Canyonlands National Park is divided by the Colorado and Green Rivers into three distinct sections: The Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the Maze.
The Island in the Sky District is the most popular area of the park, sitting atop a massive 1,500-foot tall mesa. It’s an easy drive from Moab and has the most accessible locations for hiking. The Needles District is located in the southeastern part of the park and is well-known for its sporadic outcroppings of rock spires. Needles is about a 2-hour drive from Island in the Sky, so it is worth your time to set aside at least a day for each district (or more if you can!). The Maze District is the remotest and most rugged of the three districts in Canyonlands National Park. This southwestern section only sees about 3% of Canyonland’s overall visitors!
Canyonlands is a paradise for photographers. Both sunrises and sunsets provide a range of photographic opportunities, with the changing of the light can make a huge difference in the intensity of the red rocks. Clouds also offer great depth as they cast their shadows.
Spring and Fall are the most comfortable seasons to visit the districts of Canyonlands, as summers become very hot and winters can get quite cold. The peaks of the La Sal mountains will be capped with snow in the spring and can give photos of the deep red canyons a beautiful contrast. Late summer will provide you with afternoon showers and storms, perfect for cloud cover and dramatic skies.
1. Shafer Canyon Overlook
While the overlook provides another expansive view of the stretches of Shafer Canyon, the focal point is Shafer Trail road. The dirt track winds its way through the valley and turns into narrow switchbacks for 4×4 vehicles to climb the steep canyon walls. It’s quite a neat sight to see an ant-sized vehicle coming into view as it cautiously makes itsr way up Shafer Road.
2. Green River Overlook
Be sure to check out this stunning view after hiking Aztec Butte! This overlook is a breathtaking view that goes on for hundreds of miles. You can see some bright slivers of the Green River flashing throughout the canyon. The best time to shoot the Green River would be in the late afternoon or close to sunset, when the late sun illuminates the canyon’s west-facing walls. Many photographers believe reflected light is what truly enhances the Colorado Plateau and makes the soft reds of the canyons pop with color.
3. Mesa Arch
Right on the edge of a sheer cliff, Mesa Arch is a popular destination at Island in the Sky. The hike is an easy 0.5-mile trail, marked by cairns and driftwood. This is a staple among Canyonlands photographers. Through the arch that spans 50 feet you can see the beautiful La Sal Mountains far off in the distance, as well as the famous Washer Woman rock feature standing tall to the left. The best (and busiest) time to photograph Mesa Arch is at sunrise. Be sure to stay a while after the sun rises as there is a bright red glow under the arch that lasts a long time.
4. Grand View Point Overlook
At the end of the winding road, the southern-most spot on the Island in the Sky, Grand View Point Overlook is considered to be one of the best views from the high mesa. The hike follows the canyon edge overlooking a grand sight, from the glimpse into the unique valley of free-standing spires to some amazing panoramic views as far as the eye can see. The La Sal Mountains will provide a dramatic backdrop to the Needles District, while the labyrinth of the Maze lurks to the southwest.
5. Dead Horse Point
Although Dead Horse Point State Park is not part of Canyonlands, it is on the way to the Island in the Sky District and provides you with a view that is well worth the stop. On one side, you’ll find swooping canyons with the La Sal Mountains touching the horizon; the other side overlooks a brilliant bend of the Colorado River. In the late 1800s, cowboys used the narrow mesa to corral wild mustangs onto Dead Horse Point. Unfortunately, some of the horses became stranded, giving the park its name. Personally, I will always recommend spending the sunrise at Dead Horse Point if you’re near the Island in the Sky one morning.
6. Elephant Canyon
While Island in the Sky is known for its expansive overlooks, the Needles District is a much more immersive experience. Named after the many needle-like pinnacles of rocks, Needles provides a number of trails worthy of scenic day hikes. Druid Arch is an enormous double arch that can be found at the head of Elephant Canyon. The arch is said to be rather difficult to photograph in midday lighting, but the surrounding canyon in which you just hiked through is beyond photogenic!
7. Chesler Park
Chesler Park is one for the photo books if you’re in Needles. The Chesler Park Trail is a 6-mile loop that features an entertaining variety of terrain. There are photo opportunities around every unique geological rock corner of the hike. A massive, circular meadow is surrounded by some of the tallest spires in the entire park with numerous cave-like passages and a towering, vertical-walled ravine throughout the Joint Trail. Trek over ridges with phenomenal views, through narrow slots, and weave in between tall rock towers. Some of the best photography at Chesler Park is taken just before dropping into the Elephant Canyon slot, where the views are equally as stunning at sunrise and sunset.
8. The Maze Overlook
This southwestern part of Canyonlands has the fewest amount of annual visitors as it is the least accessible. There’s no better place in Canyonlands to view the vast rugged expanse of the Maze District than from the Maze Overlook. From the overlook, you can see a few lonely pinnacles on the horizon, including Standing Rock and Chimney Rock. The first and closest mud-brown cropping is the Chocolate Drops. This view into the labyrinth of ancient sandstone is truly an unforgettable one.
9. The Dollhouse
The Dollhouse Granary is easily the most popular hike in the Maze District. The majority of its visitors are rafters of the Colorado River who stop at Spanish Bottom and come up to explore the spires and hoodoos of the Dollhouse. The Needle District can be seen from a section of the Dollhouse trail. These 100-foot rock pinnacles are a spectacular sight towering into any type of sky.
Don’t spoil the soil! As you explore the geological features and views throughout Canyonlands, please try to stay on the trail. Much of the Southeastern Utah desert has cryptobiotic soil that is actually alive and an extremely important part the desert ecosystem. Not only does it die if you step on it, but it’s also what keeps hillside erosion at bay. If a trail has not been established, try to hike in sandy washes or on slickrock.
Please remember to be courteous. Not everyone you come across in the park will be a photographer like you. Whether they’re in your way or not, they have every right to enjoy the national landmarks like you do! Sometimes people can add great scale to a photo. Be creative with your shots and have fun!