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

Jesse Weber


Mesa Arch, Canyonlands National Park, Utah

by Greg Heil


by Greg Heil


by Greg Heil

View of Canyonlands National Park

by Greg Heil


by Greg Heil

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Looking down on the White Rim.

by Greg Heil

Sun beaming over the canyon's edge.

by Scott Anderson

Walking along the slickrock.

by Scott Anderson

Fall foliage adds color to the canyon.

by Scott Anderson

Expansive views beyond the mesa.

by Scott Anderson

Looking down into Shafer Canyon

by Scott Anderson

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Granary ruins on Aztec Butte

by Darold Massaro

Licence Free



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.


Mesa Arch

A short, easy hike to a stunning natural arch!

Grand View Point

Enjoy a never-ending array of stunning views along this exposed hike.

Upheaval Dome Overlooks

A short but adventurous trail on sloping slickrock, to the rim of a giant and mysterious crater.

Murphy Point

A relaxed hike to a breathtaking viewpoint over Canyonlands.

Aztec Butte

Short scrambles on two slickrock domes, with panoramic views and ancient ruins.

Murphy Loop

A full-day trek from the Island in the Sky, down to the White Rim Road, and back up.

Gooseberry Trail

The shortest but steepest route from the mesa top to the White Rim Road.