In the first week of November in 2016, my buddy Raisin Rob and I hiked the White Rim Road in the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park from the Shafer Trail to the Upheaval Dome parking lot. In total, it was about 88 miles hiked in 5 days. A map of our route is posted below, as are excerpts from my journal. Check out all the photos from this adventure here.
Day 1: 11-4-16
Rob and I hiked 17 miles today from the Visitors Center at Island in the Sky to the rocky pass just before the Lathrop Canyon entrance, going south. About 62-63 degrees with cloudy skies and extremely light drizzle. Saw 2 groups of bighorns today- the first on the Shafer Trail shortly after leaving the ISky road; a mother and her kid standing just above the 300-400- foot drop, bounding across the road in front of us, leaping up a height of 7 or 8 feet at a run, then staring at us from above on the rocks before slowly and more calmly crossing back to the precarious cliff-ledge and wandering off slightly ahead of us.
We saw them on a part of the road that descends down switchbacks at the head of the canyon where the cliffs are curved like the cross-section of a funnel. The canyon consists of many repeating layers of cliff and very steep scree/sand, and the scree is piled in great pyramids against the cliffs. The road, while well graded and maintained,was quite exposed.
Many mountain bikers passed us today, uphill and downhill. One group we leapfrogged with at Musselman Arch told us each as they passed by that we should ask their resupply van for a beer because we deserved it for hiking out here. As the van passed by, I told the dude driving that I would be happy to lighten his load by accepting beer donations, and he obliged for both Rob and I.
At the trail signed “Colorado River Overlook”, a dude pulling a trailer on his bike talked to me for a bit, first asking about my guitar, telling me about his Telecaster, which we both agree sounds tasty, his Richenbacher, and a Gibson he has. After learning that I work in Moab as a raft guide, he talked passionately about how kids could learn so much from spending more time outside.
Walking along the rim provided us with overlooks all day- 1,000 feet below us the pale green of the Colorado River meandered gently through the canyon; 1,000 feet above us the top of the Island in the Sky loomed. At each overlook, I conjectured about what forces may have shaped the rocks into the forms they now hold. We were hiking along the White Rim Sandstone, which was deposited about 245-286 million years ago by wind-blown beach sands, which now forms prominent cliffs and capped rocks from eons of erosion. Above us were the Moenkopi, the Chinle, Wingate, and Kayenta formations, and below lie the Organ Rock and Cedar Mesa formations. Geology fascinates me and I could go on and on about how each of these layers were formed and what processes make them look the way they do, but I recommend checking out this page on the geology of Capitol Reef National Park from the University of Utah, because Island in the Sky comprises of the same types and order of these layers. Often, just above the white rim there is a great plain of open desert with red and brown crusty, rocky sand with spotty patches of biological soil crust, knee high yellow grasses, saltbrush, yucca, Mormon tea, prickly pear and barrel cactus, and pinyons spread out occasionally. It is easy to imagine these layers stacking up on each other through sedimentation, the layers warped and shifted upward from tectonic plate activity, and eroded from great ancient oceans and washes that still flow during heavy rain. There are certain anomalies though, like the lone sheared boulder of rock lying very far from the cliff, too fall to have rolled there with the cliff in its present state and no evidence in the soil of any great impact of falling or rolling. And the balanced rock, standing on a column only 10 or 15 feet from the rest of the promontory that extends as an arm on the Chinle Formation of the island in the sky.
We saw a red tailed Hawk and a few desert hares today too. Rob got a blister on his foot and slowed down a bit after mile 12 or 13 but his pack is huge and heavy and he’s being a champ about it. Glad he came with. Set up camp on the white rim layer off the road about a half mile. I found a couple potholes full of water when I went searching for rocks to anchor my tarp with, which is reassuring, as the ranger almost didn’t give us our permit this morning because of the absence of water. If there are people passing by on the green river side too, then this trip should be a piece of cake, otherwise we may have to hike out to the road and hitch back to the visitors center for 2 more days worth of water. Dinner tonight with a little bit of blues guitar and rob beat me in chess. Rained a bit more as I was writing this.
Day 2: 11-5-16
Rob and I walked around 13.5 miles today. Drizzled early in the morning and I stayed in my sleeping bag with my eyes closed until 7:30 even though I was awake when rob started shuffling around at 6:45 . We packed up, filtered water from a pothole, and started walking again. At first, we made great pace but ended up stopping many times today because rob is in pain. His shoulders, knees, ankles, and blistered feet alternate with hurting the most at any given moment. More mountain bikers and support vehicles drove by today and yet again we got a free beer, along with some much needed water. Above Lathrop Canyon, the canyon looked like so stunning it was hard to take in all at once. The verticals cliffs of the Wingate layer coming out in promontories with columns jutting out of the walls, some standing alone as towers, the steep talus slopes of the Chinle layer cascading down beneath them across the green tinted, parallel, sandwiched layers of sedimentation. The bubbly Moenkopi layer sat beneath this, then the plain, then the White Rim broke off into nothing, AKA lathrop canyon, which cliffed out again a few times below us before reaching the river. Near the top of the Wingate, a spring fed most of the pinyon trees in sight- the only others grew in potholes on the white rim. Beat rob this time in chess and got a sweet view of the La Sals while making dinner.
Day 3: 11-6-16
16.7 miles today. Camp was a good one last night- sweet sunrise in the morning to warm us up. A little dewy but the view over the vast plain of white rim was awesome. The La Sal Mountains in the distance had no snow when the clouds parted in the morning, to our surprise. We both use the privy at this designated site after breakfast, then we roll out.
As we come around the last bend and get our first good look at Junction Butte and the southern end of Island in the Sky above the confluence, there are many towers and balanced rocks in Monument Basin, most of them hundreds of feet above the valley below.
After a quick snack at a scenic view of these towers, we divied up water and realized we had about .75 liters left each and started looking for good spots to go pothole hunting for more water. Just as I was about to walk into a wash towards a large, open slab of white rim with some scattered trees that indicated water nearby in the divets and waves of the rock, I saw the glint of a cars window from all the way across the canyon, probably close to 2 miles away as the crow flies. So we kept walking, assured that they would pass by soon enough and help us restock on water. Thankfully, just as we reached the trail for the White Crack campground at the southernmost point of the white rim, a dude on a motorbike stopped and said that his support vehicle has extra water. As we were refilling from their container, a gigantic military plane flew very low of the Green River, or maybe the Maze. We all stopped to watch it go by and the support driver got a picture.
We stopped for many photos today, especially when you could see the Abajo Mountains, the Needles District, the Maze District, and Junction Butte all in one photo. We stopped around 11 miles and Rob was in pain. My Gaia GPS app told me it was about 5 more miles to the Murphy Hogback trail, and from there we would have to do 2 more 16 mile days to make it out on the 5th day. Rob felt game, so I pushed on at a slightly faster, more comfortable pace, knowing that we were on the same page for the campsite.
The echo in one of the forks of Murphy Canyon was awesome. The head of the canyon was like the cross section of a cylinder, at least 500 feet high and perhaps a half mile across. After my yell, there was a full second or more of profound silence, as if the canyon had swallowed the sound completely, before the return of the echo off the opposing wall. Bit of a hill to get up to camp tonight, but wow what a spot! I climbed up on top of a giant, bus sized rock overlooking all of Murphy Canyon and all the places I mentioned earlier, and did a quick pushup/ab workout with my extra energy in the 15 minutes before Rob showed up. Got a sweet picture of the moon and the sunset was excellent
Day 4: 11-7-16
Walked 21.6 miles today with rob. Quite impressed with him- it was his first 20+mile day and he crushed it. We took breaks fairly often, every hour and a half or two hours, but they were usually short and when we were moving our pace was quick. We woke up to a gorgeous over look of Canyonlands, and the dude with the tent on top of his land cruiser in the site next to us came over to say good morning and apologize for shining his lights at us when they pulled in late last night. Told him no worries and Rob asked if he had any extra water. Indeed he does, he’d be happy to full us up and come on over whenever we’re ready. We finished packing after breakfast, climbed down with the 2 perfect hand holds off the boulder we slept on, then walked over to their camp. First thing I noticed was his guitar, and he asked me about mine at the same time. He’s got a Taylor and says he does mostly worship music- used to play keys but can’t carry them around as easy. Him and his wife are from the PNW and came down to Utah for a bit to enjoy the weather. They met Bloody Mary in Escalante while she was doing laundry, and we all laughed about how weird it was that we knew her too. As we set off, I started geologizing and looking closely at the plants. It’s easier and easier for me to see how the rock layers were deposited now.
Not a single car passed by today, and we hailed down a group of dirt bikers to see if they had extra water but they didn’t. Turns out we were fine with 1.5 liters for the last 10 miles. When I got to the campsite at Potato Bottom, I looked for the trail leading to the river and saw two eyes glowing in the trees. I turned my light up high and saw that it was a bobcat! I got my camera out and it posed for me as I got a sweet picture of it. Ate a ton of food after filtering enough water to get us through the night, and now we crash hard.
Day 5: 11-8-16
Woke up at 6:45 this morning because of the time change and it was cold being so close to the water. Spent an hour filtering water for both of us and I saw a beaver in the river when I first went down there. Left late-ish and when we reached the next bottom a little over an hour later, I stopped to eat breakfast, which I hadn’t done yet. Some mountain bikers passed by and one dude stopped and talked to me for a bit, stoked that we were walking it and asked how we did on water. Hustled from there to upheaval bottom to catch up with Rob, who went ahead and whom I met at the trailhead again while he stopped for a snack. I told him I was going to push on to try to go into the crater and up the Syncline trail, which added another few miles, while Rob was going to go the shorter way because he was in pain and had been in pain for 4 days so was ready to finish.
I hauled ass into the dome, sweating profusely in the heat. Climbed to the top near the very center of the crater, near the vertical strata of sandstone. Seriously epic. I could see how the meteor made an impact while the surrounding layers were much thicker, created an accumulation space, then caught all the alluvial deposits from the layers above it, creating oddly twisted sandstone and giant alluvial fans of gypsum and salt. Climbing up was challenging and a bit sketchy, but manageable. It was very loose varied size rocks from pebbles to big slidy boulders, with a steep angle.
Ran back down to the trail junction, then started on the Syncline trail. Turns out, this one is quite a bit more difficult than the trail going around the east side of the dome. The wash rises up along the syncline in steppes, with big amphitheaters at each level. The trail undulates along the side of the hill, with a lot of little up and downs, with short but steep and somewhat technical boulder scrambling in between, one move being a tough 3rd class or 4th class maneuver. The trail seemed to take forever once I got towards the top, and I was gradually slowing down from going so hard in the paint.
When I reached the parking lot, I went straight to the road, changed out of my dripping wet shirt and tried hitching for about 20 or 30 minutes. Then, all at once, Rob yelled down from the overlook trail, and a car stopped to pick us up. They brought us to the top of Gemini Bridges road- nice folks; mom and son, son worked at Filmont boy scout camp and is going climbing in El Chalten this winter for 5 weeks, mom is retired and road tripping with the son. Another dude picked us up quickly after that, photographer spending a week in Canyonlands and maybe capitol reef too. Dropped us off right at Navtec and I ate and bunch of food and stressed over the election results, comforted by the fact that I will be on the other side of the world if shit hits the fan, and worried for the people and environments I care about.
And these are only some of the photos! See the rest on my photos page, including videos of the bighorns, brine shrimp in the potholes, and Upheaval Dome!