If you're spending time in Utah, chances are you'll be considering visiting either Arches or Canyonlands National Park. Located in the southeastern part of the state, both offer stunning landscapes, geological wonders and outstanding night skies.
Whether you're looking for a stunningly scenic drive, outstanding photo opportunities, unforgettable hiking, or unusual wildlife, we'll help you decide if Arches National Park or Canyonlands National Park is the best choice for your Utah road trip.
Both national parks are close to the city of Moab, so if you simply can't decide between them then you can stay a night or two in the city and visit both. They're also within driving distance of the state capital, Salt Lake City, which makes them more accessible destinations than you might imagine.
Arches or Canyonlands: which national park should you visit?
To help you decide whether Arches or Canyonlands is the better choice for your road trip, here's a quick introduction to these two amazing national parks.
The clue is in the name of Arches National Park, where you'll find the highest density of natural stone arches in the world. In fact, there are upwards of 2,000 arches throughout the park. The arches range from delicate arches and the vast arches that stretch over canyons.
Set in the desert, the red rocks of Arches National Park offer a contrast to the vivid blue skies beyond, creating a magical visual. It's also home to some geological wonders. The Balanced Rock is an estimated 3,577 tonnes and 128 feet tall.
Then there's the Landscape Arch, the longest in North America and the fifth longest in the entire world, spanning 306 feet.
While the 65-million-year-old arches and hoodoos are the main attraction, there's also human history of interest. Follow the Delicate Arch hiking trail and you'll reach a wall of petroglyphs that was carved sometime between 1650 to 1850.
This Native American artwork showcases a rider on a horse surrounded by sheep etched into the rock.
Keep in mind that you might need to make a reservation for a timed-entry permit while visiting Arches National Park. Please check the national park's website for up-to-date information.
Although there's a mere 30-minute drive between Arches and Canyonlands, you'll encounter a very different landscape when you Canyonlands National Park. For starters, the park itself is bigger and is over double the size.
So, if you want a quieter, more secluded experience then it's easier to find it at Canyonlands.
Canyonlands is separated into four districts, Island in the Sky, Needles, The Maze, and The River each with their own distinct charms. The Colorado River also cuts through the park and offers both placid stretches and white water rapids, so it can be a unique way to experience the national park.
If you've seen the movie 127 Hours, you might recognize some of the claustrophobic slot canyons of Canyonlands National Park as the setting for the film. Bluejohn Canyon was the filming location for a large part of the movie, and also the site of the real-life events which inspired it.However, you'll also find many other distinct landscapes in this large national park, so keep on reading to find out more about the different places you can experience if you head to Canyonlands National Park.
Both Arches and Canyonlands are International Dark Sky Parks, and the clear skies attract astronomers and star gazers to witness the sky at night.
Here's a useful side-to-side comparison of the national parks:
|Arches National Park||Canyonlands National Park|
|Size||119.81 square miles||527.5 square miles|
|Landscapes||Red rock formations, natural rock arches, wildflowers, canyons||Mesa, slot canyons, the white rim, arches, Colorado and Green Rivers|
|Wildlife||Mule deer, kangaroo rat, desert bighorn sheep, black bear, mountain lions, and bobcats||Desert bighorn sheep, beavers, snakes, lizards, swifts, vultures, black bear, mountain lion|
|Scenic views & overlooks|
|Value for money||Park entry is $30 per vehicle or $15 per person||Park entry is $30 per vehicle or $15 per person|
If you'd like to find out about whether it is possible to visit Arches and Canyonlands National Parks in a day, here is our ultimate guide.
Which national park is bigger, Arches or Canyonlands National Park?
Arches National Park covers 76,680 acres, and we'd recommend setting aside at least half a day to see it. This will allow you to drive Arches National Park Road and spend 10 minutes at the turnouts to admire the vistas.
That said, there are many trails in the park, so if you want to spend one or two days in the park you'll find plenty of ways to fill your time.
At nearly 340,000 acres, Canyonlands National Park is more than double the size of Arches National Park. You could easily spend a day exploring each district, especially if you want to hike, mountain bike or raft the Colorado River during your visit.
The most common way to experience Canyonlands National Park is to spend at least half a day in the Islands in the Sky district, which is the most accessible. Stretching that out to a full day will let you walk a trail or two and relax at the overlooks.
If you'd like to see more of Canyonlands National Park, you'll find it hard to visit more than 2 districts in a single day as you can't just drive straight across the park to reach them. Also, to visit the more remote areas you'll need a 4x4 and a lot of expertise.
Is Arches better for the scenery than Canyonlands National Park?
Don't let the names fool you - there are canyons in Arches National Park and arches in Canyonlands National Park, and whichever park you choose you'll find endless stunning views when you arrive.
With a high concentration of natural arches at Arches National Park, there's an inspiring landscape at every turn, and most of the natural attractions here are just a short distance apart so you can really appreciate the scenery even if you're only here on a short trip.
For example, it's just a 7-minute drive from Balanced Rock to the Delicate Arch Trailhead. Compared to other parks where you'll have to make long drives between attractions, you can see lots in a single day at Arches National Park.
In contrast, Canyonlands National Park has distinct districts which each offer a unique experience. Each corner of the park has a different landscape, many of them carved out by the Colorado River, which has created stunning canyons surrounded by vivid sandstone landscapes and topped with big desert skies.
Island in the Sky is the place to go for towering mesas and steep canyon drops. Shafer Canyon Overlook is easily accessible and offers up-close sweeping dramatic views of the canyon floor.
Such an iconic view makes this the most popular district in the park because it not only offers classic canyon views, but it's also accessible on paved roads from Moab.
The famous White Rim dominates a large part of the part, circling the Mesa landscape, and you can get amazing views from high vantage points along the rim.
You should also consider visiting areas other than Island in the Sky areas for expert mountain biking, canyoneering, and backpacking.
Needles District is also accessible on paved roads. This area has spires that shoot from the desert floor. It's here you'll find the highest elevation point in the park where Cathedral Point reaches 7,120 feet.
It's a popular place for the more adventurous overnight backpackers. Also, the Needles District is home to the Fighting Men Petroglyphs and other ancient rock art.
The other two districts, The Maze and The River require specialist skills to visit, and you should seek expert guidance if venturing to them. The Maze is remote and quite the labyrinth. This is the area made famous by 127 Hours.
It gets its name from being a 30-square-mile puzzle of canyons and dead ends. It's easy to get lost, hence why Butch Cassidy used the Maze District as a hideout.
Does Arches have better wildlife than Canyonlands National Park?
As they're located near each other and have similar climates, you can expect to see similar wildlife at both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks.
Both Arches and Canyonlands are known for their arid, desert landscapes, which means you won't find great herds of bison like you would in some of the country's other national parks.
Keep your eyes open in late summer or early fall through and you might get lucky and see a black bear straying into both parks.
Only a lucky few visitors get the chance to spot the elusive bobcats and mountain lions that call Arches National Park home but look to the skies and you'll be sure to see some of the swifts, ravens, turkey vultures and eagles that thrive in this desert habitat.
Back at ground level, there are plenty of snakes and lizards. Visit Arches or Canyonlands National Parks in winter if you'd rather avoid these reptilian residents and be aware that they're most likely to be active at the times most attractive to visitors - during daytime in the spring or fall, or early and late in the day in the hot summer months.
Chances of seeing a mule deer or kangaroo rat are high in Arches National Park, but the impressive desert bighorn sheep are much rarer here. There are bigger herds of them in Canyonlands.
You can also look for beavers which live in the banks of the Green River and Colorado River as they travel through Canyonlands National Park.
Whichever park you visit, for the best chance of seeing wildlife, visit the parks at dawn or dusk, or spend time close to the rivers in Canyonlands.
Where can I take the best photos, Arches or Canyonlands National Park?
With their breathtaking scenery, both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks are full of amazing photo opportunities.
Visit Arches National Park at the start or end of the day and you'll be able to experience the magnificent effect the low sun has on the red rocks. Chances are, if you've seen a picture of the glowing rocks of Delicate Arch, you're looking at a sunset shot - you'll find quite a crowd queuing up for a similar shot.
Some of the other popular photographic spots in Arches National Park lend themselves better to either the morning or the evening light. Head to Sheep Rock, Turret Arch or Cache Valley early in the day, then come back before sunset to see the North and South Windows, Fiery Furnace or Tower Arch.
Canyonlands isn't as well-known as a photographic destination, but there are still plenty of places to take fabulous photos. Mesa Arch at sunrise is a really popular spot.
The overlooks of Island in the Sky really come into their own later in the day. Watch out for wide, colorful sunsets as you look out across the mesa and canyons, or see the red rocks below you illuminated magically in the natural light.
Hang around in either national park after the sun sets and you can get amazing pictures of the stars in the dark night sky.
Which park is easier to drive around, Arches or Canyonlands National Park?
Both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks are open 365 days a year, so you can visit either park whenever your schedule allows.
There's just one official entrance to Arches National Park, just on US-191 north of Moab, and you might encounter long waiting times at the Entrance Station if you visit during the busy period from March to October.
If you know where to look there are also the so-called "secret entrances" on unpaved roads. We don't recommend seeing the national park this way since you'd need a specialist vehicle to access these routes.
Once you're inside the park, it's pretty straightforward to follow the Arches Scenic Drive which will take you past all the main attractions. Throughout the park, there are paved roads that lead to other outstanding vistas too.
The downside of Arches National Park being so easy to explore by car is that it can get really busy here. In summer, parking lots for the trailheads and popular areas like Delicate Arch and Devils Garden can fill up very early - in some cases, parking spaces are full come 7:30 AM.
In contrast, Canyonlands is much less developed than many other National Parks, with fewer visitor facilities and large areas that can't be visited on paved roads. While many see this as a con, others love the unspoiled character and consider it a more immersive trip into the wild.
If you're sticking to paved roads on your trip to Canyonlands, you can pick from two main entry points.
The Island in the Sky district is most accessible and closest to Moab via US-191 and the 313. Exploring this part of the park means you'll be able to get to many of Canyonlands' famous overlooks, viewpoints and trailheads, but just like Arches National Park, it's best to arrive early to grab a spot, as parking spaces are limited.
We recommend driving on Grand View Point Road. This 30-mile round trip follows paved roads and takes you through Island in the Sky and further south to Grand View Point.
You can also enter via the Needles district by heading south from Moab, but the paved road doesn't take you as far into the national park here.To drive around Canyonlands on its many unpaved roads, you'll need four-wheel drive and high-clearance vehicles.
Which park is more expensive, Arches or Canyonlands National Park?
You'll have to pay an entrance fee to visit either Arches or Canyonlands National Park. The prices are the same at both national parks, with a fee of $30 charged per vehicle. This includes up to 15 passengers.
If you're visiting either park as part of a longer hike or cycle trip, you'll have to pay $15 per person to enter each national park.
The best value for money comes if you're planning on visiting both national parks, since an annual entrance pass costs $55 per vehicle.
Seeing as this lets you visit both Arches National Park and Canyonlands National Park multiple times, it's particularly cost-effective if you're spending a few days in the area - or if you're lucky enough to be coming back!
Which national park has better accommodation options, Arches or Canyonlands National Park?
Most travelers to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks opt to stay in Moab since there's a great range of hotels to choose from, and it's an easy drive out to either of the national parks.
Things are a little different if you're planning on sleeping out under canvas. Both national parks have some awesome camping options, but being able to stay inside Canyonlands National Park means you can get the perfect early start exploring the park before it gets really hot.
There are accommodation options at Arches National Park to suit every budget. If you're planning a luxury break, perhaps because you're celebrating a birthday or anniversary, the Hoodoo Moab, Curio Collection by Hilton is a great choice.
This contemporary hotel is just 5 miles from the Arches Entrance Station and has an outdoor pool and wellness facilities so that you can wind down after your visit to the national park.
Nearby you'll find Days Inn by Wyndham Moab, which is a more budget-friendly option. You'll find a comfortable and spacious air-conditioned room here, and it's still only a 7-minute drive from the Arches Entrance Station so it's perfectly located for visiting Arches National Park.
Like many national parks, Arches National Park is also a fantastic place for camping. If you're visiting in summer, you can sleep alongside the Colorado River at Goose Island and wake up to views of the red rock canyons.
There are picnic tables and shelters here, which will come in handy during the sweltering summer months. And since you'll be staying so close to the Colorado River, why not book a white water rafting trip too?
You can even camp out if you're visiting in winter. Head to Devils Garden Campground, which is inside Arches National Park. Unlike summer, you don't have to reserve in advance between November and February.
In fact, these quieter months can be a great time of year to experience this really popular campground. With firewood for sale on site, light up your campfire and enjoy watching the sun go down in this stunning setting.
If you're visiting Canyonlands National Park you'll have to factor in the longer drive from most of the hotels in the area. It's a 30-minute drive to the Islands in the Sky Entrance from SpringHill Suites by Marriott Moab, which is a super-stylish option with an outdoor pool.
Another option is The Virginian Inn Moab Downtown, which offers clean, motel-style accommodation with views of red rocks. It has free guest parking and is around a 35-minute drive to Canyonlands National Park.
With potable water and some shaded spots, The Needles Campground is a good place to head if you're visiting in summer. It will be hot at this time of year, so arrive early for the best chance of a shaded pitch. You can get to Salt Flat Wooden Shoe Arch Trailhead from here.
The Island in the Sky Campground endures the extreme heat of the high desert in summer. However, it's a fantastic choice for winter camping trips since it's open all year round and you can get to it along a paved road.
It's close to the stunning Green River Overlook, so you get the chance to see this amazing view in different lights throughout your stay.
Comparing Arches and Canyonlands National Parks by season
With no seasonal closures, you can enjoy Arches National Park at whatever time of year. However, your experience will differ depending on the time of your visit. Certain times of year are busier, and the weather fluctuates depending on the seasons.
Your experience at Canyonlands will also vary depending on the season, so keep on reading to find out what's in store and to check whether one park will tick your boxes better than the other at the time you're planning to travel.
Arches vs Canyonlands National Park in spring
With wildflowers blooming and easier hiking conditions, spring is a great time to visit Arches National Park. Spring months have average temperatures between 47 and 65 degrees Fahrenheit.
Although on the whole, spring is quieter than summer, parking lots still fill for most of the day, and during Easter week Arches National Park is actually busier than most of the summer.
Spring temperatures in Canyonlands are similar, so April and May are ideal times to visit to enjoy cooler hikes. Although this is peak time for visitors, you can beat the crowds by arriving early in the day.
Be careful to avoid Spring Break, and Memorial Day Weekend too if you want to avoid the crowds, particularly in Arches National Park.
Arches vs Canyonlands National Park in summer
Summer is a hot and dry time of year in this part of Utah. Average temperatures sit around 80 degrees Fahrenheit, increasing to 90 or above in heat waves, making it difficult to hike in the heat. In June there are 15 hours of daylight, so you'll be able to enjoy extended viewing.
It's also monsoon season come late summer, which means there's a higher risk of sudden thunderstorms, heavy rain and flash floods. Be mindful of this especially when going off the beaten track.
Despite the extreme heat, summer is the most popular time to visit Arches National Park, and parking lots fill up as early as 7:30am. Remember to register your vehicle beforehand and book camping if you want to stay inside the national park.
As you might expect, Independence Day is a peak time for visitors at Arches National Park, but on the flip side, the park gets quieter in mid-to-late August. This is also when you can spend time at the Moab Music Festival, which runs from mid-August to mid-September.
It's worth noting that Canyonlands is quieter than Arches National Park during the summer months and that summer is generally quieter than spring here due to the heat.
Still, it's particularly busy on weekends, especially at Island in the Sky. Expect tailbacks at the entrance if you don't arrive before 7am on summer weekends.
Remember, both Arches and Canyonlands National Parks are designated as International Dark Sky Parks for their awesome stargazing, so you can visit at nightfall when they're both quieter and cooler.
Arches vs Canyonlands National Park in the fall
Just like spring, you'll find more comfortable temperatures for hiking in the fall, though with highs of 85 degrees Fahrenheit and lows of 55 degrees in September, you should plan for hot days and cooler evenings.
This is a good time for camping since temperatures don't drop too dramatically during the evening. However, be mindful of Labor Day crowds if you plan to visit either national park in September.
If you're visiting either national park in fall, you might also like to spend time in nearby Moab where the Moab Folk Festival takes place in early November each year.
Arches vs Canyonlands National Park in the winter
Winter in Arches National Park is a very quiet time of year. In fact, through December and January, it's rare for more than 500 vehicles to enter the park, and these are the only months when parking lots don't fill up.
On a clear winter day, it's worth driving the scenic road to see the viewpoints from the heating of your car.
Large snowfall isn't an issue, and although the light covering usually gets often only lasts a few days, it can make trails impassable. Check at the visitor center for any closures.
Depending on how far along the trail you can get, light snow coverage makes for a great photo with the white contrasted with the red rocks.
Canyonlands is also much quieter during winter and you experience serenity within a short drive of even the most popular entrance of Island in the Sky. Nearby Moab can have budget hotel offerings during winter too.
Daylight is limited though, and in early December sunset occurs as early as 5pm. While the early sunset means you won't have as long to explore the mesa landscape, if you're short on time you can admire the colors of a canyon sunset without waiting till later at night.
You'll need to wrap up warm if you're visiting either national park in winter. Average temperatures dip down to 29 degrees Fahrenheit, and there's potential for sub-zero lows of just 21 degrees.
Planning a road trip to Arches or Canyonlands National Park
Both national parks are great places to visit as part of a longer road trip. As you've seen, you can visit them both by car and you don't need to be a serious hiker to experience some amazing views.
Moab, the gateway to both national parks, is just a few miles south of Interstate 70 so you can easily get to Arches and Canyonlands National Parks as part of a cross-country drive, but we've put together some road trip ideas to get you started with your planning.
Here is a helpful table highlighting popular road trips to Arches National Park where you can use the highlighted links to access our ultimate guides on these individual road trips:
If you are visiting Canyonlands National Park, below is a table to help you plan your trip. You can click the links above to read our guides on each of these scenic road trips.
|Starting city||Recommended entrance||Distance (time)||Highlights|
|Salt Lake City||Island in the Sky Entrance||240 miles (4 hours)||Museum of Natural Curiosity, Utah Lake, Provo, Mill Canyon Dinosaur Tracksite, Moab Giants|
|Albuquerque||Needles Entrance||365 miles (6 hours)||Coronado Historic Site, Mesa Verde National Park|
|Santa Fe||Needles Entrance||440 miles (8 hours 15 minutes)||Coronado Historic Site, Albuquerque, Indian Pueblo Cultural Centre, Sandia Peak Tramway|
|Denver||Island in the Sky Entrance||450 miles (9 hours 40 minutes)||Idaho Springs, Breckenridge, Copper Mountain, Vail, White River National Forest, Hanging Lake|
|Las Vegas||Island in the Sky Entrance||460 miles (6 hours 40 minutes)||Valley of the Fire State Park, Red Cliffs National Conservation Area, Zion National Park|
|Phoenix||Island in the Sky Entrance||580 miles (10 hours)||Coconino National Forest, Flagstaff, Sunset Crater, Wupatki National Monument, Grand Canyon|
|Seattle||Island in the Sky Entrance||1,300 miles (22 hours)||Umatilla National Forest, Boise National Forest, Shoshone Ice Caves, Craters of the Moon National Monument|
If you're planning a longer road trip, it's easy to travel from Arches or Canyonlands National Park to other amazing sites in Utah or beyond. Why not carry on seeing the rest of Utah's Mighty Five national parks?
Bryce Canyon, Zion and Capitol Reef National Parks are all within driving distance if you head west along I-70. If you only have limited time, here is our guide on whether Bryce Canyon or Zion National Park is better to visit.
Alternatively, head south into Arizona on US-191 then take US-160 if you want to visit the Grand Canyon too. It's a different experience to Utah's national parks, but a must-see destination for many travelers. You can get there in half a day from Arches or Canyonlands National Park.
But what about trips where time isn't on your side? If you're just making a short trip to Arches or Canyonlands National Park, you'll probably want to know how long it will take you to get there.
Which national park is the best, Arches or Canyonlands National Park?
With the entrances just 26 miles apart you'd think both parks would be similar. It's not the case. Canyonlands has steep drop-offs while Arches is all about the natural sandstone arches.
For sweeping views, Canyonlands is a better option and there are more extensive backpacking hikes beyond the Island in the Sky district to reach untouched vistas.
As the saying goes, beauty is in the eye of the beholder. If you're more of a dramatic canyon lover then Canyonlands is for you, and it's a less crowded experience where you stand a better chance of finding a quiet spot to admire the scenery.
If you're heading in search of fiery red landscapes with delicate arches, then Arches wins hands down.
While neither National Parks are difficult to get to, Arches is the easier of the two. US Highway 191 is a major road with a good road surface, and the Arches Entrance is just off this road. The hikes to landmarks are less strenuous here too.
On the other hand, to enter Canyonlands at Island in the Sky, you'll need to drive 20 miles on the 313 off US Highway 191. This is a two-lane road, adding to the journey time.
Both parks have paved and unpaved roads and if you stick to the paved roads both are easy to drive. However, the potential for lines of traffic at the Entrance Station of Arches in particular makes Canyonlands an easier drive.
Bear in mind that although it's smaller, in 2020, there were 1,238,083 visitors compared to the 493,914 at Canyonlands.
But, and it's a big but, if you're planning on driving on unpaved roads then Canyonlands has very scary backcountry roads that are much worse than Arches. The White Rim Trail is considered Utah's most dangerous road as you'll skirt the edge of canyons on narrow unpaved dusty roads.
Both entrance fees are the same, but you could easily argue Canyonlands is better value for money because it covers a greater area (527 square miles vs 119 square miles) and there's more difference in the landscape.
For the best value, we recommend the annual pass for $55 which will allow you to enter both National Parks.
Of course, if you really can't decide, why not make an early start and visit both parks? From Arches National Park to the Island in the Sky Entrance at Canyonlands, it's only a 30-minute drive.