How do we know these are the best short hikes and overlooks for a day at Canyonlands National Park? Well, a Canyonlands Park Ranger told us. Not only did he help us see the best sites, but he also advised us the best times to escape the crowds. Now, we are excited to share what we learned.
At 527.5 square miles, the Canyonlands National Park is massive. The park is divided into three sections: Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the Maze. Island in the Sky is the most accessible for standard vehicles. It’s also the best place to start as a first time visitor.
This post works as a day trip itinerary with the best short hikes for first-time visitors to the Canyonlands National Park, Island in the Sky district. All the short hikes in our Canyonlands itinerary are easy to moderate.
We stayed at the park from sunrise to sunset. Though, a lot of our time went into taking photos. You may not need as long. If you do have extra time, we added a few extra suggested hikes at the bottom.
Camping is the only way to stay in the Canyonlands National Park. Sites are few, with basic facilities, and are first-come first-serve within the Island in the Sky district. There are a few private campsites outside the park.
Moab is the main town in these parts. Most of its accommodation is along the main road, US-191. Expect hotels in Moab to cost more than you’d think they should, especially in peak season.
Tips for Hiking in the Canyonlands National Park
Our trip to Utah was in the cooler month of October. Mornings and evenings were quite cold, while the middle of the day warmed up nicely.
Despite the cooler weather, the air was still dry, and the sun was very strong. With very little shade on any of the trails, we needed to bring enough water to keep hydrated. We also needed to protect our skin from the harsh environment.
Here are a few quick tips before we get into our suggested hikes.
- Know your hike – Most short hikes in the Canyonlands are well marked with signs or cairns, but it’s very easy to miss a marker. Always know how far you’re hiking and how long it should take you. It takes roughly 20 minutes to walk a mile.
- Make sure someone knows where you’ve gone hiking for the day.
- Bring plenty of water. We use a 2-liter Platypus Water Bladder with a hydration tube attachment. This hooks easily into our Osprey backpack with a hydration sleeve. We find it the most convenient, and lightest, way to carry large amounts of water while hiking.
- Wear a hat. Hats are a lifesaver in the desert. We both use large brim sunhats with an adjustable chin strap for windy days. This keeps the sun off our face and neck.
- Wear light weight long sleeves and pants. It may sound counter-productive to cover up in the heat, but thin breathable fabrics will keep you much cooler than shorts and a t-shirt.
- If you’re visiting in the cooler months, then layer your clothes. This will keep you warm when you need it, but you can remove a layer in the hottest part of the day.
Start the Day with Sunrise at Mesa Arch
We know we said we’d help you avoid the crowds, but this sunrise spot is popular for a reason.
Arriving at the short 0.7-mile loop trail almost an hour before sunrise, it was surprising how packed the parking lot was. Even getting a great spot for photos was a challenge as many had already claimed their spot.
If you don’t feel the need to get first break of light photos, Mesa Arch hike is still a great starting spot. Morning light continues to illuminate the arch for a couple of hours.
The crowd started to dwindle about 30 mins to an hour after sunrise. Parking was much easier when we left, and it was still a great time to get photos.
Ponder the Views of the Shafer Canyon Overlook
As the park was in darkness when we arrived, we went back on ourselves to catch the Visitor Center open. We couldn’t miss out on our passport stamp, of course. Who else collects these?
This is also where we met the most amazing park ranger. He was happy to entertain our questions about his favorite short hikes and overlooks in the Canyonlands. Plus, he warned us about the crowds at the Grand View Point, suggesting we save this popular spot for later in the day.
As we left the Visitor Center, we made a quick stop across the road at the Shafer Trail Overlook. This unassuming overlook ended up being one of our favorites.
A set of short stairs led down to the edge of the canyon. Some of the trail was a bit hard to see but we followed the cairns. It wasn’t far.
The cliff looked out on the switchbacks of the old Shafer Trail Road, once used for mining.
If you plan to drive the Shafer Trail, stop here first. Take a good look and prepare yourself. It didn’t look like it was for the faint of heart.
Daydream at Green River Overlook
The ranger was spot-on when he told us that mid-morning was the perfect time to stop at the Green River Overlook. Hardly anyone was there. We had this amazing view practically to ourselves!
With a paved sidewalk, it’s also one of the more accessible areas of the park.
Considering the angle of the sun, we guessed it would be fantastic for sunset. Hmm, will we be back?
Short Hike to Murphy Overlook in the Canyonlands
The small dirt parking area for Murphy’s Overlook only fit about a dozen cars. This is probably what keeps this short easy hike a hidden gem in the Canyonlands.
The 1.8-mile trail (one-way) leads to an overlook you’re never going to want to leave. Breathtaking, it’s the type of place you sit down and just enjoy the view.
However, it wasn’t just about the viewpoint. The walk out was spectacular. Vegetation and desert flowers lined the path in October. We even had a shock when we saw some mushrooms.
A view of Candlestick Tower in the distance was the cherry on the cake.
Next time we find ourselves in the Canyonlands National Park, we’d love to come back and do the split off trail that leads down into the canyon.
To get to the Murphy Point Overlook, at the half-mile split, stay to the right. You’ll see the lookout in 1.3 miles.
If you go left, you may have time for the 1.5-mile hike down the canyon. However, it turns into a very long hike, very quickly. It takes another 2.8 miles to meet up with the lengthy White Rim Trail.
Lunch at the White Rim Picnic Area
Picnic lunches are a must for the Canyonlands National Park because there are no facilities to get food and it’s a long way back to town.
Both Upheaval Dome and White Rim Overlook have shaded picnic tables, but there aren’t many.
We got lucky. By the time we finished our morning hikes, it was a late lunch. Most cars were leaving the area and we managed to grab a parking spot and a table on our second drive through.
The White Rim Overlook picnic area was a great spot for wildlife, with a lot of begging birds and chipmunks. As cute as they are, remember it is against the law to feed animals in a US National Park.
Walk Off Lunch on the Short Hike to White Rim Overlook
We struggled picking our favorite of the short hikes in the Canyonlands. Eventually we agreed, it was definitely the White Rim Overlook.
From the picnic area, the short 0.8-mile (one-way) hike led into the desert. When we came to a pile of boulders with a stunning view over the canyon, we thought we found the overlook. Luckily, we kept going and made our way around the boulders.
Once we saw it, we knew why this area of the Canyonlands is called The Island in the Sky.
Like large puffy clouds, the white boulders below us sat atop large pillars of rock. The scene felt three-dimensional. We were standing on a cliff, on top of another cliff, the true canyon floor miles below us.
Most of the hike was easy, but to reach the final view did require a short rock scramble.
Finally, On to See Grand View Point Overlook
It was finally time to see the most talked about overlook in the Canyonlands, Grand View Point.
We tried to go before lunch, but the road was backed up with cars waiting for parking. However, by the time we came back, in the late afternoon, the road cleared and there was plenty of parking.
As you would guess, it’s a stunning viewpoint where you can see the entire canyon below. Though, we felt the views were better from the White Rim Overlook, just because it felt closer.
We loved the short 0.9-mile (one-way) hike around the rim. This flat but rocky hike is easy, but if you’re short on time, the best views were along the first section.
View of the La Sal Mountains at Buck Canyon Overlook
At this point we didn’t have a lot of time left in our day. We decided we wanted to be back at the Green River Overlook for sunset.
We made a quick stop at Buck Canyon Overlook for a view of the canyon with the La Sal Mountains in the distance. With a paved sidewalk and viewpoint, this was another very accessible stop.
Other Short Hikes in the Canyonlands
Over the other side of the park, we made another quick stop at Upheaval Dome. We only had time to make it to the first overlook at 0.6 miles round trip. It was well worth the dramatic views of the crater-like structure, but we wish we had time for the full 1.7-mile round trip trail to the second lookout.
If we had more time, we would have hiked the moderate 1.7-mile (round trip) Aztec Butte Trail to see the Pueblo granaries.
Sunset at Green River Overlook
The desert sand glowed as the temperature quickly dropped. Native American flute music gave the scene an even more dramatic, yet peaceful feel. It was the perfect spot to end a perfect day of short hikes and overlooks in the Canyonlands National Park.
We are going to let the photos speak for themselves on this spot.
Books on the Canyonlands, Arches, and Moab
With an infinite number of places to explore around Moab, if you’re spending more than a couple of nights a guidebook sure comes in handy.
- Hiking Canyonlands and Arches National Parks – A guide to more than 60 great hikes.
- Best Easy Day Hikes in Moab – Small enough to carry with you but packed with local hikes you might not find otherwise.
- Collier’s Guide to Photographing Arches National Park – A must for those who want to come away with those perfect photographs.
- A Complete Guide to the Grand Circle National Parks – Visiting more than just the parks of Moab? This handy guide provides helpful information on several key parks within the Grand Circle.
Looking for more posts on Moab or Utah’s National Parks?