Moab – Day 3: Dead Horse Point State Park and Canyonlands

The Legend of Dead Horse Point:

Dead Horse Point is a peninsula of rock atop sheer sandstone cliffs. The peninsula is connected to the mesa by a narrow strip of land called the neck. There are many stories about how this high promontory of land received its name.

According to one legend, around the turn of the century the point was used as a corral for wild mustangs roaming the mesa top. Cowboys rounded up these horses, herded them across the narrow neck of land and onto the point. The neck, which is only 30-yards-wide, was then fenced off with branches and brush. This created a natural corral surrounded by precipitous cliffs straight down on all sides, affording no escape. Cowboys then chose the horses they wanted and let the culls or broom-tails go free. One time, for some unknown reason, horses were left corralled on the waterless point where they died of thirst within view of the Colorado River, 2,000 feet below.

I was up well before dawn in order to make it to Dead Horse Point to watch the sunrise. It was a tough alarm clock to wake up to as we hadn’t made it home until 11:30 last night. More than a glass or two of alcohol also doesn’t agree with me and I had not slept well, so it made for a rough start to the day.

It was a chilly morning and it was obvious that a others had a similar idea as I followed, and was followed, by other vehicles. The drive was probably scenic but I couldn’t see much in the dark except the road, which was not necessarily a bad thing as I didn’t have to see just how narrow “The Neck” was driving over it the first time…sheer drops to either side makes one a little nervous…even for one not afraid of heights.

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I made it to Dead Horse Point by 6:50am, just in time to find myself a spot and wait for the sunrise. With a few clouds overhead I was worried that it might not be as pretty as I had hoped but it ended up being beautiful and I was glad I had made the effort to get up at 5:30am to see it.

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I wandered the paths to check out other vantage points and views, and every way you looked was stunning. It is not a huge park and with the sun rising well above the horizon it was time to leave and head to Canyonlands National Park a few miles down the road to the south.

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Canyonlands National Park

From the National Parks’ Website:

Canyonlands National Park cover 527 square miles and preserves one of the last relatively-undisturbed areas of the Colorado Plateau, a geological province that encompasses much of the Colorado River and its tributaries. Carved out of vast sedimentary rock deposits, this landscape of canyons, mesas, and deep river gorges possesses remarkable natural features that are part of a unique desert ecosystem.

The foundation of Canyonlands’ desert ecology is its remarkable geology, which is visible everywhere in rocky cliffs that reveal millions of years of deposition and erosion. These rock layers continue to shape life in Canyonlands today, as patterns of erosion influence soil chemistry and where water flows when it rains. At center stage of the park are the two canyons carved by the Green and Colorado Rivers. Surrounding the rivers are vast and very different regions: Island in the Sky on the north, The Maze on the west, and The Needles on the east.

Known as a “high desert,” with elevations ranging from 3,700 to 7,200 feet above sea level, Canyonlands experiences very hot summers and cold winters, and receives less than ten inches of rain each year. Even on a daily basis, temperatures may fluctuate as much as 50 degrees.

With the time on the clock still relatively early the park was fairly empty, with a few cars on the road and a only a handful of people enjoying the vistas. There were so many things alongside the road, which travels atop a plateau called “The Island in the Sky”, that you don’t have to drive more than a mile or two before there is yet another thing to see.

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The first pause in the drive was for Shafer Canyon Overlook, a massive canyon looking like it reached down into the depths of the earth. It was also possible to see the narrow and winding Shafer Trail Road that led down to the lower plateau. Dozens of other view points dotted the highway including Green River Overlook (looking down on the Green River canyon), Buck Canyon Overlook, Orange Cliffs Overlook and finally Grand View Point Overlook where it was starting to get pretty busy and crowded.

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Other than the massive views and unreal-feeling vistas the two highlights of the park were the hike up to see Upheavel Dome, a strange pointed dome at the head of Upheaval Canyon, and Mesa Arch.

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A short but steep half mile hike to the top of Upheaval Canyon from the parking lot was moderately strenuous but not arduous. Occasionally the trail was a little unclear (as I found out coming down and took the wrong path) but mostly it was easy to follow. The view from the top was impressive and looked down into the canyon to Upheaval Dome, a jagged dome of pale peaks and troughs that seemed very out of place when surrounded by all the red sandstone. Geologists are still unsure as to the exact reason for Upheaval Dome and there are two theories about how it came to be:

Salt Dome Theory: A thick layer of salt, formed by the evaporation of ancient landlocked seas, underlies much of southeastern Utah and Canyonlands National Park. When under pressure from thousands of feet of overlying rock, the salt can flow plastically, like ice moving at the bottom of a glacier. In addition, salt is less dense than sandstone. As a result, over millions of years salt can flow up through rock layers as a “salt bubble”, rising to the surface and creating salt domes that deform the surrounding rock.

When geologists first suggested that Upheaval Dome was the result of a salt dome, they believed the land form resulted from erosion of the rock layers above the dome itself. Recent research suggests that a salt bubble as well as the overlying rock have been entirely removed by erosion and the present surface of Upheaval Dome is the pinched off stem below the missing bubble. If true, Upheaval Dome would earn the distinction of being the most deeply eroded salt structure on earth.

Impact Crater Theory: When meteorites collide with the earth, they leave impact craters like the well-known one in Arizona. Some geologists estimate that roughly 60 million years ago, a meteorite with a diameter of approximately one-third of a mile hit at what is now the Upheaval Dome. The impact created a large explosion, sending dust and debris high into the atmosphere. The impact initially created an unstable crater that partially collapsed. As the area around Upheaval Dome reached an equilibrium, the rocks underground heaved upward to fill the void left by the impact. Erosion since the impact has washed away any meteorite debris, and now provides a glimpse into the interior of the impact crater, exposing rock layers once buried thousands of feet underground.

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The second highlight of Canyonlands was Mesa Arch. Another short half mile uphill hike on a graded and mostly gravel or rock trail brought me out to one of the few easy-to-get-to arches in Canyonlands. I had almost run the trail to see it as a tour bus had pulled into the parking lot behind me…and I wanted to be well ahead of a massive influx of camera-toting, bus-riding tourists. I got lucky and didn’t run into them until I was heading back down.

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Mesa Arch looks out over some incredible formations and canyons below and with few people around I was able to get most of my pictures without others in them. I hiked a little higher for a better view point and then headed back to the truck, suddenly bombarded by a stream of Asian tourists all carrying massive cameras, iPhones or iPads. While I don’t like tour buses or massive parties like that I do understand how much money they pour into the National Park system and that it may be the only way some get to enjoy the stunning land we call America.

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I had eaten lunch at the Green River Overlook early since I had had an early start and with most of the park now firmly embedded in my memory, and the memory card of my camera, plus it was getting too busy for this introvery, I headed out. The road and visitor center was certainly much busier on the other side of the road as I drove north.

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Upon exiting the park I had decided to take a short drive off pavement and down into the canyon. A two-wheel-drive road provided access, and with a boat ramp at the bottom I figured it would be an easy drive. And it was, for the first 12 miles. The last mile down to the river was one of the scariest roads I have ever driven…it was extremely narrow, very winding with sharp hair-pin turns and few places to pass someone…I was praying I wouldn’t run into someone coming the other way. Once committed to the road there was only one direction to go…down. I white-knuckled it the whole way down in granny gear and was definitely sweating by the time I reached the bottom. The road’s only saving grace was that it really was suitable for a car and was only a little bumpy in a few places. I couldn’t believe vans hauled trailers loaded with boats down that thing!

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At the bottom I talked briefly with the park ranger who was taking care of the bathrooms before letting the dogs out to run for a while and play in the river. Once again the cliffs towered above me and made even the Colorado River look small in comparison.

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With nothing left to do but enjoy the scenery I was forced to drive out the same way I came in…straight up that terrifying road. I actually found it slightly easier to go up than down, maybe because I wasn’t looking down into the chasm that would swallow me up if I made even a slight driving error and maybe because the ranger was behind me…a little like a security blanket. Two UTVs were coming down the road when I was at the bottom and I waited for them to pass, while taking a picture of the road ahead of me, before checking the rest and confirming that there were no other vehicles coming down. Upon reaching the top I parked and went to take pictures looking down on the hairy-scary road. It would probably have been less nerve-wracking in a smaller vehicle, like a UTV or Jeep, but a large truck like mine is pretty wide and the long nose and tail make her less a mountain goat and more of an elephant.

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There is a road in there somewhere…if you can find it:

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Back on flat, wide and straight gravel I cranked up the speed a little and headed home.

Another invite to go into Moab came from the RVers in the Class As just down the road from me and we headed in to check out the farmer’s market. Unfortunately we managed to get a flat tire on the way (ironic since we had been talking about that exact subject not 10 minutes earlier as we left camp) but we made it into town safely and met up with the rest of the group; there were now 14 people altogether. A unanimous agreement was made to eat dinner together again (eek on my bank account) and we wandered away from the park and to Zax restaurant. Somehow they were able to seat all 14 of us within a reasonable amount of time.

A lone and very small glass of wine and a non-alcoholic O’Douls were all that I drank but I did order another plate of ravioli albeit a different flavor. I had thought about the Cobb salad in order to be a little healthier but I can stomach spending $14 for two meals (which ravioli always is for me) than $14 for a lone meal. It was just as good but different than the previous night’s ravioli and I could have eaten more, I just chose to save enough for left-overs.

Once again the conversation was great and I sat with Joni (my camp site “roomie”) and Ben and Lanni who had recently arrived in our camp area that day. When you meet new people for the first time in the normal world a good conversation starter is asking what people do for a living…not so much in the RV full-timer world…we ask how long someone has been full-timing, where they are originally from and what prompted them to become a full-timer. And that was exactly what our conversation mostly revolved around.

One thought on “Moab – Day 3: Dead Horse Point State Park and Canyonlands

  1. Enjoyed the Shafer Canyon Overlook, showing the Shafer Trail Road, that lead down to the lower plateau. It jogged my memory of Palo Canyon Scenic Overlook, 11450 Park Road 5, Canyon, TX. A 30 sec you tube video:https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=9GLSu342cWE . I saw it in person in 2008. All great photo’s. Must have been some really good Ravioli for a 2nd plate. Last time I had some ravioli, Chef Boyardee made it, years ago. Thanks for taking us on your journey.

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