grandview point

Stroll out to the Point for one of Utah’s most memorable views.

 

There a few panoramas in the south-west better than this. In my experience it seems 95% of people don’t venture further than the parking lot. To enjoy the best views though it’s worth a mere one hour of your time to walk the 2 mile roundtrip to the actual point of Grandview Point. A very good man-made trail undulates over the mesa to a huge chunk of rock up which you can scramble for a 3600 degree vista over much of Canyonlands. Even in the height of the tourist season you won’t find too many people up here.

 

Right in front you looms the imposing Junction Butte, a huge landmark in this area. Far below you, look out for a lone vehicle driving close to the edge of the incredible Monument Basin on the weaving White Rim Road that partially encircles Island-in-the-Sky. Take some binoculars to see the distant Needles district, and beyond the Land of Standing Rocks in the Maze district.

 

I’ve spent many hours up here in the golden hour before sunset just staring in wonderment while capturing video of shadows of clouds scudding over the landscape far below. For me this is the best view in the world, better even than any in the Grand Canyon, from North or South Rim.

 

On your return, you can opt for the main trail or just follow the rim back to your vehicle. You’ll need to rock hop occasionally but it’s easy and there’s very little cryptobiotic soil to avoid. About a third of the way back along the rim you may notice an old constructed trail dropping off the rim down towards the White Rim. If you’re feeling very fit and you have all day you can take this trail to the bottom and then hike over to Junction Butte where another old trail takes you to the top. This is an extremely strenuous hike and not for the faint-hearted as there are some hazardous points with steep drop-offs along the way. Be warned. Most people (and there are few) who hike up Junction Butte start from their vehicle on the White Rim Road that cuts out at least three hours of hiking.

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Junction Butte from Grandview Point
 
false kiva (hidden kiva)

One of Canyonlands' hidden gems with spectacular views.

 

You won’t find this trail is the hike listings in the info they give you at the Park entrance station, yet it has a cult following. The trail to False Kiva, or Hidden Kiva as it’s sometimes known, wends its way over the mesa before ending spectacularly at a huge alcove from where you’ll have an iconic view of Canyonlands. If you have time before the hike, pop into the Tom Till Gallery on Main Street, Moab, where you can see a beautiful photo of the kiva and the view beyond.

 

To access the trailhead, take the turn off to Upheaval Dome and park in the Alcove Spring trailhead pullout. Walk back around 300 yards to the start of the bend in the road where a pile of logs line the roadside, and where you’ll see a well-worn trail. On my last visit it still wasn’t signed. The trail, around 2.5 miles (roundtrip) long, is generally well cairned but a few side trails may be distracting. Generally head down and to your right and keep to the most used path. Some of the trail is very rocky but there’s no serious exposure here. Only when you’re near the very end of the trail will the alcove reveal itself. From the trail a short slog up the scree slope will take you into the alcove.

 

Inside, apart from the kiva, are some other poor, broken down structures and a few pictographs. However, it’s not these that star in this hike, it’s that view.

 

Note: many people think this is an easier and hike than it is. In 2012 a photographer was severely dehydrated on the rocky slope on the return leg, resulting in me giving him all my spare water and carrying his heavy equipment back to the visitor center to get help. It took four park rangers to extract him.

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the schafer trail / potash road

A superlative high-clearance (preferably 4WD) road that descends from Island-in-the-Sky and continues back to Moab.

 

There are many great attractions in this area of Canyonlands but if you’re feeling lazy and still want to get that adrenaline pumping then drive the Schafer Trail. It’s the only road that descends off the island to the start of the famous White Rim Trail and an exciting way to return to Moab. Head for the nearby visitor center first to check out the road conditions. If it’s good then a high-clearance 2WD vehicle can make it. If it’s bad then even 4WD would be challenging and potentially dangerous. I’d recommend you drive to the Schafer Trail Overlook first – that’s a pullout on the Grandview Point Road. You’ll get a vertigo-inducing view of where you’ll be driving. It’s simply stunning and looks more scary than it actually is. You can drive this route in either direction but it’s easier going down than up.

 

Turn on to the Trail near the visitor center (well-signed). It starts nice and easy but soon gets steep and bumpy with very tight curves. Luckily it’s also quite wide so passing vehicles is rarely a problem. Don’t forget to give way to any vehicle driving up. The views are constantly changing as you twist and turn on the trail. Eventually the trail begins to bottom out and you’ll come to a junction. You can turn right for the White Rim Trail (4WD essential) but we’ll turn left towards Potash and Moab. The trail keeps descending only to climb again to an area below Dead Horse Point at a spectacular horseshoe meander in the Colorado River. This is know locally as Thelma & Louise Point, where final shot of the car driving over the cliff was filmed in the 1991 movie. Park near the rim and walk over for an unforgettable vista. From here the road undulates but gradually descends towards Potash, eventually passing the huge blue potash evaporation ponds. Not far past this you reach a paved road that will take you back to Highway191 and Moab. Along this road is the trailhead for Corona and Bowtie Arches – worth a stop if you have a few hours.

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aztec butte

A short hike to a panoramic viewpoint and ancient Puebloan granaries.

 

Many visitors to the park miss this trail because there are more obvious attractions nearby. And I guess that’s hardly surprising as most people don’t allow themselves more than a day or two here.

 

The trail to the butte is just over a mile, though there’s a side trip of around ½ mile to the top of another, smaller butte. It starts of nice and flat across typical Island-in-the-Sky grassland and then into a shallow wash. Soon the trail forks and you carry straight on for Aztec Butte or turn left for the smaller butte (worthwhile to view another granary on a hilltop loop trail). Once you hit the bottom of Aztec Butte the well-cairned trail ascends steeply up the slickrock to the top and you may find you need your hands to steady you in places, especially near the rim. Children will need to be supervised. From here you can loop around the rim, taking in the pair of granaries on the northeastern side hidden in a shallow alcove just under the rim. Many people miss these.

 

Allow 1-2 hours for this hike. It can get busy so early or late in the day is best.

 

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fort ruin – white rim road

An exciting full day trip from Moab in the scenic Green River landscape to some Anasazi towers.

 

First, check at a visitor center for road conditions and for oncoming weather. Then be sure to bring your high clearance 4WD vehicle, as nothing else will do. It’s not that the road is technically difficult but there are some deep washes that need to be crossed and you’ll need that extra grunt. After heavy rains those washes can be completely washed out. (In 2000 we were marooned overnight in the Labyrinth Canyon section of the road I a precarious position with flooding coming from all sides. By morning the banks of those ‘easy’ wash crossings were so severely eroded it took us 3 hours of digging to get out. And even with 4WD it was like driving on marbles. See the video here.)

 

If you’re not driving the entire White Rim Road (80 miles long and 2 days driving) then the closest access point to Fort Ruin is Mineral Bottom Road. It was constructed in the 1950’s for access to uranium mines in the area, suffered a major flashflood washout a few years ago and has now been reconstructed. From UT191 near Moab turn onto UT313, the main highway to Island-in-the-Sky. After 12 miles turn right onto Mineral Bottom Road. It’s a good, graded road all the way across the mesa and down to the White Rim Road, and can be driven carefully in most cars in dry weather. Much like the Schafer Trail at the other end of The White Rim Road, the switchbacks are narrow but it’s an exciting drive. Once you reach the White Rim Road, at 13 miles from UT313, you’ll certainly need high-clearance and ideally 4WD. Turn left through Taylor Canyon following the Green River, though hundreds of feet above, as it twists between the steep canyon walls. Driving way below Island=in-the-Sky gives you a very different aspect of Canyonlands. After nearly 22 miles from UT313 you’ll see the Fort Ruin Trail signed.

 

You can see a prominent butte off to your left which nestles into a dramatic horseshoe bend of the river. The ruin is right on top. The hike is around 3.5 miles, though you can extend that to take in an old cowboy cabin at river level which adds another half mile or so. Follow the descending trail as heads towards the butte. You’ll then come to a narrow causeway on the other side of which is an ascending trail to the top. This may require some easy scrambling near the summit. On top the views are 360 degrees and stunning. The two towers are equally impressive. One is over 10 feet high and there are other ruins close by. On a ledge under the rim are some granaries.

 

This is a great day trip from Moab with something for everyone. Just pray for dry weather.

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chesler park / joint trail

A full day hike to a surreal landscape of tall, multicoloured sandstone spires surrounding a lush green meadow.

 

The Needles District of Canyonlands National Park is the least visited area due to its distance from major tourist accommodation. It’s around 35 miles one way to the park, and another 10 more miles to this trailhead. However, this is really the only way to see this spectacular part of the state. Some folks drive to the Needles Overlook a few miles away but that really is a distant view. On the Chesler Park Trail you get right up against them.

 

To get there, take UT191 and turn off on UT211 and drive 35 miles to the Visitor Center where you can pick up a map and get yourself oriented. Then drive out to the trailhead at Elephant Hill. The last 3 miles are on an excellent dirt road and suitable for any car. Whilst this is an almost legendary trail, and there are always some vehicles at the trailhead, the trail is anything but busy. It’s 3 miles along a well-signed and cairned trail that, at times, steeply climbs and descends. Most of it is easy though you may need a hand or two to steady yourself occasionally, and it can be tiring, especially in high summer. The final push up into a cleft in the cliff walls by the park reveals the splendour of Chesler Park. The green meadow looks so at odds with most of the southern Utah desert landscapes. And under a pure blue sky, the bright red and white striped spires complement the scene perfectly.

 

You can stop here, wander around the park and return the way you came (what most visitors do) or you can continue for another Needles treat – the Joint Trail – that will add another 5 miles to your day, making the hike a total of 11 miles. The Joint is a real surprise after the wide, airy views you’ve been used to on the trail. It’s a deep crack in the rock into which you descend, much like a confined slot canyon, and a great place to cool down. There are other mini ‘joints’ leading off it and some are barely wide enough to walk in. In places steps have been cut into the rock to make the going easier. After the trail hits a short section of 4WD road before  looping around Chesler Canyon through a small pass and on back to the trailhead.

 

Hiking around Chesler Park in the late afternoon is the perfect time, though you should bring a torch lest you still be on the trail after nightfall. I forgot mine once and it wasn’t easy!

 

This is one of the very best hikes in southern Utah and should not be missed.

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upheaval dome – syncline loop

A big hike around a huge crater on steep trails, though boulder fields and narrow washes.

 

Upheaval Dome is an impact crater over 3 miles in diameter, in the center of which is a huge dome and the jury’s out on what formed it. Make a short stop first at the Upheaval Dome Overlook to get an overview of what you’ll be circling on that trail. This is 1/2mile from the parking area and it’ll be the only time you see the crater once you’re on the loop unless you do the optional trail into the crater. You’ll notice that the terrain is very rough so now’s the time to pull out if you don’t think you can handle it.  Make no mistake, the trail is arduous though not technically difficult. The biggest problem is occasional routefinding so make sure you take a topo map with you and keep an eye out for the occasional cairns. The trail descends very steeply around 1200 feet at the start, follows a canyon bottom, and then climbs back out more gradually. The total distance is about 8.5 miles but it feels like 12.

 

The general trail directions here follow the recommended clockwise route. From the trailhead sign near the Overlook you’ll hike across the mesa for close to a mile before dropping steeply on switchbacks for a mile. It’s very rocky and you’ll occasionally need to use your hands to steady yourself. The views on the first 2 miles are stunning with a great panorama of the Green River meandering far below you About 10 minutes before you hit the wash at the bottom the trail appears to end at a vertical dryfall. Here you should find a cairn that directs you through an indentation in the rock to another steep switchback scramble through boulders to a wash at the bottom. This is Upheaval Canyon and you’ll be pleased the first tough part over.

 

For the next section you’re generally hiking in the wash as the canyon walls gradually constrict. There’s not too much vegetation here but the place has its own stark beauty – plus you’ll find some welcome shade by the canyon walls. At just over the 3 mile mark you’ll come to a trail junction with the Upheaval Canyon Trail. If you have the energy to do the 6 mile roundtrip to the river turn left on that trail (I’ve not hiked that part). Otherwise continue on the loop trail. Shortly  you’ll come to another signed junction for the Upheaval Dome access trail. I’ve not hiked this section either but it’s a 3 mile roundtrip to get up close to the dome – you can go further, freestyle, but it would make for a very long hike. This is the point where you realise that this is a hike of two halves. Until now the landscape has been mostly rocky with very little vegetation, even beside the wash. Now, continuing along the loop trail, you’ll find plenty of desert scrub, cottonwoods, and even, perhaps, a few pools (even in summer). Until you reach the top of the mesa this is a much more intimate environment. At 4 miles it gets steep through boulders and brush but there are a few areas of respite. Pay particular attention to routefinding here as it’s difficult to see the trail way ahead of you, and there is exposure to dropoffs. Within this section there’s a tricky ledge to negotiate, though when I last hiked it a helpful chain was in place. Beyond that, in the upper canyon, the trail is gets marginally better. At around the 6.5 mile mark the rough stuff is all behind you as the trail undulates in washes ond on slickrock, but steadily ascending towards the top of the mesa. Strangely I found that the last 2 miles felt a lot further. Of course, much of this was down to tiredness but, unlike on some hikes where you can clearly see your trailhead destination, you really find the end difficult to gauge here.

 

Reward yourself with a large cold beer from the icebox as the ache in your legs gradually dissipates and you feel you’ve really hiked somewhere Big.

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gooseberry trail

Near the White Rim Overlook is a steep trail that descends via switchbacks from the mesa all the way to the White Rim. The trail is very rough in places with some exposure to drop-offs. Great views along the way but remember what goes down must come up.

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green river overlook

One of the best Canyonlands viewpoints and just seconds from the parking lot. You can see for 50 miles or more over much of the Park towards the Land of Standing Rocks (bring your binoculars). If you want to see a distant view of the confluence of the Green and Colorado Rivers hike out on the Overlook trail.

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musselman arch via white rim road

Just a few miles south on the White Rim Road from the junction of the Schafer Trail and Potash Road is this long, narrow arch over a precipitous drop. Some people walk over it but it’s not for the faint-hearted. There’s a great Colorado River overlook along the way.

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neck spring trail

One of the few loop hikes in Island in the Sky, Neck Spring Trail gives you a different aspect of this part of the park. The shady spring is a great lunch stop and you’ll see plenty of evidence of historic ranching. A quiet 1/2 day hike and recommended.

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lathrop canyon trail to the rim

Try to hike this late one afternoon so you can sit and watch the sunset over the canyons, when the light picks out each feature in detail. If you feel very fit you can continue down a steep trail to the White Rim. The hike back at twilight through the lush grassy meadow is enchanting.

 

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horseshoe canyon

After the 40 mile dirt road drive in, you’ll feel the need to stretch your legs and see the best rock art in the US. There are several panels including the famous Great Gallery where the ancient human-size pictographs are stunning. The trail is good but hiking out in mid summer is shadeless and hot.

 

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squaw & big spring canyons loop

One of the best loop hikes in Canyonlands NP. Easily hiked in a day, the trail crosses meadows, follows washes and climbs slickrock to a high pass between the two canyons. Very, very scenic with extensive views.

 

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cave spring trail

A short introductory and well-marked loop hike in the the Needles District landscape. The trail is mostly easy with the occasional ladder to help you in more difficult spots. Great views and a bonus of passing an old cowboy camp and some rock art.

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slickrock trail

Another easy Needles hike which will tae you 2 hours at most, with views over Lower Little Spring and Big Spring Canyons. There’s little elevation gain so it’s ideal for families with young children. Look out for Bighorn sheep. Exposed so best in the late afternoon.

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© 2016 Bob Palmer