Canyonlands from Above: Best Hikes on the Island in the Sky

Witness the vast body of canyons from above, or venture deep into the heart of it, on these trails in Canyonlands National Park

Hiking Easy, Moderate, Difficult

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Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park
Mesa Arch in Canyonlands National Park Photo: Rick Bergstrom

Description

Canyonlands National Park is at the confluence of two mighty rivers, which are together the lifeblood of a vast desert body. On a map, the landscape resembles some great breathing organ of the living earth––with arteries that are rivers and veins that are branching side canyons. In this system, one slender mesa protrudes like a stony sternum toward the heart of it. It’s called the Island in the Sky, so named for its solitary stance above the canyons.

Atop this mesa is a rather featureless expanse of sagebrush grassland dotted with juniper shrubs, with a paved road crossing it. It takes only a few steps to the edge, however, to peer into the world below. Thousand-foot, sheer cliffs of red sandstone prop the Island in the Sky above many deeper rock layers, which form a sloping lower plateau, then abruptly give way to chasms that drop to the rivers.

Of Canyonlands’ three districts, Island in the Sky is the best for casual hikes and roadside overlooks. That’s because the road and trails stay on the mesa top and lead to panoramas at the edge. The cliffs beneath are not entirely impenetrable, though, and several trails do make the harrowing descent toward the canyons, so strenuous hikes are there for those who crave them.

This guidebook shares the best trails for witnessing Canyonlands from above, plus difficult ones that take a more intimate tour into the deeper terrain. The top of the mesa, at over 6000 feet elevation, has freezing temperatures and snow in winter, blazing sun and thunderstorms in summer, and can be harshly windy in any season. Comfortable days are not uncommon, though, so good hiking conditions can be found at any time of year.

You’ll want to spend at least one full day here, and preferably more than one, to visit multiple overlooks on different aspects of the mesa. It’s a charismatic, layered landscape with moods that change starkly with the seasons and the angle of the sun. Come prepared for the weather, bring lots of water and food, and of course a camera.

Routes included

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