Canyonlands vs Arches National Park: Or Visit in One Day?

By Joshua Davis •  Updated: 06/07/22 •  25 min read

Summertime is road trip time for our family, and, more often than not, the road takes us way out west through the spectacular, vast desert reaches of southeastern Utah’s high desert region.

It’s no secret that Utah is home to some of the most beautiful landscapes in the country. If you’re looking to experience something truly unique and awe-inspiring, Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in the Moab area are definitely worth a visit, especially for families with children.

While some may pit the two against each other in a Canyonlands vs Arches National Park post, we say, “Why not visit both parks in one day?”

These two parks are located just minutes away from each other, making it possible to see both in one day if you’re strategic about it!

Even with only a day to burn, you can easily hit the most iconic highlights that these world-renowned parks have to offer in an 8 to 10-hour whirlwind road trip and hiking tour.

Here’s a quick guide on how to make the most of your day trip to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

Helpful Tip: If it’s your first time visiting the desert, consider this: the high-altitude desert climate is dry with almost no humidity and a high UV index.

This means your body will lose water rapidly and exposure can lead to severe sunburn quickly.

Hydrate frequently (especially young children), wear protective clothing, and wear sunscreen.

  1. Begin at Arches National Park (to spend 4-5 hours)
  2. Head to Canyonlands National Park (to spend 4-5 hours)
  3. Arches vs Canyonlands: Which One is Best?
  4. Kid-Friendly Hikes in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks
  5. What's the Best Time to Visit Arches and Canyonlands National Parks?
  6. Interesting Places Around Arches and Canyonlands National Parks
  7. A Final Note: Recreate Responsibly

Begin at Arches National Park (to spend 4-5 hours)

Start your day early by arriving at Arches National Park via U.S. Highway 191 before 9:00 AM to beat the traffic at the entrance. Be sure to grab a map at the gate or from the Visitor Center and then make your way North onto Arches Scenic Drive.

The paved Arches Scenic Drive stretches North and South along the backbone of the park with turn-offs, side-roads, and trails leading to many of the park’s most iconic landmarks.

A non-stop drive from the entrance to the road’s northern terminus and back would take about 1.5 hours; but, we’re going to take our time and explore a few of the highlights along the way.

We recommend driving to the end of the scenic drive (18 miles; about 45 minutes), turning around at Devil’s Garden, and making frequent stops along the return trip to take in the sites and embark on a few short hikes.

Arches National Park

Here are some of the best things to do and see on a half-day tour through Arches:

1. Devil’s Garden

This is one of the most popular areas in the park and for good reason. Hike the short, easy 1.9-mile (round trip) trail to Landscape Arch, the world’s longest natural rock arch at 306 feet and only 6 feet in diameter at its narrowest.

Once you’ve taken in the sights, pack the crew back in the car and head south, hanging a left onto Delicate Arch Road.

2. Delicate Arch

If a geological wonder was a celebrity, Delicate Arch would most definitely be Utah’s rock star (that’s a joke, y’all).

This freestanding, 50-foot-tall natural arch is one of the most photographed sites in all of North America and is the park’s largest free-standing arch.

Delicate Arch is hardly visible from the main road; the best way to see it is by taking the 3-mile (round trip) Delicate Arch Trail. This moderate hike will climb 480 feet past Wolfe Ranch (ruins dating from 1898) and some ancient Ute Indian petroglyphs.

The trail culminates at the base of the infamous Arch where you can enjoy a rest and a snack before hiking back.

Delicate Arch

3. Wolfe Ranch

On your hike back from Delicate Arch, make a brief stop by Wolfe Ranch. This is the historic homestead of John Wesley Wolfe who ranched the land in the late 1800s.

Today, all that remains are an old root cellar, some corral fencing, a time and weather-worn wagon, and the impressively sturdy log cabin (with wooden floors and actual windows) his wife insisted on him building if she was going to even consider staying with him in the burnin’ desert.

Driving South along the scenic road, take a left onto The Windows Road.

4. The Windows Section

This is the section of the park where you’ll find some of the most popular trails and attractions. The Windows Section contains a 0.5-mile loop trail (The Windows Trail) with three separate geological formations known as The Windows as well Turret Arch, Double Arch, and the Parade of Elephants.

Double Arch

Just a short walk from The Windows loop trail is Double Arch. This unique rock formation is best seen up close. Park your car and follow the well-marked 0.4-mile (round trip) trail to the base of the double rock spans. You can even walk between them!

On your way, keep an eye out for elephants! The geological kind.

The Windows Arches

Continuing along The Windows Road, you’ll reach the North Window and South Window, two more massive freestanding sandstone arches side-by-side. A paved 0.3-mile (one way) trail connects the two viewing areas where you can take in the views and snap some photos.

You’ll pass by Turret Arch along this trail as well.

5. Balanced Rock

Balanced rock

If you have time, make a stop at Balanced Rock, a geologic curiosity consisting of a massive boulder precariously perched atop a narrow rock pedestal. The best way to see it is by hiking the 0.3-mile (round trip) Balanced Rock Trail.

Or if you’re short on time, you can simply enjoy the view from the roadside pull-off.

These are just a few of the highlights along Arches Scenic Drive. If you have time to spare, explore and take your time savoring all that this incredible park has to offer!

Helpful Tip: If you are visiting the park during peak tourist months (July and August) you may consider stopping at viewpoints and trailheads on your way North to Devil’s Garden so that you can find parking and enjoy the sites before the crowds get too bad.

Then, at Devil’s Garden, turn around and enjoy the non-stop drive back, bypassing the now-crowded turn-offs.

Head to Canyonlands National Park (to spend 4-5 hours)

Helpful Tip: It is highly recommended that you take along an actual map or atlas of the area. Cell phone and GPS service tend to be unreliable out here.

After you’ve explored Arches, it’s time for the second half of our road trip tour and make the half-hour drive to Canyonlands National Park. Since we are visiting Arches and Canyonlands in a day and are short on time, we recommend heading to the Island in the Sky district. This section offers great views and plenty of short but worthwhile hiking trails.

From Arches, head northwest on US-191 and hang a left bearing southwest on UT-313 (Island in the Sky Drive). This road will become Grand View Point Road and will take you to the Island in the Sky Visitor Center.

Canyonlands National Park

Here are some of the best hikes for a half-day visit to Canyonlands with the family.

1. Grand View Point

Once you’ve arrived at the visitor center, take some time to explore the exhibits and pick up a map. Then, make your way to Grand View Point Overlook (about 12 miles; 21 minutes), one of the most popular destinations in Canyonlands that provides the best views.

To get there, simply follow the Grand View Point Road to its terminus at the Grand View Point Trail Parking Lot.

Helpful Tip: At the Grand View Point parking lot, there are vault toilets but NO WATER. Be sure you are prepared before leaving the Visitor Center.

The first 100 yards of the trail are paved and relatively flat, making it an easy hike for all skill levels. Along the way, you’ll be treated to some incredible views of far-off mountains, vast canyons and basins, and the White Rim Road from an elevation of 6,080 feet!

Beyond the paved trail, another mile of dirt trail along undulated surfaces and cliff edges will take you to a second viewpoint. If you opt for this longer (and worthwhile hike) allow about 90 minutes for the round trip.

Once you’re back at the parking lot, head north along Grand View Point Road towards Green River Overlook.

2. Green River Overlook

Green River Overlook is about 15 miles (30 minutes) from Grand View Point. Here, you’ll be rewarded with sweeping views of the Green River and its confluence with the Colorado River 4,000 feet below!

If you have time, hike the short (0.2-mile round trip) trail to an even more spectacular vantage point. Just be sure to keep a close eye on small children as there are no guardrails along this section of the trail.

Helpful Tip: If you save this stop for the end of your day, you’ll most likely be treated to a spectacular view of the sunset!

Green River Overlook

3. Mesa Arch Hike

Once you’re done at Green River Overlook, it’s time to head to our last stop: Mesa Arch. Chances are, you’ve seen this iconic arch in photographs before. It’s one of the most photographed natural landmarks in the world and it’s located just a short drive (and hike) from Green River Overlook.

The Mesa Arch hike is an easy 0.5-mile (round trip) hike with stunning views. To get there, head back to Grand View Point Road back and hang a left (North). The Mesa Arch Trailhead parking lot will be a short distance up the road on your right.

As you approach Mesa Arch, you’ll be treated to some incredible views of Canyonlands National Park and beyond!

Be sure to take plenty of photos and enjoy your time at this amazing landmark.

Helpful Tip: This viewpoint is insanely popular and the parking lot is almost always full, especially at sunrise. To enjoy it at its best, plan a visit here early in the morning, or, to avoid crowd, save it for late in the day.

Arches vs Canyonlands: Which One is Best?

Both Arches and Canyonlands have so many unique opportunities to offer, that it is difficult to say which one is better. Both provide sweeping 360° vistas and astounding geological formations that are sure to take your breath away, making them essential additions to any family’s bucket list.

Of the two, Arches is the more popular national park because it’s more developed and accessible with short, easy hikes. However, this means you’re fighting the crowds.

For those who prefer a more primitive experience, four times the elbow room, and fewer crowds, Canyonlands may be a better bet.

Here are some other park qualities to consider.

Why Visit Arches National Park?

The smaller of the two parks (76,518 acres) Arches National Park is home to the largest concentration of natural sandstone arches in the world. The arches were formed over millions of years as layers of sandstone were slowly eroded by wind and water.

Today, there are more than 2,000 documented arches within the park boundaries, ranging in size from a few feet to 300 feet wide.

In addition to its geological wonders, Arches National Park is also home to a variety of plant and animal life. Hikers can enjoy views of sweeping vistas, red-rock canyons, and towering cliffs while keeping an eye out for desert wildlife such as lizards, snakes, and rabbits.

Arches National Park is a great place to visit for families with children. The park has a wide variety of activities that are perfect for kids of all ages.

Arches National Park

For younger children, the Junior Ranger program offers a fun way to learn about the park and its many wonders. There are also ranger-led programs throughout the day that are both educational and entertaining.

For families with little children who are not quite ready for hiking, there are plenty of sites to see from the roadside or within a short stroll.

For more adventurous families with older children, there are plenty of challenging hiking and biking trails to explore, as well as rock climbing and rappelling opportunities.

Whether you’re looking for an adventure or just a chance to relax and enjoy the beauty of nature, Arches National Park is the perfect destination for families with children.

Why Visit Canyonlands National Park?

Canyonlands National Park is one of the most unique parks in the United States. Utah’s largest national park at 337,598 acres, is divided into three distinct districts by the Green and Colorado rivers: the Island in the Sky, The Needles, and The Maze. Each district has its own unique landscape and offers different opportunities for exploration.

The Island in the Sky district is characterized by wide-open views and red rock cliffs. Visitors can hike to many of the overlooks or take a scenic drive to enjoy the views.

The Needles district is full of towering red rock spires and hoodoos. It’s a popular destination for backpacking, as there are several campsites located among the spires.

The Maze is a remote and rugged area of canyons and fins. It’s only accessible by 4-wheel drive vehicles or on foot, making it one of the most isolated parts of the park.

Canyonlands National Park

While these districts may appear close on a map, it actually requires 2-6 hours to travel between them by car. Yep, it’s that big. So, we don’t recommend trying to see all of Canyonlands in one day.

Canyonlands National Park is a great place to visit for families with children. The park has something for everyone, from hiking and camping to horseback riding and picnicking.

There are also plenty of opportunities to see wildlife, including bighorn sheep, deer, and elk. And if you’re lucky, you might even spot a black bear, cougar, or the elusive mountain lion.

Canyonlands is an ideal place to teach children about the natural world and the importance of protecting our planet.

Kid-Friendly Hikes in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks

For families with younger or older children, there are plenty of kid-friendly hikes in Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.

Helpful Tip: When hiking with children, frequent hydration is critical, especially in the desert. We recommend equipping your child with their own hydration pack as soon as they are old enough and strong enough to carry one.

Arches National Park Hikes for Kids

There are many great hikes in Arches National Park that are perfect for families who want to introduce their kids to the joys of hiking. Here are a few of our favorites:

1. Skyline Arch Hike (0.4-mile round trip; 10-20 minutes)

This short hike leads to Skyline Arch, one of the largest arches in Arches National Park. The trail is mostly flat with some gentle elevation changes. Kids will love exploring the arch and the surrounding area.

2. Balanced Rock Hike (0.3-mile round trip; 15-20 minutes)

This short, easy hike is perfect for families with small children. The trail winds through a field of sagebrush and cactus before reaching Balanced Rock, a massive sandstone formation that sits atop a small base. Kids will love scrambling to the base of the rock to get a closer look.

3. Sand Dune Arch Hike (0.4-mile round trip; 15-30 minutes)

This short hike leads to Sand Dune Arch, a unique sandstone formation that sits amidst a field of red dunes of deep sand and fins of rock. The trail is mostly flat with lots of shade making it perfect for a respite from the desert sun.

4. Double Arch and Turret Arch Hikes (1.2-mile loop; 1 hour 15 minutes)

This short loop hike combines two of the most popular trails in Arches National Park. The trail first leads to Double Arch, a massive sandstone arch that spans more than 100 feet. The second half of the loop takes hikers to Turret Arch, another massive arch with stunning views of the surrounding area. This hike is perfect for families with children who can do some moderate hiking.

5. Delicate Arch View Point Hike (0.5-mile round trip; 30 minutes)

While this trail will not take you all the way to Delicate Arch, it does offer stunning views of the iconic sandstone formation. The trail is short and flat, making it perfect for families with small children.

6. Delicate Arch Hike (3.0-mile round trip; 2-3 hours)

This highly-popular trail is marked as “Difficult” on the NPS website citing that it is comprised of open slick rock with no shade and a slow, steady climb.

That being said, gauge your family’s fitness level and ability before venturing out on this trek to Delicate Arch’s base … and take sun hats, sunscreen, and plenty of water.

7. Double-O Arch Hike (4.2-mile round trip; 2-3 hours)

While a bit too much of a rock scramble with exposure to heights for young children, older kids will love this hike to Double-O Arch with its spectacular views and less crowded trails.

The trail starts with a steep climb up a sandstone hill before leveling out and winding through a beautiful canyon. The final half-mile of the hike is steep and rocky, but the views of Double-O Arch from the top are well worth the effort.

Helpful Tip: To manage traffic during their busiest time of year (April – October), the NPS at Arches requires a Timed Entry Ticket which can be reserved online.

8. Park Avenue Hike (1.8-mile round trip; 1 hour)

This hike can be started from the Park Avenue parking area or, for an easier hike, from the other end at Courthouse Towers Viewpoint. Whichever you choose, this moderate hike will reward you with a stroll through a spectacular canyon, towering monoliths, and massive sandstone walls.

Canyonlands National Park Hikes for Kids

Canyonlands has hundreds of miles of hiking routes that explore the natural and cultural aspects of the region. The Needles and Island in the Sky districts both provide a variety of short walks, day hikes, and backpacking excursions.

The Maze district however is primarily a backcountry destination since it is so isolated.

1. Grand View Point Trail (2-mile round trip; 1.5 hours)

Helpful Tip: There is NO DRINKING WATER available in this portion of the park. Be prepared!

This short, easy hike located in the Island in the Sky district is perfect for families with small children. Following the canyon’s edge, this route offers stunning panoramic vistas from an elevation of 6,080 feet!

The first viewpoint is accessible from the parking lot via a paved 100-yard walk, accommodating to strollers and wheelchairs. Rangers frequently give geology lectures at the viewpoint, and outdoor displays describe the panorama.

Another mile down steps beyond the paved walkway, you’ll follow an uneven trail along cliff edges to a second magnificent view.

Be sure to get some pics!

2. Upheaval Dome Trail (1-mile round trip; 30 minutes)

Upheaval Dome (a.k.a. Utah’s Bellybutton) is a geological enigma in the Island in the Sky district that continues to stump geologists. Is it a 60 million-year-old meteorite crater, an extinct volcano, or an ancient evaporated landlocked salt sea? The jury is still out on this one.

The trail to the viewpoint into Upheaval Dome is short but steep with a 100-foot elevation change. After the walk, exhibits describe this unusual geologic feature.

A second overlook can be reached after another mile and a 50-foot elevation climb (which takes another 30-45 minutes).

3. Mesa Arch Trail (0.5-mile round trip; 30 minutes)

Chances are you’ve seen this at least a dozen times in photographs or computer desktop wallpapers. But NOTHING prepares you for seeing this natural marvel in person!

The Mesa Arch Trail is relatively easy, but rough and uneven. It will take you to where the Mesa Arch perches on a cliff edge, spanning over breathtaking vistas of the La Sal Mountains. The early morning sun casts a beautiful glow on the red rocks, making this one of the most popular photo ops in Canyonlands.

Being a popular sunrise photo op, the arch area gets crowded quickly at dawn! Get there EARLY or save it for the end of your day.

4. Slickrock Trail (2.4-mile roundtrip; 2 hours)

Located in The Needles district, Slickrock Trail is a longer easy/moderate hike that will take you to four primary 360° vistas above the surrounding canyons.

This trail is an excellent option for beginners; however, since the path is over solid rock, you’ll need to keep a sharp eye out for the rock cairns marking the main trail and small signs leading to the viewpoints.

What’s the Best Time to Visit Arches and Canyonlands National Parks?

First, Arches National Park

It’s a VERY POPULAR park, with 1.6 million annual visitors! Make sure you pack your patience.

If you visit between March and October, expect traffic congestion (although, park authorities are doing their best to regulate traffic flow with the new Timed Entry Ticket program — more power to ’em!).

If you visit during peak season, arrive at the park entrance before 8 AM or after 3 PM to avoid the mid-day rush.

If you plan to visit between June and August, be prepared for HEAT. Average summer daytime temperatures range between 90° and 100°F and the low humidity will sap the moisture from your body faster than you’d expect.

That being said, if you want to enjoy any amount of solitude in the park, you’ll need to visit between late October and February. While you’ll enjoy the park at its most peaceful time without crowds or piercing desert heat, you’ll still need to come prepared for the winter climate.

Average winter temperatures top out in the 40s during the day and 20s at night. Occasionally snowfall and ice will cause the main road to shut down for plowing, so call the park ahead of time.

When hiking in the winter, remember that many of the trails traverse solid, smooth rock, which becomes very slick when iced over.

For more information about visiting Arches in the winter, visit the park’s website.

Now, the Canyonlands National Park

While it is not as popular and does not entertain the crowds that Arches National Park does, it still receives 700,000 visitors a year. Most tourists visit during April/May and September/October.

Like Arches, the park is open 24 hours a day; so, arriving at the gate before 8 AM or after 3 PM will ensure you miss the busier portion of the day.

The best weather for hiking can be found during early Spring or late Fall when daytime temperatures range between 60° and 80°F. Like Arches, the Canyonlands summer temps can top out at 100°F, so be prepared.

Interesting Places Around Arches and Canyonlands National Parks

1. Dead Horse Point State Park (30 minutes away)

Located halfway between Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park along UT-313, Dead Horse Point State Park has its fair share of thrilling hiking trails and picturesque scenery.

According to legend, the park’s moniker came to be when cowboys used the point (a natural corral formed by the canyon walls) to round up wild mustangs. The pen was left unattended, and the horses died of thirst within view of the Colorado River — just a stone’s throw away.

While this grim story may or may not be true, it cannot be denied that Dead Horse Point is well worth a visit for families, especially if you have pets.

While most trails in Arches and Canyonlands do not allow pets, pets are permitted everywhere in Dead Horse Point, provided they remain on a leash.

Some family-friendly hikes in Dead Horse Point are:

Check the park’s website for updates on fees and reservations.

2. The Town of Moab, Utah (15 minutes away)

No trip to Arches or Canyonlands is complete without a stop in the funky town of Moab, Utah. This historic town is a popular destination for tourists and outdoor enthusiasts alike.

Settled in the late 19th century, Moab was originally a hub for uranium mining. These days, the town is best known for its access to world-class hiking, biking, and off-roading trails. It’s also home to some great breweries and restaurants.

This small desert town sits at the base of both national parks and is the perfect place to stock up on supplies, grab a bite to eat or enjoy a cold beer after a long day of hiking.

Canyonlands vs Arches National Park near Moab

3. Capitol Reef National Park Park (2 hours away)

Capitol Reef State Park is among the most unique and beautiful places in the country. The park is home to a massive reef, formed over millions of years as the earth’s crust shifted and eroded.

Today, the reef is a stunning natural wonder, miles long and full of colorful striations. The park is also home to countless other geological wonders, including petrified forests, canyons, and waterfalls.

In addition to its natural beauty, Capitol Reef State Park is also home to a rich history. Ancient Native American petroglyphs can be found throughout the park, and early Mormon settlers left their mark on the landscape as well.

Today, Capitol Reef State Park is a popular destination for hikers, climbers, and nature lovers from all over the world. With its incredible geology and fascinating history, Capitol Reef State Park is truly one of a kind.

4. Hovenweep National Monument (2 hours 20 minutes away)

Hovenweep National Monument is home to six ancient villages that are perched atop mesas and canyon rims in the southern Utah desert.

These villages were built by the Ancestral Puebloans between 1200 and 1300 AD, and they offer a fascinating glimpse into the lives of these early inhabitants of the American Southwest.

Hovenweep is also unique in that it is one of the few places where you can see all six phases of Ancestral Puebloan architecture, from early pit houses to the iconic cliff dwellings that are so well-preserved today.

In addition, the monument’s remote location makes it a great place for stargazing, and there are also a variety of hiking trails that wind through the canyonlands. With its rich cultural history and stunning natural setting, Hovenweep National Monument is definitely worth a visit.

5. Mesa Verde National Park (2 hours 15 minutes away)

Mesa Verde National Park is a must-visit for anyone interested in American history or archaeology. The park is home to some of the best-preserved examples of Ancestral Puebloan architecture, and visitors can explore a range of cliff dwellings and mesa-top villages.

The views from the park are simply stunning, and there are plenty of hiking trails to explore.

Mesa Verde is also a great place to learn about the ancient people who once lived here. The park has a variety of educational programs, and staff is always on hand to answer any questions.

Whether you’re looking to soak up some history or simply enjoy the great outdoors, Mesa Verde National Park is definitely worth a visit.

Mesa Verde National Park

6. Glen Canyon National Recreational Area (2 hours 10 minutes away)

Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is one of the most unique and beautiful places in the United States. Located in northern Arizona, the park is home to an abundance of wildlife, including bighorn sheep, mule deer, and black bears.

The landscape is also incredibly diverse, ranging from desert plains to forests of towering pines.

And of course, the highlight of Glen Canyon is Lake Powell, a man-made reservoir that covers over 254 square miles, the second-largest reservoir in the U.S.

Visitors can enjoy a variety of activities on the lake, including swimming, canoeing, and fishing. Whether you’re looking for a relaxing getaway or an adventure-filled vacation, Glen Canyon National Recreation Area is sure to have something for you.

7. Natural Bridges National Monument (2 hours 30 minutes away)

Natural Bridges National Monument is a truly unique place. Carved out by millions of years of erosion, the monument is home to three massive stone bridges. The largest of these, the Sipapu Bridge, spans more than 200 feet and is one of the largest natural bridges in the world.

The monument also contains a variety of plant and animal life, including several rare and endangered species. In addition, the night skies at Natural Bridges National Monument are some of the darkest in the country, making it an excellent destination for stargazing.

Whether you’re interested in geology, biology, or astronomy, Natural Bridges National Monument is rewarding to visit.

A Final Note: Recreate Responsibly

When visiting Arches and Canyonlands National Parks — or any national park, for that matter — please remember to recreate responsibly.

This means packing out all of your trash, respecting the wildlife, being mindful of others, and leaving the area as you found it. Our public lands have taken millions of years to become the treasures that they are; however, the human impact can be disastrous if we don’t all do our part.

These simple gestures go a long way in preserving our public lands for future generations to enjoy.

The Moab area of Utah has so much to offer visitors. With its stunning natural beauty and rich cultural history, there is something for everyone.

So whether you’re looking for an adventure-filled vacation or a relaxing getaway, be sure to add Arches and Canyonlands National Parks to your list of must-visit destinations.

Now, get out there!

Joshua Davis

Being outdoors is freedom! Being outdoors with my wife and two boys is LIVING! Whether in my backyard or getting lost in a National Park, there’s nothing I’d rather do than explore, discover, and experience the paradise that surrounds us. Give me my family, a backpack, and a trail and my life is full!