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Day Hiking in Canyonlands National Park

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Day hiking in Canyonlands National Park
Josh taking in the view while day hiking in Canyonlands

Ah, Canyonlands. So many units to choose from (three, actually), so many day hikes available. We set out on one just two days after hiking rim to rim across the Grand Canyon to see what the park had to offer. We actually planned to spend two days exploring, but that didn’t quite happen…more on that momentarily. However! we did manage to do a bit of day hiking in Canyonlands National Park and here’s what you need to know before you go!

Day hiking in Canyonlands National Park
The road into the Needles District at Canyonlands National Park

Choose a Unit

There are three “units” within Canyonlands National Park, none of which are connected. So you’ll have to choose which one to visit before you arrive. Or visit all of them. You do you. Island in the Sky is the most accessible and most popular with the most day hikes. Needles comes second and is peppered with massive, impressive sandstone rock formations known as needles. The Maze is the least accessible and mostly draws overnight backpackers. We went to The Needles unit because it was on the way from Flagstaff to Arches National Park.

The whole park is part of the Colorado Plateau, which means dusty trails, desert scrub, rock formations and the occasional riparian oasis. Basically, it’s the desert. No matter which unit you choose, it’s gonna be hot in the summer, cool at night, and have a whole lot of desert plants and wildlife (Ravens, anyone?).

You should also know that when driving into the Needles unit, you can go quite a way into the park without actually entering through a ticketed entrance. You can also see Newspaper  Rock, a rock face with ancient petroglyphs, without paying the $30 park entrance fee. However, if you have an annual National Parks Pass like we do, go as far as you want! It doesn’t cost any extra.

Day hiking in Canyonlands National Park
Part of the Sqaw Canyon Loop at Canyonlands

Choose a Trail

We were stoked to be doing a day hike again after slogging in the Grand Canyon with 30lbs on our backs. But if we were only going to hike one or two trails, we had to choose wisely. So we asked the advice of friends and park rangers and decided our first (and, as it turned out, our only) hike would be on the Sqaw Canyon Loop because the ranger had mentioned ladders and stunning views. We started from the Sqaw Flat Trailhead for the 7.5-mile, 4-hour hike, but somehow managed to take a wrong turn and have no idea what trail we actually took, but never found a ladder, so that was disappointing.

What wasn’t disappointing were the views. Several times along the trail we had to scramble up smooth, towering rock faces and from the top could see miles of wind-formed rock formations and red cliffs. Rock cairns (piles of small rocks) marked the path over rock faces where trails couldn’t be established, but it was actually on the scrubby trails that we missed a turnoff. The trails aren’t always super well marked, so keep your eyes open.

The best part? The only other person we saw in the entire 4 hours was at the trailhead, so we felt like we had the whole place to ourselves that June afternoon.

Day hiking in Canyonlands National Park
Josh and enjoying some day hiking at Canyonlands National Park

Come Prepared

Besides having a map and drinking water (hopefully those items are obvious necessities), make sure to bring along a hat for shade, especially in the summer, sunscreen, more snacks than you think you’ll need, and electrolytes. It can get hot out there, especially in long portions of the trail with no shade. There are provisions like Gatorade packets, Clif Bars and trail mix in the visitor center, so if you forgot to bring your own, pick some up there before heading out.

Day hiking in Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park

Good Intentions

You know what they say about good intentions…but we were planning on spending the night in the park, all ready to pitch the tent and settle in, but after the hike, we decided otherwise. Basically, it was hot–really hot–much too hot to embark upon another hike now that it was midday. It was also too hot to set up a tent and relax for a few hours, even in the shade, even if we wanted to go on an evening hike, which we weren’t sure we did. Also, we were getting kind of bored with the desert and wanted to see trees and mountains and the color green again.

So it went something like this: Sitting outside the visitor center trying to decide what to do next after refilling all of our water reservoirs, I looked at a map (particularly at how close we were to Colorado), looked at Josh, and said, “Well I don’t know why we didn’t think of this earlier, but here’s an idea…” I proposed driving straight up to Arches National Park, which was only about an hour and a half away, which would give us a few hours until sunset to enjoy Arches. Then, we could either camp nearby that night and return to Arches in the morning or set straight off to Colorado after breakfast and spend two nights in the mountains instead of the desert as originally planned.

He looked at me with a face that wondered why he didn’t think of that, made a scoffing noise, and put the car into gear. No discussion necessary. So with that, we checked day hiking in Canyonlands off the list and were on our way.

Day hiking in Canyonlands National Park
Newspaper Rock on the way into the park.

Experience Day Hiking in Canyonlands

Are we suggesting you only spend half a day in Canyonlands National Park? Not a bit. Stay as long as you want! Want to see what it’s like before making the trip? Check out our 360 video of day hiking in Canyonlands below!

Have you been to Canyonlands? What’s your favorite unit or day hike? Share it! Maybe we’ll check it out the next time we visit!