Eye of Whale Mesa
A fun, freestyle hike into a huge sandstone canyon maze – great for families with older children.
One of my favourite places in the Moab area. There is no trail here, which is why it’s highly unlikely you’ll ever meet anyone. That means you need to remember where you left your vehicle and take extra care while hiking. You’re on your own. The area is known for just one signposted feature, the Eye of Whale arch, which is best accessed from the 4WD only Salt Valley Road at the north end of the mesa in an area known as Herdina Park. This hike covers the southern end.
To get here drive to the Balanced Rock parking lot and turn left on the Willow Flats dirt road. It used to be the main route into the park before they built the blacktop. Author Edward Abbey’s trailer used to be located here when he worked as a ranger for the Park Service. The road is gravelled to start but soon deteriorates and has a few rocky sections that require higher clearance, but not necessarily 4WD. Within a minute or two along this undulating road you lose all the crowds, and it feels like you're leaving all the dramatic geological action behind. But don't panic, you haven't. The landscape is desert scrub with the occasional glimpse of red rock on your right hand side.
Drive approximately 4.2 miles from Balanced Rock and park beside the road by a shallow sandy wash. Study the landscape before you so you can easily find your car later – though if you don’t arrive back to the road at exactly the right place you can always road walk to it. While you hike straight up the sandy wash on your right, you’ll notice thousands of animal prints, particularly on the small sandy banks: lizards, snakes, coyote. You’ll find them all here with one possible exception, a human footprint, for in a park with so many famous features it’s the less well-known that are passed over by tourists. Their loss is your gain.
Follow the wash, heading in a north easterly direction for about ½ mile, into the maze of sandstone ridges where you are free to explore the drainages on both sides of the wash. When you come to an impassable obstruction simply turn around, rejoin the main wash, and move on to the next section. Provided the rock is dry (slippery when wet!) you can easily scramble to the top of many of these ridges for far reaching views over the area, and perhaps to plan where you’d like to get to next. Kids love the scrambling part, though do keep an eye open for them as there are steep drop offs. Just remember where the main wash is so you can return easily. At the far north-eastern corner of the area is Eye of Whale arch. That’s difficult to find unless you access it from Salt Valley Road.
This area feels as close to wilderness as you’ll find anywhere in the park. You won’t cover any great distance here (probably no more than 4 miles) – it’s more a sandstone rollercoaster than a traditional hike but that’s what makes it special. Whether you’re here for a few hours or a whole day, there’s plenty to experience. Be aware it can be very hot here because there's so little shade.