Six Things to Do in the Island in the Sky District at Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park was the first stop on my solo road trip exploring two National Parks in southeastern Utah (both very close to the gateway town of Moab) and all four designated National Parks in Colorado. Canyonlands National Park preserves over 335,000 acres of indescribable land from mesas to buttes to arches to colorful canyons carved into the Colorado Plateau. The park is comprised of four unique districts; Island in the Sky – a huge flat-topped mesa featuring views as far as the eye can see and the most visited district, The Needles – containing large rock pinnacles, The Maze district – starring remote canyons; and the Rivers – offering “world-class” boating opportunities. Fill up your gas tank in Moab and let's adventure, there are no services in this park.
Since I did not have a four-wheel-drive vehicle (or a boat!), I spent all of my time in the Island in the Sky district of the park and exclusively on paved roads – it was a solo venture after all! More than 94% of visitors to this National Park enter either the Needles or Island in the Sky districts. While you may have the desire to be a bit more adventurous, without further ado here are Six Things to Do in the Island in the Sky District within Canyonlands National Park while playing it safe (relatively speaking).
1. Stop at the Visitor Center – If it’s open, my first stop is always the Visitor Center no matter what National Park I happen to be visiting, that is of course after I snap some photos near the Park Entrance sign. The National Park Rangers at the Visitor Center are a wealth of knowledge and can help you plan your experience in the park, tell you current road conditions, issue backcountry permits, and even help you become a Junior Ranger (among many other things). While the exhibits in the Visitor Center were closed at the time of my visit (COVID-19 problems), Rangers were set up outside the building and the gift shop was open following social distance policies. Inquire if there are any Ranger Programs to learn more about the natural and cultural resources. Although I’m getting ahead of myself, you can also buy or rent a self-guiding driving tour CD for this region of the park at the Visitor Center (see point four).
2. Watch the Sunrise on Mesa Arch – While Mesa Arch is a very popular destination in Canyonlands for photographers, particularly at dawn, it’s a sight everyone will able to appreciate as you’ll be mesmerized by the underside of the arch lighting up by the rising sun. Just look at the first picture of the post! Photographers set out on the half-mile hike before sunrise and wait in anticipation to catch the rays of the sun at the horizon or beneath the arch. At least that’s what I did as an aspiring photographer! If you don’t want pieces of tripods in your photos or to get up before the sun, the underside of the arch does continue to illuminate for several hours after the sunrise. If the parking lot is too full on your way in, try again after visiting other areas of the park. After all, the changing angles of the sun and clouds provide a variety of lighting and textures no matter what time of day you visit.
3. Hike to False Kiva & Explore a Class II Archeological Site – This hike, although in a remote area of the park and even with the alcove being closed, was still extremely high on my list. After my first attempt of watching the sunrise at Mesa Arch was halted due to trail closures, I drove over to the parking area (Alcove Spring on Upheaval Dome Road) for the non-signed False Kiva trail and snoozed for an hour before setting off. I don’t believe this trail was ever officially on park maps and it’s certainly not on them now. In fact, the ceremonial place was closed in the summer of 2018 after visitors vandalized the area with graffiti. Vandalism had been an ongoing issue as people slept overnight without backcountry permits, started fires, and tampered with the rock formations. With that being said, IF you do venture out to this archeological site, please, please, PLEASE practice Leave No Trace principles.
Back from learning about LNT? Great, so once you find the parking area, walk back a few hundred yards and carefully cross the street. Find the trail and stick to it as there is biological soil crust & cyanobacteria in the area. The trail is rated as moderately difficult and requires careful attention to rock cairns as it traverses steep and sometimes loose rocky slopes. As the destination finally came into view across the canyon, I thought to myself “how am I getting across and up there?!” As I continued hiking, I lost sight of the alcove as I scrambled up and navigated over the rock ledge. After very mindful steps I reached the site and truly felt a spiritual aura.
Although it’s said to be human-made and thus given the name “False Kiva,” it is technically a real kiva (a location used for religious purposes) and is historical for the Native American tribes that have lived in Utah. If it’s not sacred, it’s ceremonial at the very least. Due to the vandalism previously mentioned, the alcove is roped off but you can still see the kiva and a majestic view that is unquestionably an iconic image and portrayal of the Southwest. For this trail, I’d recommend downloading the AllTrails map for offline use. Also, I want to note that although the trail is unmarked and the alcove is closed, you can hike to the site. I saw a Park Ranger hiking in as I was hiking out and while I stopped her to ask about the history, she didn’t say anything about trespassing, etc.
4. Tour the Entire Mesa Top & Marvel in 34-miles of Scenic Views – One of the reasons the Island in the Sky district is so popular is because of its accessibility. You can tour the entire mesa top with a 34-mile roundtrip drive. Maps are available at the Park Entrance and guides such as The Road Guide to Canyonlands – Island in the Sky District can be purchased at the Park Visitor Center. You can even buy or rent a CD featuring a self-guiding driving tour.
Personally, I drove all 34-miles, out to each overlook and picnic area, seeing and exploring as many different features as I could. Grand View Point, Green River Overlook, and Buck Canyon Overlook are all accessible to wheelchairs while White Rim Overlook, Upheaval Dome, and the Visitor Center all feature picnic areas.
One of my favorite areas on the scenic drive was Grand View Point as there is an easy 2-mile roundtrip trail of sorts that offers panoramic views the entire time, right along the cliff edge, making it a popular area at dusk as the sun sets over the canyon.
5. See White Rim Road – For me, playing it safe, I saw White Rim Road from several of the overlooks I mentioned in point three. For others looking for adventure with four-wheel drive vehicles or mountain bikes, White Rim Road is a 100-mile road that loops around and below the mesa top. Although you need an overnight or day-use permit, you can spend 2-3 days exploring the road by vehicle, 3-4 days by bike, or even 5-7 hours hiking from the mesa top down into the canyon, perhaps to White Rim on a variety of trails (Lathrop, Murphy Loop, Gooseberry, Wilhite, Syncline Loop, etc.). Please be prepared! Syncline Loop is the site of the most park rescues; hike in a clockwise direction to maximize afternoon shade.
6. Stay the Night – It’s worth staying the night nearby to see the sunrise at Mesa Arch (refer back to point 1!). If that doesn’t convince you, it is still in your best interest to stay in the area as one of the other "Mighty Five," Arches National Park, is a mere 10-miles from the Island in the Sky district, just across Highway 191!
While there are two designated campgrounds within Canyonlands National Park, one in the Island in the Sky district (Willow Flat; 12 first-come, first-serve sites) and one in The Needles (The Needles Campground; individual and group sites; some first-come, first-serve, some available for reservation), both were closed during my visit due to COVID-19 although slated to reopen on July 1, 2020. Backcountry camping is another possibility if you obtain a permit from the Visitor Center. Although also requiring a nominal fee, the Bureau of Land Management (BLM) operates a number of campgrounds in the area.
I reserved a tent campsite at Dead Horse Point State Park, 20-minutes from the Island in the Sky Visitor Center, but I was seriously tempted by the possibility of *glamping* in the glamorous Wingate or Moenkopi YURTS available for reservation within the State Park. Dead Horse Point State Park is one of Utah’s spectacular state parks (see also Goblin Valley) with its dramatic overlook of the Colorado River and Canyonlands National Park said to be one of the most photographed scenic vistas in the world.
As mentioned previously, Moab is the gateway to two incredible National Parks (Canyonlands and Arches) and full of hotels ranging from budget to luxury in addition to a host of dining establishments, including but not limited to a sushi restaurant! If you’re looking for a hot shower or bedframe with your mattress, Moab might just be your best bet.
Honorable Mentions – Full Disclosure: Though I didn’t do these hikes myself, I would be remiss to leave them out as I like to give myself (and you!) plenty of options to choose from while exploring the Parks that makeup America’s Best Idea. In terms of difficulty, all three are considered moderate hikes by the NPS.
Upheaval Dome: A unique feature especially for geology buffs but a marvel everyone will enjoy. It’s a one-mile short yet steep trail that will lead to a clear view in to the dome. There’s also the option to hike another mile for another overlook.
Aztec Butte: Scrambling up to slickrock and ledges, this trail is two-miles roundtrip and offers two options as the trail first follows a sandy wash before splitting. You’ll find spectacular views on the trail to the right and two ancestral Puebloan structures on the western trail as it drops below the rim. Once again, Leave No Trace; do not touch, enter, or climb on the archeological sites.
Whale Rock: Although moderate in difficulty, the one-mile trail leads up the side of a sandstone dome that’s shaped like a whale and popular with families as kids reportedly enjoy climbing the back of the whale. While steep drop-offs provide broad views of Island in the Sky, caution is warranted.
Visiting more than one district in a day isn’t practical for more visitors to Canyonlands. If you have more time, check out the National Park Service websites for what to do in The Needles district, The Maze district, Horseshoe Canyon, and the Rivers district. Enjoy!