At over 500 square miles, Canyonlands National Park, in southeast Utah, covers a vast area and offers visitors a wide array of activities, including hiking, backpacking, off-roading, mountain biking, kayaking, rafting, etc.
On our most recent adventure to Canyonlands, my father, Paul Terry, and I chose to explore the Upheaval Dome area in the northwest corner of the National Park, also known as the Island in the Sky District.
Of the many incredible sights in Canyonlands, Upheaval Dome is one of the most intriguing. Upheaval Dome is a massive (three miles in diameter) almost-perfectly circular crater cut deep into the many rock layers. In the center of the crater there are enormous rocks and many layers of sediments pushed vertically upward forming a dome. While no one actually knows the origin of Upheaval Dome, there are two main theories of the formation, the Salt Dome Theory, and the Impact Crater Theory. You can read more information about these two theories on the park brochure.
Our backpacking adventure consisted of an 18 mile loop starting at the Upheaval Dome Trailhead and finishing at the Alpine Spring Trailhead, where my dad had parked the car (it is about a 0.5 mile walk between the two trailheads). We took three days and two nights to complete the loop, although we met a few people along the way who did the same loop in only two days.
We took off around midday on the first day from the Upheaval Dome trailhead and worked our way along the southern portion of the Syncline Trail. The trail down into the canyon is steep, dropping roughly 1300 feet into the canyon, but well-marked with cairns, and very doable (just take your time). We set up camp for the night at the Syncline Campsite (see featured image), at the entrance to the Upheaval Dome, and spent a couple hours that same afternoon exploring the crater.
The next morning we packed up and headed down Upheaval Canyon, west to the Green River. The Green River is approximately a 3.5 mile hike from the Syncline Trail. From there we followed the White Rim Road north for about a half of a mile looking for a good place to fill up on water. The river is very muddy, and even after finding a spot where the water flowed very slowly, our water pump got clogged after only pumping out about a gallon of clean water. Not knowing how much water we would need for the rest of the journey, we collected another gallon of river water, for cleaning up, cooking, and boiling it to drink if it came down to it.
After collecting our water, we headed east from the White Rim Road into Taylor Canyon for another five miles, passing the picturesque Moses and Zeus pinnacles.
After a short rest in the shade of the Taylor Campsite outhouse, we cut off to the southeast following the Alcove Spring Trail for about a half of a mile until we found a suitable spot to set up camp. As long as you are out of the sight of the campers at the Taylor Campground, and 100 feet off of the main trail, you are free to set up camp anywhere in Taylor Canyon.
On the morning of the third day we broke camp early knowing that we had a long ascent in front of us. Total, it was about a five mile hike from our campsite to the Alcove Spring Trailhead, however that included a 1300 foot ascent to get out of the canyon. Unfortunately, most of that elevation is gained over the last quarter to half of a mile. Once again, we just took our time, took plenty of rests, and by midday we were able to reach the trailhead.
We finally reached the car – thirsty, sunburned, sore, tired, and with hundreds of bug bites – but we had an amazing time. The scenery in Canyonlands is absolutely stunning. Walking through the desert canyons, seeing the incredible rock formations makes you feel as though you are a part of some old Western movie.
On a practical side, water is a must! We each brought a gallon and a half of water, hoping to be able to replenish our supply at the Green River. Always plan to have extra water, sometimes we forget that in addition to drinking it, water is very useful for cleaning up, for cooking, etc. While water can be pumped out of the river, make sure that you bring a pump with a filter that can be cleaned out easily, on the spot, or bring some other filtration system that can better handle the thick mud and silt in the river. There is some accessible water, that has seeped up from the ground, along the Syncline Trail. Once again, you are going to want to have some sort of filtration device to drink that water. Also make sure to pack plenty of energy replenishing foods, sunscreen, bug repellent, etc.
We visited Canyonlands during Spring and had beautiful weather (temperatures in the mid 70’s during the day and reasonably warm at night), and I would highly recommend to others to visit either in the Spring or in the Fall as Summer temperatures can get extremely hot.
Canyonlands is located in southeastern Utah, and is only about 30 miles southwest of Moab. For other information on Canyonlands, including campground information, refer to the National Parks website.