Located on the east side of the Island in the Sky District, Lathrop Canyon drops off the mesa to the White Rim, then dives all the way to the Colorado River. The Lathrop Trail enables a short, medium or long hike, depending on the level of the canyon you wish to tackle. The first couple miles are a sandy straight and level shot through prairie-like grassland. As you approach the mesa rim, the ground hardens into sandstone, then opens to the vast expanse of Canyonlands far below. With views of the LaSal Mountains to the east and the Abajos southward, your eyes are never lacking for scenic stimulation. Then you must choose your heart’s, or your mind’s wish whether you plunge into the canyon. My brother Dave and I hiked Lathrop Trail on Monday, October 20, 2014 beginning at 7:30AM and ending about 10:50AM. Since we had to travel later, our plan was to hike the trail only to the canyon rim, then return.
Hike Length: 5.8 miles Hike Duration: 3.25 hours
Hike Configuration: Out and back. Blaze: Cairns on the slickrock.
Hike Rating: Easy, as long as you don’t drop below the mesa rim.
Elevation Change: 315 feet Elevation Start: 6,007 feet
Trail Condition: Very good. Sandy, dirt and slickrock trail.
Starting Point: Lathrop trailhead on Grandview Point Road.
Trail Traffic: We had Lathrop Trail totally to ourselves.
How to Get There: From Moab, UT take Hwy 191 north for 11 miles. Turn left onto UT-313 west and drive 14.6 miles. Continue straight onto Grand View Point Road for another 8.1 miles, passing through the national park entry station and Visitor Center along the way. The trailhead is on the left.
Dave (the other Internet Brother) begins his day well before dawn at the seasonal resort community where he lives. He’s the guy that gets the roosters stirring. So it was no problem for him to get moving very early each morning of our Utah adventure.
Since I’m retired, I don’t have the same need or desire to welcome the sunrise, but when I’m traveling I find it quite easy to get motivated early. And so it was that we enjoyed the sunrise every day for a week, including this, our last day in Utah canyon country. After the 40 minute drive from Moab, we arrived at the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park pre-dawn. A few short minutes later we were at the Lathrop trailhead just as old Sol was beginning to make his presence known.
This hike is a three-pronged affair with the first two miles being across a flat, straight, prairie-like trail that crosses the Island in the Sky mesa. The trail here is quite sandy
— often like hiking on a beach
— is lined by desert wildflowers and crosses occasional dunes.
This was perhaps the most beautiful morning we had experienced during our week in the southwestern desert. The stratus clouds filled the western and northern sky, and in combination with the rising sun created a spectrum of color and light. Every direction we turned widened our eyes with delight even more.
The knee-high grasses that lined the trail ran for miles in every direction. It made me wonder if the ancestral Puebloans who first occupied this land may have farmed the mesa. With so much sand and wind, though, it might have been difficult. As you can see from the map below, this stroll through the prairie phase of the hike was nearly as straight as an arrow.
Phase 2, as you get about a half mile from the canyon rim, is where the sand trail changes to sandstone slickrock and the sandy dunes change to sandy domes. The trail also begins to descend gradually on this slickrock, winding around ledges, past juniper, cactus and yucca. The picturesque peaks of the LaSal Mountains to the east come into clear view, and the large expanse of Prospect Canyon, also on your left, is occasionally visible.
After nearly a half mile on the sandstone you drop off a ledge and the turf beneath your feet changes to a crumbly brown stone. You are nearing the canyon rim, and the third section of the hike. It is now a hundred feet below the level of the mesa, and there is limited ground cover. It simply looks like canyon country.
The combination of extremely bright sunlight and low stratocumulus clouds created that fascination of nature known as crepuscular sunrays. The rays enlightened the White Rim below us and bounced off the canyon walls. In one of the photos in the gallery below, it appeared as if the ray beams were locking in on Dave. He didn’t say if the hair stood up on his head.
15 minutes after reaching the crumbly brown rock we rounded a corner, and WOW! There was Lathrop Canyon in all its magnificence. The White Rim Road is a thousand feet below, with the Colorado River another thousand below that. Far in the distance to the southwest are the Abajo Mountains, smaller than the LaSals, but no less dynamic. In between it all is the Needles District, home of Elephant Canyon and our hike from the day before. It is views like this one that make me lust for a telephoto lens for the camera. Some day.
We reached a point that is surrounded by canyon in every direction. To the east is Prospect Canyon and the sheer escarpment of the mesa. Looking south, the Colorado River twists and turns as it has for eons while carving through the soft sandstone. And on the west is Lathrop Canyon and its many monuments that erupt from the earth.
From the point you can see the Lathrop Trail continuing its descent down, down, down to the level of the White Rim. We were tempted. After eight consecutive days of hiking though, I was pretty tired and didn’t relish the thought of climbing back up the thousand feet from the White Rim to the mesa top. I didn’t get any argument from Dave, so we decided this would be the end for today.
While surveying the scene from the point, I came to the conclusion that Canyonlands may be my favorite of the Utah parks. Sure, you can’t beat Zion for its natural beauty or Capitol Reef for the unusual geology. Bryce Canyon is stunning in winter and Arches is Nature’s playground. But I appreciate Canyonlands for the total vastness. There is so much to do. It hearkens back to the words of Ed Abbey, who wrote, “Like rock and sunlight and wind and wilderness, out there is a different world, older and greater and deeper by far than ours, a world which surrounds and sustains the little world of men.”
This is true wilderness.
Since we eventually had to drive back to Colorado to end our remarkable week of adventure, we only stayed on the rim about 20 minutes. We had the place all to ourselves. The only sounds were the wind, and the occasional cronk of a raven far away on the thermals somewhere. The sun was overhead now, warming the air and us. Every time I come to the end of time with Dave, and with the wilderness, I get pensive. I’m already contemplating the next time. Ideas and plans rush through my brain like the inevitable force of the river.
Dave and I try to come to the desert every 3-4 years. While we love and cherish the mountains, the Desert Southwest also holds a tremendous fascination for us. It’s hard to imagine several years passing without feeling the slickrock underfoot, or being surrounded by the ubiquitous red sandstone. The canyons seem to call, like the sirens of mythology. If you’ve never been, you must go. If you’ve been before, you understand.
We took our time on the way back, savoring every moment. The cactus and yucca were enjoying the bright sunshine. This would be a colorful trail in spring when the prickly pear are in bloom. The clouds were beginning to part, opening the deep azure sky that is so common in the Western United States. I had fun with some pictures from ground level. Why does it always have to end?
When we reached the car we resolved to come back soon and take Lathrop Trail at least to the White Rim, if not farther. We said the same thing last year about Murphy Hogback on the other side of the mesa. That’s the thing about canyon country. You can’t not come back. Enjoy the photos.