There is a LOT to do and see around Moab, Utah. The most immediate and obvious are Arches National Park, off-roading, rafting, and world class rock climbing. If you are willing to drive about an hour out of town, you can hit Dead Horse Point State Park and Canyonlands. These two parks take a little more effort to get to but can be just as rewarding.
Canyonlands has two different sections you can visit. The first is Island in the Sky, north of Moab and only a short drive from Dead Horse Point State Park. The other is the Needles District of Canyonlands, an hour drive south of Moab. Since there is not a readily available shortcut between the two sections, they end up requiring two different outings. But are they worth the time?
If you are short on time it can be difficult to decide what to give your time to. For your benefit, I have ranked the options when it comes to these two parks.
If you have just one extra day AND you want to do some hiking, head to the Needles District. In my experience, this is the most skipped option. It is also offers the most variety of landscape. Even if you do not plan on hiking, but you have the entire day available, this is the area to see.
To get to the Needles, start on US – 191 S, heading south out of Moab. Then turn west onto UT – 211 W. This is where things start getting interesting. The first big attraction is Newspaper Rock. This is a single wall covered in a variety of petroglyphs. You can get fairly close, and the drawings are close to the ground, so everything is very clear.
After Newspaper Rock, you will soon enter the famed Indian Creek Recreation area, where you can see climbers high up on the walls, navigating through cracks in the rock face. As you keep driving meadows will appear all around and (depending on the time of year) a sea of purple takes over the landscape. When we drove through in April this area was in full bloom.
Finally, you arrive at the Needles. At this point, there are so many options of what you can do. Camping, hiking, backpacking, or off-roading, the Needles District has a lot to offer. Since we had a large group with a variety of ability levels, we decided to stick to one easy hike and a handful of overlooks. Even with this limited experience this side of Moab really blew me away.
Our easy hike was the Cave Springs trail, a 0.6 mile trail with two ladders that passes an old cowboy camp. This is one of the coolest short hikes I have ever experienced. The first part of the trail dips in and out of overhanging shelves and is littered with a greenhouse of desert fauna.
After climbing the ladders, you are up above the Needles District. You can see needle formations off in the distance and have an opportunity to take in all the colors of this landscape.
The second part of the hike takes you up and over the rocky terrain. The only way to follow the trail is to stick to the series of cairns placed on top of the rock surface. Everything about this hike fascinated me and I highly recommend it. Can you spot all the cairns in this photo?
The best overlook we stopped at is at the very end of the road named Big Spring Canyon Overlook. There is a 10-mile hike at this point but, since we were not much of a hiking group this day, we just meandered around the point for about half an hour. This spot is filled with some of the most incredible formations. It is definitely worth spending some time.
I had been to Island in the Sky twice and was not very impressed either time. Honestly, besides Mesa Arch, I do not feel bad about telling people to skip it if they are on a time crunch. The Needles District is the exact opposite. I am adding this to the “must-do” list for a visit to Moab. Learn more about it here.
If you have only part of a day, or if you are splitting your time with Canyonlands, make sure to stop at Dead Horse Point State Park. Of all the places I have taken people in Moab, Dead Horse is the most surprising and most talked about after the fact. It is a deep canyon with a horseshoe shaped river meandering through. The canyon walls are vibrantly hued with a variety of colors. Off in the distance, the La Sal, Henry, and Abajos mountains round out the breathtaking landscape. Dead Horse is an easy stop for any group because the main viewpoint is a short, paved walk from the parking lot. It does, however, cost $20 per vehicle to enter.
If you have one day and you want to check off as much as possible, head to Dead Horse Point and Canyonlands – Island in the Sky.
Canyonlands – Island in the Sky is home of the famous Mesa Arch. This is a super easy, quick hike that almost anybody in your party can do. It does have some stairs but very little elevation gain overall. Island in the Sky also has the Aztec Butte, a trail that hugs the edge of a butte and passes ancient Puebloan granaries. To me, these are the only parts of this section of the park worth seeing. The canyon itself is subpar compared to the other ways you can spend your day.
If you are doing some off-roading or mountain biking, these recommendations might change. I have heard the White Rim Trail is the best way to see the Island in the Sky side of Canyonlands, and I believe all these people enough that I am willing to give it a try some day. Both Dead Horse and the Needles District also have incredible mountain biking and off-roading opportunities.
Drink plenty of water all the time. The desert is very dry and even on cooler days this can quickly take a toll on your body.
Bring something more than a smartphone camera. These landscapes are vast. A simple camera phone will not be able to capture the stunning intracacies that your eye can see.
Sunscreen up. In a 45 minute hike, on a nice cool day, I was able to burn my forehead a deep shade of burgundy.