Island in the Sky

When your spirit cries for peace, come to a world of canyons deep in the old land, feel the exultation of high plateaus, the strength of moving waters, the simplicity of sand and grass, the silence of growth.

~August Frugé

On the third morning of our road trip we left the familiarity of Colorado and arrived in a new state for me: Utah. The scenery, which started in dusty and scraggly flatlands, gradually morphed into a landscape that seemed almost like a painting of burnt oranges and reds, as though the land had been colored in an imitation of a brilliant sunset.

In keeping with the theme of this trip, I hadn’t made any solid plans other than that we would spend two days in Moab, visit Arches National Park, and stop at the Great Salt Lake on our way north. This left us with one day in Moab with no plans at all. We had considered going climbing, but couldn’t find many options that I felt comfortable with given the state of my injured leg, so on the way to Moab we made the decision to check out Canyonlands National Park. Canyonlands is one of Utah’s Mighty Five national parks, but it had always flown under the radar for me, aside from knowing that it is the park where Aron Ralston was pinned in a canyon for five days before making the decision to cut off his own arm with a dull pocket knife. From my experience people tend to rave about Arches, Bryce Canyon, and Zion, but Canyonlands and Capitol Reef don’t seem to elicit the same level of fanfare.

I mostly assume that national parks will be great, and that you can typically show up with no plan and still have a great time (a mindset that has only backfired on me once), so we decided to take a chance on Canyonlands.

Our day hit a snag almost at once as we found ourselves at the wrong district of the park. We’d inadvertently entered the remote Needles District into our GPS rather than our intended destination, Island in the Sky. The Needles District is undoubtedly beautiful, but there is not much to access there unless you happen to have an ORV, which we did not. Luckily though, the route took us through stunning Bears Ears National Monument, so we got to enjoy some beautiful views despite still being two hours from our real destination.

I spent a few minutes feeling silly as we regrouped and started to drive back towards Moab, but neither of us were too stressed about the mistake because the drive had been so fun.

By the time we finally arrived at the Island in the Sky District, I had picked out a couple of hikes from the park map. The first was a short and easy trek out to Mesa Arch, a picturesque natural arch on the precipice of a staggering cliff. The arch serves as a built in picture window for viewing a vast canyon that stretches toward the distant La Sal Mountains.

The view was nothing less than jaw-dropping, and it reminded me a bit of the Grand Canyon.

After Mesa Arch, we drove a short distance until we reached the parking lot for Upheaval Trail. This trail was slightly more strenuous than the last because it had more elevation gain (and because the harsh afternoon heat was starting to get to me), but it was still highly doable, and soon we were gaping down into the mind-boggling expanse of Upheaval dome.

The scale of this crater really needs to be seen in person for full comprehension, but it basically looks as though the landscape has been ripped apart by some incomprehensible force. In fact, that may very well be the explanation for this geological anomaly. One of the leading theories about how Upheaval Dome was formed is that it was blasted into the earth by a meteorite.

There are two viewpoints for observing the dome, and we hiked out to both of them. The trail was fun, and took us over some flat washes with steps carved into the rock, and along some narrow sections with steep drop-offs.

By the time we arrived back at the car we were both hungry, and I was painfully aware that I’d forgotten to put sunscreen on my ears, which were now thoroughly burnt. We sat in a shaded picnic area and ate some snacks before hopping back in the car to finish out our day by visiting scenic overlooks, the first of which was the Green River Overlook.

Looking down into the distant canyon, it was obvious how the Green River had gotten its name. The snaking water was indeed, a dusty green hue cutting through the red land.

Next up was the Buck Canyon Overlook.

The colors at Buck Canyon ranged from burnt sienna to vibrant pink, and were contrasted by the blue La Sal Mountains on the horizon. This is amongst the most colorful landscapes I’ve ever seen.

Our final stop of the day is arguably the crowning jewel of Canyonlands. This was apparent before we even saw the view because there were more other travelers enjoying the overlook than we had seen the rest of the day combined. As we approached the lookout deck, we realized why.

A large canyon sprawled below us, with strange finger-like branches filled with rows and rows of intricate buttes.

We didn’t linger at Grand View Point for long because there were so many other people, but I will remember it as one of the most unique canyons I’ve ever seen.

At the end of the day we definitely could have planned better. We could have been more efficient. We could have maximized our time. But we still had an amazing and spontaneous day at a park that blew away all expectations. It was a wonderful introduction to the beautiful state of Utah.


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