Canyonlands: Island in the Sky

With only one day to spend in Canyonlands National Park, we decided to focus our efforts on the section of the park known as Island in the Sky. Renowned for its awe-inspiring overlooks and vistas, Island in the Sky comprises one of four distinct areas in Canyonlands, including The Maze, Needles, and Rivers. Each area offers impressive solitude and rugged terrain, but Island in the Sky seemed best suited to our family’s needs, especially given its proximity to our lodging in Moab.

Island in the Sky, Canyonlands National Park

After stopping at the Visitor Center to pick up Junior Ranger packets, we headed out to Mesa Arch. We hiked the short 1/2 mile trail, enjoying the unexpected pops of orange and white desert blooms contrasted against the slickrock and dirt. I’d seen photographs of Mesa Arch before our visit and was surprised by how small it seemed in person. (Then again, we had just spent four days in Arches National Park, so my perspective was probably a little skewed.) And then I took a step closer, and the view. Oh, the view. Photographs do little justice in capturing the expansive and majestic nature of this view.

Early morning, Mesa Arch, Canyonlands
The view through Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park

From here, we took Upheaval Dome Road to Whale Rock trail, a one-mile must-do for kids and adults alike! Seeing the bleached whale in the rock requires a little imagination:

Whale Rock, Canyonlands National Park

Climbing this slickrock behemoth was a highlight for our entire family. The kids loved climbing the tail and following the cairns along the whale’s back. There are even handrails near the top to aid your ascent to the spout. Our youngest had a blast testing his shoes’ traction against the slickrock, dubbing his hiking boots, “Spider Man grippy shoes.” Whale Rock may not seem all that impressive from the road, but the 360 degree view of Canyonlands from the top is stellar.

Atop Whale Rock, Canyonlands
Whale Rock, Canyonlands
The view from atop Whale Rock, Canyonlands
Ascending the spout, Whale Rock, Canyonlands

We drove a little further to Upheaval Dome and hiked the 2 mile (roundtrip) trail to the second overlook for Upheaval Dome. Geologists aren’t sure how Upheaval Dome was formed. One theory suggests that the dome was a result of a meteorite impact. A more widely accepted theory suggests that the dome was formed by the collection and expansion of salt moving upward through rock layers. The walk to the main (first) overlook is easy enough for all ages, but the hike to the second overlook involved narrow ridges and some exposure. Blustery winds can also be a concern with children here, especially in exposed areas with drop-offs.

Upheaval Dome, Canyonlands National Park
Blustery winds at the main overlook, Upheaval Dome, Canyonlands

We stopped and cooked lunch under a cute picnic shelter just outside of Upheaval Dome, boiling water for soup and distributing sandwich fixings. The kids worked on their Junior Ranger Packets for an hour. One thing I love about the Junior Ranger booklets is that they’re meant to engage kids for a good length of time; booklets often take hours to complete–badges are truly earned! Many questions require short answers and even essays for older children; other questions require recording sensory experiences along hikes or attending a Junior Ranger talk. All of the activities enhance kids’ experience and can help drive a park visit in a focused way if you are in need of an itinerary.

After lunch, we drove to Grand View Point Trail, located 12 miles from the Island in the Sky entrance on the main park road. From here, we hiked 2 miles roundtrip along Grand View Point Trail to some of the most stunning scenery we have ever seen. The views from this cliffside trail took our breath away.

IMG_20140616_125134-PANO (1)
Grand View Point Trail, Canyonlands
View at the end, Grand View Point Trail, Canyonlands
Scenery for days, Grand View Point Trail, Canyonlands
On top of the world, Grand View Point Trail, Canyonlands

There were a few exposed areas, but with adult supervision, kids should do just fine on this hike. The overlook from the parking lot is great, but it absolutely dulls in comparison to the scope and view you get along the trail. Hiking Grand View Point Trail is an experience that makes you feel small and insignificant in the best possible way.

The kids had had their fill of hiking by this point, so we filled the late afternoon with stops at various overlooks.  Our final stop was the Visitor Center, where the kids turned in their Junior Ranger packets. The park ranger was fantastic and spent a lot of time checking the kids’ work and talking to them about their Canyonlands experience. I know I sound like a broken record, but if you have children, the Junior Ranger program at any of the National Parks is always well worth the time and effort.

Getting sworn in as Junior Rangers, Canyonlands National Park

After a long day of exploring and hiking, we celebrated my husband’s birthday at Tamarisk Restaurant in Green River, UT. The food and service were outstanding, and the kids loved tasting chicken fried steak for the first time. With reasonable prices, great food, and friendly service, I’d highly recommend this restaurant to families traveling through the Moab area.

Tamarisk Restaurant, Green River UT
Enchiladas at Tamarisk, Green River, UT

Canyonlands National Park has so much to offer, I only wish I had allotted more time here so we could have explored the Needles district, too. Here are my tips for families visiting Canyonlands National Park:

  • Pack food and water: There are no restaurants or deli counters at Canyonlands. With Moab more than 40 minutes away, you’re looking at spending over an hour driving for a lunch or snack break unless you bring food with you. There are great covered picnic shelters in the park. Why not make a day of it, and enjoy your picnic lunch outside? Trail destinations make great lunch spots, too.
  • Get out and hike: Canyonlands is an easy park to see by car (ideal for those with mobility issues), but the best views and experiences can be had by hiking. Do as few or as many hikes as you like! The great thing about Island in the Sky is that most of the trails are short, 2 miles roundtrip and under–the perfect distance for little legs.
  • Participate in the Junior Ranger program: Kids and parents will learn so much more about the geology, wildlife, and plant life in Canyonlands through this program than they will from any guidebook or park newspaper.
  • “Don’t bust the crust:” Avoid straying off-trail. The soil in Canyonlands is live cryptobiotic soil composed of microorganisms that feed the plants in the park. Walking on the soil kills the biological soil crust. The NPS adopted a catchy slogan to remind visitors–don’t bust the crust!


15 thoughts on “Canyonlands: Island in the Sky”

    1. Hi, Gary! Unfortunately, we didn’t make it to Dead Horse Point. You’re right–it was right in the vicinity, and we just ran out of time. I guess that means we’ll just have to return someday. 🙂 Thanks so much for stopping by!


    1. Happy to hear that you can make use of the tip! There are lots of great picnic spots there, and the covered shelter by Upheaval Dome is especially nice for cooking a hot lunch. Can’t wait to read your trip report…your family is going to have a great time!

      Liked by 1 person

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