“[It is] a strange, weird, grand region of naked rock with cathedral-shaped buttes, towering hundreds or thousands of feet, cliffs that cannot be scaled and canyon walls that shrink the river into insignificance.”
~John Wesley Powell, recorded during his 1869 Expedition near the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers.
Okay, close your eyes and visualize with me here a moment. Imagine standing on a narrow tongue of land, almost 2,000 feet above the land below, overlooking out over a seemingly endless view of canyons, cliffs, buttes and rocky spires. A valley far below you, roughly outlined by a fringe of white rock, containing strange solitary towers rising from its depths. The Grandview Point, in the Island in the Sky district of the park, offers one of the most stunning views in America. The Green and Colorado Rivers have carved a surreal landscape here.
The mighty Colorado and Green Rivers converge in the heart of Canyonlands National Park. Both of these rivers washed out up to 2,000’ deep canyons cutting into 300 millions of years of geological history. A complex network of countless tributary canyons formed by flood and storm water create an endless maze that extends beyond the horizon – a colorful and a truly unique landscape. Rivers divide Canyonlands National Park into the three main districts: The Needles, The Maze and Island in The Sky (locals call it I-Sky). Isolated from one another, these three areas are accessed by separate, dead-end roads. Hoping to capture the essence of this park in one fell swoop, we chose I-Sky for our Canyonlands experience.
Sandwiched between the Green and Colorado Rivers and looming over the northern reaches of Canyonlands National Park, Island in the Sky is a grand, flat-topped, juniper-studded mesa offering the park’s most accessible and dramatic photographic opportunities. About 45 minutes from the town of Moab, it is bisected by a paved road which includes numerous overlooks, each offering a heat-stopping view of hundreds of square miles of river-carved terrain thousands of feet below.
Achieving national park status in 1964, the area has a rich history dating back to the Anasazi Indians. Evidence shows that humans first passed through here 10,000 years ago; more recently native people lived here a few hundred years ago. Their pictographs and petroglyphs can be found throughout the park. European explorers found this region to be an impediment, finding other routes that avoided geographic obstacle. From the 1880s to 1975, local ranchers used much of Canyonlands for winter pasture. The uranium rush of the 1950s is responsible for most of the back roads in the park. While the mining altered parts of the landscape, their roads opened the area for recreationalists to discover.
Canyonlands is the largest and most undeveloped of Utah’s national parks, so vast it’s divided into three districts. The Maze is rough, remote, and rarely visited. Island in the Sky (I-Sky) floats high above the canyon bottoms, a mesa rimmed with vertiginous vistas. The Needles—more than 110 miles south of I-Sky—offers miles of stupendous hiking. I-Sky is the most visited region of the national park, last year having more than 600,000 visitors.
There are actually two ways to enter Island in the Sky—one road paved and the other “road” definitely not paved. One is an official state highway, adequate for any type vehicle and RV to drive; the other is more rough and dusty, having considerably more of a steep grade. Definitely not adequate without 4WD and as we would later learn, better for vehicles with a short wheel base. One makes for an easy Sunday drive, and the other, I might venture to say, is only for drivers having ice in their veins—surely not for the faint-hearted. Oh, but what an experience it is! In the end, I am very pleased to report, we (er, should I say ‘he’?} managed them both. (Details and more photos coming in an upcoming post).
Highway 313 gently winds and climbs to the entrance of the park while the Shafer Road begins at river level and climaxes with a heart-pounding precipitous climb 1,500’ up the canyon wall, thereby accessing the park’s entrance.
Pulling into Canyonlands can be the easier part, whereas getting a campsite there can be much more problematic. For unknown reasons, this large expanse of park having acres upon acres of rolling open land, has only one campground with a mere 12 sites, all on a first-come, first-serve basis! Nicely laid out, with paved pads and road, perhaps the park’s creators anticipated much less of a demand. Maybe that was so back in the 1960s, but today it’s quite a different story. Nearly 30 miles from the main highway, and then another 10 to reach the campgrounds around Moab, you need to have Lady Luck on your side when you pull into Willow Flats Campground, or expect to make the round trip drive back to Moab each day. Choosing to arrive on the Monday after a 4-day school holiday weekend and pulling in at the break of day, we were fortunate to find several sites being vacated. Selecting one than could accommodate our near 30’ trailer (at least half of the sites are sized more for tents), we simply waited until the previous campers pulled out.
It was a super site and we settled in for our 3-day stay.Overlooks rule at Island in the Sky – once we began checking out the lay of the land I came to realize that what I had read in my research was confirmed – the district is mainly centered around various overlooks from the high elevation of the “island” mesa top. When at Island in the Sky, the numerous overlooks are where it’s primarily at. Some are easy to access . . .
. . . like this view just across from the Visitor Center. While others come with no small amount of extreme effort . . . like this view going down the Shafer Road to the river below (adventure to be described in that upcoming post).
While other views are just a short walk down a well-trod path.
Then again, maybe to get the full effect—the complete enchilada, you’ve really gotta do the steps and work the plan and head down a trail or two. But just as I wrote in my previous post, there are rich rewards to be gained with not that much exertion. Besides, walking across the slickrock terrain can actually be FUN! Trust me.
You’ll want to start with the White Rim Trail . . . it’s not just the tremendous views that await, but also the whole complete picture of what Island in the Sky is all about. C’mon—it’s only a mile out to the point and a mere 140’ elevation gain. You’ll easily do it!
Even though they share many of the same perspectives, one aspect of Canyonlands that is different from Dead Horse Point is the view you get of the White Rim from just about every overlook at Island in the Sky. Halfway down from where you stand (that’s 1,000 feet or so), is a wide flat plateau that has been formed by a layer of white sandstone much more resistant to erosion than the strata above or below it. The White Rim (looking a tad more beige-ish in this early morning light) parallels the Colorado and Green Rivers forming a belt around the Island in the Sky’s circumference.
Monument Basin is the star of this overlook, giving a grand picture of what lies in the deepest recesses of the river canyons. Hoodoos and towers and sandstone pillars, looking diminutive in height from the viewer’s perspective, would dwarf an elephant if standing nearby.
Easily seen from all of the overlooks, a 100-mile track, the White Rim Road, built by uranium prospectors after World War II winds along the edge of the rim. Driving the full distance is said to take 2 days at least (overnight camping areas are provided) and a few parts require 4WD.
Not every attraction at Canyonlands involves heading to an overlook. To keep things interesting there’s a few good destinations sitting out on the mesa. Paved roads lead to the trailheads, and again, the length of the trails won’t break your bank (or your reserves of energy).
Upheaval Dome Overlook is one of the most memorable features in Canyonlands. It’s unexpected and so different from the surrounding landscape. One minute you’re hiking over redrock terrain, and then ka-boom! you’re face-to-face with a surprising geologic feature.
It looks like a big climb, but hiking on slickrock is definitely easy. Something of a misnomer, this wind and rain-polished rock is actually gritty with beautiful striations and textures. Maybe slick and treacherous when wet, when dry you’ll find it grips your shoes and makes the uphill climb lots easier.
On the way to the second overlook (most people seemed to stop at the first one) you’ll begin seeing far-off views and a more varied terrain. Worth the extra mile or so, you’ll learn that like most hiking trails, it’s not just about your destination.
It is an amazing metamorphic feature whose origin is the subject of some debate. In stark contrast to the otherwise flat sedimentary rock formations across all of Canyonlands, this is a crater, 2 miles wide, surrounded by a ring of raised sandstone in which the strata have been buckled and twisted. At the center, some distance below the rim, sits a blue-tinged mass of distorted rock; the basin resembles a volcanic crater but it is thought either to result from meteorite impact or an upsurge of salt deposits from deep below the surface.
Another feature that definitely adds interest to Canyonlands’ mesa top is the series of swirl-top sandstone mesas rising from the otherwise flat plateau. Offering a different type of hiking experience, they also hold evidence of the Anasazi who came before.
We couldn’t wait to tackle this trail!
Aztec Butte is the most prominent of the Navajo sandstone domes on the Island, and the trail leading up to its nearly flat summit presents an all-encompassing panorama. But first comes the task of climbing up there. Chris was pretty motivated. My spirit was willing . . . but would my body see it through?
Two hundred feet of elevation later, we were standing on the top and what a glorious view it was! A trail leads around the summit perimeter, providing far-reaching panoramas. Taylor Canyon is the notable view, with its redrock buttes stretching to the horizon. Yes, the Anasazi had it right—this spot was prime real estate!
With Aztec Butte behind us, we then climbed an adjacent, smaller one. A sheltered alcove tucked beneath the rim of the butte’s summit leads to ancient stone granaries. Once used for storing water, seeds and food in tightly sealed baskets and pots, the Anasazi used granaries as we would pantries today.
Aztec Butte was just the leg-warmer for our last hike in Canyonlands. I had my heart set on the False Kiva Trail, but I knew it would be a tough challenge (read: attempting another steep scramble). And yet, there would be glory in the destination.
It is debated whether to disclose the exact location of False Kiva as it enjoys a semi-protected status. While park rangers are required to disclose the location of the Class II site, it does not appear on official maps of the park. Having no map in hand to guide us could make the hike extraordinarily tricky, but fortunately Chris had recently acquired a new hiking trail app—AllTrails—that gives great directions as well as mapping your route along the trail via GPS that allowed us to navigate to our goal. If you’re any kind of hiker, we’ll assure you at $30/year it’s worth every dollar.
The trail starts out easy enough . . . clearly visible, with just slight ups-and-downs.
But before it’s over, you are crossing over the side of a cliff, loose talus on the trail. And then it becomes really interesting as you must scale the cliff, and the loose rock becomes larger boulders along the way.
About then, you’re wondering if this could all be worth it.
And finally, the trail rounds a bend and there it is. The site is called “False Kiva” because people falsely believed the main round structure is a kiva or ceremonial room. However these big structures were fairly common shelters for ancestral Puebloan people living in the area around 1200 AD. Partial excavation and stabilization of the big structure in 1986 showed it was only used for daily activities like cooking and sleeping. The absence of a midden or garbage area indicates the site was only occupied for a short time, although the presence of the storage cists indicate that foods were stored there.
False Kiva is a hauntingly beautiful photo location made popular by landscape photographer, Tom Till. Hidden under a vast alcove at the edge of Island in the Sky, it has all the ingredients of a great canyon country shot. It is the low circular ruin forming an ideal foreground to a classic Canyonlands grand scenic, with the silhouette of Candlestick Butte balancing the shot.
And now, before I close off this Canyonlands post, I must admit that the best was saved for last. What Delicate Arch is to Arches and Thor’s Hammer is to Bryce, Mesa Arch at Canyonlands is the iconic image here. Even more than that, some would say it’s become a “classic” of the entire Southwest. Whatever claims are made, it is simply The Shot To Get, and every visitor to the park, be they sightseer or professional photographer, makes the pilgrimage to this spot. A stream of tour buses all day, a gaggle of photographers before dawn. It’s that well-known and that well-photographed. A place that popular is not exactly my kind of place. But when in Rome . . . I ended up paying a visit each day, each time seeing a different scene.
Framing the rugged Colorado River canyon as the pinnacles of Washer Woman and Airport Tower add distinction and the peaks of the La Sal Mountains form a backdrop, Mesa Arch, composed of Navajo sandstone, is a small but graceful span perched on the very rim of the mesa. Making an ideal sunrise location, the red sandstone seems to glow as if on fire when the first rays of the rising sun strike the underneath side of the arch.
During the day (when most people see it) the Arch is interesting but without any glow it’s just another scenic Canyonlands’ view.
No light, no drama. No rewards.
Ah, things changed on that second morning! Clear skies with just enough clouds to bring colors to the sky and sunlight definitely did break through. Mesa Arch lit up and the view came alive, but sadly the crowd of photographers kept me off to one end of the row of shooters.
(Tomorrow, I’ll be here sooner!)
Third time’s a charm they say, and it worked that way for me! Our last morning in the park—good morning light, a better position and everything came together. My iconic Canyonlands’ shot was in the bag.
Canyonlands is more than a picturesque place to grab good photographs. One visit to this unique national park will soon make apparent that with its towering mesas and buttes, sheer and colorful cliffs, dramatic views and interesting trails, it epitomizes the canyon country of our Southwest. It is truly a magnificent park where two great rivers have carved their way through rock, leaving a maze of serpentine canyons in their wake. The fins, buttes and spires are a photographers’ delight, as well as all those who come just to view the park’s offerings.
The Green River overlook was just down the road from where we were camping. Bordered by soaring sandstone cliffs and overlooking the chasm of Soda Springs Basin, the overlook seemed to present a microcosm of what Canyonlands is. With a view to the western sky, I found it a convenient and ideal place to end our days here. Finding solitude as I strolled the mesa’s rim, the soft evening light seemed to inspire reflection. It’s easy to sense the timelessness of this place, not so easy to comprehend the forces of nature that carved this scene. And so, I am left just to appreciate what I am seeing, to capture it with my camera.
Author Edward Abbey, a frequent visitor and seasonal ranger at nearby Arches, described the Canyonlands as “the most weird, wonderful, magical place on earth—there is nothing else like it anywhere.” That pretty much sums it up.
Melinda & Chris