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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.
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
About the Canyonlands National Park
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
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
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
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
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
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
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.
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
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
Things to do and see at Canyonlands National Park
Stop at one of the Canyonlands Visitor Centers
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.
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.
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.
Roadside Ruin Trail
One of the easiest and most interesting is the Roadside Ruin trail. This is a
Pothole Point Hike
Pothole Point trail is also a very interesting short half-mile
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
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
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
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 “
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
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&
Camping in Canyonlands National Park
A visit to Canyonlands National Park can cover multiple
Camping in the park is great option if you want to experience the dark night sky and get an early start on the morning.
Willow Flat Campground – 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
There is no water at the campground so you must bring your own. RV spots are
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
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
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
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.
- Archview RV Resort & Campground
- Moab Valley RV Resort & Campground
- Canyonlands RV Resort & Campground
- Kane Creek Campground & RV
Free Camping Near Canyonlands
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.
- Willow Springs Road on BLM lands
- Castleton Tower BLM access point
- Yellow Circle Road on BLM
- Copper Ridge Dinosaur Trackways
- Tusher Canyon
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
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.
- Private Apartments affordable for a family – we stayed here at Angel Rock
- Luxury property – Sorrel River Ranch Resort & Spa
- A fun ranch with activities and winery – Red Cliffs Lodge availability
- Hotel with a Pool and Water Slides – SpringHill Suites by Marriott
- Centrally located in Moab – Homewood Suites by Hilton Moab
- Budget hotel with a pool – Super 8 by Wyndham Moab
- Glamping and luxury tent – Under Canvas Moab
- Other options for hotels in Moab check Booking.com for availability
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.
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
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:
- 18 Fun Things to do in Moab
- Fun Facts about the Moab Area – Did you know it named after the place in the Bible?
- Complete Family Vacation Planning Guide – including printable template
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?
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.
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