Its remote location in southeast Utah makes Canyonlands National Park a bit difficult to reach, but is a visit ever worth the effort. Centuries ago, the Green and Colorado rivers carved through the landscape to create the park’s deep canyons and dramatic landscapes. The 527-square-mile park is split into four districts — Island in the Sky, The Maze, The Needles, and the rivers that course through the park (which also separate the districts) — each of which shares a desert atmosphere yet features its own landscapes (canyons, mesas, arches and spires) and its own experiences.
To make the most of your visit, we checked in with Visit Utah to compile these 10 tips (in no particular order) to make the most of your visit. Canyonlands National Park is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year, and each district has its own visitor center with varying operating hours.
1. Plan Ahead: Traveling from one district to the next within Canyonlands National Park looks like it’d be easy when looking at a map, but in reality, no roads directly link the districts, and traveling between them can be a two- to six-hour drive. It’s best to choose one district to visit and focus on activities found within. Island in the Sky is the most accessible district, while The Maze is the most remote, and The Needles offers more of a backcountry experience. The park’s website has suggested itineraries in Island In the Sky and The Needles depending on the amount of time you have to spend, which are very helpful.
2. Go for a Hike: Hundreds of miles of hiking trails are found within Canyonlands National Park, ranging from short walks to day hikes and even overnight backpacking trips. Of the parks’ four districts, 74 miles of the hiking trails are found within The Needles district, and family hikers will want to check out the well-maintained and family-friendly hikes in the Island in the Sky district, as well as hikes to Mesa Arch. Even though they look enticing, be sure to keep off the arches when hiking to preserve them for generations to come.
3. Go For a Drive: When you’re ready to hang up your hiking shoes, or perhaps have no interest in lacing them up to begin with, opt for a drive through the park. A 34-mile roundtrip scenic drive through Island in the Sky is the best way to sightsee by car, with overlooks rising 1,000 feet above the surrounding landscapes. Plan at least an hour to drive out to Grand View Point. In The Needles district, drive 6.5 miles past the visitor center to the Big Spring Canyon Overlook. Along the way, pullouts with short hiking trails may entice you to hike.
4. Ride an ATV or 4×4: Hundreds of miles of four-wheel-drive roads await ATV and 4×4 motorists who want to explore Canyonlands National Park from a different vantage point. For beginners, White Rim Road in Island in the Sky is a moderate trek, while the roads in The Needles and The Maze range from moderate to technical. Before setting out on an adventure, be sure to check out the park’s rules and permit information.
5. Ride the River: Of all of the activities found within Canyonlands National Park, the best known is whitewater rafting; the park boasts some of the best whitewater rafting in the west. Flat water sections give way to Class III to V rapids, which can be found along 14 miles of Cataract Canyon.
6. Ride a Bike: The same roads that make for terrific ATV and 4×4 rides are ideal for mountain biking, too; of the park’s roads, the 100-mile White Rim Road is its most famous. The off-road paths in The Maze can prove to be a bit more technical, but you can always ride on the paved roads within Canyonlands National Park if you choose.
7. Look at the Night Sky: When you look up into the sky after dark, imagine seeing 2,500 stars with your naked eye. You’ll see plenty more when you go stargazing at Canyonlands National Park, which was designated a Gold-Tier International Dark Sky Park in 2015. Check the park’s website for nighttime programs, or simply throw down a blanket and let yourself get lost in the sky overhead.
8. Go Local: Because of its expansive and varied terrain, planning a visit to Canyonlands National Park can be a lot. If you start to get overwhelmed, think of contacting a local outfitter for adventures ranging from white water rafting to mountain biking to four-wheel-drive tours and more.
9. Horseshoe Canyon: Aside from the park’s four districts, Horseshoe Canyon is another destination to spend time visiting when in southeast Utah. Here, you’ll find some of the most significant rock art in the USA — the Great Gallery features well-preserved, life-sized figures that date back thousands of years. A visit to the Great Gallery isn’t easy, and requires a seven-mile roundtrip hike that will take at least five hours. But once you’re there, you’ll be awed.
10. Visit Moab: Because of its remote location, those who opt not to camp within the park oftentimes stay in nearby Moab, which provides not only visitor information but accommodations and dining options as well.
For more on Canyonlands National Park, visit nps.gov.
Susan B. Barnes, Special for USA TODAY