Canyonlands National Park: Island in the Sky

Canyonlands National Park is one of 5 National Parks located in Utah. The park is divided into four sections or districts. Island in the Sky is the most popular and it is located on the north end. The Needles district is located on the southeast end, and the two sides do not have access to one another. The southwest side is called The Maze, and is undeveloped for serious backpackers and campers. The fourth district is called The Rivers and refers to exploring on the water through Canyonlands.

This guide will help you know the stops we made while in the Canyonlands National Park Island of the Sky section. We spent one day, and we also stopped at Dead Horse Point on the way to Canyonlands. These two parks are a great pair for a day adventure.

Island in the Sky

The visitor’s center at Island in the Sky is small, but they have a few small displays and a gift shop. The rangers offer great ranger talks and we made sure to participate in the Junior Ranger program. All the bathrooms in the park are pit toilets, so don’t plan on flushing anything porcelain while you’re visiting. The rangers helped us find a few hikes and all the essential turnouts for our three boys ages 1-7 years old.

The Island in the Sky section of the Capitol Reef is shaped like a giant Y with the visitor’s center on the upper right arm. As we drove down to the junction, we passed a few pullouts that look down into the canyon lands that this park is named for.

This map is from the National Parks site. Click on the image to see it larger.

Mesa Arch

Our first stop in Canyonlands was Mesa Arch. Our 1 year-old did this entire half mile hike with very little help. The trail ascends to the rim up some shallow stairs and comes to the edge of the canyon. An arch, different from those in Arches stands at the edge. Getting too close to the arch could be fatal as it drops hundreds of feet, so keep a hand on little ones. The arch looks fairly small at first, but it extends down the cliff pretty far. There are some great photo opportunities, and this was one of our favorite spots in the park. The trail loops back to the car, and the hike is really pretty.

This is the busiest spot in the park, but luckily the parking turns over quickly since it is such a short hike. We arrived here in the late morning, but if you were here bright and early, then we recommend coming back so that the lighting is a little better. Afternoon offers better light at Mesa Arch. Just skip this stop and add it to the end of all the others on your way out.

The trail is pretty easy, but it does climb up to the arch.
Mesa Arch
Mesa Arch has a beautiful view.
The mountains in the background. 😍

Aztec Butte

We turned at the junction and stopped at the Aztec Butte trail. The Aztec Butte trail takes you two miles roundtrip up a large butte, with a side trail to see some ancient Aztec buildings.

If you want to stick with a shorter hike and see the Aztec granaries (used for storing grain, obviously), make sure to head left at the signed junction. This section of the trail is about 0.5 mild roundtrip.

The granaries.

To climb to Aztec Butte is a challenge for young families. Steep slick rock, hand-over-foot climbing and an eventual summit over the rim greeted us. It was pretty difficult for our boys age 4 and 7, and Dad with a baby on his back (Mom is like mountain goat. She only lost her shoe once). The views are beautiful if you can make the climb. The total distance here with the granaries side trip is 2.0 miles.

This is the butte you climb.
Canyonlands Aztec Butte trail.
We climbed up all that slick rock.

Whale Rock

Further along the Upheaval Dome road is a trail to Whale Rock. This trail is a lot of fun for kids because you explore all over the slick rock. You do have to climb a little up the rocks to get on top of Whale Rock, but the views are stunning. You can see how the long row of rocks look like a whale’s body. The total distance is 0.8 miles roundtrip.

Whale Rock is a fun hike.

Upheaval Dome

At the very end of this road is an interesting hike that is a bit steeper and includes a short scramble across the slick rock. They call this area Upheaval Dome, and we hiked only as far as the first overlook (.8 miles RT).

When you reach the overlook, you can see down into a hole that has sharp white points sticking out of the ubiquitous red rock. It looks a little like teeth jutting up from sore gums. Scientists point that one of two things happened: either salt pushed it’s way to the surface of the red rock, or a meteor struck here thousands of years ago. The signs leave it up to you decide.

Upheaval Dome is a mystery. What caused this?

Green River Overlook

As you head back to the junction with the main road, make sure to take the side trip down to the Green River Overlook. The drive is across from Aztec Butte, but we always stop here on the way back since it is on the right side of the road. The walk over to the overlook is paved, and it is worth it. This is one of our favorite views in Canyonlands National Park.

You can see the Green River that carved these canyons.

Buck Canyon Overlook

This is a short stop, but we enjoy the view of Buck Canyon with the mountains in the background. The path is paved, so wheels can enjoy this stop. It only takes a few minutes, and is easy to do on the way to Grand View Point, or on the way back.

Grand View Point Overlook & Trail

Finally, we drove down to the bottom end of the main road for the Grand View Point Overlook. This point is the highlight of Canyonlands Island in the Sky District. There are panoramic views here that allow you to see all the way into the haziness of Colorado as you are hundreds of feet above the valley floor.

The viewpoint is beautiful!

There is an also simple trail with views along the canyon rim. It is a mile out and a mile back, but you can choose to walk as far as you’d like. We walked for most of the distance and enjoyed all of the different angels into the canyons. This trail has stars and some slick rock walking.

There are some great views at Grand View Point Trail.
The trail walks along the rim.

Other Info

We also stopped at the Shaffer Road overlook. Here you can look down on the road that heads into the valley floor. It is 100 miles long and requires high clearance, 4×4 drive, and experience in backcountry driving. We want to drive it one day!

This is part of the 100 mile road. We want to go back some day and drive it!

We also want to hike the White Rim Overlook. Our boys were worn out, so we skipped this trail. It is 1.8 miles, listed as easy, and has panoramic views. If you have time and energy, you probably want to add to your list. For a full list of all of the kid hikes we did in Canyonlands, check out our list here.

Canyonlands National Park: Island in the Sky section is a good day adventure for families. Make sure to check out Arches National Park and Dead Horse Point State Park because they are both so close to this section of Canyonlands. If you’d like more info about the Needles section of the park, check our our blog post here.

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This Post Has 3 Comments

  1. Wayne LaMont

    Visited in November 2018. Loved it and hope get back sometime.

    1. Natalie Ockey

      We hope to go back soon, too! It has been too long! We are glad you loved it as much as we did!