Canyonlands National Park: Island in the Sky

Canyonlands National Park is one of 5 National Parks located in Utah, and the only one we hadn’t been to multiple times. The park is divided into three sections. 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.

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.

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

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. Read the sign carefully, or you’ll make the same mistake we did.

We really wanted to see the Aztec granaries (used for storing grain, obviously) and skip the longer portion of the hike. Unfortunately, we weren’t careful sign readers, so when we came to a fork in the trail, we went right (we always choose the right when we’re unsure). This trail led us to Aztec Butte farther back, and climbed right up the side.

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).

Canyonlands Aztec Butte trail.
We climbed up all that slick rock.

The trail led around the top of the butte and past an old Aztec structure, but people had added to the foundation, and it was obviously rebuilt– not very impressive. Then we climbed back down. 

When we reached the fork in the trail, we made the correct turn and climbed a small much more manageable butte and found the granaries. This hike would’ve been around a mile had we taken this route the first time, but our boys saw it as a bonus adventure. If you take this hike and want to keep it short and easy, make sure to choose the left!

Aztec Butte is in the background. We climbed that!
This structure is on the top of Aztec Butte
These granaries are much easier to climb to than Aztec Butte.

Upheaval Dome

We continued down this arm of the Y in Island in the Sky. At the very end 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 in Canyonlands
Upheaval Dome is a mystery. What caused this?

Green River Overlook

There is another short drive immediately across from Aztec Butte called the Green River Overlook. We stopped to look over, and it was very impressive. This is a necessary stop while you are in the park.

Green River overlook in Island in the Sky
You can see the Green River way out there that carved these canyons.

Grand Viewpoint Overlook

Finally, we drove down to the bottom tip of the Y (stopping at several overlooks along the way) for the Grand Viewpoint 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.

Canyonlands is full of beautiful rock formations.
There are a lot of canyons. A lot!!
The viewpoint is beautiful!

There is a simple trail with views along the canyon rim. Our kids were worn out, so we settled for looking at the viewpoint. But this might be a trail to add to your list if you still have the energy. More info on this trail on the Canyonlands website.

Other Info

There are a few other things for very serious adventurers in this section of the park. (Anyone up for a 100 mile drive in a high-clearance vehicle that drops 1,000 feet over the first mile and a half to the valley floor?) We felt like we spent just the right amount of time at Canyonlands: Island in the Sky.

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

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.

Dead Horse Point State Park has gorgeous views, too.

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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!