Island In The Sky Canyonlands

Published Categorized as Travel

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Sitting at 1000 feet above the canyon floor you’ll find yourself face to face with stunning views of the brilliant sunset bleeding across the sky. Looking down at the dusty red rocks littering the canyon floor, discovering hidden gems as you try to calm your skittering heart – never envisioning it to be this breathtaking. If you’re planning to visit this miraculous National Park in Utah, then grab your map, bring lots of water and let’s get into it.

Where Is Island in the Sky?

Island in the Sky is located in the northern part of the Canyonlands National Park, towering 304 meters above the valley with straight walls going down from the top of the plateau – one of the most unique and easily accessed parts of the park. This is the most visited section of the Canyonlands, loaded with marvellous overlooks with a nice blend of easy, and difficult hiking trails. Essentially you are on the rim of the canyon looking down at the tiny crowds dotted along the canyon floor, some hiking, others stopping to drink in their surroundings.

Visitor’s Centre

The visitor’s centre at Island in the Sky is relatively small, but they have a few small displays, as well as a gift shop. The rangers offer great ranger talks and a junior ranger program. The rangers will also assist you in finding a few hikes to start you off with, you can collect your maps from here, and ask any burning questions that you may have before you set off on your individual adventures. The visitor’s centre is open all year-round, seven days a week spring through autumn, and five days a week in winter; hours varying by the seasons. It’s worth knowing that there is wireless internet available, so if you find yourself needing the bars, the visitor’s centre is your hub, though you won’t be able to find electric outlets at the centre, so it’s probably worth carrying a cordless charger for your phones if needed.

What to Know Before Visiting

Island in the Sky is pretty much a remote area, with a few guest services available. Food, gas stations, and lodging aren’t available at the park so make sure to prepare beforehand. If you’re concerned about the probable services you might acquire whilst you’re in the area. then the closest services are about 45 minutes away in downtown Moab.

Bring enough water to keep you hydrated throughout the day, water is only available at the visitor’s centre, so if you’re planning to visit the park during the much warmer hours of the day, then you’ll need plenty of water at your fingertips, whilst hiking.

Always carry a map with you, as well as a GPS. Though the popular trails are well-marked with cairns, however the more remote trails aren’t frequently maintained.

Download the apps or anything else you might need beforehand, because there is absolutely no phone service at the park, apart from the visitor’s centre.

Try to avoid hiking during midday especially during the summer, as the high temperatures can get dangerous. However, if you’re persistent in continuing a long hike that you had started earlier in the day, then remember to bring some snacks and lots of water.

Beat the crowds with a magnificent sunrise hike, you’ll have the park to yourself and the orange rays of sunshine caressing your cheeks, a spectacular moment like this is worth leaving your bed for.

How Much Does it Cost to Visit Island in the Sky?

The entrance fees to visit the Canyonlands National Park are valid for seven days and are as follows:

  • $15 per person (no car)
  • $30 per vehicle and its occupants
  • $25 per motorcycle and its riders

When is the Best Time to Visit Island in the Sky?

If you’re looking for a park with scenic surroundings, followed by hikes that’ll wear you out in the best way, then Canyonlands is one of the best national parks to visit – preferably during autumn. You’ll be able to avoid the thick pockets of crowds, and be greeted with pleasant weather.

Spring is another great time for milder temperatures, you should avoid summers altogether as it can get extremely hot at noon. If you don’t mind the cold whipping at your eyelashes every now and then, you could visit the canyonlands during winter, as long as you have the right gear.

Canyonlands – 4 Districts

The two rivers that cut through Canyonlands National Park – the Colorado River and the Green River – divide the park into three perceptible districts, and the rivers themselves are classified as the fourth district. These four types of districts are, Island in the Sky, the Needles, the Maze and the Rivers. Canyonlands Island in the Sky is the easiest one to visit. Located a short drive from the town of Moab, and near Arches National Park, it can be explored through a scenic drive as well as during a short hike. Surrounded by the canyons of the Colorado and Green Rivers the area appears to be a floating plateau.

Canyonlands National Park Activities

There’s no denying the great adventures that lay ahead of you once you step foot into Utah. With both Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park at it’s gates there’s no shortage of outdoor activities. While Arches National Park is serene and accessible the things to do in Canyonlands National Park are pretty challenging, especially if you plan to immerse yourself into these rugged plains of twisted floor, decorated in cracks of earth that have become the prettiest landscapes, here are some activities that you’ll find yourself leaning towards, once you visit Island in the Sky:

  • Hiking
  • Four-Wheel Driving
  • Mountain Biking
  • Stargazing

Hiking

There are several short trails with hardly any elevation change at Island in the Sky, making it especially possible for visitors to explore some of the area on foot. Of course you’ll find yourself wandering at the mouth of the much more challenging trails, for a greater hike. Be mindful that while the hiking trails along the rim are fairly easy and well-marked, those that descend into the canyons are all primitive and rough. You won’t find any drinking water below the rim so make sure you’ve brought plenty to drink.

Four-Wheel Driving

The Island in the Sky is quite a terrific district for car touring. The Scenic Drive offers incredible views and an access to an abundance of trails, with promises of adventure. There are hundreds of miles of unpaved roads in the park, offering access to overlooks, trails, rock formations, and trails deep in the backcountry. With very convenient and moderate four-wheel-driving roads in the park, the other districts are much wilder and should only be tackled by experienced off-road drivers.

Mountain Biking

The roads used for four-wheel driving are also great for mountain biking, in fact you’re allowed to ride your bike on all public roads of the park, which doesnt exclude paved and backcountry roads.

Stargazing

At Canyonlands, the naked eye is quite fortunately exposed to a sky dotted with glittering stars – under the right conditions – bring your binoculars and you might even find yourself looking at the rings of Saturn!

The La Sal Mountains

Towering at 13,000 feet just 20 miles south of Moab are the spectacular La Sal Mountains, which are part of Manti-La Sal National Forest. These alpine mountains are the second highest mountains in Utah. These mountains are great to explore with lots of bike, and hiking trails lodged into the body of the mountains, this would make a wonderful complimentary visit, during your stay in Utah. The mountain sides have some isolated uneven sections, but most are pretty smooth. Below the peaks are streams trickling through the valleys, with extensive green meadows and thick woodland.

Camping at Island in the Sky

There are campgrounds within the Canyonlands National Park, each coming with their own rules and regulations, naturally the respect acquired by those in charge of the park, and those appreciating its magnificence are reasonable. If you plan to camp during the colder months, then you might want to pack some warm clothes so that you don’t feel the excessive shivers once night creeps into the park lands. Without further ado, lets take a look at the available campgrounds:

  • Willow Flat
  • Murphy Point Overlook

Willow Flat

Willow Flat Campground is a small campground in Island in the Sky with 12 sites. It is fully accessible all-year-round but the sites are quickly filled. The great thing about this campground is that its only a 2 minute walk to the Green River Overlook followed by the panoramic views you’ll find there. This campground has pit toilets, several picnic tables and fire rings, but there is no potable water, so make sure you’ve stocked up on enough water for your stay. The other great thing about this campground is that it allows you to bring your pets and you can stay for a maximum of seven days.

The campsite has a first come first served policy with nearby activities including: hiking, mountain biking, off-roading, and great spots for photography. Whether you’re standing near your favourite rock striking an attractive pose, or snapping photos of everything you find scenic, a trip to the Island in the Sky, is worth every sweat that drips off your body. The campsite also offers great facilities like suitable areas for pitching tents, fire pits with grill plates, pit toilets, and covered or uncovered picnic tables, for you and your families to enjoy.

Murphy Point Overlook

For those who have managed to grow an adventurous bone in their bodies, you might choose to camp in an open area like Murphy Point, where you’ll find no nearby fascilities, just promises of panoramic sunrises and sunsets which is enough to motivate anyone to camp on the desert floor. There is a 1.8 mile hike to get to the overlook and camping site with a limit of one permit, which allows your group to have up to 7 people – erecting their tents too.

Things to do in Canyonlands – Island in the Sky

With epic night skies, that are perfect for gazing at stars whilst camping, this enormous park can easily keep you occupied for days, or weeks. It’s vastness is absolutely mind blowing, with beauty that’ll have your eyes stinging. If you’re looking for the best way to really get deep and personal with Island in the Sky, then you might want to take a 34-mile scenic drive, on Grand View Point Road. Taking stops along the way to explore the different view points, and go on some of the best hikes in the Canyonlands. Island in the Sky has eight overlooks located at a short distance from the scenic drive. With views that’ll have you gasping in awe at every turn, let’s explore the depth of these precious, iridescent lands:

  • Visitor Centre
  • Mesa Arch
  • Upheaval Dome
  • Grand View Point
  • Green River Overlook
  • Shafer Canyon Overlook
  • Gooseberry Trail

Visitor Centre

You’re not required to travel far to be bewildered by the marvellous landscape of the Canyonlands National Park. Just take a look across the street from where you’ll be standing outside the visitor centre, you’ll notice how the winding rivers have sliced through the sandstone to fabricate the spectacular canyon walls, that stretch towards the oceanic sky.

The Island in the Sky visitor’s centre is open everyday from spring through fall, and much like all national parks in America, the visitor’s centre is the best place to start. This is where you can fill your water bottles to the brim, there are also exhibits, general information, books and maps. You can find rangers who will provide you with relevant information, like the latest forecasts and the conditions of the trails that spread out, ready for your feet to meet their ground.

Mesa Arch

The most captured attractions of all Canyonlands National Park attractions is Mesa Arch. This narrow arch stretches along the Island in the Sky rim, framing the immense canyon below, the La Sal Mountains, Monster Tower and Washerwoman Arch in a mesmerising way. This could quite easily be crowned King of Island in the Sky, a place that you wouldn’t want to skip. It’s actual brilliance is revealed during sunrise, when you find the bright, warm rays of light seeping through the arch.

Upheaval Dome

With layers of rocks that are dramatically deformed, where they have been forced into a circular structure – like a dome – or an anticline. Surrounding this dome is a down warp in the rock layers called a syncline. The most intriguing part that stands out about this place, is that no one can confirm why, or how these folds were formed. Aside from two different types of theories, one being that the salt dome was a product of erosion and the other stating that it was a causation of a collapsed crater, none being fully able to confirm these theories, happens to make this particular spot mysteriously amazing.

Grand Viewpoint

Grand Viewpoint lies at the southernmost end of the national parks scenic drive. From its vantage point, views disperse towards the Maze the Needles and distant La Sal Mountains. The Grand Viewpoints canyon appears like a huge dinosaur footprint imprinted on the jagged red bumpy earth, with the White Rim skirting around its edges.

Green River Overlook

The Green River Overlook lies along Upheaval Dome Road, just beyond the fork in the national parks main road. It’s one of the only places where visitors can see the parks waterways. Below the transformative work of the river is on full display – creating an endless expanse of canyons.

Shafer Canyon Overlook

A little walk beyond the visitor’s centre you’ll find Shafer Canyon. If you walk out to the end of the mesa you will be standing about 1400 feet over a deep and narrow valley, surrounded by towering canyon walls. From the car park you can find the Neck Spring Trail – a strenuous 5.8 mile round trip trail – which wouldn’t be a problem for those who are looking for a longer hike.

Gooseberry Trail

The Gooseberry Trail is located in the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park near Moab, Utah. The trail begins at The White Rim Overlook trailhead, not that far from Grand View Point, and descends from the Island in the Sky to the White Rim Road. The trail isn’t hiked as often – especially during the summer – mainly because of its steepness and exposure.

Best Hikes in the Canyonlands

  • Mesa Arch Trail
  • White Rim Overlook
  • Aztec Butte Trail
  • False Kiva Trail
  • Druid Arch Trail
  • Chesler Park Loop Trail
  • Syncline Loop Trail

Mesa Arch Trail

The natural arch is by far one of the most popular features of Canyonlands Nation Park, which also makes it the most photographed spots in the park. A beautiful natural arch formed over the cliffs edge, where you can find magnificent views of the canyons. rock spires and even the La Sal Mountains in the distance. If you’re a fan of brilliant sunrises then this is the spot for you. If you set out early enough, you’ll be able to catch the peeking rays of sunshine winking behind the Mesa Arch, so make sure you’ve brought your cameras, you won’t want to miss this magic!

The trail is neither long nor difficult to navigate, it’s only half a mile long which makes it a quick and precious sunrise mission. Bearing in mind that you will almost always find crowds of people who have either beat you to it, or are coming up behind you, rearing to have a snap at the first rays that meet the sky, or bask in the welcoming warmth of the majestic sun, as it rises ready to meet its disciples. If you want photos without the occasional and accidental run-in with another person, then you’d have to get creative and abandon your sleep for moments like these. Better yet try climbing up the rocks towards the left side and you’ll see the entire view, without the obstruction of the arch, or people!

White Rim Overlook

If you adore a solid incredible view, then the White Rim Overlook is your best option; offering an easy hike with an even more rewarding view. The main highlight of this trail is the very aptly named White Rim, that lines this section of Canyonlands National Park. This hike is only 1.8 miles round trip and its not to be confused with White Rim Trail which is a 100 mile long scenic drive along the canyon rim. From the White Rim Overlook Trail, you’ll be able to watch the tiny Jeep’s zoom past, getting a good understanding of how massive the canyon actually is.

The trail begins at the Gooseberry Trailhead, you’ll see a picnic area and the trailhead is just beyond that. Once you arrive at the junction you’re going to turn right and continue onto the overlook trail. The trail starts out as gravel, but as you move further it becomes more rough and you’ll have to follow the cairns to get to the peninsula. Follow the trail until you can’t anymore and enjoy the entire 300-degree view, heading back the way you came when you’re finished.

Aztec Butte Trail

A lesser populated hike, but still worth the hype is the Aztec Butte Trail. The best parts of this trail are Aztec granaries and the view from the top of the butte that overlooks the middle portion of Island in the Sky. The trailhead for Aztec Butte is down Upheaval Dome Road just past the turn for the Willow Flat Campground. The trail begins on relatively flat sandy ground that flows through juniper and sagebrush; around the first butte before you arrive at a junction. The climb up to Aztec Butte is steep and challenging during certain points, but can be done by most with an immaculate view at the top.

False Kiva Trail

One of the most underrated hikes in Canyonlands National Park is the False Kiva Trail. Although this hike is short in length, it is quite tough and not maintained by the National Park Service, so while you’re out here exploring, remember to have plenty of water with you, taking long sips as you walk. Another great thing about this trail is that it is a class II archaeological site, while this is amazing, unfortunately, vandalism has caused the alcove at the end of the trail to be closed.

Druid Arch Trail

The Druid Arch is located within the Needles District of Canyonlands National Park, which also happens to be an epic spot for overnight backpacking. There are many ways to get to the Druid Arch, but taking the 10.8-mile-out-and-back trail from the Elephant Hill Trailhead is the most commonly used, but you won’t see many people on this trail.

Cairns mark this trail, so keep a sharp eye out to use them for navigation. From the trailhead you’ll come across many junctions, with signs pointing you in the right direction. Always carry some type of navigation with you so that you don’t get lost, even something as simple as a GPS, you can track the trail with much needed ease. There is much excitement along every curvature of this trail, paired with seclusion, which makes the navigation and exploration a professional challenge, that you had been desperate for. An adventure is best when began at sunrise, ending at sunset. Make sure you carry a headlamp with you as it can be easy to get lost if you’re not paying attention.

Chesler Park Loop Trail

Chesler Park, with its expansive grassy area surrounded by impeccable rock formations in this district. The park is a central area for lots of day to overnight backpacking trips. This trail like many others, begins at the Elephant Hill Trailhead, the Chesler Park Loop is marked by cairns, small stacks of stones, to help you find your way, so watch out for those as you trundle along.

The first few miles takes you through magnificent rock formations in the Needles and will excite you for what could lay ahead. On this trail, you’ll find picturesque views over the Needle District, slot canyons, pinnacles, knobs and much more that’ll inevitably have you breathless. You might want to consider taking this trail a little more slowly, so that you can really absorb each and every remarkable, scenic view – consider making it a 2-day backpacking trip. Bring lots of water on this hike, because it is very long, and quite tiresome, and there is a slim chance of you getting lost whilst walking along the trail. As long as you spot the cairns you’ll be fine, but bear in mind that Canyonlands is incredibly remote, and can be quite daunting if you’re not properly equipped.

Syncline Loop Trail

if you found yourself slowly falling in love with the scenery in and around Upheaval Dome, the Syncline Loop Trail is an amazing loop that takes you through two canyons that surround the dome. The route around is well marked and a terrific way to escape crowds, especially if you’re in to quiet lone walks. It’s recommended to go clockwise around this loop since you’ll beat some elevation and get a bit more shade in some areas.

Tips For Visiting Canyonlands

If you’re new to hiking, travelling with a heavy bag slung over your back, with the warm sun slightly burning the back of your head, then you’re probably in need of some helpful tips, that’ll get you well prepared for your adventures, so that your first time will be your best time!

If you can begin your day in the Canyonlands with sunrise at Mesa Arch and sunset at Dead Horse Point State Park, it will be the most unforgettable experience. With unmissable beauty that’ll inevitably have your jaw-dropping to the dusty red plains, it’s definitely worth the adventure.

If you’re planning to visit during the much warmer days of the year, then you should bring lots of water, food, and snacks. Although you might think you won’t, you’ll find yourself occasionally stopping for a drink or a bite to eat, because let’s be honest, walking whilst the sun seeps into your back, is never easy. If you’re planning to go hiking you should pack at least one large reusable water bottle per person, so that you can refill your bottles when needed. Drinking water is only available at the Visitor Centre and there are no restaurants or food stores in Canyonlands.

There are no petrol stations in or around the Canyonlands, so fill up your car in Moab before taking the long trip to the dusty, rocky plains. Sun protection is a must when hiking on the trails, especially during the summer.

You can visit the Canyonlands National Park at any time of the year, visiting during the spring or autumn seasons would mean that you’d find lesser crowds and more pleasant weather. It’s not uncommon to find snow, and temperatures around freezing point so while it wouldn’t be wise to camp out in the open during the winter months, most parts of the Island in the Sky would remain accessible. In the summer during July and August temperatures of over 38°C are very common, so beware of the strain you’ll feel while trying to push forward in completing a trail.

Print out the maps of the parks and mark the places that you plan to visit. Internet connection or any type of phone service is pretty much non-existent in Canyonlands.

If you’re using your smartphone for taking videos or pictures, you’ll want to recharge your phone throughout the day. You can always carry a power bank and a couple of long fast charging cables in your backpack. Having a car charger with multiple USB connections is also handy, as you can charge all your electronic devices whilst driving. If you are using a camera, you might want to pack an extra battery, as you’ll have the unbearable urge to pull out your camera, and snap away at the sky, the brilliant landscapes, and more!

It costs $30 to visit Canyonlands by car. Get a National Parks Annual Pass if you plan to visit more National Parks in the same year, it costs around $80 for the whole family and is valid for one year, from the month of purchase. Alternatively, you could consider Southeast Utah Parks Pass which includes Arches, Canyonlands, and Natural Bridges costing $55. Dead Horse Point State Park requires a separate pass and is not included in any of the annual passes mentioned above. So you’ll need to get a separate pass for it upon arrival at the entrance gate. It costs $20 per car

Campgrounds

Whether you plan to camp near Island in the Sky, or the surrounding National Parks in the Canyonlands, you might want to consider some of the places from the list below:

  • Willow Flat Campground
  • The Needles Campground
  • Kayenta Campground
  • Wingate Campground
  • Horse Thief Campground
  • Under Canvas

Will Flat Campground

There is only one campground in the Island in the Sky District, it has 12 sites and it is first-come first-served, costing around $15 per night. They go fast during the spring all the way through the autumn, so arrive early and during the week if you can. There are pit toilets and fire rings in the campground.

The Needles Campground

There is one campground in the Needles District, it has 26 campsites at $20 per night. Some sites are reversible from spring to autumn, but throughout the rest of the year, the sites are first-come-first-served. There are toilets, picnic tables and fire rings.

Kayenta Campground

The Kayenta Campground is located in Dead Horse Point State Park, which would make this a perfect spot for you to explore the Island in the Sky District and the state park. The 21 sites cost around $50 per night and are equipped with recreational vehicles or tents. All of them come with a light shaded structure, picnic tables, fire rings and tent pads. Each site has an RV electrical hook-up, and there are toilets in the campground, but no drinking water.

Wingate Campground

The Wingate Campground is also located in Dead Horse Point State Park. There are 31 sites, 20 RV or tent camping and 11 are hike-in-only. The RV sites are $50 per night and the hike-in are $40. All sites have fire pits, picnic tables under a shaded shelter, and access to bathrooms.

Horse Thief Campground

Horse Thief Campground is located along Highway 313 on the way to Canyonlands from Moab. There are 85 first-come-first-served tent sites at this ground.

Under Canvas

Located just north of Moab, is Under Canvas, which is a luxurious campground complete with private bathrooms, fire pits, clean sheets, and many more amenities. Although it’s not really sleeping on leaves, and using a bush as your bathroom, its till quite a nice experience.

Driving Through Canyonlands National Park

There are no transportation services within the park, so you are required to bring your own vehicle, with lots of fuel that is enough to keep you going, with some leftover; knowing that there are no petrol stations nearby if you were to run out. Island in the sky is the easiest district to get around and see the best parts of the park. There is one main road that leads you through the island in the district with a few spur roads, bringing you to different viewpoints and hiking trails.

At the end of the main Scenic Drive, you must turn around and head out the way you came in. There are no roads leading out to the opposite side of the park. When planning on going off the main Scenic Drive in Island in the Sky District, you will need a 4×4 vehicle with high clearance. When you are just around for a quick visit to Canyonlands you must see this district.

Island in the Sky

Packed with breathtaking views that make you wonder whether you’re still on planet Earth, whilst gems like these are hidden away, its never unfortunate to pull yourselves out of your comfortable beds, and explore the dusty plains that get a little sunburnt everyday. Providing your delicate skin is protected from the occasional harsh glares of the sun, you’ll quickly find yourself falling in love at the mesmerising rivers that twist and wind along the Canyonlands National Park. Staring down at the world bared before you, feeling like the king of the world just for one magical moment.

FAQ’s

How Long Does Island in the Sky Scenic Drive Take?

The White Rim Road is 100-miles in length, which goes around and below the Island in the Sky District. If you’re looking for a terrific 2 to 3 days off-road to make the entire loop you’ll need a 4×4 vehicle with high clearance.

By Mike

Mike leads research, writes, and keeps the site up and running. He's worked on upgrades to an old class A Winnebago, vans, and other homes - wherever they are.

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