Canyonlands National Park – Part 1

Hi everyone,

This week I’ll take you to Canyonlands National Park and the nearby Dead Horse Point State Park. Both of these parks are heavily influenced by the Colorado River that I featured last week, click here to review. We left our base in Moab early for the 45 minute drive on Highway 191 north to the Island in the Sky entrance to Canyonlands. The temperature was in the 50s with a mostly sunny sky and a slight breeze. A perfect day to spend the day in one of our national treasures.

Canyonlands National Park

Canyonlands is huge, covering nearly 340,000 acres in southeast Utah. In 1961, Secretary of Interior Stuart Udall flew over the area that is now Canyonlands National Park. Captivated by what he saw, he began promoting the establishment of a national park. Three years later President Lyndon Johnson signed the legislation to preserve the colorful landscape of canyons, mesas, sandstone benches created by the Colorado and Green Rivers.

The park is divided into four districts: Island in the Sky (the one we will visit today); The Needles located about 50 miles south of Moab (stay tuned next week); The Maze, a remote section requiring a 4-wheel drive; and The Rivers with 14 miles of rapids below the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers.

With this diversity, the park is popular with folks looking for recreation. It received nearly 800,000 visitors per year before the pandemic. The day of our visit, attendance was light, there was plenty of parking. Canyonlands features numerous hiking trails rated easy along the mesa top to the very strenuous that take hikers deep into the canyons. There are hundreds of miles of four-wheel drive roads that take enthusiasts into the backcountry for exploration and camping.

After stopping at the entrance for photos of the sign and to show our senior pass, we proceeded to the visitor center about a mile down the road. About half way, I noticed a sign for the Shafer Trail that veered off to the left. It looked like the packed dirt road dipped into the canyons below. My curiosity was set in motion, thinking this might be a fun adventure. I asked one of the rangers stationed outside the visitor center about this trail. She explained it was once a sheep herding trail, then a mining road that descended 1500 feet along the sandstone cliffs into the canyon below. She told me the road required a four-wheel drive vehicle with a low gear option. Check, we had that. Then she said after reaching the canyon floor there is point in the road where backcountry permits are required, essentially a turn-around point for those without permits or very high clearance vehicles. Ok, I didn’t need a permit to go further, going to the bottom was enough. I thanked her for the information and glanced at my Traveling Partner. By the look on her face, I determined that she was not keen on taking this trail. My bold adventure was in doubt!

At the first turnout on the 34-mile mesa top scenic drive, we could see the Shafer Trail road winding its way down the canyon wall. I was convinced we could make it but the switch-backs and steep grade looked challenging. We did observe one vehicle driving very slowly on the unpaved, pothole filled road. About that time, another couple about our age, arrived  and stood near us looking into the canyon and road. The other fella and I struck up a conversation about how fun it would be to take this road. You could see the adventure and risk in our formerly adolescent eyes! Behind us, our Traveling Partners were saying to each something to the effect “over my dead body am I going down there.” The other guy and I jokingly said to each other: “We could team up!” Too soon our rational thinking, adult minds switched back on, saving us from the risk of an early death or at the very least, a messy divorce if we survived. Time to move on.

As we traveled further down the scenic drive, I kept talking about the Shafer Trail. My Traveling Partner said I could go but she’d stay behind. She was kind to offer but I didn’t want to have her standing along side the road for a few hours while I went off on an escapade. I finally quit talking about it when we pulled into the parking lot for the Mesa Arch. A short hike took us to the arch perched on the edge of a cliff. It’s a popular place to watch the sunrise over the snow-capped La Sal Mountains to the east. 

Just past the Mesa Arch, the road split. First, we took the route to the Grand View Point Overlook. It is appropriately named because it was certainly a grand view. We hiked the one mile out to the view point for the panoramic view looking south towards the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers.

Here are some of the other sites we saw on our walk.

Since the Grand View Point was the end of the road, we headed back and took the other fork in the road. Our first stop was the Green River Overlook where we could see the Green River wind its way to through the canyon. Below we could see the 4-wheel drive road that followed the rim of the river. That evening when we returned to Moab, I noted the many outfitters that would rent off-road vehicles to those willing to pay the price and take the risk. I made a mental note for our next visit. I hope I don’t forget where I put that note!

Our last stop was at the Upheaval Dome parking lot. There we took a short hike to Whale Rock, a sandstone dome that to me, somewhat resembled Uluru (Ayers Rock) in the Northern Territories of Australia. It’s not as high or red but the shape is similar. We didn’t climb to the top of the rock, we were still adjusting to the altitude or maybe just lazy!

After a pit stop at the visitor center, we departed Canyonlands. I wondered how to describe the beauty, could I find enough words to get the point across? This is where the photos can do the talking. Here’s a few miscellaneous shots from Canyonlands.

One could look at this twisted remnant of a tree and think it’s dead. Actually, it has taken on a new life in this dry, harsh climate. It’s become a home to a variety of insects and other small critters. It will “live” on for many years until it turns to dust.

I was amazed to see this plant blooming in early November when the nights are often below freezing.

Dead Horse Point State Park

On the road from Canyonlands to Highway 191 is a side road that goes to Dead Horse Point State Park. A narrow sliver of private land separates Dead Horse from Canyonland. You might wonder where this park gets its name. According to legend, the point was once used as a corral to pen up wild horses that roamed the mesa. The cowboys would crowd them on to the narrow neck of the point, select the horses they wanted to keep, and leave the rest to die of thirst after creating a fence with branches and brush. Those horses could see but not reach the Colorado River 2000 feet below. A sad story, hope it’s not true.

It was later in the afternoon when we stopped at the visitor center to pay the entrance fee of $20.00. The parking lot was quite full as this too is very popular with those seeking outdoor recreation. They have a couple of very nice campgrounds with electric hookups, yurts available for rent, hiking trails, and other amenities. Something else to remember for our next trip to this part of the world. Before heading out on the scenic drive, we peered into the canyon next to the parking lot. Holy cow, it was so deep, it made me feel dizzy!

Here’s some of what we saw at Dead Horse.

I wondered what those bright blue lagoons were off in the distance. This sign tells us they are evaporation ponds for potash. The next day, after visiting Arches National Park, we drove past these ponds, they are quite large and very blue!

At the end of the scenic road is Dead Horse Point Overlook with a dramatic view of the Colorado River. Again, we could see the road for off-road vehicles that wind their way the rim of the river.

Monitor and Merrimac

After leaving Dead Horse, we were back on the road to connect with Highway 191 that would take us back to Moab. At the intersection, we noticed these two large buttes and turned off into a small parking lot where we saw this weathered sign. I can understand the explanation but who thought of those names? Not a clue after a Google search. 

As we made the twelve-mile drive from the Merrimac and Monitor back to Moab, we remarked how much we enjoyed the day, even if we didn’t take Shafer Trail! For more information about Canyonlands National Park, click here.

Until next week, happy travels!