With so much to do, see and explore during a Colorado summer, it seems almost counterintuitive to even think of leaving the Centennial state this season. Despite the plethora of adventures to be had at home, one of the best, and often underrated aspects of Colorado has less to do with what lies just within our borders.
The Great American Southwest—a region that’s inspired generations of artists, poets and musicians to dedicate their lives to describing its supreme beauty—offers a diverse, and sometimes, other-worldly experience. While Colorado is technically a part of the Southwest, what defines this region is far from the mountainous terrain of the Rockies. Just a short drive southward of Denver you’ll find a land punctuated by the drama of soaring monuments, hollowed by the deep score of canyon walls and personified by the uneasy camber of breathtaking arches.
One of the best places to experience this surreal and unparalleled beauty is in Utah’s Canyonlands. Just an hour outside of Moab, you’ll find 527 square miles of secluded, pristine land.
This guide will give you everything you need to know for (at least) one trip to the Canyonlands, but that doesn’t mean there aren’t many more ways you can enjoy and explore this mystical place. So the next time you have a free weekend, take the extra time and give yourself the opportunity to experience one of the greatest, dare we say underrated, parks the Southwest has to offer.
COVID-19: make sure to bring a mask, hand sanitizer and practice social distancing as well as leave no trace. Also please review restrictions and Utah’s COVID-19 info before you go.
How to Get There
Approximate drive time from Denver: 5-7 hours
Click on the map to see more
While the drive to out of state can seem daunting, the trip to Canyonlands is easily done as a half-day trip. If you manage to skip the traffic, there are several stops worth taking along the way.
Smokin’ Yards BBQ, Idaho Springs – Some of the best BBQ in the state. It’s the perfect place for lunch or an end of the trip dinner on your way home
Casey Blending & Brewing, Glenwood Springs – While this hidden gem of a brewery has not yet open its taproom, it’s worth checking their schedule to see if they happen to have a release or event going on when you breeze through town. Seriously, it’s worth checking out. Currently, the next opening is June 4 from 11 a.m. to 4 p.m.
The Pullman, Glenwood Springs – If you’ve been to the sister restaurant, Harman’s Eat & Drink in Cherry Creek, then you can attest to the quality of Pullman. Serving up steaks frites, steelhead trout, vegetable risotto, decadent mac n’ cheese and even truffle pierogis, this eclectic restaurant is a good spot for a fancy late lunch or early dinner before heading into the wilderness.
Peach Street Distillers, Palisade – Need to stock up on some booze before you setup camp? Stop at Peach Street Distillers for some premium, locally made liquor including a fantastic Colorado bourbon.
- Pro tip: If you plan on bringing booze on your camping trip, make sure to stock up before Utah, as different liquor laws apply there.
Jailhouse Cafe, Moab – If you’re heading out of town and need a bite to eat, Jailhouse is a great greasy spoon for a classic hearty breakfast. Also, located in the former town jailhouse it comes with some local history, too.
Where to Camp
While there are only a handful of campgrounds located within Canyonlands National Park, there are also several options for camping just outside the park. The campgrounds vary from first come, first serve sites to group, reservable sites. They fill up quickly (almost every day March through June, according to the National Parks website), so it’s important to know all your available options before attempting to set up camp as there is no other lodging in Canyonlands.
First Come, First Serve Sites
- First come, first serve include Squaw Flat Campground at The Needles and Willow Flat Campground at Island in the Sky
- $15-$20 nightly fee
- Willow Flats has picnic tables, fire grates and vault toilets, but no water.
- Squaw Flat has picnic tables, fire grates, tent pads,flush toilets, and water available year-round.
- Click here to see a map.
- Group sites include Squaw Flat (50 people/10 vehicles); Wooden Shoe (25 people/5 vehicles); Split Top (15 people/3 vehicles)
- You can book a campsite up to six months in advance. Your group must be larger than 11 people.
- Go here to reserve a campsite/Click here to see a map.
Indian Creek Campgrounds
Click here to view a map
- Hamburger Rock Campground is located 3 miles southeast of Canyonlands National Park. It is just off the Needles Highway, which can be accessed from Highway 211. There are 10 sites, each site can hold six people and two vehicles. The fee is $6 a night and there are picnic tables, fire grates, pit toilet and NO water. It is first come, first serve.
- Creek Pasture Campground is approximately 5 miles southeast of Canyonlands National Park off the Needles Highway. There are 32 campsites, each campsite can hold 10 people and 2 vehicles. It is free to camp at Creek Pasture. It has there are picnic tables, fire grates, pit toilet and NO water. First come, first serve with some group, reseverable camping available. Call 435-587-1510 to make a reservation
- Superbowl Campground is approximately 6.5 miles southeast of Canyonlands National Park off the Needles Highway. Ther are 16 campsites can hold 10 people and 2 vehicles. It is free to camp a Superbowl now through September. There are picnic tables, fire grates, pit toilet and NO water. It is first come, first serve.
- Author’s note: This is where we camped during our trip. The sites were big with plenty of space between other lots and many flat areas to set up camp. We comfortably fit 16 people at this site.
- Indian Creek Falls Group Site is approximately 3 miles southeast of the entrance to Canyonlands National Park. To get to Indian Creek, turn north and drive for 2 miles on Lockhart Basin Road (CR 122). The site can be reserved in advance for groups of 10 to 30 people for up to 14 days. To reserve a spot call 435-587-1510.
- Dispersed camping is an option at Indian Creek with Pack in/Pack out policies enforced. Go here and scroll to the bottom to read specific rules and regulations.
Where to Hike
The Canyonlands is separated into three districts: Island in the Sky, Needles and The Maze. It is 527 square miles and therefore home to some of the most remote land in the United States. It’s very important you plan your hikes well, bring a map and more water than you think you’ll need. Hikes are often demarked by Carins, or rock stacks, as the trails are often easy to lose. Don’t go too far without checking to see if you can spot a Carin, otherwise you may find yourself lost. There are a ton of hikes you can do, but below is one tried and tested hike through the famous Needles region that is more than worth the trek.
The Needles Loop aka The Lollipop
- Distance: Approximately 10 miles, 15 miles if you hike to Druid Arch
- Level – moderate with some advanced hiking on the way to Druid Arch
- To get there drive to Elephant hill, then hike southeast to Chesler Park, hit Joint Trail, take the optional route to Druid Arch (worth it), before returning to Elephant Hill.
- Author’s Note: While it was the longest hike many of us had ever done, the long stretches of flat land, incredibly diverse views (including sweeping vistas, a network of narrow passages and vast caves) made the long journey incredibly memorable. If you have the stamina, the hike to Druid Arch is well worth your time. Not only is there a massive arch, but it has one of the best overlooks of the entire district.
- Pro tip: Bring plenty of water and sunscreen and do your best to hike early, as there are many shaded areas but also long spans of open, unsheltered land. Make sure to check the forecast and do not find yourself in the narrow passages during a storm in case of flash floods. Also, do your best to not go off trail as their is biological soil crust that holds is some of the oldest lifeforms known to mankind!
If all of this wasn’t enough to convince you to take a trip to The Canyonlands, scroll to watch a video of our adventures and to see more photos from the Needles Loop hike.