09-28-2021 Canyonlands Island in the Sky and Dead Horse Point State Park

Photo taken from the Dead Horse Point Overlook at Dead Horse Point State Park

Waking to a morning of mixed clouds and sunshine, I knew that we might not have the right light for taking a photo of the early sun rising in the east and reflecting on the underside of Mesa Arch.  The image of sun on the underside of the arch is used to advertise Canyonlands in many places.

Just for fun, I inserted a screen shot below of only a tiny portion of the photos that show up for a google search of Mesa Arch images.

Located on the east side of the uplift called the Island in the Sky, Mesa Arch was a must see for me on this visit to Canyonlands

We left at 7:30 this morning, an hour later then yesterday, but still early enough to beat the worst of the crowds, I hoped.  Our first destination was the Mesa Arch trail but we planned to view the rest of the easily accessible viewpoints at the Island in the Sky section of Canyonlands.

I have been to Mesa Arch a few times in the past, and even 25 years ago the trail could be crowded.  Especially at dawn, there are often hordes of photographers with tripods set up to capture the famous light on the underside of the arch.

My soil survey boss, and good friend Eva, walking across the arch in 2000

Chere decided that the steep parts were not fun and waved to us when we reached the arch

The short half mile trail out to the arch is “moderately easy”, but there are some stairs and a few steep areas.  Still, there were many people on the trail walking toward the arch and many more walking back from the arch carrying their tripods.  Who knows if the morning clouds allowed them to get the famous light on the underside of the arch.

See the famous “Washer Woman” on the upper part of the photo?
This was as good as it got for me on the slightly overcast morning

The fun thing about Mesa Arch is that the drop on the mesa side of the arch is only 20 feet or so, but the drop on the canyon side is more than 1300 feet.  It is a dizzying feeling that triggers some intense vertigo if you are trying to stand anywhere near the top of the arch. 

Thanks to my lack of balance at this point, you can see me holding on to Mo for dear life in this photo. I realized later something I forgot about.  Take off the dang progressive lenses!  I remember this when trying to go down steep trails and steps and should have remembered this when I climbed up to a high point above the arch for the view.

Dan, Mo, and I had fun waiting our turn for photos at the arch, with most people being kind and thoughtful and not dominating the site for others wanting that same photo.

The Island in the Sky is bisected by a paved road that goes to the end of the mesa, with a “grand” view at Grand View Point.  I learned on this trip something I never knew after all my years traveling the Colorado Plateau.  Until 1921, the Colorado River didn’t start in the state that bears the same name. It began in Utah, where the Green River from Wyoming and the Grand River from Colorado met at the infamous confluence of the two rivers that can be seen from space in the google maps image below.

We planned to visit each of the scenic viewpoints that could be reached by car in Canyonlands.  We would then return to Dead Horse Point State Park on the northeast side of the plateau to view the iconic landscape from another perspective.

From our previous day visiting Arches, we knew that it was wise to get to the most important viewpoints first, knowing that the parking lots and trails were likely to be crowded.  When we left the Mesa Arch parking lot, we headed immediately for the most distant spot on paved road to the Grand View Point Overlook.

As expected, the parking lot was already full and one more time the handicap hang tag gave us access to the only open parking space at the overlook. The view from this site is breathtaking. 

A ranger working near the parking lot said that the overcast sky was actually a blessing for viewing the expansive landscape since bright sunshine often wiped out much of the detail in photos.

We returned to the main road and traveled northwest to the Upheaval Dome Overlook parking lot. What I had forgotten is that there is no view from this point.  Instead of hiking the steep, rocky trail to the overlooks, we settled at a nice picnic table to enjoy some snacks for lunch.  Later, we returned to the road toward the Green River Overlook where we were gifted with expansive views toward the west. 

The views from the Green River Overlook were awe-inspiring.  We could see the far northwestern part of the White Rim Trail, a 4-wheel drive road that is the destination of many a mountain biker and 4-wheeler enthusiast.

Yes, that is Mt Ellen in the distance on the left side of the photo below, at the high point of the Henry Mountain Range.  Dan and Chere got a bit tired of me continuously pointing out Mt Ellen and I promised that this was the last time I would do so.

We drove back to the east side of the mesa for a great view toward the La Sals at the Buck Canyon Overlook. We could see virga, “streaks or wisps of precipitation falling from a cloud but evaporating before reaching the ground” in the distance. Rain was predicted on the mesa by noon, but for us, so far so good.  No rain while we were on our explorations of the Island in the Sky.

Dan and Chere at the Buck Canyon Overlook

We continued to the Shafer Trail Overlook.  There are actually two spots with parking where the Shafer Trail is visible.  We chose what appeared to be the less crowded site a bit south of the main overlook.  The Shafer Trail is a narrow dirt road with sharp switchbacks that descends to the White Rim Road that circles around the Island in the Sky on the White Rim Sandstone. 

We stayed a bit at this overlook, watching the tiny vehicles negotiation the sharp turns.  There were quite a few rigs traveling up and down the road and it was fun to watch them passing each other and bumping around the steep, sharp switchbacks.  I knew exactly how it felt, because I drove the Shafer Trail in my Dakota pickup back in 1997.  I only drove about 50 miles of the White Rim Road before my friend Shera said she had enough of all that rough driving, and we backtracked up the steep part of the Shafer Trail.  It was an experience I will never forget. The next three photos are grainy scans of photos from that trip in 1997.

We ended our day’s travels with a visit to Dead Horse Point State Park. The legend of Dead Horse Point originates around the turn of the 19th century when cowboys would round up the wild mustangs that roamed the mesa. It is said that a herd was driven down the neck of the peninsula, its sheer cliffs forming a natural corral, and the 30-foot-wide entrance was then fenced off with branches and brush.

This was to be our final shared day in Utah’s red rock country.  A friendly guy at the overlook agreed to take a photo of the four of us.  It was a fitting tribute to what has been a wonderful trip.

Author: kyotesue

Soil scientist/mapper working for 35 years in the wild lands of the West. I am now retired, enjoying my freedom to travel, to hike without a shovel and a pack, to knit and quilt and play, to play with photography and write stories about all of it.

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