Canyonlands from Island in the Sky Overlook
Someone put a bug in my ear about Canyonlands many years ago, so it was high on my list of destinations for this trip. I’d since heard the park is sprawling and almost inaccessible.
We drove into the main entry into the park, at the Island in the Sky visitors’ center, where we got a taste of Canyonlands.
The Island in the Sky overlook is perched on a sheer cliff a couple thousand feet above the Canyonlands floor. Two rivers flow through the park, the Green and the Colorado. There’s a viewpoint for seeing the Green River from the Island in the Sky section, but the best view of the Colorado is from a bridge across it on the way into Moab.
We hiked the fairly short rim trail, which hugs the top of the “mesa” (really a cuesta – see Mesa Verde) and includes some fun scrambles up slanty rocks. Off in the distance you can see the Needles, a series of spires downstream from the overlook, accessible via a second entry and visitors’ center. Although the Needles are only about 20 miles from the Island in the Sky overlook, it’s close to a 100-mile drive by paved road.
Another thing you can see from the overlook is roads that zigzag straight down the sheer cliff to the canyon floor, then shoot across the desert.
Tour guide John
Since I’d heard the only way to really see Canyonlands was by four-wheel vehicle, we looked for tours and found a company, NAVTEC, that was authorized to drive into the park.
The weather forecast was for good weather on Sunday, with rain coming in on Monday, so we called to try to book a trip to the Needles on Sunday. We were informed they need at least three customers to run the tour, but they had two on a waiting list for Monday. We suggested they contact the two on the waiting list to switch to Sunday, but they never did, so we wound up booking the Monday tour.
An intermittent drizzle was falling when we were picked up by the tour driver in his four-wheel-drive Toyota SUV, with two German gentlemen already in place in the van. The man in the front seat wasn’t feeling well and spoke little, but our partner in the back seat, Thomas, was excited about the adventure and a worthy conversationalist.
Our tour guide, A.H. John (not his real initials) seemed to have a chip on his shoulder. He was an old coot, a grizzled veteran of 20-plus years of hard living in the Moab desert, who would have fit the profile for a prospector in previous years. (I don’t think he was as old as me, although he looked it.) We never figured out what his problem was, maybe he just resented people who thought sleeping in a van was camping and had enough money to pay for his tour. At any rate, he was thin-skinned and defensive, and it made for an uncomfortable trip. His was not the prototypical personality for a tour guide.
He didn’t like that we were concerned about the rain. “This is the kind of weather where you see professional photographers.” True, the fog that enveloped the Needles made for a ghostly effect, but blue sky and visibility also contribute to interesting pictures.
He said something about seeing Alfred Hitchcock in one of the rock formations as we were driving into the park, and when nobody laughed he groaned that apparently this was going to be a humorless trip.
Now, you can probably imagine if somebody said that to me there’d be plenty of attempts thereafter to match wits. Apparently, though, A.H. John had no wit, because he never recognized that anything I said was intended to be funny.
As we were bouncing along a dirt road a few miles beyond the visitors’ center, he said, “I guess nobody wants to take pictures.” I dug my camera out of its case and said I guessed I’d have to accept that challenge, which only angered him because he insisted he had not issued a challenge.
Actually, it was a real challenge to take pictures. If I rolled the window down, it would start raining and I’d have to roll it back up. The ride reminded me of trying to take photos from the boat we took into the Kenai Fjords, rocking on ten-foot waves. The image stabilization in my camera lens was no match for the jostling of the drive.
We arrived at Elephant Hill, a parking area and trailhead for one of the park’s most popular hikes, but instead of parking, John swung the car up the hill.
I guess you could call it a road. Rebecca said it was like driving a car up a flight of stairs. In hindsight, it would probably be easier to drive up stairs.
The drive to the end of the road, and our own trailhead destination, climbed two more hills like the first. There was one stretch where we drove a rock-bound alley where there wasn’t more than an inch leeway on either side of the car. It required masterful driving not to knock off one of the rearview mirrors.
Squeeze. Rebecca took this.
The best trick of the drive was a point where, going up one of those rocky hills, the hairpin curve in the middle of the hill was too sharp, requiring the vehicle to pull beyond the turn, then back up the remainder of the hill.
A better day
Understand, when we booked the tour, we had no clue what we were in for. We expected something like driving down one of those cliff-side roads we’d seen at Island in the Sky. This ride was jarring and breathtaking; the longest drop-offs weren’t more than 50 feet, nothing like the thousands of feet of sheer rock face we’d seen, but still, more than enough to kill you.
In truth, the trip was exhilarating, a real once-in-a-lifetime experience. (I repeated frequently I thought the ride was “fantastic,” but there was no appeasing John.)
So we were ready to stop and go on our hike after the hour-or-so drive of six-or-so miles.
It was only 11:30, so it was agreed to hike first and eat lunch second.
We got out of the car, and as usual I was futzing with my camera gear and the last one ready to go. John waited for me, but the other three went tramping up the trail without us.
This further annoyed John. About a hundred yards into the trail he suddenly turned to me, stuck his finger right into my face, and said I’d done nothing but insult him the whole ride in; and complain about the weather. He acknowledged I had a bottle of water, but accused the others of going off totally unprepared. “I guess I’m just the chauffeur,” he said.
The hike was fantastic. We hiked among giant rock formations. We climbed steep rock faces. We squeezed through narrow rock alleys. We got closer and closer to giant red needles.
But we were right to worry about the weather. By the time we reached our trail’s destination, an elevated space with a nice view of a few needles in the gloaming, it was raining pretty hard. I’d neglected to bring any cover for my camera, so I was struggling to keep it under my rain jacket, which did not enhance my hiking ability.
If you’ve ever hiked on rocks, you probably were glad it was dry. Rocks look like they could get really slippery in the rain. Miraculously, the rocks in Canyonlands are “sticky when wet.” Footing was not an issue.
However … when we got to one of the narrow rock alleys on the return trip, there was more than a trickle of water running through it. And then within a couple of minutes, before we’d gotten through, there was more than more than a trickle, and as I passed a side- alley that connected to the main passage, the little stream building up in it was breaching into the main channel.
About 20 feet before exiting the alley, there’s a drop of about five feet facilitated by a log with steps cut into it. I was last down that “ladder,” and the bottom of it was submerged. John was there to assist, and verified that when I’d stepped on the last visible step that there was still one more. I made it down to the bottom, where the water was lapping at the hem to my shorts.
Meanwhile, John was busy taking photos with his phone. “I’ve never seen it like this,” he said.
There’s one tree at the trailhead, so we sought shelter beneath it was we ate lunch. Then we battened down for the return ride, which was even more challenging than the ride in. Perhaps John was going a bit faster than he usually would, given the nature of nature that day. Going up one of the hills, we bottomed out a couple of times with really hard bumps, and on two occasions we almost got stuck in a near-vertical position. Only once did it seem we were about to slide off a cliff.
It’s possible John had softened by the end of the trip. He had to admire the intrepid nature of his group that day. We handled the adverse conditions with aplomb. He repeated more than once that he’d never seen conditions like that in the canyons before.
Having sampled the interior of Canyonlands, we were ready to see it on a clear day, so we came back to the Needles area from our visit into Colorado. We had been told the park campground usually filled up by noon, so we hightailed it from Cortez and arrived at the park just after eleven, to be told the campground had filled up before ten.
It was our good fortune to find a single accessible camp site in the Super Bowl BLM (Bureau of Land Management) campground a few miles outside the park gate. It was a beautiful setting surrounded by giant cliffs and two huge formations known as the Six Shooters. Best of all, it was free.
We staked out our site, drove into the park, dropped the Wegwam at the parking area in the park campground, and set out for Chesler Park, a nine-mile round-trip.
It was a beautiful day, and it was one of the Best Hikes Ever (Rebecca still likes the hike to Harding Ice Field better). We crossed long stretches of exposed rock trails. We twisted around one canyon and then the next. We squoze through rock-sided canyons (this time with no stream running with us). We climbed up and down, round and round, finally reaching the destination, Chesler Park, an area with a view back into the Canyonlands offering a different view from the giant red rock formations we’d hiked through. Lots of rounded gray mounds with white tops beyond a foreground of desert grasses. We were close enough to rows of towering red “needles” to nearly touch them. We had an elevated look back up the canyons toward the Island in the Sky.
Island in the Sky
In fact the perspective from the Needles area led me to a greater understanding of the Island in the Sky than I’d gotten from its overlook. The Island in the Sky is a True Mesa, a near circle towering two thousand sheer feet on all sides above the Canyonlands floor. From below, it really does look like an Island in the Sky.
The other reason we came back to Canyonlands was to experience the night sky. The International Dark-Sky Association has granted Gold-Tier International Dark Sky Park status to the park.
The sky, even on a moonless night, was not as spectacular as we’d hoped. There was a bit of haze left over from the previous days’ rain, but there were plenty of stars. The milky way stretched from one horizon to the other, probably the most milky way we’d ever seen. But the stars were all-in-all no better than what we see on a clear night at Bunky’s Hill.