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Erik Trautman

“Everything you can imagine is real.”
-- Pablo Picasso

Canyonlands National Park

Tuesday morning I awoke bathed in sweat. We’d slept in after the full-moon photography of the night before and I’d bundled up pretty well to fight the evening chill. It didn’t take long, though, before the mercury began to rise once the sun had risen above the horizon. I was left tired and uncomfortable to greet the new day.

Despite that inauspicious start, my temperament quickly improved once we hit the road and began to push towards Canyonlands National Park. The park isn’t quite as close to Moab as Arches had been but it was still a very manageable hop to get there. The way began as a cross-desert trek through red dirt country and finished with long climbs among the layered cliffs and rounded domes and scraggly trees that make this part of the country unique.

Canyonlands National Park is really two different parks — the Needles and the Island in the Sky. The entrances are a long ways apart and they feature two very different looking geographies. We chose to visit only Island in the Sky because it was a much easier day trip from Moab and seemed to encompass the grandest views. I’ve seen needles country before as well (in the Black Hills) so the mystery was somewhat dispelled.

Our first stop was the Mesa Arch, one of the most prominently photographed arches in the world. It is particularly known for the views at sunrise, when the light hits its underside, painting it a bright orange, and perfectly frames the hundred-mile view through its middle. We arrived closer to midday and so missed that particular effect but enjoyed seeing it nonetheless. The sandstone at Canyonlands was lighter and more prone to breaking off in your hands than the red slickrock of Arches, so it made for a different style of arch than we’d seen the previous day.

The Island in the Sky is a massive multi-level mesa that looks out onto the Green River Basin, which was the major player in its formation. On the middle “white” level, roads from the 1950’s uranium mining operations can still be seen scarring the land. Beyond that, the actual river gorge sinks away and looks almost like an enormous dinosaur footprint. The view from Mesa Arch encompasses it all:

From Mesa Arch we rode all the way down to the end of the scenic drive and hiked out past Grand View Point. It’s a short hike but it’s full of interesting rocks and some killer views from the edge:

Nearly hidden among the grand vistas, there was one little tiny zen tree that managed to cling to a ledge. We were told in the visitor’s center that often plants at elevation were somewhat smaller versions of their lower level cousins. This little fellow wasn’t more than a foot tall:

We rode back past a number of different overlooks and short trails but the one that stood out was the Upheaval Dome. The pathway ended with an overlook to a basin with all kinds of unusual mineral formations at the bottom. There was also no clear indication of how it had been created.

One school of thought is that a meteor struck the area during the Jurassic Period and caused the crater and the odd splash of rock in its center. The other theory is that an underground salt dome became compressed by the weight of the surrounding plateaus and squirted upwards. Perhaps it was both.

Our day at Canyonlands was a slow and contemplative one. We spent a lot of time just sitting at the edge of the cliffs and soaking in the views and the sound of the wind gusting through the canyons. As the afternoon progressed towards sunset, we found one last view before turning around and heading back to Moab:

After such a solid day of exploring, it only made sense that we would find some relaxation in town that evening. We hitchhiked from the campsite to the Moab Brewery and enjoyed a sampling of beers with some awesome food. Their triple tip steak with BBQ sauce and jalapeno cheese fries was almost as much of a home run as their signature lager. Despite being surrounded by so much temptation, we held back and returned home at a reasonable hour. After two days of just doing short trips, the following promised a long re-introduction to our saddles and we wanted to be fresh as we headed south into Arizona to visit the Grand Canyon.