Bootprints Hiking Guide: Escape the Colorado May blizzard in Moab’s Canyonlands National Park
May 20, 2017
Canyonlands National Park comprises 337,598 acres of eroded rock and sand located in the desert lands west of Moab, Utah. Senator Frank Moss introduced the proposal to establish the national park, which was signed into law by President Lyndon Johnson in 1964.
Despite the absence of drinking water across most of the area and a climate too hot for the survival of most life during the summer months, more than 770,000 people visited Canyonlands this past year. They seek views of rock formations arising from the forces of wind and water across hundreds of millions of years. The erosive flow of the Green River and Colorado River, along with tributary streams, carved craven canyons some 1,000 feet below the embracing, bold, red rock of the Colorado Plateau.
Canyonlands is divided into three districts: Island in the Sky, The Needles and the Maze. The Island in the Sky is a broad mesa northwest of Moab, located between the flows of the Colorado River and Green River. The Needles District is two hours southwest of Moab, named for the red-and-white-banded spires that greet guests to the park. The Maze District is a remote puzzle of convoluted rock fins rising above inaccessible canyons explored by less than two percent of park visitors.
Island in the Sky district
On my first day, I drove north of Moab to Utah State Highway 313, then turned southwest to enter the Island in the Sky area of Canyonlands. The park visitor center is located near the Shafer Canyon Overlook, a short walk providing views of the immense canyon forming the eastern boundary of the park to the west of Dead Horse Point.
I proceeded south to Mesa Arch, where I found a broad overlook of the great, white rim of rock 1,000 feet above the slowly grinding Colorado River. During the next two hours, I reached the Grand View Point trailhead and hiked 2 miles to see the rugged landscape below Junction Butte (6,400 feet), about 12 miles north of the junction where the Green River and Colorado River meet. Then, I drove north for a half-hour to hike the 2-mile trail along the rim of Upheaval Dome. Upheaval Dome is a round crater possibly formed by a meteorite impact or sinkhole collapse.
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After observing the uplift of gray and yellow sands tossed among chocolate spires in the bowl, I returned out to the trailhead and met a couple who had completed the 8-mile hike of the Syncline Loop Trail. The trail has a vertical profile of 3,000 feet as it winds around the amphitheater of Upheaval Dome. Since the two completed the loop in three hours without losing sight of cairns along the primitive trail, I was impressed by their effort, especially since they seemed to be inexperienced hikers and carried no water.
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The Needles district
The 11-mile trek on the Confluence Overlook Trail was my objective for the second day in Canyonlands. After breaking camp, I completed the two-hour and 80-mile drive south of Moab to the Confluence Overlook Trailhead. At the edge of Big Spring Canyon, the start of the trail, I met the couple that hiked the Upheaval Dome loop the previous day. I asked whether they were going to join me on the Confluence Overlook hike, but they were sore enough from their previous adventure.
I packed three liters of cold water with me as the temperature neared 80 degrees Fahrenheit on the exposed pan of slickrock and sand that I intended to cross. I stared over the edge of the trail in disbelief — I was immediately going to make a steep descent into Big Spring Canyon. I scrambled up several ridges, through a keyhole and up a steel ladder before dropping down into Elephant Canyon after 3 miles. The trail profile seemed dramatic, although my altimeter presented a variation of less than 200 feet.
Another climb and steep descent led to Cyclone Canyon at 3.5 miles, where the trail crosses a jeep road. After nearly three hours of conversing with dozens of energetic lizards and a garter snake in more of a hurry than me, I reached the Confluence Overlook and saw the tawny Green River merge with the muddy milk chocolate of the Colorado River 1,000 feet below me.
Getting there and notes
Canyonlands National Park is approximately 300 miles west of Summit County (a five-hour drive). From Interstate 70 West, I turned south on scenic Utah State Highway 128 that follows the Colorado River.
Along the way, I investigated the ancient art among the Fisher Towers, discovered and made famous by Katie Brown and Alex Honnold, and the Warner Lake area in the La Sal Mountains, before searching for a campsite downstream from the bustling, noisy town of Moab.
The prolific public campgrounds beside the Colorado River were filled by early afternoon, but I found a shaded site available at the rustic Kane Springs Campground that became my base camp. Through the night, I enjoyed the calm of cricket calls crackling amid the calm, clear night. I awoke at midnight to the patter of raindrops that formed small streams down the walls of my tent, enveloping the hours until first light. I slipped into my down jacket and did not hurry to begin the activities of the next day in the cloud-shrouded dampness of the morning.
Due to the lack of drinking water across most of the Canyonlands area, I packed eight liters of frozen water and bought a bag of ice cubes to melt in an insulated jug for my two days of touring the desert. My cache was completely depleted and found wanting by the end of the trip.
Author Kim Fenske has written extensively on hiking trails in Colorado. His writing includes, "Greatest Hikes in Central Colorado: Summit and Eagle Counties," and "Hiking Colorado: Holy Cross Wilderness," both available from Amazon Kindle books.