How to Plan a Canyonlands Stargazing Trip in 2023
Canyonlands National Park is the largest park of Utah’s Mighty Five. This 330,000-acre national park is well-known for its canyons, spires, and buttes. The park offers plenty of epic scenery to enjoy during the day and amazingly dark sky at night.
In 2015, Canyonlands National Park was awarded full status as an International Dark Sky Park. It is one of four parks in Southeast Utah to hold this status; other parks include Arches National Park, Hovenweep National Monument, and Natural Bridges National Monument. All this to say, as you might imagine, this part of the United States has world-class dark sky quality and is great for stargazing.
If you want to experience the stunning night skies above the Canyonlands National Park, here’s everything you need to know to plan a Canyonlands stargazing trip.
In this post, I promote traveling to a national park that is the traditional lands of the Núu-agha-tʉvʉ-pʉ̱ (Ute) peoples, among others. With respect, I make a formal land acknowledgment, extending my appreciation and respect to the past and present people of these lands. To learn more about the peoples who call these lands home, I invite you to explore Native Land.
This post was originally published in January 2020, and was updated most recently in February 2023.
How to Get to Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park is located in southeast Utah near the town of Moab. Canyonlands is about a 4 hour drive from Salt Lake City, Utah and 5.5 hours from Denver, CO by car. The park is a good distance from any major source of light pollution.
If you are flying to Canyonlands National Park, your best option is to fly into the major airports of Salt Lake City, UT (SLC) or Denver, CO (DIA). Both airports offer daily flights from around the United States and the world. As major airports, rental cars are plentiful. It is possible to fly into the small airport of Grand Junction, CO (GJT). Grand Junction is about an hour and a half away by car.
If you are looking to avoid renting a car, there are several shuttle providers who provide transport from Grand Junction or Salt Lake City to Moab.
There are three main access points to Canyonlands National Park: The Islands of the Sky District, the Needles District, and the Maze District. The Island of the Sky District is located 10 miles north of Moab on UT 313. The Needles District is located 40 miles south of Moab on UT 211. The Maze District is not for the faint of heart. The Maze is accessed via UT 24 and the Hans Flat Ranger Station. From the ranger station, it is 3 to 6 hours of four-wheel-driving to the Maze.
How to Go Stargazing in Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park offers many places to view the stars. The sky is the limit for finding a place to view the stars. Pretty much any spot where you can pull off the road makes a great viewing spot.
The only lodging nearby is in nearby Moab, but the park has campgrounds in the Needles District and Island of the Sky. If these campgrounds are full, there are additional campsites at the nearby state parks and on the Bureau of Land Management.
If you are staying in Moab, it is best to go stargazing in the Island of the Sky District. This District is closer to Moab offers you sky views overlooking the canyons.
Where to Go Stargazing in Canyonlands National Park
Here are some of the best places for stargazing in Canyonlands:
- Mesa Arch (Island of the Sky)
- Grand View Overlook (Island of the Sky)
- Green River Overlook (Island of the Sky)
- Wooden Shoe Arch Overlook (Needles)
- Big Spring Canyon Overlook (Needles)
- Dead Horse Point State Park (Not in Canyonlands National Park; but also a certified Dark Sky Park)
- Needles Overlook (Not in Canyonlands National Park)
Read on for more details about each of these stargazing spots near Canyonlands.
Island of the Sky District
The Island of the Sky District offers the best stargazing for non-hikers and people without 4×4’s. When you visit this area, you are actually on top of the Island of the Sky Mesa. The scenic drive offers excellent sky views from the road or with a short walk to an overlook. Scout each overlook during daylight and pick your favorite. Photographers may want to choose Mesa Arch so you can photograph the stars behind the arch.
Other popular locations include the Grand View Overlook or Green River Overlook.
The Needles District stargazing is a little more limited as it is not on a mesa. The district does offer a more diverse landscape for viewing and photographing stars. The Needles District viewpoints tend to have rock spires in the foreground. If you are willing to do a bit of hiking there are some amazing overlooks further into the district.
If hiking isn’t your thing, the Wooden Shoe Arch Overlook and Big Spring Canyon Overlook are good options.
The Maze District
If you make it out to the Maze District, you will be treated to some of the darkest skies in the park. This remote region isn’t near any light pollution sources; however, it is extremely remote and should only be visited by experienced visitors ready for backcountry off-grid outdoor adventures
Stargazing Near Canyonlands National Park
Dead Horse Point State Park
Dead Horse Point State Park provides the backdrop for the iconic ending to the film Thema and Louise. But the park is more than just a backdrop for a movie, this high plateau location provides epic star viewing. Dead Horse is located near the Island of the Sky entrance. This park is an International Dark Sky Park and regularly holds dark sky programs.
The Needles Overlook should no be confused with the Needles District of Canyonlands. The Needles Overlook is a remote overlook that is 22 miles off Hwy 191 on Rd 133. This overlook provides an excellent view of the canyons of the Needles District and a clear view of the sky.
Where to Stay Near Canyonlands National Park
Hotels near Canyonlands National Park
There are no hotels within Canyonlands National Park. The best place to stay outside of the park is the City of Moab. Moab offers a wide range of hotels and motels for visitors of all budgets.
Camping near Canyonlands
There are two campgrounds in Canyonlands National Park: one campground in Island of the Sky and one in the Needles. Both campgrounds are small and mostly first-come-first-serve; if you have your heart set on stargazing from one of Canyonlands’ campgrounds, arrive early in the day to see what’s available!
Outside of Canyonlands is Dead Horse State Park and several BLM run campground or dispersed camping areas.
What to See & Do During the Day in Canyonlands
What to See in Canyonlands National Park
Most visitors to Canyonlands come to take in the breathtaking views of the Green and Colorado Rivers, and their associated canyons. The park has two main tourist districts: Island of the Sky and Needles. Both districts offer a range of adventures from scenic drives to hiking to 4×4 expeditions.
What to Do in Canyonlands National Park
Most visitors to Canyonlands plan on doing the park’s scenic drives along with some day hiking. For visitors looking for a bit more adventure outfitters in Moab offer 4×4 adventures on some of Canyonlands undeveloped roads or rafting trips down the Green or Colorado Rivers.
There are trailheads in both the Island of the Sky and the Needles District. Trails range from short and easy to multi-day hikes that are strenuous. This park is not pet-friendly and dogs are not allowed on many of the trails. Please respect this.
Popular Canyonlands hikes include:
- Mesa Arch Trail – A 0.5-mile loop hike that takes you to the MOST popular sunrise park in the park. If planning on viewing the sunrise here, please plan on being at the arch at least one hour before sunrise.
- Upheaval Dome Trail -–A 1.8-mile hike along one of the most interesting geological features in the park. This hike provides views of the Dome and Upheaval Canyon.
- Grand View Point Overlook – A 2-mile out and back hike that takes you along the canyon rim and provides excellent views of the canyon.
- Cave Spring Trail – A 0.6-mile hike that involves climbing up and down ladders to a cowboy homestead and some historic rock paintings.
- Slickrock – A 2.5-mile hike that offers some panoramic views of the area. This hike has uneven surfaces and is exposed to the sun.
- Chesler Park Loop – This Loop hike is an 11-mile backpacking loop but you can a smaller section of the park to create 3-6 mile out-and-back day hike. This trail provide scenic view of the Needles and is a park favorite.
If you want to venture outside the park, there are several parks to explore such as Arches National Park, Natural Bridge National Monument, and Corona Arch.
Other FAQ about Stargazing in Canyonlands National Park
Is the Canyonlands National Park open at night?
Yes, Canyonlands is open 24 hours a day, 365 days a year. The main roads in the Island of Sky and the Needles District are usually open year-round. There may be weather closure during the winter and during flooding events.
The entrance stations are closed at night but you are still required to have a valid Canyonlands entrance receipt or National Park pass when in the park.
Can you see the Milky Way while stargazing in Canyonlands? When?
The Canyonlands is a great place to see the Milky Way. Summer is the best time of year to see the Milky Way in the northern hemisphere.
When is the best time to go stargazing in Canyonlands?
There is no bad time of year to stargaze in the Canyonlands. The summer season provides the best weather for stargazing. This is also the most popular time to visit the parks. Don’t be surprised to share your stargazing spot with other people.
Is there a dark sky festival in Canyonlands?
Canyonlands doesn’t currently have any formal night sky festivals. During the summer, there are regular ranger-led Stargazing events that rotate around southeastern Utah’s International Dark Sky Parks. Learn more about these events from the National Park Service.
Are there guided night tours in Canyonlands?
Red Rock Astronmony offers stargazing tours in the Moab area. Their tours may visit the Canyonlands or Arches but locations are select to provide the best viewing options for the group.
Do you have other questions about how to plan your Canyonlands stargazing trip? Let me know in the comments!
We are looking to plan a vacation for 10/9 thru 10/16/22 to the Canyonlands. Can you tell me where to find information on the phases of the moon (full, new, etc) for that time period and our chances for clear skies? We are coming from Indiana and would hate to hit a week where the skies are cloudy every night.
Jean, I can’t tell you anything about clear skies as there’s no way to predict that this far out, but I recommend googling moon phases in October to see when they occur. I do think you’re visiting at a bad time though, as the moon will be quite close to full during the week you’ll be there.