best day hikes in utah's

canyonlands national park

canyonlands island in
the sky

Canyonlands National Park, near Moab in Utah, offers the starkest view of the American Southwest of any of the region's National Parks. From the park's overlooks seemingly lifeless desert stretches to the horizon, broken only by glimpses of the Green and Colorado rivers in deep canyons far below. This page summarizes my favorite day hikes and photographic locations in Canyonlands and nearby Dead Horse Point State Park.

Canyonlands highlights

The geography of Canyonlands is pretty simple. The Green and Colorado rivers divide the park into three disjoint regions. On the eastern side the Island in the Sky district occupies a high mesa, with expansive views down toward the rivers and across to the western horizon. It's a short drive north of Moab, and the most popular part of the park. The scenic drive offers postcard views, and there are a number of easy day hikes (mostly just a mile or two) that lead to further overlooks. From the top it's a stiff day hike down to the level of the White Rim 4WD road and back, and a really stiff hike to the river (the distance is 20 miles or more, with a lot of climbing on the return). To the south, the Needles district offers less roadside scenic gratification, but some of the best day hikes and backpacking trips anywhere in the Southwest. The Needles is about an hour and a half drive from Moab. Finally the remote Maze District lies on the western side of the rivers. Access to the Maze from the town of Green River requires negotiating many hours of 4WD roads, and I haven't been there myself.

Canyonlands hiking trips: Druid Arch and Elephant Canyon

druid arch canyonlands

Trailhead: Elephant Hill Trailhead, in the Needles section of Canyonlands National Park. The final stretch of road to the trailhead is unpaved and rocky, but readily passable in an ordinary car (the road beyond the trailhead, on the other hand, is a serious trial for 4WD vehicles!). The hike to the arch is 10.2 miles roundtrip, with modest ups and downs along the way.

From the Elephant Hill trailhead a number of out-and-back day hikes or partial loops are possible, and I doubt you can go wrong choosing any of them - they all seem to be extremely scenic, well-marked, and not too crowded, no doubt as a consequence of being significantly further from Moab than either Arches or the Island in the Sky trailheads. When my brother and I visited Canyonlands we opted for the hike to Druid Arch. The first couple of miles of trail are mostly across slickrock, with wide views across to the rest of the Needles and mountains beyond, before the route reaches Elephant canyon which you follow the rest of the way to the arch. Immediately following a particularly narrow and convoluted section of the canyon, the trail scrambles up a rocky chute to reach a rocky bench overlooking both Elephant canyon and Druid Arch. In midday light the arch itself - although impressive - makes for a difficult photographic subject, but there are great views of the almost surreal canyon from where you came. Adding in the drive from Moab, this makes a great moderate day hike.

Murphy trail

white rim road

Trailhead: Murphy Point trailhead, in the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands.
Distance: a partial loop of about 10 miles, with 1400 feet of elevation change from the rim down to the low point on the White Rim road.

This was my favorite hike in the Island in the Sky area, and it's a great option as long as you're prepared for the steep (and possibly hot) shadeless climb back to the rim at the end of the day. The trail starts from the Murphy Point trailhead, and less than a mile of flat hiking brings you to the rim and the edge of a sheer cliff. It seems almost inconceivable that there's a route down from here that doesn't require you to impersonate Tom Cruise in Mission Impossible! But there is. Following rock cairns, the trail winds back and forth across the top of the cliff before descending a rockfall slope to the base. It's a steep trail - in places very steep - but not seriously exposed or dangerous, and great fun to hike. The views out across Canyonlands on the descent are excellent.

Once you reach the base of the cliff, the trail divides and the loop section of the hike begins. Taking the right hand fork, the trail heads out across the Murphy Hogback. From here, you can see impressive undercut alcoves along the Green River, still far below in its canyon. Upon reaching the White Rim road, the route heads left and follows the road for 1.4 mostly downhill miles. Circumnavigating the White Rim by mountain bike or jeep is a popular Canyonlands adventure, and from my very brief experience of this section it must be spectacular. The loop leaves the road where it crosses Murphy Wash (well-signed), and heads up the rocky dry wash to rejoin the trail back up the cliff. This is the least interesting section of the hike, but it's easy hiking as long as you take care to follow the cairns at the many junctions along the way. Upon closing the loop, you have only the aerobic challenge of making it back up to rim left to finish the hike. On a cool-ish day in October the climb actually wasn't that tough, but it would be hard work indeed on a hot day in summer.

murphy hogback canyonlands

Confluence overlook trail

Trailhead: Big Spring Canyon Trailhead, at the end of the paved road in the Needles. The mostly flat hike to the confluence overlook is 10.4 miles roundtrip.

confluence overlook
 canyonlands canyonlands needles region hiking canyonlands in the

The confluence of the Green River and the Colorado, deep within spectacular canyons, lies in the heart of the Needles district of Canyonlands National Park. It's possible, but difficult, to reach the water's edge, but an easy day hike leads five or six miles to a stunning overlook of the confluence. John Wesley Powell is said to have seen this view on his voyage down the Green and Colorado rivers in 1869. The trail starts from the Big Spring Canyon trailhead, drops into and climbs out of the namesake canyon, and then traverses several miles of desert and slickrock. There are good views across to the red rock formations of the Needles district. The final stretch of trail follows a 4WD road into Cyclone canyon to a small picnic area, from where a brief climb brings you to the overlook. The overlook is not a good spot to start a descent down to the rivers, but you can traverse a ways along the rim of the canyon.

I've done this hike twice - once in the Fall and once memorably in the midst of an early Spring snowstorm, and on neither occasion met more than a handful of other hikers along the trail. The contrast between the red rock and the snow means that Canyonlands is exceptionally beautiful in winter, though you need to exercise care when hiking since the trails - in places marked only by cairns - rapidly become harder to follow after only a couple of inches of snow.

Upheaval dome / Syncline loop hike

Trailhead: Upheaval Dome, at the end of the northern spur of the T-shaped road in the Island in the Sky.
Distance: 2 miles for an out-and-back view of the crater along the Upheaval Dome trail. 8.3 miles for the Syncline loop around the dome, with about 1300-1500 feet of elevation change along the trail.

upheaval dome canyonlands

The hikes from the Upheaval Dome trailhead are probably the most popular trails in Canyonlands. The easy option here is the short out-and-back to a couple of overlooks that give good views into the crater. It's a pleasant walk, partly across slickrock, and a good option if you're looking for a quick leg stretcher. For a longer hike, the 8 mile Syncline loop trail splits off from the Upheaval Dome trail almost at the trailhead. The loop, which is probably best done clockwise, descends into Upheaval Canyon before returning to the mesa top via the Syncline Valley. Spur trails at about the halfway mark lead into the crater, and down toward the Green River. There are some steep sections, but overall this makes for a generally moderate day hike (unless, as always in Canyonlands, it's really hot) that I'd recommend, though not as highly as the Murphy trail described above.

Mesa arch

mesa arch sunrise

Trailhead: Mesa Arch trailhead, along the main road in the Island in the Sky region of Canyonlands. If driving to the trailhead in time for sunrise, watch out for deer on the road.

Mesa arch sits on a cliff edge framing the view south across a vast expanse of Canyonlands National Park. It's a moderately sized grey arch that in the full light of day is utterly undistinguished - barely worth the short walk of a few hundred yards from the parking area. At sunrise, though, light reflected off the red rock paints the underside a brilliant orange color, creating one of the classic images of the American Southwest. I don't know who captured this spectacle first, but posters and postcards of this scene are now everywhere! Although this photo is as cliched as they come, it's still a beautiful sight to see in person, and the view in the pre-dawn light from the arch of the canyons leading down to the Colorado river is spectacular in its own right. When I went to take this photo in late summer (which is probably not the best time of year as far as the angle of the rising sun goes) I fully expected to find a crowd at the arch, so I was pleasantly surprised to share the sunrise with only one other photographer.

Dead Horse Point state park

dead horse point

Directions: The dead end road to the Point departs from Highway 313 a few miles before reaching the entrance to the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands. This is not formally part of Canyonlands, and there's a separate entrance fee for the state park.

Dead Horse Point State Park occupies a neck of land - in places only tens of yards wide - overlooking a spectacular bend of the Colorado River. There's no real hiking in this small park (though you can walk around the point instead of driving if you wish) but that shouldn't deter you from visiting. Although it's not quite as good as it used to be - there's some recent industrial development near Moab that's visible from the overlook - it's still probably the single most spectacular view of Utah's canyonlands to be found anywhere. This is a great spot to photograph either sunrise or sunset.

Practicalities for a Canyonlands hiking trip

Both the Needles and the Island in the Sky regions of Canyonlands are easily visited from the town of Moab. Moab provides plenty of places where you can sleep, eat, get your mountain bike fixed before a trip, or get your broken bones fixed afterwards (check out my colleague Charles Danforth's account). Medical prowess aside, I've not found Moab to be particularly charming, and I don't have any particular recommendations for accommodation. The usual chain motels are all present, reliable, and reliably undistinguished from each other. I can recommend Eddie McStiff's brew pub, and the Slickrock Cafe for a reliable dinner. It's about 350 miles from Denver to Moab - usually a very scenic drive through the mountains though it is snowy here for longer than you might think - and 230 miles starting from Salt Lake City. Arches National Park is even closer to Moab than Canyonlands, and while the hiking in Arches is pretty limited there's one great day hike to Delicate Arch and the whole area is fantastic for photography (I had a lot of fun creating a timelapse video in the park). There's more good hiking near the Colorado River along the Moab to Cisco highway - I'd particularly recommend the short Fisher towers hike.

I've been to Canyonlands in all four seasons. In summer, of course, it's hot, and I ended up photographing at sunrise and sunset and retreating to my motel room for the rest of the day. Spring and Fall are pleasant times for hiking, and it's generally not too cold (at least at low elevation) even in winter, though as illustrated in the photos above it does snow...


My own Google map of Utah hikes
Utah's Incredible Backcountry Trails by David Day is a reliable guide book
Official NPS website for Canyonlands National Park


photography, text and design by Phil Armitage