top of page
  • Writer's pictureapriladventuring

How to Spend One Day in Canyonlands National Park | Utah's Mighty 5 Road Trip

Updated: May 8

The Mighty 5 National Parks in Utah are an incredible way to experience the array of natural wonders the state has to offer. A road trip through these parks will bring you through stunning canyons, over rocky peaks, and under massive arches -- all in one week! I highly recommend getting yourself an America the Beautiful National Park Pass before heading off on this trip.


In this series, I'm taking you on a journey through the Mighty 5. It's broken down by each park for easier consumption and for those that are looking for info on just one or two instead of the entire five. I'm giving all the juicy details of the parks, including where I would definitely hit with more time or skip if I'm in a rush.


You can also view the entire trip in video form here!


In this leg, we're exploring Canyonlands National Park. Canyonlands kicked off my Mighty 5 road trip and holds a special place for me. Often overshadowed by Arches -- its more popular sister park across the street -- Canyonlands offers some of the most sweeping views and rugged adventures for those who seek them.



There's plenty to go through, so let's jump right in!


Highlights:

  • Grand View Point Road

  • Grand View Point Overlook (1.8 miles)

  • Orange Cliffs Overlook (0 miles)

  • White Rim Overlook (1.8 miles)

  • Buck Canyon Overlook (200 feet)

  • Murphy Point Overlook (3.4 miles)

  • Green River Overlook (0.2 miles)

  • Upheaval Dome Trail (1.6 miles)

  • Mesa Arch Trail (0.6 miles)

  • Shafer Trail Overlook (0 miles)

  • Visitor Center Overlook (0 miles)

  • Drive to Needles District

  • Big Spring Canyon Overlook (0 miles)

  • Pothole Point Trail (0.6 miles)

  • Hamburger Rock Campground


Total mileage: 10.0 miles


Favorite Adventures: Grand View Point Overlook, Green River Overlook, Mesa Arch Trail, and walking around the Big Spring Canyon Overlook in the Needles District.


Check out this leg of my road trip in this video!


I got an early start on my first, frosty morning. When I'm camping, I tend to go to bed and wake up early with the sun. Not only does this feel awesome and aligned with nature, but helps maximize my daylight hours for adventures.


My first stop this day was the Island in the Sky Visitor Center. I always try to stop at the visitor center when I'm visiting a National Park for the first time. They have pertinent information about closures, peak flower or animals seasons to keep an eye out for, classes and events. I'll ask the rangers for recommendations too if I'm at all unsure about how to spend my time. Since I was so early this day, the center wasn't yet open. I grabbed a map and went on my way.


From the visitor center, I was off to visit as many viewpoints as possible. I drove as far into this area of the park as possible, continuing on the main road until Grand View Point Overlook. This 1.8 mile trail is highly worth the time and was one of my highlights of Canyonlands -- we love getting off to a strong start! I started this short hike around 6:30 in the morning.


Large red rock formation under a cloudy sky
The view from the end of the Grand View Point Overlook trail.

Because of how early I went and the time of year (early March), I saw only one other person on this trail. It was incredible having the viewpoint entirely to myself and enjoying the still morning in my sweats.


With the sun now fully risen, I made a quick stop at the Orange Cliffs Overlook for breakfast. I pulled out my backpacking stove and made myself some classic camping instant oatmeal with an incredible view.


A deep, red canyon with the sun just illuminating the farthest area.
View for my first breakfast at Orange Cliffs Overlook.

Next up was White Rim Overlook just down the road. This is another 1.8 mile trail that takes you to a completely different view. I got started here just before 9:00 a.m.


The beauty of the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands is that you're high up and get a bird's eye view of the incredible formations below. That's exactly what I got at the end of this trail.


This overlook is east-facing and gives a view of the Colorado River, Monument Basin, and the La Sal Mountains in the distance (when skies are clear enough).


A deep canyon with white rock lining the edge of the opening.
White Rim Overlook.

The canyons below have so many layers and intricate shapes. It somehow didn't feel real and the vastness left me stunned. I love the way the stone forms those rectangular blocks around the rim that look like they could fall in at any moment. I would absolutely return with a 4WD vehicle to explore the roads down in this canyon.


I made a quick stop at the Buck Canyon Overlook, which requires just a minute or two of walking from the parking lot. The ease of access to this overlook was about equal to the payoff of the view; I wasn't as impressed with this one as the others so far.


A canyon with white rocks lining the rim.
Buck Canyon Overlook.

Driving farther up the road, I stopped for my longest hike of the day at the Murphy Point Overlook Trail. This 3.4 mile trail takes you along an easy-to-follow path toward another viewpoint.


Large canyon and snow-covered mountains in the distance.
Murphy Point Overlook.

This one features the Green River flowing through the canyons below. You can also see the White Rim Road winding across the surface. This overlook really gave the feeling of vastness that's so rare in everyday life, but seems to be abundant in Canyonlands.


Pro tip: If you're looking to shave some time off your Canyonlands leg of the trip, skip Murphy Point. The 3-mile trail takes around two hours and you'll get a similar view at the Green River Overlook.


Shifting again down the road, we're stopping at the Green River Overlook. This is a quick stop with the overlook just a few minutes walk from the parking lot. This is the best alternative to Murphy Point if you don't have time for a longer hike. The views here are also incredible and feature -- the Green River!


Large canyon with a river flowing through it.
Green River Overlook.

The landscape looks like a painting and it was hard to comprehend it as real. I'm eager to return with more time and a high clearance vehicle so I can explore that lower area up close!


Moving onto a different type of view, we're headed to the Upheaval Dome Trail. This trail offers two options for viewing the dome, which has an unknown origin. At these viewpoints, you'll see the many colorful layers of rock that have been pushed up into a dome shape in the middle of a crater. I recommend reading up on the two main theories of its creation on the NPS website for some background!


Which theory do you think sounds the most plausible?


A large crater with many layers of colorful rock built up into a dome inside.
Upheaval Dome Second Overlook.

I recommend hiking to the second overlook for the best view of Upheaval Dome. The additional mile added to your journey is worth the view if you have time. At this point in my day, it was 12:20 p.m. and I still had plenty of time left for a few more stops.


Returning to my car, I made my way over to the Mesa Arch Trail. This is a stop I would not miss on any length visit to Canyonlands. The 0.6 hike won't take much of your day and offers incredible views of the canyon through a large, wide arch.


Landscape of large canyons and rock spires seen through a wide arch.
Mesa Arch.

This was one of the few places in the park that had a bit of a crowd when I went, but it was still easy to get up inside the arch and snap photos without anyone in them. The arch itself is incredible, but combined with the view seen through it -- such an awe-inspiring sight!


Now that it's early afternoon, I was getting ready to stop for a lunch break. For meals, I like to stop at viewpoints along the road that don't require hiking. This way I can park my car with the back facing the view and prep and eat my meal from the trunk. For this lunch, I stopped at the nearby Shafer Trail Overlook.


A dirt road winding down into a huge, layered canyon.
Shafer Trail Overlook.

The view at this overlook was beautiful, but not as epic as some of the hike out ones. It still got the job done for a scenic lunch break. Stopping here made me want to come back with an off-road vehicle!


I made one more quick stop at the Visitor Center Overlook on my way out of this section of the park. The view here was similar to the Shafer Trail Overlook and had the stunning La Sal Mountains in the back.


A canyon with a road going through it and snow-capped mountains in the back.
Visitor Center Overlook.

Now it's time to leave the Island in the Sky and drive out and over to the Needles District, where we'll spend the rest of our time in Canyonlands. I would have loved to have had more time in this district, but felt I got a good feel for the park with the bird's eye view in Island in the Sky. When I return, I'll spend more time in the other districts!


I started by scoping out a campsite for the night at the Hamburger Rock Campground. Since there wasn't another soul in sight, I went off for more exploring before the sun set on me. If it wasn't so empty, I would have set up camp to claim a spot first before leaving.


I continued driving as far into the Needles as possible, stopping at the Big Spring Canyon Overlook at the end of the road.


Large rock spires towering over a canyon.
Big Spring Canyon Overlook.

Big Spring Canyon is a jumping off point for many long trails within the Needles District, such as getting to The River Confluence, Elephant Canyon, or Wooden Shoe Canyon. Check out all the Needles hiking information here.


I stayed nearby and took in the amazing rock formations. It was a unique experience having been a thousand feet up in the Island in the Sky district just a couple hours before and now being down in the middle of the canyons I was just looking down into. It felt like being in a completely new landscape.


Polaroid being held in front of the same scene it shows: rock mesas jutting out from a canyon.
Polaroid of the Needles District.

It was around 4:30 p.m. by the time, so I had just enough daylight left for a quick hike. Driving back toward the campground, I pulled off at Pothole Point to hike the 0.6-mile trail.


A desert landscape with many small puddles formed in pockets in stone in the foreground.
Pothole Point Trail.

This short loop brings you around a slickrock area marked with many holes that are often filled with water. These potholes contain unique ecosystems and a surprising amount of biodiversity. It's important to avoid stepping in the holes, even when they're completely dry.


Satisfied with my last hike of the day and having racked up around 10 miles by now, I made my way back to Hamburger Rock to set up camp. This campground exceeded my expectations for a first come, first served spot. There are 10 campsites that each have a picnic table, a fire ring, and plenty of flat space to set up your tent and park your car or trailer. There's no potable water, but there are vault toilets available.


Red rock formations in front of snow-capped mountains.
View from Hamburger Rock Campground.

I chose a site facing this beautiful skyline and soaked it in before getting myself ready for the chilly night. The picnic tables were super convenient for preparing food and setting out any items I needed before bed.


A pair of feet sticking out the trunk of a car and facing a stump and a picnic table between large, red rocks.
My campsite at Hamburger Rock.

I set myself up in the trunk of my car to stay warm while my water boiled on the table. I enjoyed the peaceful, early evening with a hot meal and cozy clothes. All the campsites at this campground were nicely isolated in nooks around these rock structures. If I returned to the area, I'd definitely come back here. The self-serve station on site also makes it easy to check in and pay without needing to make any advance reservations.


A white Prius parked between layered, red rock structures.
Hamburger Rock Campground.

It's easy to see where Hamburger Rock got its name when viewing the layered rocks from the side. Their rounded shape really reminds me of a burger patty.


I was happy to see how well maintained this area was as well. I hope it stays that way for generations to come.


I got a peaceful night of sleep after this long day of exploring Canyonlands. Tomorrow is another early morning as we get ready to explore a new park: Arches.


Check out my Guide to Arches National Park next!


Thanks for coming along on this journey with me and I hope to see you out there.


Happy adventuring,

A

31 views0 comments

Comentarios


bottom of page