Canyonlands National Park: Island in the Sky

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By Crystal Egli

This Christmas brought us to Canyonlands National Park. Canyonlands is an enormous park, divided up into 3 sections; Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze. Over Christmas break we went to Island in the Sky and Needles, but didn’t have time (or a 4 wheel drive vehicle) to see The Maze. Island in the Sky is comprised of scenic overlooks which are easily accessible by car or easy, flat hikes. Needles is filled with tightly packed monoliths, making it obvious how it got its name. The hikes are a bit more difficult, with many staircases and several scrambles over steep rock faces. Some hikes take you to scenic overlooks and some take you down into the Needles.

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Canyonlands National Park

Both Island in the Sky and Needles are easy to get to if you’re staying in Moab; the entrance to Island in the Sky is about 30 minutes north-west, and Needles is about an hour’s drive south. Yep, that’s how big the park is. The Maze, which I have not yet been to, is made of deep canyons that you can hike through, horseback ride in, mountain bike around, or take a back-country jeep tour of, amongst many other activities. Imagine an outdoor playground made for people who love deserts, and that’s The Maze. Remember that movie 127 Hours, based on a true story where that guy was mountain biking around in the awesome desert and got his arm stuck in a rock and had to cut it off? Yeah, that was in The Maze in Canyonlands, and that’s why I’d certainly love to go there, with a hired guide. I’m certainly not cutting off my OWN arm.

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For now, let’s head back to the safety of Island in the Sky.

Click here for directions to Islands In The Sky.


Canyonlands National Park – Island in the Sky

If you’re planning to visit Canyonlands you’re going to want to spend a couple days doing it. There is absolutely no way you can visit all 3 sections in one day even if you never got out of your car. There is just too much to see in Canyonlands, not even including Arches National Park right next door. Island in the Sky is a 35 minute drive from Moab, a small town that’s incredibly cheap to stay in during the winter months, like we did. The perks of visiting Canyonlands in the winter is that the lodging is cheap and the parks are nearly empty, (it’s the opposite in the summer,) but the trade off is that some of the park roads are closed. We are able to access everything in Island in the Sky, so don’t worry about that here. You will just have trouble in Needles and The Maze around this time of year.

IMPORTANT INFO: There is no water available in Island in the Sky. Bring plenty of your own.

I’m going to break down Island in the Sky into sections; feel free to open this map in another tab to follow along.



Island in the Sky – Mesa Arch

When you enter the park, the first thing you’ll want to stop at is Mesa Arch, the trailhead of which is about 6 miles past the visitor center. The loop is an easy 1/2 mile, the halfway point being the arch itself.

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Mesa arch beautifully frames the landscape to the east, so get there for sunrise if you want some kick @ss shots. (We did not.)



Another 6 miles down the road will take you to Grand View Point Overlook. The Grand View Point Overlook trail is an easy, 2 mile out and back trail that brings you to the peninsula of the Island in the Sky mesa. If you’re not up for the full 2 miles, you can see this view right from the parking lot…

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Island in the Sky – Grand View Point Overlook

…and the trail follows the cliff edge the entire way, so you’ll never lack for something scenic even if you decide to turn back early.

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Island in the Sky – Grand View Point Overlook trail.

There are no guard rails so you’ll want to keep small kids far away from the edge. Don’t worry, in the shot above there was another ledge just below my legs– I was in no danger of falling to my death.

At the end of the 1 mile hike out, (the 1/2 way point,) you are rewarded with a beautiful view of what I can only assume is the namesake of this section of the park, the “Island” itself.

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Canyonlands National Park – Island in the Sky

If you look at it upside down, I guess it is in the sky…?

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Canyonlands National Park – Grand View Point Overlook Trail.


As with all the trails in Canyonlands we hiked, Grand View trail was well marked with cairns, (pronounced “Karen”, if Karen was one syllable,) which are piles of rocks that lead the way.


Island in the Sky – Grand View Point Overlook trail.



Island in the Sky – Grand View Point Overlook trail.

These were like fancy rich-people cairns. Usually they’re just precarious stacks of weird shaped rocks.


Grand View Point Overlook was as far as you can go via car, but we passed a couple more great spots so let’s backtrack now. About half way between Mesa Arch and Grand View lies Murphy Point.

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Island in the Sky – Murphy Point Trail

This trail is an easy 3.6 mile out and back trail that provides sweeping views to the east, where you can see The Maze in the distance. If you don’t have time for this trail, don’t worry too much. The views are almost exactly the same as the ones from the end of Grand View. If you have to choose between the two, pick Grand View. However, if you’ve got the time this is a very nice stroll.

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Contrary to it’s name, it’s not a dome, it’s a giant hole in the ground. Imagine looking into a deep crater that doesn’t really look like a crater should… that’s Upheaval Dome.

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Island in the Sky – Upheaval Dome

Signs indicated that they aren’t sure if it was created by a meteor or by salt doing something in the ground that pushed up and then collapsed(??), but by the name of it it seems that they’re leaning toward the salt theory. We did the trail to the first and second overlooks, not the one that went all the way around. It was incredibly cold and windy by the time we got here, so we saw the crater, took some pictures, and went back to the car. The trail is 1 mile to the first overlook and another .8 to the second. That trek takes you scrambling up steep rock and down staircases carved into ledges. Keep an eye out for the cairns, as there is virtually no actual trail for the most part; it’s difficult to beat a path across barren rock.


The Island in the Sky portion of Canyonlands National Park is an awe-inspiring place to visit, with many easy trails that lead to spectacular pay offs. And if you go in the winter, it’s even better because you’re not fighting the crowds and the heat. A word of warning– don’t bother going when it’s foggy or bad weather is predicted. As you can see from the pictures, 98% of the park’s beauty lies in the distance.

Stay tuned for my next post in 2 weeks when I take you into The Needles. Until then, happy trails!

– C. Egli

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