Visit any National Park during the off-season, and you’ll be able to escape the crowds and enjoy some solitude. But when you visit Canyonlands National Park in winter, peace and quiet is taken to a whole other level. Visitors are so rare in winter, the park’s visitor center shuts down, the gates are opened, and you’re free to come and go without a pass. And while you’ll have to put up with some chilly temperatures, and maybe some snow, you’ll still get to see everything.
Canyonlands National Park is located near Moab, Utah. To visit the Island In The Sky district (one of three park districts, and the most accessible from Moab), drive north from town on US 191, then turn left onto Utah 313. When the state route turns toward Dead Horse Point, continue straight ahead, and enter the national park.
I was hoping to see some snow on the ground during late January, when I visited Canyonlands National Park in winter. It had snowed a few inches the previous morning, but the white stuff doesn’t stick around for long in the desert.
So let’s begin the tour…
… with this stop outside the park. As U-313 climbs up onto the “Island” plateau, you’ll have a few nice viewpoints, including this one that overlooks the Monitor and the Merrimac buttes.
Once you’re in the park…
… you’ll pass by the visitor center, then continue south across “the neck” and up this delightfully curved stretch of road. Yes, there’s still some snow on the ground here!
Shafer Canyon Overlook, Canyonlands National Park in Winter
Also in this area, you’ll want to check out Shafer Canyon Overlook. This overlook allows you to make a short hike out to the edge of a cliff overlooking the canyon below.
You’ll notice a dirt road winding down the canyon wall — this is Shafer Canyon Road. It takes you down to White Rim Road, which runs along the edge of another cliff for miles. A four-wheel-drive vehicle is recommended, and even though I had one, I decided not to try it, because there were some shady patches that were still snowy and icy.
Keep going deeper into the park…
… and before long, you’ll come upon the short trail to Mesa Arch. Even when you’re visiting Canyonlands National Park in winter, you might find a crowd here at sunrise. I returned the next morning to capture the memorable moment — you can check it out here.
Just past the parking lot for Mesa Arch, you’ll reach a junction. Take a right onto Upheaval Dome Road. We’ll come back and finish the drive out to Grand View Point in a moment.
Green River Overlook
Just after the turn onto Upheaval Dome Road, take a left and drive out to Green River Overlook. When I visited Canyonlands National Park in winter, I was the only person here. I hung out for a while and enjoyed the silence, and nobody else ever showed up.
It’s a pretty incredible experience to have views like this, entirely to yourself.
The Island In The Sky district is bordered by the Colorado River and the Green River. The two meet at the confluence, just south of Grand View Point. But if you want to actually see the Green River, this is the spot.
Continue on out to the end of Upheaval Dome Road, and you’ll find…
There aren’t a lot of good, short hikes in Canyonlands, but this is one of them. From the end of the road, you can take a short jog uphill (about 3/10 of a mile, one-way) to the first viewpoint of Upheaval Dome — a puzzling geological formation, most likely (but not definitely) caused by a meteorite strike. I included some snow in this shot, just to prove that I was actually visiting Canyonlands National Park in winter.
Add another half-mile (one way) of hiking to reach the second viewpoint for Upheaval Dome. While the view of the dome is similar…
… the scenery along the way is really great, making the extra effort worth your while. You can read about the entire hike to Upheaval Dome here.
Backtrack to the main road, and continue the journey out to…
Grand View Point Overlook
The road ends at the southern tip of the “Island In The Sky”. From there, you can hike out a short distance further for one of Utah’s best views. Below, you can see the canyon carved by the Colorado River, as well as some side-canyons…
… filled with interesting totem poles and hoodoos.
Oh, and the stunning La Sal Mountains are over there, too, on the other side of Moab to the east.
During my visit to Canyonlands National Park in winter, it wasn’t completely desolate — there were some people at Grand View Point. But it was very easy to find the solitude I was looking for.
Here’s a look at the drive into Canyonlands National Park:
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The Bottom Line
Visiting Canyonlands National Park in winter is a great experience, especially if you want to enjoy this natural wonder without crowded parking lots and trails. Driving through the Island In The Sky district, and hiking a few short trails, can easily fill one day — but two probably isn’t necessary, unless you’re hoping to drive into the canyon or hike some longer trails.