Canyonlands Adventure: 2-Day Itinerary with Kids at Island in the Sky and Needles

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Though Canyonlands is the least visited National Park in Utah, it’s one of our family favorites. We visit here more than any other Utah National Park, and if you know where to look, you can find some incredible adventures off the beaten path in Canyonlands that your kids will love. This itinerary will guide you through a day in each of the most popular areas of the park and what the best places to take kids are: Island in the Sky and the Needles District. As Utah locals who explore here several times a year, we’ve crafted the best Canyonlands with kids itinerary for you and your family!

Canyonlands needles district utah desert

Navigating Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands is unique because of its deep canyons and the Colorado and Green Rivers, making many areas inaccessible by car. The park is divided into three sections: The Island in the Sky in the northeast, The Needles to the southeast, and The Maze to the west. Since driving between these sections takes significant amounts of time, we recommend dedicating a full day to one district at a time.

The Needles and Island in the Sky Districts are the most accessible and family-friendly, while The Maze is very remote and rugged, requiring a 4×4 vehicle and backcountry skills.  We’re focusing our Canyonlands itinerary on The Needles and Island in the Sky since those are the places our kids keep asking to go back to over and over again.

Canyonlands needles district utah desert
Driving the famous Elephant Hill 4×4 Route in The Needles District

Our favorite Canyonlands adventure is biking the White Rim Trail, a 100 mile long 4×4 road through the bottom of Island in the Sky. It’s hard, but one of the coolest things we’ve ever done as a family. You can read all about our White Rim biking trip here.

White Rim With Kids

You may also want to read these articles to help you plan your trip to Utah:
Best things to do in Moab with Kids
Arches National Park Itinerary for 1, 2, or 3 days
Our Favorite Easy Moab Hikes
Best Moab Hotels for Families
Hiking Delicate Arch with Kids
Canyonlands Packing List

Canyonlands Itinerary Day 1: Island in the Sky

Island in the Sky is about a 40-minute drive northwest of Moab. It’s easily accessible and full of adventure. Here’s how to make the most of your day with kids:

Holeman Slot Canyon, White Rim Canyonlands Backcountry

Sunrise at Mesa Arch

Start your day early at the iconic Mesa Arch. The 0.5-mile trail to the arch is easy, even for young children, and the reward is spectacular. As the sun rises, it shines through the arch, illuminating the canyon below in stunning orange hues. While you won’t have the arch to yourself, especially during sunrise, the view is worth sharing with other early risers. This magical moment sets the tone for your day in Canyonlands and will give kids a good confidence boost before you set out on some longer hikes.

Mesa Arch

The trail to Mesa Arch is flat and well-marked, making it suitable for small children. Ensure you have a flashlight or headlamp for the early morning hike, and bring a light jacket as it can be cool before the sun comes up. Kids will love watching the landscape light up with the sunrise, and it’s a perfect opportunity for family photos.

TIP: If you can’t get the kids out of bed before sunrise, still plan on stopping at Mesa Arch soon after you get to the park.

Stop at the Visitors Center for a Junior Ranger Book

If you came in for sunrise, the visitor center wasn’t open yet, so go back to it, and take some time to show the kids around.  This is the perfect time to grab a junior ranger book, and to teach your kids a little about the desert ecosystem.  I especially encourage you to learn about cryptobiotic soil while you’re there so your kids know how to identify it and why to avoid walking on it.

While you’re there, make sure to top off all of your water bottles.  This is the only place in the park where you can grab water, so take advantage of it.  When you’re at the visitors center, take a few extra minutes and head across the road, for a great viewpoint that most people skip over!

The view near the visitors center…and yes, we did have 11 kids/teens with us on this trip!

Grand View Point Overlook

After the visitors center, head to Grand View Point Overlook. The 2-mile round-trip trail is easy and offers breathtaking views of the park. Kids will enjoy the relatively flat path and the impressive vistas at the end, making it a great family hike. Be sure to take lots of photos to remember your adventure.

Canyonlands island in the sky district utah desert

The trail provides several viewpoints along the way, which can help keep children engaged. It’s a great place for kids to spot different rock formations and possibly see some wildlife. The path is mostly flat with a few rocky areas, so make sure everyone wears sturdy shoes.

Upheaval Dome Hike

By midday, visit Upheaval Dome, a geological mystery. Scientists are still debating whether it was caused by a meteorite impact or a collapsing salt dome. You have two hiking options: a short, 1-mile hike to the first overlook, or a 1.8-mile hike to the second overlook. I would let the heat of the day determine how far you go.  If it’s getting hot, opt for the shorter hike to keep energy high and to avoid heat related illnesses.  

The unique landscape and the mystery surrounding its formation make this an intriguing stop for kids and adults alike. The first overlook is easier and more accessible, making it suitable for younger children. The second overlook involves a bit more climbing and scrambling, which might be fun for older kids. Pack plenty of water and take breaks in shaded areas to keep everyone cool and hydrated.

Lunch with a View

Pack a lunch and head to the Green River Overlook. The wide, sweeping views make any meal feel special, and it’s a perfect spot to relax and recharge. Kids can explore the area while you enjoy the scenery. Again, remember to pack plenty of water and take breaks in the shade.

The overlook offers panoramic views of the Green River winding through the canyons below. It’s a wonderful place for a picnic, with plenty of space for kids to move around and stretch their legs. Bring a blanket or portable chairs for a comfortable meal.

Afternoon Adventures in Canyonlands National park

Spend the afternoon exploring more of the park. Consider the Aztec Butte hike, which takes you to ancient Puebloan granaries. This 1.5-mile hike with a 250-foot elevation change is moderately challenging but offers stunning views and a glimpse into ancient history, which can be fascinating for older children. There’s some scrambling involved, which adds a bit of adventure but might be challenging for very young children.

Aztec Butte offers a mix of history and hiking. The trail involves climbing up a butte and exploring ancient granaries built by the Puebloan people. Kids can learn about the history and culture of the area while enjoying the hike. Make sure to supervise them closely during the scramble sections.

Sunset at Murphy Point

End your day with a sunset hike to Murphy Point. The 1.8-mile round trip is easy, and the sunset views are breathtaking. As the sun sets, the sky transforms into vibrant colors, creating a beautiful and peaceful end to your day. Murphy Point is less crowded than other viewpoints, making it a perfect spot for families to unwind and for the kids to run out the last bit of their energy.

The trail to Murphy Point is relatively flat and straightforward, making it suitable for all ages. Bring a flashlight or headlamp for the hike back to the car, as it will likely be getting dark. The expansive views from Murphy Point at sunset are a perfect end to your day.

Canyonlands island in the sky district utah desert

Canyonlands Itinerary Day 2: Needles District

The Needles District is more remote than Island in the Sky and is about a 1.5-hour drive from Moab. To beat the heat, start your day early (again).

Newspaper Rock Historic Site

Plan to arrive at Newspaper Rock by 7 AM. Located along UT-211, Newspaper Rock is a state historic monument featuring a large rock panel covered with ancient petroglyphs. Spend about 15 minutes here to admire and photograph the rock art. It’s a fascinating and educational stop for kids, sparking their imaginations about ancient cultures.

Newspaper Rock is an excellent opportunity to teach kids about the history and culture of the area. The petroglyphs are well-preserved and easy to see, making it a quick but interesting stop before heading into the Needles District.

Canyonlands needles district utah desert

Chesler Park Hike

Next, drive to the Elephant Hill Trailhead inside Canyonlands, about 45 minutes from Newspaper Rock. The road to Elephant Hill is rough, so be prepared for a bumpy ride. Start your hike to Chesler Park, one of the most spectacular destinations in the Needles District. 

This 6-mile round-trip hike is moderately difficult and involves some scrambling and narrow sections, but truthfully, I think it’s always easier for the kids than for the adults, since they kinds of see the whole setting as a giant playground to run around on and climb. The trail winds through colorful spires and sandstone formations, offering stunning views at every turn. Make sure you take at least 2 liters of water per person, snacks, sunscreen, a hat, sunglasses, and a map or GPS. Starting early ensures you can enjoy the hike and return before the afternoon heat climbs.

While a 6-mile hike might sound a little overwhelming with kids, I really believe this one is worth it.  It’s my kids favorite hike in The Needles and we even took them backpacking in here when our youngest was 4-years-old.  They will LOVE the slot canyons once you get into the rocks at the far end of Chesler Park, so make sure to keep going across the meadow to get there.  For younger kids, you’ll definitely want a child carrier for this hike!

Despite the crazy faces, I promise they’re having fun!

Picnic at Big Spring Canyon Overlook

After your hike, drive to Big Spring Canyon Overlook. This easily accessible spot offers breathtaking views without requiring a strenuous hike. It’s a fantastic place for a picnic lunch, with lots of big rocks for kids to climb on and to find a shady spot to eat.

Canyonlands needles district utah desert

Wooden Shoe Overlook

Your next stop is Wooden Shoe Overlook, just a short drive away. This overlook offers a fantastic view of a rock formation that resembles a wooden shoe, standing out starkly against the desert backdrop. Spend about 15 minutes here taking photos and enjoying the unique landscape. It’s a memorable stop for the whole family, but nothing strenuous.  Wooden Shoe Overlook is a quick and easy stop that provides a fun photo opportunity. The distinctive shape of the rock formation makes it a favorite among kids, who will enjoy pointing out the “shoe” and taking pictures.

Cave Spring Hike

By around 3 PM, head to the Cave Spring Trailhead for the Cave Spring Hiking Trail. This 0.6-mile loop trail is an easy hike and perfect for kids of all ages.  It features historical cowboy artifacts, a cave with springs, and a climb up two ladders for a panoramic view of the area. It’s a perfect hike for kids.  The short hike and the shade provided by the cave make it a good choice for the afternoon heat. The historical aspects of the trail offer a glimpse into the park’s cowboy past and Native American heritage, which can be fascinating for kids.

Canyonlands needles district utah desert

Cave Spring Hike is one of the most interesting short hikes in the Needles District for kids, and the ladders are always a favorite with my kids (and they usually do them each several times).

Canyonlands needles district utah desert

Wrapping up The Needles District

By 4 PM, wrap up your time in The Needles and head back to town for dinner. If you’re looking for an iconic place to have a picnic dinner with a view over Canyonlands, head to the Needles Overlook. It’s off a dirt road north of Canyonlands, but the sunsets here are out of this world. There are shade structures at the top to help you beat the heat.

Needles Overlook is a fantastic place to end your day. The views are expansive, and the sunsets are spectacular. It’s a perfect spot for a family picnic dinner, with plenty of space for kids to run around and play while you enjoy the view.

Where to Stay near Canyonlands Needles District

If you’re looking for a great place to camp just outside of the Needles District, check out the Needles Outpost.  It’s really well set up and very family friendly.  On our last visit there, we stayed in the teepees which gave us a glamping experience, but the price was incredibly affordable.  

teepees at Needles Outpost Canyonlands

Safety Tips for Canyonlands National Park

The desert may look empty, but it can be dangerous if you’re not prepared. Here are some essential safety tips to ensure a safe and enjoyable visit:

Stay on Designated Trails and Roads

Cryptobiotic soil, also known as biological soil crust, is a living groundcover crucial to the desert ecosystem. Walking on it can destroy it, so it’s important that kids know how to identify it and why not to walk on it.  It prevents erosion and retains moisture. Always stay on designated trails and roads to avoid damaging this fragile soil. Walking off-trail can destroy years of growth in seconds.

Bring Plenty of Water

The desert environment can be extremely dehydrating. Carry at least one gallon of water per person per day. Dehydration can set in quickly, especially during the hot summer months. Ensure you have enough water for everyone in your group and plan for extra supplies in case of emergencies. Don’t rely on a water filter as a backup since there is almost no fresh water here.

To keep our kids hydrated, we find that they drink the most when we give them a hydration pack, or when we add electrolyte drink mix to their water bottles.  I don’t recommend putting a drink mix in a hydration pack since they’re difficult to clean.

Have Adequate Gas

There are no gas stations within Canyonlands National Park, so make sure your vehicle has a full tank before entering. The remote nature of the park means running out of gas can lead to a dangerous situation. Plan your fuel needs carefully, especially if you’re exploring any off-road areas.

Wear Sun-Protective Clothing

The sun in Canyonlands can be intense. Wear lightweight, long-sleeve shirts, long pants, and a wide-brimmed hat to protect your skin from harmful UV rays. Sunglasses with UV protection are also essential. Apply sunscreen with a high SPF to any exposed skin and reapply it regularly, especially after sweating.
If you need packing tips, make sure to grab our Canyonlands Packing List!

Pack Plenty of Food and Snacks

Bring enough food to sustain you for the duration of your visit, plus some extra in case of delays because hungry kids can make a trick difficult to manage! High-energy snacks like nuts, dried fruit, and energy bars are excellent for keeping your energy levels up during hikes. To keep things simple, we often take bread, peanut butter, and honey so we can make sandwiches whenever the kids get extra hungry (without needing to refrigerate deli sandwiches).

Carry a Detailed Map and Compass or GPS

Cell service is unreliable or non-existent in many parts of Canyonlands. Always carry a detailed map of the area and a compass or GPS device. Know how to use them and plan your route in advance. It’s easy to get disoriented in the vast, rugged terrain, so reliable navigation tools are crucial.

Dress in Layers and Be Prepared for Weather Changes

The weather in Canyonlands can change rapidly. Mornings and evenings can be chilly, even in the summer, while midday temperatures can soar. Dress in layers so you can adjust to changing temperatures. Pack a lightweight jacket or sweater for cooler times of the day.

Prepare for Emergencies

Carry a first aid kit that includes bandages, antiseptic wipes, pain relievers, tweezers, and any personal medications. The combination of sandstone to run on and climb and kids mean that you’re probably going to see a few scrapes during your family trip to Canyonlands.  Know basic first aid procedures and be prepared to treat minor injuries or illnesses. A whistle and mirror can be lifesavers if you need to signal for help.

Respect Wildlife and Maintain Safe Distances

Canyonlands is home to a variety of wildlife, including snakes, lizards, and birds. On our last trip to the Needles, our kids saw a rattlesnake.  It’s important to teach kids to observe animals from a distance and never approach or feed them. Feeding wildlife can be harmful to them and dangerous for you. If you think that your kids might need to learn more about respecting wildlife, Canyonlands has several ranger led programs about wildlife that our kids have been really receptive to (much more than listening to mom and dad). 

About Jessica Averett

Hi, I’m Jessica, a mom of 5 kids and married to my favorite adventure partner. I love to bike, ski, camp and hike. We've visited over 40 countries with our kids, but are equally happy on the road as we are exploring our home state of Utah.

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