseshoe Canyon has some of the most significant rock art in all of North America. The Great Gallery includes life-size figures with intricate designs and are very well preserved. A trip out here requires a full day and road conditions (4WD necessary) are extreme, made even more difficult by the ever changing weather. If you get to complete the hike, you should probably consider yourself lucky. The trailhead can be accessed from the east rim of Horseshoe Canyon, 30 miles east of UT 24. 2.5 hours from Moab.

  • 7.2 miles out and back
  • 800′ elevation gain
  • Strenuous
Grand View Point Trail (Island in the Sky)
Grand View Point, Canyonlands
Grand View Point, Canyonlands, Photo by John Manard

Panoramic views will greet you at the end of this short trail along the southern canyon edge of the Island in the Sky mesa. The trail is aptly named as once you get to its end, there are some climbable rock formations you can scramble on for 360 degree views of the park. The trailhead is located at the parking loop at the end of Grand View Point Road.

  • 1.8 miles out and back
  • 150′ elevation gain
  • Easy
Chesler Park Loop (Needles)
Chesler Park, The Needles, Canyonlands
Chesler Park, The Needles, Photo by Fabio Achilli

This hike has a little bit of everything to offer and if combined with Druid Arch Trail, it makes for an unbeatable all-day trip. The trail crosses an expanse of desert grassland before reaching the Joint Trail, deep and narrow fractures marked with cairns. If you complete the entire loop of Chesler Park and make your way down to Druid Arch and back to the trailhead, you will have hiked roughly 17.5 miles! The trailhead is at the southwest end of the Elephant Hill parking area.

  • 10.9 mile loop
  • 1700′ elevation gain
  • Strenuous
False Kiva Trail (Island in the Sky)
False Kiva
False Kiva, Photo by Andrew Kearns

This trail will lead you to an archeological site of a large circle of rocks constructed by Native Americans hundreds of years ago. The views of Canyonlands National Park at False Kiva are hard to beat and the quick hike makes it hard to pass up. The trail is not marked by the National Park Service and hikers must follow cairns to find their way. The trailhead is located at a small pullout 3.5 miles down Upheaval Dome Road.

  • 1.9 miles out and back
  • 400′ elevation gain
  • Easy
Confluence Overlook Trail (Needles)
Confluence of Green and Colorado Rivers, Photo by MostlyDeserts

If the changes in elevation don’t get you, the exposure will. This fun but rugged hike crosses through the open desert to a cliff overlooking where the Colorado and Green Rivers meet. Make sure to bring plenty of water! The trailhead can be accessed at the end of UT 211 at Big Spring Canyon Overlook.

  • 10.4 miles out and back
  • 1200′ elevation gain
  • Strenuous
Squaw Canyon Loop (Needles)
Canyonlands National Park - Big Spring Canyon Overlook
Big Spring Canyon Overlook, Photo by Matthew Dillon

This is a great loop to experience the vast landscape and many rock formations of the Needles area. As with many hikes in Canyonlands, cairns mark the trail so you will need to pay close attention to where you are going. Heading counter-clockwise you will take the Big Spring Canyon Trail to Squaw Canyon Overlook. At the intersection head north on Squaw Canyon Trail to return to the trailhead in the Squaw Flat Campground.

  • 7.0 mile loop
  • 600′ elevation gain
  • Moderate
Murphy Point Trail (Island in the Sky)
Murphy Point, Utah
Murphy Point, Utah, Photo by Rick McCharles

You have the option of turning this into the 10+ mile Murphy Loop that will require extremely steep climbing. I think an easy trip to the overlook is the best way to go. The trail descends to Murphy Point which overlooks some of the best views in the park. Getting there for sunset might be one of the best decisions you ever make. Just be sure to bring a headlamp or flashlight for your return hike. The trailhead is on Grand View Point Road 2 miles south of Mesa Arch.

  • 3.4 miles out and back
  • 150′ elevation gain
  • Easy
Aztec Butte Trail (Island in the Sky)
2017 USA Mountain States - Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Aztec Butte, Photo by Domenico Convertini

Short trail that leads to the top of the butte to see panoramic views of the Island in the Sky area. The hike is more about the views than the ancestral Puebloan granaries that you’ll see along the way. However, these ancient dwellings do add a nice historical element to the trail. The trailhead can be accessed off Upheaval Dome Road near the Grand View Point Road junction.

  • 1.6 miles out and back
  • 250′ elevation gain
  • Easy
Whale Rock Trail (Island in the Sky)
Whale Rock, Canyonlands National Park, Utah
Whale Rock, Canyonlands National Park, Photo by Ken Lund

Closing out the list of best hikes in Canyonlands National Park is this hike to Whale Rock. Unlike most of the trails above, this is a quick and easy hike that can be completed by anyone. Bring the whole family along! At the end of the hike you will arrive at Whale Rock that looks like a beached whale (get it!?). Hikers can climb to the top of the rock from the ‘tail’ for great views of Upheaval Dome and the surrounding canyons. The trailhead can be accessed from Upheaval Dome Road before you get all the way to Syncline Loop.

  • 0.8 miles out and back
  • 100′ elevation gain
  • Easy

Featured Image: Green River Overlook, Canyonlands National Park, Photo by Yen Chao

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