The expansive landscape of Canyonlands National Park encompasses 527 square miles in the heart of the Colorado Plateau. Through this desert land, the surging rivers of the Colorado and Green have carved out two massive canyons – major barriers segmenting the park into three distinct areas - Island In The Sky (north), The Needles (south) and The Maze (west).
Before park status, few except Native Americans, cowboys, river explorers and uranium prospectors entered this remote corner of southeast Utah. Even today a major portion of its rugged terrain provides a protective barrier against excessive intrusion; consequently enough undisturbed space has been left for the coyote, deer, kit fox and desert bighorn sheep to freely roam.
Island In The Sky, with an average elevation of 6100 feet, is the park’s highest district. Aptly named, this “desert island” is a sheer-walled plateau that towers more than a thousand feet above its surroundings. From this vantage point a tangled web of canyons, mesas, buttes, fins and spires can be seen for miles and miles – a wondrous horizon-to-horizon view climaxed by three distinct mountain ranges – the La Sals to the east, the Abajos to the south and the Henries to the west.
In the late 1950s and early 60s, Bates Wilson, then superintendent of Arches National Monument, led groups of scientists and government officials on primitive trips into the canyonlands. When they sat around the campfire in the evening the talk inevitably turned to the possibility of designating this out-of-the-world geologic landscape as a national park.
United States Senator Frank E. Moss, who represented Utah, introduced park legislation, saying “I will never lose sight of the fact that the most important thing for Utah and the United States is to set aside (and) preserve this beautiful area as a great national park in the tradition of Yellowstone, Grand Canyon and Yosemite.” And so the spark of an idea became a reality in 1964.
Located 1200 feet below the Island In The Sky mesa, the White Rim is the top layer of the Cutler Formation, a wide bench of sandstone deposited 225 million years ago. In the 1950s uranium prospectors constructed a road along its edge to access the ore. Mining, however, requires a lot of water, and thus an extension of the Lathrop Trail, was built down to the Colorado River - a lot of work for a mining boom that barely lasted a decade. Today the miners are gone, but the White Rim Road still lives on as a popular mountain biking and 4X4 route almost 100 miles long.
To get to an overlook of the White Rim, drive ten miles north of Moab on Highway 191. At Highway 313, turn left and drive another 25 miles to the park’s entrance station. Then continue straight for 12 more miles to the One Way sign at the picnic tables and the trailheads for the White Rim Overlook – two miles round trip, and the Gooseberry/White Rim – six miles round trip.
On this first day of February, as I embark on my one mile hike to the overlook, I am contemplating how the weather is going to pan out! Yesterday it snowed and rained. Today low hanging clouds remain, and sometimes through the mist I go as dozens of fluffy white puffballs drift up and down the canyon walls – a surprising sensation for southeast Utah.
Undisturbed this pristine terrain has nourished a prolific high desert garden, which provides a delightful stroll through an extensive growth of Mormon tea, blackbrush, pinyons, singleleaf ash, Fremont mahonia, snakeweed and cliffrose. Life must be particularly good for the junipers. Veiled in the mist and endowed with a bounteous harvest of blue-gray berries, some of the larger trees have the festive appearance of a belated Christmas tree.
I am also wandering through the intriguing land of endless bundles of rocks: bizarre, topsy-turvy rocks, lopsided rocks, big bellied rocks and slanted rocks – high ledgy rocks and low ledgy rocks – rocks with lips and overhanging rocks - lumpy-bumpy mounds of rocks and those on pedestals that look like tables.
The minimal gain in elevation allows for a leisurely walk on this clearly marked trail. With piles of rocks called cairns and old logs placed along both sides, you would have to be the village idiot to lose track of where you’re going! Towards the end it narrows down. Then - whoa - suddenly it abruptly stops at a point with a severe drop on all three sides!
After carefully choosing an on-the edge front row seat I am now ready for a rare show to begin: Act I - The La Sals are slowly disappearing in a thick bank of clouds. Act II - the Abajos magically come into view. Act III - With the visibility improving beneath me, I can clearly pick out the White Rim, the road snaking along its edge, as well as a huge collection of white-capped pillars extending beyond the rim.
But wait, the entertainment isn’t over yet. The clouds slowly slipping away now reveal a small slice of the Colorado River within a maze of canyons and the cliff walls shooting down from the Island In The Sky mesa.
Then my attention turns to the sky where wayward clouds are putting on their own engaging performance. Across an azure turf they whirl and twirl - expand and contract – separate and reunite – morph and twist from fleecy white dragons to delicate lacy fingers.
Enchanting as this impressive exhibition is, after a while the chill finally forces me to leave. But I’ve had ample uninterrupted time to savor an extraordinary event during this brief window of off-season solitude. The viewpoint has been blissfully empty, and along the way I‘ve met a mere handful of people, one of them the girl from Chicago on her first visit here. She is absolutely blown away with our little corner of the world! “I am definitely coming back!” she exclaims, reminding me of what I already know – how lucky I am to be living here!