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Canyonlands National Park - Island in the Sky District

Mesa Arch at sunrise in Canyonlands National Park - Island in the Sky District

At 527 square miles Canyonlands National Park, is the largest national park in Utah. The main body of the park is divided into three distinct districts: the Island in the Sky, the Needles, and the Maze. The fourth district is Horseshoe Canyon which is disconnected and lies 5 miles to the west.

While these four districts are close or even adjacent to each other, the districts are not easily connected from within the park so visiting is typically a single district at a time.
Island in the Sky District
The Island in the Sky district is commonly miss-labeled by most visitors to the area as being “Canyonlands National Park” actually it is just one of the four individual districts that make up Canyonlands National Park. It is one of the easiest and most popular districts of the park to explore because it is so close to Moab and is accessible via highway and paved roads.
It gets its name because the main area is a huge mesa formed millions of years ago by erosion of the Colorado and Green Rivers now below it, and it resembles a large “island” as it sits 1000 feet above the canyons below.
The main draw for most visitors is stopping at the viewpoints into the canyons below and secondarily hiking the trails mostly on the mesa top that lead to more viewpoints, and even a few longer trails, some that lead down into the canyons below
The two biggest attractions are Grand View Point and the Shafer Trail switchback road that clings to the walls of Shafer Canyon and connects to The White Rim Road which runs for 100 miles below the mesa top, offering spectacular views and multi-day mountain bike and four-wheel drive trips. Mesa arch is a big draw for photographers to the park to capture the sunrise framed in the arch opening.
  • Dogs are only allowed in parking lots and campgrounds, not on any trails
Photo Notes
  • Green River Overlook – best photographed at sunset
  • Grand View Point – best photographed at sunset/sunrise
  • Grand View Overlook – best photographed at sunset/sunrise
  • Aztec Butte granaries –  is morning when they are in shadow and you can see the full detail / sunset lit by the setting sun
Getting there
Canyonlands (Island in the sky district) 
From Moab take US-191 11 miles north until you reach the left-hand turn to UT-313, and continue for 22 miles to Canyonlands National Park (Visitors Center), you have to continue driving into the park for other locations, it’s 12 more miles to the furthest point (Grand view point overlook)
The park is open all year (24 hours a day).
$30 per car / good for 7 consecutive days
Canyonlands Island in the Sky MapCanyonlands Island in the Sky Map
Shafer Trail / Shafer Canyon viewpoint
The Shafer Trail dirt road clings to the rock walls of Shafer Canyon as it zigzags and switchbacks for five miles down to the canyon bottom where it meets with the White Rim road (permit required), or you can turn left onto Potash Road that takes you back to Moab, passing by the Colorado River goosenecks, some arches, and well-marked petroglyphs.
The Shafer Trail can be driven with a normal car, however, there are narrow sections of the road to watch for oncoming traffic as only one car can fit by at some places.Shaffer Trail Road
There are a couple of viewpoints along the canyon rim south of the entrance to Shafer Trail, with views of the Shafer Trail and Shafer Canyon.
Shafer Canyon Overlook ( 38.452752, -109.820069 )
Is a paved parking lot with trails leading out to views over the canyon and the road.
Shafer Trail Viewpoint ( 38.448170, -109.821536 )
Is a pull-off right next to the road and cliff face, where you can get a good view of Shafer Trail Road below you.
White Rim Road (permit required)
The 100-mile White Rim Road, is an un-paved road that loops around and below the Island in the Sky mesa top. It is a Four-wheel-drive/mountain bike trip usually done in at least two to three days but some people do it as one long day.
Under favorable weather conditions (dry conditions), the journey is moderate to difficult for high-clearance, four-wheel-drive vehicles, while the steep, exposed sections — Lathrop Canyon Road, Murphy Hogback, Hardscrabble Hill, and the Mineral Bottom switchbacks make for a challenging mountain bike ride.
With inclement weather (Snow, rain, wet conditions) the route becomes extreme for both vehicles and bikes.
During high water conditions on the Green River, sections of the road on the west side can flood, making a complete loop impossible. Check current road conditions.
In spring and fall, demand can be high for overnight permits and you should make reservations well in advance.
Grand View Point 
Grand View Point is the most popular destination in the park. It is regarded as the ‘main viewpoint’ of the park and is located at the southernmost point of the park’s main road – Scenic Drive road. A short, paved sidewalk leads you to this spectacular viewpoint. From here, you can see the Maze and The Needles districts. It is best viewed at sunrise or sunset.
Grand View Point
Grand View Overlook –  2 miles ( 38.310800, -109.857000 )
From the man-made cement Grand View Point, there is a trail you can hike out 1 mile to the tip of the mesa to the natural Grand View Overlook.
The trail follows along a narrow finger and the mesa falls away on all three sides. You will get to see some of the same views as you get from the Grand View Point, but the views to the west from the Grand View Point are obstructed by this finger you are on, however, once you are out at the tip you will have views to the west not available to those back a the main Grand View Point. 
Grand View Overlook2
Mesa Arch 3/4 mile total loop
Early in the morning, photographers from all around the world gather around the arch to witness one of the best sunrises you can find. The arch frames the distant landscape like a giant picture window. The rock formations to the left through the arch are named Washer Woman.
Mesa Arch leads a double life, as a feature in Canyonlands National Park it has a mild attraction to the average tourist, but every morning, year-round it is descended upon by throngs of photographers trying to capture their own early morning sunrise photograph framed through the arch.
Mesa Arch Utah 3
White Rim Overlook Tail 1.8 miles
This trail takes you to one of the better east-facing views in the park, with views of the Colorado River, Monument Basin, and the La Sal Mountains. The parking lot is rather small, with only room for about 6 cars. 
The easy-to-follow trail takes you out to the viewpoint, you will pass the junction with the Gooseberry Trail, which descends 3 miles down into the canyon. Continue on the White Rim Trail as the as the land narrows, descending very gradually, and ending at a small flat-topped knoll.
The viewpoint has the best views of Gooseberry Canyon and Monument Basin with isolated spires and narrow mesas, somewhat visually like Monument Valley. 
Gooseberry Canyon 5.4 miles Elevation change: 1,400 feet (descends from the mesa)
This is the same trailhead as the White Rim Overlook hike. This trail is one of five that takes you off the mesa top and is the shortest of them and the steepest and roughest, with lots of switchbacks crossing sheer cliffs. It was originally known as Government Trail. The trail meets the White Rim Road at the edge of Gooseberry Canyon.
Green River Overlook
The turn-off for Green River Overlook is located on Upheaval Dome Road, just past the junction with Grand View Point Road. There is a large car park here (and restrooms). It’s a short walk on a paved trail to the viewpoint. From the Green River Overlook the view takes in the canyons of the southern part of the Island in the Sky, stretching all the way to the Green River in the utterly wild Maze District.
Green River Overlook
au_ears, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons
Murphy Point 3.6 miles
The trail to Murphy Point crosses open, flat land, leading past a historic corral to the tip of a narrow promontory that gives a 270° view over Stillwater Canyon and the Green River, and views of Candlestick Tower. 
Murphy Point
Andrew Smith from Seattle, WA, USA, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons
Upheaval Dome 2-4 miles 
You can hike to two different viewpoints, the first is a 1 mile into the trail, and the 2nd viewpoint is an additional mile.  This formation is an anomaly in the park as most of the structures are erosion-worn sandstones. 
Upheaval Dome is in stark contrast to the otherwise flat sedimentary rock formations across all of Canyonlands and appears visually as a 2-mile wide crater surrounded by a ring of raised Kayenta and Wingate sandstone in which the strata have been buckled and twisted.
One theory is it was a salt dome, the other theory is an eroded impact meteor crater, supported by research in the 1990s and in 2008 through seismic refraction and rock mapping and the discovery of shocked quartz.
upheavel dome
Hans Stieglitz, CC BY-SA 3.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons
Syncline Loop 8.3 miles
This challenging trail follows the canyons around Upheaval Dome and requires navigating steep switchbacks, climbing and scrambling through boulder fields, and a 1,300-foot (396 m) elevation change. Hike this trail clockwise for more afternoon shade.
Whale Rock 1 mile, Elevation change: 100 feet
Hike this trail to the top of a steep sandstone dome for broad views across the park while on the slickrock tail of the whale.
Aztec Butte 2 miles, Elevation change: 225 feet
The to Aztec Butte splits with the right fork taking you to the top of the butte for spectacular views. The left fork climbs the smaller butte then drops down below the rim to two Anasazi granaries.
Aztec butte
au_ears, CC BY-SA 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons
Neck Spring 5.8 miles
Is a loop hike that takes you past historic ranching features on the mesa, and two springs where cowboys watered cattle. 
Murphy Loop 10.8 miles (descends from the mesa)
A great full-day hike, this trail drops off the side of the mesa top for a 1,400-foot (427 m) elevation change. The trail offers vast views from the Murphy Hogback, then returns up a wash.
Alcove Spring 11.2 miles (descends from the mesa)
After descending 1,300 feet past a large alcove, the trail wanders in a wide canyon to the base of the Moses and Zeus towers.
Wilhite 12.2 miles (descends from the mesa)
This is the least known, most primitive trail, and the most scenic of routes down from the mesa top, it has an interesting slit canyon section toward the end.
Lathrop to White Rim Road 13.6 miles (descends from the mesa)
Trail crosses open grassland, then drops 1,600 feet into the canyon below. Enjoy views of the La Sal Mountains and fanciful sandstone knobs on this varied and challenging hike to the White Rim road.
Buck Canyon Overlook
From a small paved parking area, you can walk a paved path to the overlook and see the jagged zipper-like formation of Buck Canyon below you.
Buck Canyon Overlook
Farragutful, CC BY-SA 4.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons
The False Kiva is what is known as a Class II archaeological site, these are sites that are intentionally left off of maps and their trailheads are not marked for their protection, park rangers will disclose information about the location only if asked directly.

False Kiva has been made famous by the publishing of dramatic pictures of it, including star-filled nighttime photos and photos with dramatic passing thunderstorms.

The site sits in an alcove and consists of stones that have been stacked to form a circle. There are some handprints on the back of the wall of the alcove and some faint images that are hard to make out today. There is a boulder near the west end of the alcove with metates, made by grinding seeds on the rock over long periods.


John Fowler from Placitas, NM, USA, CC BY 2.0 <>, via Wikimedia Commons

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