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Exploring Canyonlands National Park: Tips and Highlights

If I had one tip to give for Canyonlands, it would be this: bring bug spray, apply it early, and apply it often. Despite having more bug bites than I’ve ever had in my life, our day at the Canyonlands Island in the Sky District was still absolutely wonderful, and it was almost our favorite of the Mighty Five.

Another crucial thing to know about Canyonlands is that it is an expansive park, comprising three distinct “districts” that cannot reasonably be visited in a single day. To fully experience all of Canyonlands, you will need at least three days to explore the three districts. However, we could have spent 2-3 full days in Island in the Sky alone.

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We began our day bright and early (a common trend in most of our travels) to witness the sunrise at Mesa Arch. We were not the only ones with this idea and encountered a fairly crowded parking lot at 5 AM, despite it being a Thursday. I’ll be honest; Mesa Arch was not particularly special, especially after a day at Arches National Park. However, the experience of watching the sunrise over Canyonlands and witnessing the vastness of this park was truly unforgettable. If you’re seeking a short, easy hike for catching a sunrise, Mesa Arch is the one. This hike is approximately 0.7 miles round trip, with less than 100 feet of elevation gain. You’ll also find several spots around Mesa Arch to sit and relax, so despite the larger crowd, you could still find some solitude. Don’t forget to bring a warm drink, a sweater, and a blanket for the perfect morning (and, once again, don’t forget that bug spray).

After Mesa Arch, we swiftly moved on to the Murphy Point Trailhead. I had read that this was a very popular trail with limited parking, but I suppose the early bird does get the worm, because we started this hike at 6:50 AM and essentially had the trail to ourselves the entire time. If you’re up for a slightly longer hike before sunrise, Murphy Point would be another amazing spot, and it’s certainly less crowded. We relished having the Point to ourselves for breakfast, with the most stunning view of the canyon. I’ll take this moment to give a little plug for our favorite trail snacks: RedCon1 MRE BarsMuffins, and Brookies. Back to the trail, this was an easy-moderate hike of about 3.3 miles round trip, with 250 feet of elevation gain. It will lead you through some grassy areas and across some rocks. You may be fortunate enough to spot deer grazing, and you will almost certainly see numerous lizards. There won’t be much of a view until the end of the trail, but we promise it’s well worth the hike.

From Murphy Point, we headed to the White Rim Overlook Trailhead. The parking area for this trail is actually smaller than Murphy Point, but there are also some picnic areas nearby where you can park. This trail continued to emphasize the sheer vastness of Canyonlands. The views within this park along the different trails and overlooks seem to stretch on forever. The White Rim Overlook Trail is shorter and more scenic than Murphy Point, culminating in complete panoramic views of the White Rim Trail down in the canyon, which is now on our bucket list. This trail is about 1.8 miles round trip, with only about 130 feet of elevation gain. It’s definitely an easier trail for anyone seeking panoramic views and was not very crowded.

After White Rim Overlook, we needed a little break from hiking, so we headed to Grand View Point. This is one of the most popular areas in the Island in the Sky District, and even though there is a large parking area, you may have to be patient waiting for a spot. At Grand View Point, you will find even more panoramic views of the canyons, as well as a rim trail. We skipped the rim trail, so I can’t comment on that, but it appeared relatively flat and seemed very popular with families.

From Grand View Point, we embarked on our final hike of the day, Whale Rock. Whale Rock is the perfect spot for families, as it is a short hike that kids of all ages are sure to love (Canyonlands actually points this out on the trailhead sign). The Whale Rock Trail is more of a scramble up a rock that, you guessed it, looks kind of like a whale. This trail is 0.5 miles round trip, with about 100 feet of elevation gain. Our son loved it, as rock “climbing” is one of his favorite activities. We shared the trail with one other family, so you may encounter others along this path. The trail was not marked very well, but it is fairly easy to tell where others have walked along the rock. I wouldn’t call the view from the top anything spectacular, but the experience is fun for the whole family.

Lastly, we stopped by the Visitor Center and the park sign for a photo. We loved our day at Canyonlands and definitely plan to visit this park again, not only for another visit to Island in the Sky but also to see The Needles and The Maze districts.

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