Arches National Park vs Canyonlands National Park: which one should you visit?
In Colorado, there are a couple of spring months where the trees are still leafless, the grass is yellow, and we're constantly on and off snow, clouds, and rain. While for some people, this may not even phase them, but for an outdoorsman like me, it was majorly depressing. That's why I decided to go on a spontaneous road trip out to sunny Utah! Once I found out I was around 7 hours away from the Moab, I couldn't resist the idea of traveling to the desert sunshine on a new adventure!
While the Moab is mostly known for many off-roading opportunities, my interests lie in the neighboring national parks, Arches, and Canyonlands. After giving each park their own whole day to explore I'm confident I can give you some straight answers on the pros and cons of each park to help you decide which one to see if you're short on time in this beautiful part of the country.
Arches National Park
Arches National Park is the most popular of the Moab parks with 1.5 million visitors a year. Here you'll see some unique and beautiful arched rock formations, all of which are very easy hikes from each parking area. With Delicate Arch trail being the most popular at only a 3mile hike round trip.
Unfortunately, the park is fairly small with only 120sqmi of space so it does fill up fast, If the park is full they will turn visitors away until it opens up again, usually in the evening. You have to get there before 9am or after 4pm in the busy season to even get into the park, even if you get in it doesn't mean you'll be able to park where you want to see every arch you want to see.
short easy hikes
unique arch formations
quick to get through
crowded (may not have a parking spot at the area you want)
the park fills up early (could get turned away)
Canyonlands National Park
Canyonlands National Park is almost the opposite of Arches, since at Arches you see large towering rock formations above you, at Canyonlands, everything will go into the ground below you. This park is quite interesting with the large expanses of canyons that spread out across the 527sqmi of desert, giving you tons of space to see this unique landscape.
This park greets roughly 777,000 visitors a year, and with the extra space, you have the option to get into this park at any time during the day, though it can still be busy at sunrise or sunset at popular areas such as Mesa Arch.
With the Colorado River running through it, the park is divided up into 4 separate areas: Island in the Sky (most popular area), The Needles, The Maze, and the Colorado River. Each area has its unique opportunities to explore the Utah desert, with Island in the Sky being the most accessible by shorter hikes and driving routes.
more space (fewer people throughout the day)
many great viewpoints
many opportunities for adventure (white water rafting, backpacking, offroading, etc.)
small parking lots at popular areas
not as unique as Arches (more open desert space)
Arches or Canyonlands?
This park is for anyone that wants to see the classic arches that are in every Utah picture ever taken, or wants to see spectacular views in only a short walk from the car.
Otherwise, if you go after 8 or 9 am, it is overcrowded if you can even get in at that time, and it's almost impossible to park anywhere.
This park is for the person that wants to get some desert adventures in and grab some wide expansive landscape views. Also, for the person who wants a little more space on their outdoor excursions. I had a couple of trails totally to myself in the morning I went, which is pretty rare for a National Park.
Both National Parks
Honestly, I think if you have just one whole day, do both parks! Arches you can get through pretty quickly early in the morning since the park is more empty and you have the option to drive through and see a lot of the park quickly.
I suggest starting the sunrise at the Windows, then hiking the Delicate arch, then a nice drive through the rest of the park with stops at the viewpoints.
After a couple of early morning hours there, grab lunch in the city of Moab, then head over to Canyonland's Island in the Sky area to get a good hike in for the afternoon and see the sunset spread across the deep canyon gorges in the evening.
I believe both parks are absolutely doable in one day if you really want to soak up most of the Moab in a single shot, it all depends on how much extra adventuring you want to get in besides the hikes.
Moab National Park Tips
Hit either park for sunrise to get some of the most amazing views, and less crowd in the park after sunrise
- Arches: Try sunrise at either the Windows or Delicate Arch
- Canyonlands: Mesa arch has a great view of sunrise
These are desert parks so please be prepared:
- bring more water than you normally would
- do not wear jeans to hike
- do wear proper footwear with traction (no sandals)
- hike early and late in the day to avoid direct sun
- apply and reapply sunscreen throughout the day
- bring a lightweight long sleeve in case of shoulder sunburns (I always get this)
- hats are also a great option to keep the sun off your face
The hike to the world-famous delicate arch is more strenuous than you think, it is uphill and without sun cover, so please follow the previous steps
There are tons of free camping areas near each park, just check out BLM land near Moab for exact locations
Aztec Butte is a fantastic 1.7mi hike in Canyonland's Island of the Sky that takes you to the top of a butte with an amazing view across the park
Buy the "America the Beautiful" pass if you're going to both parks. This one pass covers all National Parks for $80, otherwise, you pay $25 at each park, if you hit one more park the pass pays for itself.
That is my take on Arches and Canyonlands National Parks. While Arches may be more unique and famous, Canyonlands has a lot more space and options for adventures, and the views aren't bad over there either. Whichever one you choose I know you'll be amazed by the unique beauty that is the Moab desert, you will not be disappointed.
Which of these parks would you choose, or would you try to do both in a day? If you have visited these parks before which one do you like better? (Personally, I think I like Canyonlands better).
Let me know in the comments below or contact me directly if you have any other questions or comments on the area!
Until next time,