Personal Note: Airstream Travelers are no longer on the road. Shortly after posting the last blog, we finished our journey after accumulating just under 4,000 miles on our Airstream alone (almost double that on the truck). A glorious trip where the weather gods smiled down on us (something never to be taken for granted) and nothing major went wrong (another factor never a given). Now I am left to finish my posts from a different perspective—back in Indiana. But truth be told, I still sit at the same table in the Airstream where all the previous posts were composed. It’s my way of retaining something of the ambiance experienced in our travels, as well as a good solitary spot where everyday life isn’t as prone to interrupt. I hope you who are still following our story don’t feel the spontaneity of our travels has been lost because there are still a few magnificent places yet to come. The following one being a personal favorite.
Two parks—tied together by a common denominator, both high desert plateaus, each located on their own isolated promontory jutting out over the deep gorge of the Colorado River. Soaring two thousand feet above the river below, both places offer incredible panoramic views, yet each of those views is distinctly different. The common thread that they share is the road you must take to access them. Geographically, they are next-door neighbors. One is a national park, the other is one of Utah’s most outstanding state parks. When the access road divides, the fork to your left will take you to the entrance of Dead Horse Point State Park—our next destination.
Less than a dozen miles north of the town of Moab you’ll come to the turnoff that leads to both parks. Leaving the redrock country behind you, the Dead Horse Mesa Scenic Byway first goes through rolling grasslands of BLM open grazing country. Before becoming too comfortable with the drive, you’ll encounter a series of hairpin curves as the ascent to the high plateau begins. About 15 miles along the Scenic Byway you’ll reach the fork—left leads to the state park; right will take you to the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands. That segment will have to wait for a coming post. Now we’re headed to Dead Horse Point.
It’s a small state park, covering just 5,300 acres at the edge of a plateau, dwarfed by the size of nearby Canyonlands. But what it lacks in size it more than compensates for with its views. Even before standing on its Point with the magnificent overlook, the views from the Visitor Center is none too shabby. Here you’ll get your first taste of what is to come—looking across vast areas of eroded ridges and cliffs, the bright turquoise tailing ponds of a potash mining complex and in the far distance, the peaks of the La Sal Mountains giving a backdrop to the scene.
Facilities consist of the Visitors Center, a picnic area and the small campground. Nevertheless, the Center is first class and is a must-stop on your way in. Located on the plateau’s rim, you’ll get a cram course on the background of the area as well as getting your bearings on where to proceed from here.
Nestled within a grove of juniper, the Kayenta Campground offers a peaceful, shaded respite from the surrounding desert. Unfortunately, it consists of only 21 sites, all but four are reserveable and that means you need to jump on it if you have any hopes of camping here. The sites are all very nice, most with good separation, having paved drives—some pull-throughs, and all with covered patio areas, complete with storage area, electrical outlets and oversized picnic tables. The absolute best part of camping here is the proximity it affords you to the views and hiking trails. With the campgrounds of Moab at least a 40-minute drive away, it’ll make snagging those sunrise photos at the overlooks a whole lot easier to manage.
Arriving in the late afternoon, I was anxious to get where all the action was. The famous overlook. The Dead Horse Point. Renowned for its sunrise views, its sunsets weren’t reputed to be a bust by any means. Intending to scope out my sunrise spot, I’d hang around to see what twilight would offer.
I watched the sun drop over the canyons (sunset photos will come later), then returned to the location where I had previously been shooting. With the sun now gone what a transformation is seen—from the warm afternoon light to the cool shades of twilight. And yet, it’s the very same view (albeit, with a lot longer shutter speed!).
Dead Horse Point is situated atop a high plateau at an elevation of about 6,000 feet above sea level. From the Point, a “layer cake” of geologic time may be viewed in the buttes, cliffs and pinnacles, revealing 300 million years of the earth’s geologic history—in myriad bands of different hues.
And then came the climax of the evening. Tonight was the full Hunter’s moon night. Every photographer’s goal—shoot the full moon rising over a dramatic landscape. And yet, I thought my ship had sailed, that last evening was the prime time for full moon photos. If you wait until the full moon night (full moons rise as the sun is setting), you can expect the landscape to be too dark, the moon looking more like a spotlight in a black sky. With the full moon due to rise above the mountain peaks, I had figured that by the time it appeared above the horizon the landscape would be way too dark to recover. And then it happened.
What did I have to lose? There it was, rising full and huge and so bright it actually lit the landscape below it! An amazing sight. Quick! Turn the tripod and focus in—then let the camera do its magic. I wouldn’t know until much later, but I was successful in my endeavors. A great place to be on a full moon night.
Scroll forward to the following morning . . . you can be sure that I had returned. With headlight lit up and another in hand, I scrambled down to a previously scouted-out sunrise location . . . a protected ledge below the official overlook.
But first, before the famous view was lit, I saw the eastern sky come alive—it was a fiery sunrise scene. I switched my view and leaned over the rocks (the view being around huge boulders) and caught an unanticipated sight.
“The view from Dead Horse Point is one of the most photographed scenic vistas in the world.” This spectacular overlook provides a breathtaking panorama of Canyonlands’ sculpted pinnacles and buttes. But what makes it unique is the view of the gooseneck bend in the Colorado River, clearly in sight directly below.
The photographer side of me motivates an absurdly early, pre-dawn departure from a warm bed, but once on site, the quixotic side of me desires to simply stand and absorb the scene I came for. Forget the reason I find myself here. Sometimes, what I witness on a sunrise shoot is so totally overwhelming that it requires some moments to merely pay homage to. Standing on this narrow piece of wind-blown rock confronted by the scene before me was one of those singular moments. A moment to pause and bear witness to the grandeur, to the timelessness of this scene. Then in the span of one deep breath, I transform to my other side and quickly begin capturing the image with camera.
Many comparisons can be made between Dead Horse Point and Canyonlands, but they have their contrasts too. One feature we found most noticeable was the layout of their trail systems. While Canyonlands has one main park road with side arteries cutting off of it that lead to trailheads, Dead Horse Point also has the one main road leading to the Point, but except for the campground side road, no other roads lead off to trails. Instead, Dead Horse Point has one main Rim Trail—subdivided into the West and East Rim—which forms a great loop hike of nearly 7 miles that encircles the high plateau. Added to the loop, there are a couple of spur trails, short in distance, that lead to superb overlooks. But for the majority of the trail, the entire loop affords spectacular views out over the canyon, offering a change of perspective and views throughout the hike. With only minor changes in elevation, and scenes to set your spirit soaring, the trail’s length will hardly faze you.
As inspiring and majestic as this location is, there is the origin of its name that leaves one to wonder. According to the stories, around the turn of the century the end of the plateau—now Dead Horse Point—was used as a corral for wild mustangs roaming the mesa top. Cowboys rounded up these horses, herded them across the narrow neck of land and onto the Point. The neck, which is only 30 yards wide, was then fenced off with branches and brush. This created a natural corral surrounded by precipitous cliffs straight down on all sides, affording no escape. Cowboys then chose the horses they wanted and let the culls or broomtails go free. One time, for some unknown reason, horses were left corralled on the waterless point where they died of thirst within view of the Colorado River, 2,000 feet below.
In contrast to that sad story, today you’ll find the Point a place of wonder and delight. I came to learn that it is also a ritual gathering place when the day is closing down. Both evenings spent here at the park, I came to admire the setting and was a witness to the rite of sunset. One night was a time more of jubilation—energetic with all manner of selfie photos being taken, while conversely the other was an evening of repose and quiet reflection. Different groups of people, different styles of expression. And the observer in me felt compelled to savor and save it.
Melinda & Chris