Mesa Arch Canyonlands National Park

Explore Canyonlands National Park with Kids (hiking, camping, arches, 4X4 roads)

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Planning a trip to Canyonlands National Park?  This complete guide to planning you visit has everything you need.  After exploring the park with my own kids,  I tell you how to plan your visit, things to do with kids, where to stay and more.
Ultimate Guide to Canyonlands National Park

As part of the series on visiting Moab, I wrote this complete guide to visiting Canyonlands National Park with kids. Why – because there is so much to do in Canyonlands it is worth the trip. After exploring the park with my own kids, I tell you how to plan your visit and things to do at Canyonlands National Park with kids. Plus, I’ll give you some insight into what activities to skip and ideas about where to stay.

Note: Our series on Moab includes 18 Things to do in Moab and Fun Facts about Moab

Some areas are that are not particularly family-friendly are too remote or take technical backpacking experience. While other areas we explored are just right for families. Many hiking trails and sites in the Islands in the Sky and the Needles areas are especially kid-friendly.

In addition, the National Park Service helps kids get the most out of their visit, through the Junior Ranger program available at two loacations in the park. This educational program offers badges and certificates for completing certain tasks and activities.

About the Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky Entrance with Kids
Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky Entrance

Although Canyonlands National Park is the largest national park in the United States, it is one of the more remotely located. But it is worth the trip for the vast canyons, scenic buttes, amazing arches, and Colorado River.

You will find plenty of opportunities for hiking, mountain biking, off-road driving, and camping. In addition, the park’s rivers offer fun boating and rafting. You can discover dinosaur tracks and petroglyphs if that’s what you are interested in.

Canyonlands National Park is divided into districts by the rivers that flow through the park. The districts are Island in the Sky, The Needles, The Maze, and the rivers themselves. All have a desert atmosphere, but each has its own distinct features and visitor center.

The park provides a downloadable set of maps of the districts, available at the National Park website here. We reccomend using these maps to plan your visit and to drive rahter than GPS.

Island in the Sky District

The Island in the Sky district, which is most popular with families, is where our family has spent the most time. It is located at the northern end of the park and easily accessible from Moab or Arches Naitonal Park.

The entrance is only 10 miles (16 km) north of Moab or 22 miles (35 km) south of I-70 on US 191. It is also withing a halof hour from Arches National Park.

Family enjoying Musselman Arch  Trail in Canyonlands National Park - best hikes for kids in Canyonlands
Family enjoying Musselman Arch Trail in Canyonlands National Park

Island in the Sky is situated on a mesa with sheer sandstone cliffs rising over 1,000 feet above the river valley. You can enjoy a scenic drive along the mesa while stopping at the overlooks to get spectacular views of the Colorado and Green River Valleys. It is home to the famous Mesa Arch and Grand Point View and other easy hikes for kids.

The Needles District

The Needles district is located near the southeastern side of the park and is accessible but more remote than Island in the Sky. Named for the colorful spires of Cedar Mesa Sandstone. It is a good place for sightseeing, hiking or four-wheel driving.

Needles has short kid friendly hikes, prehistoric rock art and a cowboy camp that are exciting for families. The best hikes for kids include the Roadside Ruins (0.3 miles), Cave Spring (0.6 miles), Pothole Point (0.6 miles) and Slickrock Trail (2.4 miles).

The Maze District

The third district is the Maze, located on the western side of the park is th least accessible. It is only reachable from the west following long unpaved roads.

This district is the most challenging one in the park and requires a certain degree of self-sufficiency. It is therefore not recommended for families with children.

The Canyonlands Rivers

Views of Canyonlands National Park along the White Rim Road.
Views of Canyonlands National Park – Credit Depositphotos oscity.

The Colorado River and the Green River that flow through Canyonlands National Park are the fourth district. The rivers and their tributaries are responsible for carving the spectacular canyons posing layers of sandstone cliffs in the park.

The rivers provide for a different and cooler experience of the park. Paddling the calm waters of Green River through Stillwater Canyon comes highly rated thing to do in Canyonlands by families who have taken their kids on this adventure.  National Parks Traveler has an article about Running the Rivers in Canyonlands.

One thing to consider while planning your trip that the park covers 527 square miles, so planning in travel time is important! In fact, you will most likely not be able to see everything you want to see in one trip to Canyonlands, so think of what you’d most like to see and do. And if traveling with kids, I recommend focusing on the Islands in the Sky and/or the Needles Districts.

History of the Canyonlands

The Canyonlands National Park consists of 337,598 acres of desert wilderness in Northern Utah. Its many valleys and natural wonders were shaped over the centuries by the Colorado River, Green River and the tributaries (and other natural forces).

The area has been visited and inhabited by people for 10,000 years. Ancient nomadic people left rock art and structures throughout the park.

It was only in the twentieth century, though, that it became a protected natural area.

The area was first established as a tourist site in 1936 with the designation of the Escalante National Monument by Franklin D. Roosevelt. Between the 1950s and 1960s, there was a public movement to make the whole area a national park.

In 1964, President Lyndon D. Johnson signed a bill into law that established the Canyonlands National Park. Horseshoe Canyon area was added as a park district in 1971.

Plan Your Visit to Canyonlands

Canyonlands National Park is vast and full of things to do with kids. If you are visiting the Moab Area, I reccomend you plan a visit to Canyonlands for at least one day and up to 3 days.

Permits are required for daily and overnight visits to the park, and additional permits required for some activities like boating and camping. See the park website for further details.

Scenic Drive Canyonlands National Park
Scenic Drive Canyonlands National Park

When to Visit

Although the Canyonlands National park is open in all seasons, it’s important to take weather conditions into consideration when planning your visit. This area is the “high desert” which means hot summers, cold winters, and rapid temperature shifts by as much as forty degrees Fahrenheit.

Wintertime can be nice to visit if you like less crowds. Keep in mind, though, that there are also less services (though always some park ranger presence). During winter, temperatures can be as high as 40-50 degrees F during the day and can drop well below freezing (20 to 0 degree F) at night.

Dress in layers, and be prepared for the weather. During our last Moab vacation at the end of November, we woke to 4 inches of snow! The snow and ice can make trails hazardous.

During the summer highs can range from the 80s to over 100 degree Fahrenheit. Summer visits therefore also require some special planning. Between the months of June and August, avoid hiking during the hottest part of the day when possible. And of course, always drink plenty of water. Late summer has thunderstorms and flash flooding.

The best time to visit Canyonlands National Park is spring or fall, when temperatures are relatively moderate, averaging 60-80 degrees Fahrenheit. We have enjoyed our visits in November with warm sunny days and very few people in the parks. For current conditions, see NPS weather.

Getting to Canyonlands

When you travel to the Canyonlands National Park, expect to do a lot of driving. The Park can be reached by car from U.S. 191, which connects to I-70.

  • Island in the Sky is north of Moab, UT on UT 191 and UT 313 leads to the visitor center
  • The Needles is US 191 south of Moab and then UT 211
  • Only unpaved roads reach The Maze and it is not recommended for kids

Therefore, a road trip will likely be at least part of the adventure. We have many resources for road trips that you need including Tips for a Road Trip with Toddlers, and Driving Checklist for Winter Road Trip

Note: Cell phone service is limited, so don’t rely on GPS. Do bring old-fashioned maps!

Even if you are flying to the region, your travel may still involve a significant amount of driving. The closest major airports, Salt Lake City International Airport is 288 miles away. Alternatively, Denver International Airport offers connecting flights to Canyonlands Field.

Additional information: How to find cheap flights for your family

Amtrak or Greyhound bus can also get you as far as Grand Junction, Colorado or Green River, Utah. There is no pubic transportation directly to the Canyonlands National Park.

Things to do and see at Canyonlands National Park

Viewpoint Canyonlands National Park - best things to do with kids
Viewpoint Canyonlands National Park

Stop at one of the Canyonlands Visitor Centers

Canyonlands National Park Island in the Sky Visitor Center Junior Ranger Program
Island in the Sky Visitor Center Junior Ranger Program

The first thing to do when you visit the Canyonlands National Park is to check out the visitor center of the district you are visiting (each district has its own). For a family vacation with kids, I assume that you are at either Island in the Sky Visitor Center or The Needles Visitor Center. The Maze (Hans Flat) Visitor center, like the Maze district, is the most remotely located.

Some of the visitor centers have gift shops where you can by books, snacks, souvenirs, and supplies.

The Islands in the Sky and the Needles have the Junior Explorer packs for kids. These packets contain tools and information to help your kids get the most out of their visit. Then when you exit the park the kids can be sworn in and receive a Junior Ranger badge.

Best Kid-Friendly Hikes in Canyonlands

Wherever you and your family choose to hike, you can be sure that there will be plenty of interesting trails to choose from. Some trails connect with each other, making them easy to combine. All trails are marked with stone piles called cairns. Keep in mind that the cairns might get snow-covered if you come to Canyonlands in the winter.

But regardless of where or when you hike, when it comes to the formations, look and photograph, but don’t touch!

Best Short Hikes at Island in the Sky

The Island in the Sky district in one of the most-family friendly regions of the park and features relatively short easy trails and plenty to see. We spent time hiking these trails with a toddler and kids.

Note: Many of the trails in Canyonlands lead to arches and overlooks with no guardrails. I was very nervous and held tight to my toddler.

Mesa Arch

Toddler and big kids at Mesa Arch Canyonlands National Park
Mesa Arch Canyonlands National Park – Family Travel Fever

Our first stop at Island in the Sky was the famous Mesa Arch. The short Mesa Arch trail is only a few minute’s drive from the visitors center and a gravel half-mile trail. The trail is easy and the view is spectacular, but I was very nervous and stood back to take the pictures.

Aztec Butte

Another great trail to take with kids is the Aztec Butte trail. It is a moderate (1.7 mile)trail that leads to some ancient and reconstructed Navajo granaries along the way.

Crater View Trail to Upheaval Dome

For a more challenging, but still doable hike, try the Crater View trail. This 1.5-mile trail takes you up 200 feet, where you can find two overlooks from the Upheaval Dome. From the overlooks, you can view a massive crater that was likely caused by a meteorite centuries ago.

Best Hiking Trails in the Needles

The Needles district also features some interesting and easy trails. My research and planning for our trip, I found these trails to be the best for hikes for kids in The Needles. We did not actually hike these trails but I have linked out to more resources for you.

Best Hikes with Kids Canyonlands National Park
Brothers hiking together in Canyonlands trail

Roadside Ruin Trail

One of the easiest and most interesting is the Roadside Ruin trail. This is a very short trail (0.3 miles round trip) that leads to the ruins of an ancient Pueblo granary. This trail requires a little driving to get to, but parking is available at the trailhead.

Pothole Point Hike

Pothole Point trail is also a very interesting short half-mile trial. It gets its name from the potholes that have developed along the slickrock trailside caused when rainwater is absorbed in the sandstone.

The water-filled potholes are home to many forms of small animal life. Walking this trail, you can learn how life can exist in a desert.

Cave Spring Trail

Although this hike is slightly more challenging it is a family favorite for many visitors including Utahs Adventure Family

This a 0.6-mile looped trail that features two ladders, that even some kids can climb! You can see a historic cowboy camp and prehistoric rock art.

Scenic Drives through Canyonlands National Park

Outdoor activities in the Canyonlands National Park are hardly limited to hiking and backpacking. If you prefer a driving adventure, the park offers several scenic drives. Some of the best drives are within the Islands in the Sky and the Needles Districts.

Island in the Sky Viewpoints and Overlooks

Shafer Trail 4X4 Road Canyonlands National Park
Shafer Trail 4X4 Road Canyonlands National Park

Driving through Islands in the Sky offers the best driving tour in the park where you can enjoy the best viewpoints from the pullouts. The Grand View Overlook, Green River Overlook and Shafer Road should not be missed.

From overlook of Shafer road, you can look down to the dirt road that winds to the bottom of the canyon. We chose to drive this road with the kids one year. We drove out and back, stopping at Corona Arch.

Shafer road is spectacular but not for anyone nervous about 4X4 driving.

The Needles Viewpoints and Overlooks

The 6.5-mile scenic drive from the Needles Visitor Center has several pullouts for short hiking trails, viewpoints, and a picnic area. The tour ends at Big Spring Canyon Overlook.

The best view of The Needles is from the Elephant Hill road.

Keep in mind that many of the roads in the area are unpaved, and four-wheel drive is required. All-terrain vehicles, however, are not allowed in the park.

Mountain Biking at Arches National Park

If all your family members enjoy bike riding, mountain biking can be a fun and adventurous option.

As with hiking, the easiest bike trails are found in the Island in the Sky and the Needles districts.

There are many guided mountain biking tours available to various destinations within the park. Organized group trips with vehicle support (carrying water, among other necessities) are highly recommended!

Many mountain biking companies offer day tours, some which include bike rentals. All are geared towards various levels of fitness.

Raft or Boat on the Rivers

Moab Rim Jeep Trail above Colorado River
Colorado River – Credit Depositphotos gwhitton

Exploring the Canyonlands National Park is not limited to land trails and roads. The Green and Colorado Rivers that shaped the canyons still wind their way through the valleys.

These rivers are great places to go rafting or boating. The flatwater parts of the river are suitable for canoeing, kayaking, and other forms of shallow water boating and rafting.

Born to Adventure blog reported on their experience canoeing the Green River in Canyonlands National Park.

Beyond the confluence of the Green and Colorado, the river turns to whitewater, at the class III-IV level. Whitewater rafting tours of various lengths are available, and the whitewater trips can include rafting to nearby Cataract Canyon as part of a two-day adventure.

Overnight river trips require permits, and there are additional requirements and permits for “packrafting” (like it sounds almost, a multiday combination of backpacking and rafting).

Check out the Rock Art of Horseshoe Canyon

If you are up to taking a long drive or horseback ride, the Horseshoe Canyon offers many things to see. This area is more suited for families with older kids than young kids and toddlers.

Horseshoe Canyon is best known for its ancient rock paintings in site known as “The Great Gallery.” This painted rock wall is considered the most impressive example of rock painting in America.

The Great Gallery is the Barrier Canyon style rock art and considered the best preserved in the country. The lifesize figures are painted with intricated designs in brown, red and white.

The hike to the petroglyphs is about 7 miles. The area is also known for its streams and mature cottonwood groves. Hiking& Wlaking suggests adding a night camping at Goblin Valley State Park to shorten the trip.

Camping in Canyonlands National Park

A visit to Canyonlands National Park can cover multiple day. When planning your trip, consider your options for overnights.

Camping in the park is great option if you want to experience the dark night sky and get an early start on the morning.

Campsites available both within the park and nearby.

Willow Flat Campground – Island in the Sky

Willow Flat Island in the Sky Campground
Campsite at Willow Flat Campground at Island in the Sky

The Island in the Sky Campground is Willow Flat and has 12 sites that fill quickly. The campground is open year-round, although winter nights would be quite cold. The fee is $15 and is first-come, first-serve basis.

There is no water at the campground so you must bring your own. RV spots are avialable but you must dry camp because there are no hookups. For More information.

Squaw Flat Campground – The Needles

The Squaw Flat Campground is located in The Needles District and set in  Utah juniper and pinyon pine. This campground is a little more remote than Island in the Sky and very quiet. The kids will enjoy climbing on the large boulders. It is best for tent camping or small RVs (maximum length 28ft).

Individual sites are open year-round with limited services in the winter months. Water and flush toilets are available seasonally. For a small fee, you can take a shower at the private Needles Outpost campground which is a 10-minute drive from the campground. Camp fees are $20 per night and three group sites. Sites are generally first come first served although some can be reserved in the spring or fall.

Backcountry Camping in Canyonlands National Park

In Canyonlands, there are many options for backcountry camping. Families can choose to camp as part of a off road drive, hiking trip or river trip. Some options are more suitable for kids than other truly remote backpacking trails.

Note: The fee for a backpacking, biking, or 4WD overnight permit is $30. You can pick up your permit at a visitor center or on the website.

White Rim Trail in Island in the Sky is a possibility for a biking and camping trip. The White Rim Trail is a 4×4 road and mountain bike trail through area. Devil’s Kitchen and Gooseberry campground are along the White Rim Trail.

This group of families chose to create a multi-day- vehicle assisted camping and biking trip along this 71-mile trail.

Camping in the River District on a couple day rafting or boating adventure would be fun for the kids.

Camping Near Canyonlands

Many public campgrounds and private campgrounds are located near Canyonlands and Moab. If you are visiting as part of a multi-day trip to visit the Moab area including Arches National Park and Deadhorse Point National Park, you might choose one place as your base camp. Lets face it, packing up a whole camp with kids can be a lot of work and no fun.

Camping in Arches National Park

One option is to camp at Devils Garden Campground in Arches National Park and make day trips to Canyonlands. Camping is popular for the views and the night sky. Campsites are reservable between March 1 and October 31 and fill months in advance. Flush toilets and water are available except in winter. The campground is best for tent camping and small self-contained RVs. Hookups are not available.

Camping in Dead Horse Point State Park

Yurt at Dead Horse State Park campground  near camping Canyonlands, Arches and Moab
Yurt at Dead Horse State Park campground

Two campgrounds (Kayenta Campground and Wingate Campground) and a yurt area are available at Dead Horse Point State Park. Featuring 20 RV campsites with tent pads, 11 tent only campsites, and 4 new yurts. Flush toilets and water are available but no showers. Electric hookups are at the RV sites and a dump station is available.

This campground is best for tents and RVs. We camped at Dead Horse Point State Park in November in our 35ft Travel Trailer. I can say we appreciated having the electric hookups for the cold fall nights.

Private Campgrounds Near Canyonlands

Many private campgrounds for tent camping and RV camping are located near Canyonlands and Moab. These locations offer full-hookups and some of the other luxuries of private campgrounds.

Needles Outpost is the closest campground to The Needles district entrance to Canyonlands. They are located only 1.5 miles from the Canyonlands National Park visitor’s center. The sites are $22 a night and can reserve not their website here.

Here is a list of other private campgrounds in the area if you would like to check availability and pricing.

Free Camping Near Canyonlands

Camping near Canyonlands National Park Moab
Kids making s’mores while camping

Dispersed camping is allowed on BLM, Manti-La-Sal National Forest and other public lands with a few rules to follow.

I have created a list of places to camp for free near Moab. Some of the links go to detailed trip reports by other bloggers. Another option is to stop by the BLM field office or the Forest Service Moab Ranger District office and ask for directions to the best dispersed camping spots.

Okieonomads has a very detailed explanation of the free camping that they have found. Some of the spots below are included on their list.

Camping in the desert is different than camping in the forest. If you choose to disperse camp you need a portable toilet to dispose of your waste. Gathering fire wood in the desert is prohibited.  Lately, bring plenty of water for drinking, cooking and washing. You will go through more water than you can imagine so allow 1 gallon per person per day or more.

Places to Stay near Moab

Kids on a bunkbed at a private Angel Rock Rentals in Moab.  Kids love this place to stay in Moab
Kids enjoying Angel Rock rental apartment in Moab

If you’d rather not camp out, you will need to drive to a nearby town for dining and lodging, neither of which is available within the park. The nearest towns to the park are Moab or Green River.

Moab has so many unique places to stay with kids. If you choose to stay in Moab make sure to check out our suggestions of 18 Fun family-friendly things to do in Moab.

I put together this list for you of unique ideas for place to stay. Of course this is not all inclusive list. Links are included to check availability and prices.

Wherever you choose to spend the night, be sure to enjoy some stargazing. When you’re far away from light pollution, you really can see at least 2500 stars on a moonless night.

Plan an unforgettable vacation with this free printable family trip planner
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    Final Thoughts on Visiting Canyonlands National Park

    When you visit the park, it is important to stay safe! Plenty of this involves common sense, but for this vast park there may be other factors, including the weather. Take appropriate precautions for each season. Always bring plenty of water for everyone.

    Take necessary precautions to avoid getting lost, even if traveling by car. Whether hiking or driving, it’s important to know that cell service is very limited here. Therefore, don’t rely on your mobile phone if something goes wrong. Stay together and let someone know where you are going— something that is especially important with kids

    If you are planning a trip to Moab Area we have even more resources that we wrote for you:

    Delicate Arch from Lower Viewpoint 4x4 road small
    Best Things to do in Moab – Family Travel Fever

    Canyonlands National Park is truly impressive as home to the the largest variety of natural wonders in one park. Have you ever gotten out to the Canyonlands National Park? What did you enjoy the most while you were there?

    Shauna Kocman founder Family Travel Fever
    Shauna Kocman founder of Family Travel Fever

    Hi, I’m Shauna – Welcome to Family Travel Fever.  We are a large family, that was bitten by the travel bug!  I take the kids by myself because I don’t mind flying or driving solo with my crew to discover the coolest places.

    Sign up for our email list for my best travel tips plus get the family travel planner free. 

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      1. Thanks! I found your article while looking for places to camp on BLM. The directions and GPS coordinates are so useful!

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