Canyonlands preserves a wilderness of rock at the heart of the Colorado Plateau in Southeastern Utah. Water and gravity, this land’s prime architects, cut flat layers of sedimentary rock into hundreds of canyons, mesas, buttes, fins, arches, and spires. At center stage are two canyons carved by the Green and Colorado rivers. Island in the Sky stands more than two thousand feet above both rivers, north of their confluence, with breathtaking views that stretch to the horizon 100 miles away. There are many trails on Island in the Sky. This report will focus on the Murphy Point Trail, but will also tell you a little about several others. These trails lead to striking vistas, to arches, and to other remarkable geologic features. These hikes occurred on Friday, September 27, 2013 from 7:00am to about 2:30pm. Our plan was to spend the day exploring the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park.
Hike Length: 3.7 miles Hike Duration: 2.5 hours
Hike Configuration: Out and back
Start Elevation: 6,250 feet Elevation Gain: 135 feet
Hike Rating: Easy, very flat Blaze: Marked by juniper logs
Trail Condition: Sandy. Slick rock near Murphy Point. Watch for dangerous cliffs.
Starting Point: Murphy Point trailhead on Grand View Point Road.
Trail Traffic: We encountered two pair of hikers on the way back.
How to Get There: From the Island in the Sky Visitor Center drive 8.6 miles to the Murphy Point pullout on the right. There is enough parking for about a dozen cars.
Canyonlands is unique among national parks in that it is divided into four districts, separate areas of the park that make for distinct adventures themselves. The Maze is in the southwest portion of the park and is the most remote and rugged wilderness. The Needles district is quite unusual with its red rock spires and mesas. Meanderthals has been there; to Chesler Park. Horseshoe Canyon is a small area not adjacent to the rest of the park, and was made famous by Aron Ralston’s canyoneering accident in 2003, during which he amputated his own right forearm. Island in the Sky is the most easily accessible (and therefore touristy). This trail report will focus on Island in the Sky.
Once again I was accompanied by my brother, the other Internet Brother. We timed our arrival for dawn so we could catch that iconic photograph of Mesa Arch that has been seen forty bajillion times on the Internet and on coffee tables across America. We weren’t the only ones with the same idea as there were already about a half dozen photographers with tripods setup, waiting for the right moment. Just one problem though. That moment never came on this particular morning. Extreme overcast above the LaSal Mountains made the sun completely invisible. The locals who come out here nearly every morning for that perfect photo were gone within five minutes with comments like, “should have stayed in bed today.”
For me, it was only a minor disappointment. Mesa Arch and the surrounding towers, canyons and mountains still created a remarkable scene. I may not have captured the perfect sunrise through the arch, but I did capture a vivid memory that will last for years. It was even worth the morning cold and howling wind.
The trail to Mesa Arch is short, no more than a quarter mile to the arch, half mile round trip. It can be done as a loop, or out and back on either of two trails. It crosses sandy slick rock and desert scrub, like juniper and sage. Mesa Arch itself is perched right at cliff’s edge, with the LaSal Mountains clearly visible in the distance, and Washer Woman Arch and Airport Tower jutting up from the canyon below.
On our return from the arch, the morning sun was lighting the clouds above Aztec Butte, creating another beautiful desert scene. There was a hungry raven waiting in the parking pullout, one obviously very familiar with the human species, and our senseless tendency to provide handouts. Instead, I took his picture as he looked back at me with disdain.
Our next destination was the trailhead for Murphy Point, but along the way we made several stops for photographic moments as the sun was finally breaking up the cloud layer and providing a stunning light show in Taylor Canyon and the Soda Springs Basin. Murphy Point was our feature hike on this adventure, the one in the trail map above. The trailhead is on the right, 8.6 miles past the Island in the Sky Visitor Center. There was only one other car in the parking area when we arrived at about 8:00 AM.
There’s nothing remarkable about the Murphy Point Trail itself. It is truly flat, having only about a 50 feet elevation variance from start to finish. It is very straight, so you could almost hike it blindfolded. The first two-thirds is a march through desert sand, lined with long dead juniper branches that help mark the trail during dust and snow storms. As you approach the end of the mesa, the features of the massive canyonlands begin to come into view.
On your right, to the northwest, is the Green River and its deep trench carved over millions of years. Another of those iconic landmarks in Canyonlands is also there, Candlestick Tower. To your left, southeast, is Grand View Point and Junction Butte, one of our destinations for later in the day. The trail turns into redrock sandstone, and it becomes important to watch for the trail-marking cairns. You don’t want to wander off the 1,000+ foot cliffs.
1.8 miles from the trailhead you reach the three-sided precipice of Murphy Point. Directly below is a mesa known as Murphy Hogback that stretches a few miles to the White Rim Road. My brother wanted to take the hike at the hogback level, but I was concerned about fatigue from the climb back up out of the canyon after a 10-mile dry, desert hike. Instead we opted for Murphy Point, a nice compromise.
From the point, there is a fabulous view of the Needles District to the south, and a closeup of Grand View and Junction Butte. We spent about a half hour there, thoroughly enjoying the awesome landscape. The heavy winds of the previous couple days had cleared out all the haze, making for phenomenal long-distance viewing. It’s one of those spots you hate to leave, but we had appointments with other trails that were equally inspiring. Here is a panorama taken by my brother from Murphy Point.
On the way back we made a couple stops at the northern edge of the mesa for views down into the Green River Canyon and the best closeup of Candlestick Tower. We met two other hiking couples on the return. It kinda surprised me there wasn’t more trail traffic on this easy trail to an impressive spot. Perhaps the more serious hikers were down below on the hogback.
When we got back to the car, the growling in our stomachs suggested it was time for lunch. So, after a few moments to re-nourish and relive the delightful hike we just completed, it was now off to the southern terminus of Island in the Sky, and the Grand View Point Trail.
Grand View Point is where everyone who visits Canyonlands goes, the most touristy destination. You can count on the parking lot being full when you get there. It is likely you will have to make the loop a few times, waiting for a car to leave. We were lucky, and only had to go around once.
The Grand View Point Trail is a 2-mile round trip, and like Murphy Point, very easy to accomplish. There is limited climbing, usually with stairs, and unlike Murphy Point, this trail is entirely on rock surface rather than sand. It starts at Grand View Point Overlook, a breathtaking gaze 1,500 feet down to the white rim of Meander Canyon, Monument Basin and the valley of the Colorado River.
A national park ranger was lecturing an impressed group of tourists about the geology and ecology of this astonishing confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers. We paused to listen for a moment, snapped a few photos, then took off along the cliff’s brink to Grand View Point.
Along the way, we passed a young, athletic couple who seemed just a little too close to the edge for my comfort. Later, when we had climbed up on a terrace above the trail for a better view of the White Rim, we saw why they were so close. Kira Krick and Darren Steinbach are acroyoga performers.
Their pairs exercising was remarkable enough. When you consider they were just one untimely slip away from a 1,500′ precipice, well, I was in awe. Be sure to check out the photo I took in the gallery below. We not only got to see dazzling scenery, but we got a show from Kira and Darren as well. Later, at Grand View Point I had the opportunity to briefly speak with them and exchange email addresses so I could send them the pictures I took.
Grand View Point is another of those precarious overlooks. When it is quite windy, like it was on this day, you’re best not to get too close to the edge. One large gust could send you sailing. From the point there’s a great view of Murphy Point and Candlestick Tower, where we had been before, and a closeup of Junction Butte. Here’s another panorama from my brother, this time from Grand View Point.
On the way back we didn’t see anymore performance art, but we did pass one of the couples we had met on the Murphy Point Trail. We paused for a “fancy meeting you here” chat. Also, we saw storm clouds building over the LaSal Mountains, 50 miles away. Little did we know, that would have an impact on our day an hour later.
The White Rim Overlook Trail is kind of a secret. It isn’t named on the maps they hand you when you enter the national park. There is a sign on the park road to a picnic area, but no mention of a hiking trail. When you leave the Grand View Point parking area and head back north, the pullout for this picnic area is just a few hundred yards up the road. At the back of the parking is the trailhead.
Now we were on the Colorado River side of the Island in the Sky mesa. Unlike the Grand View Point Trail, this trail stays in the middle of the point, away from the rim edges. We traipsed through alternating sand and slick rock, lots of juniper and sage, and the occasional cactus. And then I felt it… a raindrop. I immediately took off my pack and began digging for my rain jacket as desert storms can come fast and furious.
It’s a good thing I didn’t waste any time, because within a minute we were being pummeled by heavy wind gusts and sheets of sleet. My how things change in a hurry. The ground was first wet, and then lightly dusted white. There’s a reason they call it slick rock, because when it’s wet… well, let’s just say it’s a quick way to end up horizontal.
The trail is eight/tenths of a mile to the overlook at the point. By the time we got there, the rain/sleet had slowed to a drizzle, and within 10 more minutes it was completely gone. This is probably the best view of the Colorado River canyon in the park, and you can see why they call the canyon edge 1,500 feet below the White Rim. This is also perhaps the best view of the LaSal Mountains, and we could see where the squalls were coming from. Mountains tend to make their own weather.
On the left side of the point is Gooseberry Canyon, another of the many large gorges that give this park its name. There is a trail that drops off the mesa to Gooseberry Canyon. For us, that is something for another day. As we began to return, the sun was back out, producing some of the best photo ops of the day. The picture at the top of this post was taken just up the road from the White Rim Trail at Buck Canyon Overlook. Click the image for a larger view.
Our day was nearly done. We had only a couple overlooks remaining to visit on our way off Island in the Sky. We stopped at The Necks and Shafer Canyon Overlook for one last view of Canyonlands National Park. By the time we finished, by our count, we had hiked about 8.5 miles total on several different trails. We still didn’t see it all. There are other features on Island in the Sky like Aztec Butte, Whale Rock, Upheaval Dome, and the Holman Spring Trail. But what we did see is the American Southwest at its best.
As it turns out, our timing was very fortuitous, because within a matter of days all national parks were closed by the government shutdown. I really feel for those who planned their vacation in the national parks, especially those who saved for years and came from overseas to enjoy America’s Best Idea.
To summarize, Island in the Sky is a remarkable place with amazing sights for all ages. Like anywhere, the best thing to do is get off the road and onto the trails. Footpower! You’ll get away from the madding crowds and have more of a wilderness experience. Unless you take trails that drop off the mesa, all trails on Island in the Sky are flat and easy. The longest one, Murphy Point, is less than four miles round trip. Just be sure to have plenty of water. This is desert after all. I know that I want to go back, and I’ll probably try some of those trickier trails like Murphy Hogback and Gooseberry Canyon.