If you love the great outdoors, there are not many places in the US more inviting than the spectacular array of national parks in Utah. Renowned as being the home of the “Mighty 5“, Utah is blessed to have a collection of natural landscapes that attract visitors from all across the globe. If you are planning a trip to Utah but only have a short amount of time, we strongly recommend visiting the Eastern side of the state to experience the inherent beauty of Arches and Canyonlands National Park. Both are located in close proximity to the town of Moab and if you only have 48 hours, we think a trip from Arches to Canyonlands is the perfect experience.
Whether you love hiking, admiring spectacular geological formations or experiencing breathtaking sunsets, Eastern Utah is a haven for all the above and much more. It goes without saying that visitors to both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks could easily spend 48 hours or more in each park, but there are still plenty of reasons to justify a trip if you only have a short weekend and want to experience the best of both in this timeframe.
Let’s take a look at some of the highlight attractions in this part of Utah along with the best route to experience both parks in this 48 hour period.
Arches to Canyonlands Route
If you are planning a visit to either Arches or Canyonlands National Park, you should be prepared for two of the more difficult parks to access. Located near the town of Moab, the closest airport is Grand Junction, Colorado which is a little over 100 miles away. For those that prefer to fly into larger airports, Salt Lake City is 4 hours away (235 miles) and Denver is 5 1/2 hours away (350 miles).
During our recent trip to Colorado and Utah, we experience the Denver to Moab drive and although we spent more than 48 hours on this trip, that was our allocated time to experience the Eastern Utah area. The beauty of visiting these two parks is that you can easily navigate between the two in a short time.
Arches National Park is the easier to navigate, given that there is one entrance and you could meander your way through the park and experience the highlight attractions. However, Canyonlands has a couple of entrances and you need to decide which landmarks you are most intrigued by.
The direct route (shown above) will take less than 30 minutes to drive between both national park entrances. The convenience of this means that you may choose to visit either park on multiple occasions across the 48 hours in the area.
Where to Stay in Moab
As you approach Moab, you quickly realize that this is a town that embraces the national parks that ultimately surround this town. To the West, Canyonlands and to the East, Arches. Both are spectacular in their own right and Moab serves as the perfect location to stay overnight while exploring the beauty of these two parks.
Here are a few recommendations on the best places to stay in and around Moab should you choose to experience these two gorgeous national parks:
- Hyatt Place Moab – If you prefer to stay in a higher-end luxury resort, this is a great place with gorgeous views overlooking the nearby mountains.
- Fairfield Inn & Suites – If you are wanting to stay close to Arches National Park, this is the perfect option at less than 3 miles from the park and only a 5-minute walk from the Colorado River.
- Moab Red Stone Inn – A more budget-friendly option offering rustic rooms, perfectly epitomizing the surrounding area, this is an ideal choice for those that just want a place to sleep and shower the next morning.
Regardless of where you choose to stay in Moab, there are plenty of other things to keep you occupied while in the town center. A variety of local restaurants, eclectic coffee shops, souvenir shops and much more will provide evening entertainment but of course, the real reason you are in Moab is to experience these iconic national parks!
Canyonlands National Park
Although Canyonlands National Park may not be the first place you think about visiting when planning a trip to Utah, after seeing this gorgeous natural landscape, this opinion is likely to change. Home to a myriad of breathtaking canyons, gorgeous buttes and even a few iconic geological formations in the shape of arches, Canyonlands epitomizes everything there is to love about an untouched national park.
As I mentioned earlier, Canyonlands is a little more difficult to navigate given that many of the iconic landmarks are spread wide and far across the 527 square miles of the national park. But, if you are planning on following our route, you are in luck and will get to experience a diverse selection of awe-inspiring landscapes, gorgeous geological formations and much more.
Let’s take a look at the highlights while driving along the Island in the Sky scenic route. For those that love hiking, Canyonlands is a dream destination and you will likely want to spend several hours exploring many of the trails throughout this landscape. Be sure to leave enough time to experience all of the landmarks, as it’s easy to lose track of time while enjoying the amazing trails.
One of the easiest yet most rewarding hikes throughout Canyonlands is to Mesa Arch. If you wake up early and enter this national park just before dawn, Mesa Arch is one of the best spots to capture epic sunrise shots with breathtaking views across the vistas.
Whether you are an early riser or prefer to visit later in the day, the 0.7-mile loop trail to Mesa Arch is an experience you won’t want to miss out on. This is readily accessible for most visitors and although there is very little to see along the trail itself, the views through Mesa Arch are beyond incredible. Be careful as you approach the ledge of Mesa Arch because it’s a rather surprising steep drop but it’s definitely worth the view.
Mesa Arch is technically classified as a “pothole arch” because it was formed when surface water pooled underneath the sandstone creating the arch we see today. The 500-feet drop over the edge can be terrifying given that there are no barriers but as long as you proceed with caution, the experience will likely alleviate any fears you have.
Buck Canyon Overlook
There is something quite magical about epic panoramic landscapes in Utah and Canyonlands is certainly a great place to find a plethora of amazing overlooks. While driving along the Island in the Sky road, take a few minutes to visit Buck Canyon Overlook. The short trail to the overlook is easy and accessible for all (including wheelchair accessibility), while the views out to the East are definitely a worthwhile experience.
Buck Canyon is a gorgeous sight within the Colorado River Basin, while the La Sal mountain range can be identified in the distance. This is one of those viewpoints that you can easily spend some time admiring…the views simply never get too old to enjoy!
Grand View Overlook
At the southern tip of the Island of the Sky is another spectacular viewpoint – Grand View Overlook. If you were impressed by the panoramic scenes from Buck Canyon, you will be left speechless at the breathtaking beauty available at Grand View Overlook.
This is a perfect location to wear your favorite hiking boots and take the trail across the high mesa. A two-mile round trip, this is another relatively easy hike but please proceed with caution because these sandstone rocks can get a little slick and there is nothing in terms of barriers with a pretty serious drop to one side. As you walk across the rocks, a drop of around one thousand feet may be a little terrifying for many but please allow your eyes to look further afield and admire the beauty of Utah’s natural landscape.
The views from Grand View Overlook epitomize the inherent beauty of Canyonlands National Park. In the distance, you can capture a glimpse of the Needles district which is yet another iconic part of this national park (similar to the spires you see throughout Bryce Canyon). The trail continues to Grand View Point which is the finale of the trail but offers yet more gorgeous scenery.
After spending several hours hiking and admiring the views out to the east and south of Canyonlands, why not head back along the Island of the Sky and venture towards Upheaval Dome for a different perspective as you explore the western half of this national park. This geological formation is the result of an impact crater that eroded the surrounding area and layers of sedimentary rock have created the walls, depicting years of natural erosion.
The hike to the summit of Upheaval Dome is a little more challenging than any of the aforementioned hikes, but it’s well worth the effort. The trail itself can be a little tricky to navigate and it’s a pretty steep incline to the summit.
Plan to spend around 20-30 minutes hiking to the summit but once you arrive at the first check point, the view over the crater is pretty spectacular. A further section is available to hike if you are intrigued by an alternative view of Upheaval Dome but always be wary of the weather as you won’t want to get caught out in the rain with a potentially slick hike back to the parking lot.
Arches National Park
When it comes to natural beauty, there are not many national parks more spectacular than Arches National Park. This place has it all and the following quote perfectly summarizes the beauty you will find the moment you drive through the entrance.
Mother Nature is a master sculptor and in no place is that more evident than at Arches National ParkStefanie Payne, A Year in the National Parks: The Greatest American Road Trip
For those that love taking scenic road trips, the drive through Arches National Park is one that will long live in your memory. Even without getting out of your car, you can admire the amazing natural attractions that Arches is home to.
But of course, the real beauty is when you are prepared to get out and take a few short hikes to enjoy some of the best geological formations anywhere in the United States. Here are some of our favorites that you will not regret experiencing.
Welcome to Arches National Park! The first attraction you will likely want to explore is Park Avenue and this definitely is the perfect welcome to Eastern Utah’s iconic landscape. A one-mile trail is available through the bottom of the canyon, surrounded by towering monoliths and red sandstone structures that perfectly reflect the landscape throughout the rest of this national park.
For those that prefer to take the short trail to the overlook, there is still plenty to admire and honestly, this is one of the best places in the park to capture a memorable sunset shot. A quick tip, if you choose to spend the day exploring Canyonlands but return to Moab before sunset, head to Arches and admire an exhilarating sunset at Park Avenue!
Some of the formations you will be able to see throughout Park Avenue include, The Three Gossips, the Courthouse Towers, Queen Nefertiti and the Tower of Babel. All of these are natural wonders that undoubtedly offer a WOW factor for Arches…but don’t worry, this is only the start because there is so much more to see as you venture deeper into the park!
Arches is renowned for having several iconic natural formations and one in particular is easily visible from the road. Balanced Rock is one of the most frequently visited landmarks given the perception that this is a rock hanging delicately from a tall spire. However, the reality is that this not a balancing act, rather it is a large rock boulder that is attached to a pedestal of mudstone and is eroding away given this distinctive image.
If you need a reason to visit Balanced Rock, simply understand that this geologic formation will not defy gravity forever. Eventually, the large rock will tumble to the ground and this eye-catching phenomenon will be no more. There have been other examples throughout Arches National Park, including Balanced Rock’s sibling “Chip Off the Old Block” which fell to its demise in the mid 1970s.
The Windows section of Arches is probably the one area that truly exemplifies why this national park is named as such. A large concentration of arches can be seen throughout this part of the park and is definitely one of the best hiking areas if you are interested in seeing these highlight attractions.
These arches are of thrilling beauty. Caused by the cutting action of wind-blown sand (not stream erosion), one marvels at the intricacies of nature.Frank Bethwick
Park your vehicle and then take the short trail to the North Window to admire the start of this incredible area. Grab a selfie with this arch before walking around and observing the smaller counterpart.
Meanwhile, a short hike from these arches will lead you to Turret Arch, part of a formation that resembles a castle. Although this is much smaller in size compared to the North Window, the unique appearance of this makes it a popular attraction for good reason.
You can easily spend a couple of hours hiking around this two-mile Windows section to get unique angles of the various arches on display. Be sure to allocate enough time here because there is still Arches’ pièce de résistance to view later in the park.
If there was only one attraction that you had time to visit in Arches, Delicate Arch has to be the one you cannot afford to miss. But it’s not going to be easy and you will have to work hard to reach the ideal viewing point of this incredible formation. Before going into detail about the Delicate Arch hike, for those that are satisfied with a quick glimpse of this arch, you can take a shorter trail that will give you a distant view (around a mile away).
However, the real hike is a 3-mile round trip over partially difficult terrain (even more treacherous if you visit when there is rain forecast) but if you are willing to overcome your fears and challenge yourself to this hike, the views are well worth the effort. The final part of the climb is across a relatively narrow ledge that may be a little difficult for those with a fear of heights but again, tell yourself that as you walk around the final corner, the view of Delicate Arch is going to alleviate any of those fears.
48 hours…two amazing national parks…if you follow this itinerary, you can experience all of this (and maybe more!) It goes without saying that spending more time in each of these parks will be well worth it but if you truly want to experience the best of both in only two days, you can certainly achieve this given their close proximity to each other.
Each national park has distinctive features that will likely attract attention of different travelers. We LOVE Arches National Park and could easily spend several days inside this park. But after visiting Canyonlands for the first time, we have a real appreciation for the inherent beauty of that park also. Moab is definitely a town that needs to be on your radar because it is the perfect location to explore two of Utah’s Mighty 5 national parks!