Canyonlands National Park

State: Utah

Established: September 12, 1964

Area: 337,598 acres (136,621 ha)

History of Canyonlands National Park:

Canyonlands National Park is a U.S. National Park located in southeastern Utah near the town of Moab and preserves a colorful landscape eroded into countless canyons, mesas and buttes by the Colorado River, the Green River, and their respective tributaries. The park is divided into four districts: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze, and the rivers themselves. While these areas share a primitive desert atmosphere, each retains its own character. Two large river canyons are carved into the Colorado Plateau by the Colorado River and Green River.

In the 1950s and early 1960s, Arches National Monument Superintendent Bates Wilson advocated the creation of a National Park in what is now Canyonlands. Wilson led government officials on jeep tours which featured lengthy talks over campfires and hearty dutch oven dinners. Secretary of the Interior Stewart Udall joined one of these tours in 1961, and took the campaign to Washington.

In 1962, the Canyonlands park bill was introduced by Utah Democratic Senator Frank Moss (in photo above). Also that year, the U.S. Department of the Interior published a paper entitled A Proposed Canyonlands National Park.

On September 12, 1964, President Lyndon B. Johnson signed Public Law 88-590 establishing Canyonlands National Park. Canyonlands was expanded to its current size of 337,598 acres on November 12, 1971 when the Maze, the Land of Standing Rocks, as well as Davis and Lavender Canyons were added to the park.


Humans first visited Canyonlands over 10,000 years ago. Nomadic groups of hunter-gatherers roamed throughout the southwest from 8,000 B. C. to 500 B.C. Living off the land, these people depended on the availability of wild plants and animals for their survival. They do not appear to have stayed in any one area for very long. They left little in the way of artifacts and didn’t build homes or other lasting structures. However, the hunter-gatherers during this time created a great deal of intriguing rock art. Some of the best examples of their art, known as “Barrier Canyon Style,” remain on the cliff walls of Horseshoe Canyon.

Roughly two thousand years ago, the hunter-gatherers began to rely more on domesticated animals and plants for food. These early farmers are called the ancestral Puebloan (formerly known as Anasazi) and Fremont people. They grew maize, beans and squash, and kept dogs and turkeys. In order to tend their crops, they lived year-round in villages like those preserved at Mesa Verde National Park. Though the two groups overlapped, the Fremont lived mostly in central Utah, while the ancestral Puebloans occupied the Four Corners region. These cultures can be distinguished by their different tools, pottery and rock art.

Before the ancestral Puebloans left, other groups appeared in the area. The Ute and Paiute cultures may have arrived as early as A.D. 800. The Navajo arrived from the north sometime after A.D. 1300. All three groups still live here today. These cultures initially lived more of a hunter-gatherer lifestyle than the ancestral Puebloans. Their use and exploration of the Canyonlands area appears to have been minimal.

How to get to Canyonlands National Park:

Island in the Sky District: From Moab (35 miles away), take US 191 north 12 miles to Utah 313 and proceed 23 miles southwest to the visitor center.

Needles District: From Moab (75 miles away), follow US 191 south to Utah 211 and then west for 34 miles to park entrance.

Maze District: From Green River, take I-70 west to Utah 24, then south to a well-marked dirt road leading 46 miles to Hans Flat Ranger Station.

Groung shuttles are available from Salt Lake City and Grand Junction, Colo. Air shuttles fly between Canyonlands airport and Denver and Las Vegas. The airport at Grand Junction is about 115 miles from the Island in the Sky.

When to go to Canyonlands National Park:

Spring and fall are ideal for exploring by foot or vehicle. Summer is hot, but humidity low. Snow and cold can make it hard to get around in winter.

Hiking trails in Canyonlands National Park:


Long hikes


Chesler Park Loop / Joint Trail

Length: 11 mi/18 km round-trip

Start: Elephant Hill Trailhead

Hiking three miles along this trail brings visitors to a saddle overlooking Chesler Park, a scenic expanse of desert grasses and shrubs surrounded by colorful sandstone spires. The loop around Chesler is fairly level and winds through a series of deep, narrow fractures called the Joint Trail. Five backpacking sites. No water.

Elephant Canyon / Druid Arch

Length: 11 mi/18 km round-trip

Start: Elephant Hill Trailhead

This trail offers one of the most spectacular views in the Needles. It follows the Chesler Park access trail to Elephant Canyon, then travels along the canyon bottom across a mixture of deep sand and loose rock all the way to its upper end. The last .25 mile is a steep climb involving one ladder and some scrambling. Three backpacking sites. Water available seasonally.

Confluence Overlook

Length: 10 mi/16.5 km round-trip

Start: Big Spring Canyon Overlook

Unlike other hikes in the district, this trail traverses mostly dry, open country along the northern edge of the geologic faults that shaped the Needles. Trail ends at a cliff overlooking the junction of the Green and Colorado rivers. At-large camping only. No water.

Big Spring to Squaw Canyon

Length: 7.5 mi/12 km round-trip

Start: Squaw Flat Loop “A” Trailhead

A great introduction to the landscape of the Needles, connecting two canyons for a loop across varied terrain. The route between the canyons climbs steep grades that are dangerous when wet and may make people with a fear of heights uncomfortable. Two backpacking sites in each canyon. Water available seasonally.

Squaw Canyon to Lost Canyon

Length: 8.7 mi/14 km round-trip

Start: Squaw Flat Loop “A” Trailhead

Similar to the Big Spring to Squaw Canyon loop, but travels deeper into a canyon with more abundant riparian vegetation, wildlife, and sense of isolation. Three backpacking sites. Water reliably available.

Peekaboo Trail

Length: 10 mi/16.5 km round-trip

Start: Squaw Flat Loop “A” Trailhead

Trail crosses both Squaw and Lost canyons, climbing up and along a series of exposed sandstone rims. Spectacular views are the payoff for this challenging hike. Two ladders must be climbed. One 4WD vehicle accessible campsite at trail’s end. Water available seasonally.

Lower Red Lake Canyon

Length: 18.8 mi/30 km round-trip

Start: Elephant Hill Trailhead

The hike from Elephant Hill to the Colorado River is very strenuous, with an elevation change of 1,400 feet. There is little shade along the way as the trail climbs in and out of the Grabens and then descends the steep talus slope of Lower Red Lake Canyon toward the river. This trail is recommended as a multi-day hike. At-large camping only. No water before reaching the river.

Salt Creek Canyon

Length: 22.5 mi/34 km one-way

Start: Peekaboo or Cathedral Butte

The trail follows the main drainage of the canyon past cottonwood groves, through thick brush, and down an old four-wheel-drive road. The trail is often obscured by dense vegetation. Many archaeological sites and arches can be seen. Four designated campsites in upper section. Lower section (along the old road) is at-large camping only. Water is usually available.


Short hikes

Cave Spring Trail

Length: (round-trip): .6 mi/1 km

Start: Cave Spring parking area

Time: 45 minutes

Trail features a historic cowboy line camp and prehistoric pictographs. Two wooden ladders must be climbed.

Pothole Point Trail

Length: (round-trip): .6 mi/1 km

Start: Pothole Point parking area

Time: 40 minutes

Uneven slickrock surface. Trail leads to pothole communities and views of the Needles.

Roadside Ruin Trail

Length: (round-trip): .3 mi/.5 km

Start: Roadside Ruin parking area

Time: 20 minutes

Trail features an ancestral Puebloan granary.

Slickrock Trail

Length: (round-trip): 2.4 mi/4 km

Start: Near Big Spring Overlook

Time: 2 hours

Uneven slickrock surface leading to several viewpoints, with a good chance of seeing bighorn sheep.


Island in the Sky

Easy hikes

Mesa Arch

Length: 0.5mi/0.8km

Time: 30 minutes

A short hike leads to a cliff-edge arch. Mesa Arch is a classic sunrise spot, and has stunning views towards La Sal Mountains any time of day.

Grand View Point


Time:  1.5 hours

A stunning ‘out-and-back,’ this walk showcases spectacular panoramic views as it follows the canyon edge.

Murphy Point


Time: 2 hours

This longer hike leads past a historic corral on the mesa top. The trail ends with panoramic views of Candlestick tower, the Green River, and the White Rim Road.



Upheaval Dome (First Overlook)


Time: 1 hour

A short but steep trail leads to a clear view into the Upheaval Dome structure. Interpretive displays at the end of the trail discuss this unique geologic feature.

Upheaval Dome (Second Overlook)


Time: 1.5 hours

This trail splits off from the first overlook trail, following cairns to further views of Upheaval Dome and Canyon.

Whale Rock


Time: 1 hour

This trail leads up the side of a sandstone dome, ending with broad views of the Island. Be careful: steep drop-offs.

Neck Spring


Time: 3 – 4 hours

This longer loop trail passes by historic ranching features, as well as two springs. With minor elevation changes, this trail is a great way to see some varied plant life.



Murphy Loop


Time: 5 – 7 hours

A great day hike, this trail drops off the side of the mesa top for a 1,400 foot elevation loss. The trail follows along Murphy Hogback, then returns up a wash.

Syncline Loop


Time: 5 – 7 hours

This challenging trail follows the outline of Upheaval Dome, and features switchbacks, boulder fields, and a 1,300 foot elevation change. A varied, full-day trail for the experienced hiker


Information sources:

Canyonlands National Park Visitor Guide

Guide to National Parks of the United States

Official website:

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