Moab Excursion #03 Canonylands, Dead Horse Point, Professor Valley
Moab Excursion #03 – Canyonlands, Dead Horse Point and Professor Valley
During our trip, we also visited Canyonlands, Dead Horse Point and Professor Valley – all just a stone throw from Moab where we were staying.
Three parts of Canyonlands
As was the case with Arches, we visited Canyonlands on multiple days which was quite easy to do being so close to Moab.
Canyonlands is actually 3 National Parks under one name as it has 3 distinct sections. The northeastern section is called “Island in the Sky” followed by “The Maze” which is to the west, and “The Needles” which is the furthest section to the south. On this trip we only visited the Island in the Sky section which is the part closest to Moab.
The entire park is centered on the confluence of the Colorado and Green Rivers. The Green River comes from pretty much due north and more or less marks the boundary between the Maze section and the Island in the Sky Section. If you follow the Green river upstream to the North, you’ll pass through Dinosaur National Monument in Colorado and Flaming Gorge in Utah/Wyoming. It gets its start just south of Teton and Yellowstone National Parks.
The Colorado River, on the other hand, flows into Canyonlands from the Northeast after passing through most of the northwest quarter of Colorado. It gets its start at Lake Granby not too far from Denver.
The Maze district is pure wilderness and is the most remote of the 3. It is a 30 square mile area of labyrinth canyons, spires, fins, buttes, mesas, and cliffs. Prior to GPS, it was quite common for visitors to become hopelessly lost in the maze of canyons and needing to be rescued – which many times took several days to locate them. This area is world known to the off road ATV and 4WD crowd which is made even more obvious by the number of places in Moab where you can rent such vehicles or join tours which use them. Many parts of this area may seem familiar to you as Hollywood has made great use of this landscape.
The Needles district is about an hour and a half drive from Moab to the South. We visited there on a different trip. There isn’t a whole lot of paved road access here either. In this case there is one paved road that leads to the visitor center and campground. This area is not nearly as inhospitable as The Maze and as such was quite popular with the early natives. This section has canyons, arches and spires as do the other sections but also more tame areas called gardens. What you can see from the road is somewhat limited but with an off road vehicle or on foot there are many square miles of tracks and treks to explore including some which are self guiding.
The third, and most popular, district is Island in the Sky. This section consists of a high plateau carved into canyons by the Colorado and Green rivers as well as countless side canyons carved by smaller tributaries. The paved roads in this section stay on the top of the plateau offering magnificent views of the canyons falling away below your feet and with views of over 100 miles to distant snow covered mountains. If you opt for an off road 4WD vehicle (think Jeep) you can drive down into the valleys and canyons. On this trip, this was the only section of Canyonlands we visited.
Island in the sky
From Moab, it is around a half hour drive to the Canyonlands, Island in the Sky, boundary which is very close to the turnoff to Dead Horse Point. Once inside the park you will be on a 14 mile paved road aptly called Grand View Point Scenic Drive. About two-thrids way down this road, there is another paved road called Upheaval Dome Road, which is 5 miles long and forks off to the northwest. Both of these roads stay on the top of the mesa with overlooks into the canyons and rivers 1,000 ft below.
These various overlooks offer views in almost every direction except due north, but I’m sure you can find one pointing that way as well. But the best views tend to be toward the east and south. Some of these pull outs and views are quite famous, some less so. Along these paved roads, you’ll pass trailheads for hikes many of which take you below the rim and down into the canyons below. And, from time to time you’ll find a dirt road for 4WD vehicles that take you down into the canyons.
The terrain is marvelous here and is what you’d expect to see if you’ve ever watched western movies. The general palette of the landscape is made up of brilliant red, orange, buff and even some violet hues whose colors explode just after sunrise or just before sunset.
As you wind your way to the park from the turn off from US-191 as well as once you are in the park but not near the edge of the mesa, you’ll pass all sorts of buttes and mesas just begging to be photographed but these are just the appetizers. It’s the view over the rim that is the main attraction. But, let’s go back to the road into the park. If you are staying in Moab, take US-191 north for 11 miles to the junction of UT-313 where you turn left. This road leads you into South Fork Sevenmile Canyon. About 3.5 miles up this canyon, the road crosses over the river bed and through a mile long S-curve climbs up onto the top of the mesa.
This area is littered with mesas and butte’s, many of which are quite picturesque. You’ll pass viewpoints for Big Mesa and Navajo Rocks. From these parking lots you have great views of some mesa’s. These are also launch points for very popular mountain bike trails. So, just what is a mesa? Well, according to the National Geographic Society, a mesa is a land mass formed by erosion, when water washes smaller and softer types of rocks away from the top of a hill. The strong, durable rock that remains on top of a mesa is called caprock. A mesa is usually wider than it is tall. Mesas are usually found in dry regions where rock layers are horizontal. But, in general language they are flat topped, vertical walled, protuberances that arise straight up from a mostly flat landscape.
View from Big Mesa parking Lot
After 10 Miles or so through a mostly flat expanse of the top of a mesa will be the turnoff to Dead Horse Point State Park. I’ll talk about this later on in this episode, but for now let’s continue on into Canyonlands National Park.
Five miles further on, the terrain starts to become a bit more varied with more mesa’s popping up on both sides of the road. Along this stretch of road is the actual park boundary – not that all that much changes once you cross in to the park proper. A bit under 7 miles from the Dead Horse Point cutoff is the Island in the Sky Visitor Center. It is well worth a stop to see the exhibits and make use of the plumbing before you venture on as from here on there is no running water in the outhouses. The visitor center marks the start of a journey which more or less traces the edge of the plateau you are driving on offering those wonderful views.
Butte or Mesa a few miles before the Visitor Center
Near Shafer Canyon Trail Head
Shafter Canyon Trail Head and Overlook
Shafter Canyon Trail Head and Overlook
Six miles from the Visitor center is the unchallenged most famous site in the park. This is Mesa Arch. The arch itself is a short (maybe ¼ mile) walk from the parking lot that takes you over a small ridge. In other words you can’t see anything from the parking lot. You must take the walk over the ridge. Now, remember, you are standing on the top of a humongous mesa with vertical cliffs marking the edge of the mesa. Mesa Arch is formed in a vertical section of rock that split away from the main mesa and over time through wind and water action formed an arch. So, unlike most arches you come across where you are at the bottom looking up, for this one you are standing more or less next to it near its top. It actually rises a bit higher than the place you stand so you can see through arch to the canyons below. Okay, got the picture?
Now consider that you are looking toward the east through the arch. The early morning sun shines up onto the underside of this arch which illuminates it in a yellow/orange halo type of glow that is one of the most magnificent sites in the world to see – and photograph. Unless it is overcast, if you are there at sunrise you will have lots of company and there will be a sea of tripods overlapped side by side. Be cautious as some of these photographers can be quite grouchy if you wander into their view or bump their tripod. But even if you aren’t photographing you will be awarded with a spectacular event. What is interesting though is that most of these photographers, having arrived in the dark well before sunrise, will shoot as the sun comes up then pack up and leave. What they don’t know is that the best shots (IMHO) happen about 30 to 90 minutes AFTER sunrise, when the sun is a bit higher. So, even if all the good spots are taken by others when you get there, do not despair. Just wait till they run off before the main event.
Photographers (after many left). 35 min past sunrise in 2010 (arch is at the right of the sunlit gap)
Actual sunrise - listed in Moab as 6:43 taken at 6:55
View showing gap between mesa and arch (20 min past listed sunrise)
12 minutes past listed sunrise. Showing Washerwoman Arch in background
Washerwoman Arch (piece of Mesa Arch in upper right)
Morning Glow on underside of Mesa Arch (27 min past listed sunrise)
Mesa Arch at night, light painted with a flashlight
Once you’re amazed at Mesa Arch, continue on down the Grand Viewpoint road to the end at Grand Viewpoint.
From Orange Cliffs Overlook
As you retrace your step back from Grand Viewpoint, just before Mesa Arch will be a cutoff to your left. You can head down this road which is Upheaval Dome Rd. Just after the turnoff is a dirt road on the left that leads you to the Green River overlook. Upheaval Dome Road meanders about 10 miles, ending at a parking lot for Upheaval Dome. It will take a bit of a hike from the parking lot to see this feature and to be honest, after what you’ve just seen it’s not all that spectacular.
Dead Horse Point
Route from Moab to Dead Horse Point
So, now let’s backtrack past the visitor center and take the cutoff we mentioned earlier to Dead Horse Point. From the cutoff the point is 8 miles. Like much of Canyonlands , Dead Horse Point is also seen from the top of the same mesa. What sets Dead Horse Point apart from Island in the Sky part of Canyonlands is that the point is out at the end of a narrow peninsula of land providing views of almost 360 degrees. Then, to add a bit of magic the view to the southwest includes an incredible giant S-Curve of the Colorado River carved into the red sandstone of the valley floor.
Much of what you see from Dead Horse Point State Park is actually Canyonlands which is why I’m including it in this chapter. There have been several stories about the name of the point. When we were here in the early 1970’s the going story was that a tribe of Indians were rounding up wild horses. To do this they chased them into box canyons or other natural “dead end” locations where they could block off the only exit and thus capture the animals. Dead Horse Point is such a place as a very narrow isthmus of plateau leads to the wider point itself. Once through this narrow area, the only way out is back the same way. Well, according to the story, they drove the horses through the narrows and out onto the point, but the horses they were herding kept going and many went right over the cliff at the end of the point.
Well, that story is now no longer in vogue. The current story is that ranchers in the area used the point as sort of a natural corral for their horses as all they needed to do was fence off that narrow section and the horses would not be able to get out yet also would have access to food. However, the point is somewhat exposed to the elements including lightening storms and extremisms of temperate resulting in the demise of many horses.
Today, horses are no longer involved. But in 1991 some outlaws were – well sort of. The last scene of the movie Thelma & Louise - called the Grand Canyon scene – was filmed here. You remember, Thelma & Louise are being chased by the cops and basically decide to kill themselves rather than being captured and they drive their car off a cliff. Well that scene was shot on an apron of flat land just below the point and can be clearly seen from the viewpoint.
If you are ever sightseeing in the Moab area, this is a don’t miss place to see.
Pinnacle from Dead Horse Point State Park
From Dead Horse Point State Park
East from Dead Horse Point SP with Potash Evaporation ponds
Colorado River S-Curve from tip of Dead Horse Point State Park
Moab is situated on the Colorado River a bit upstream from where the Green River joins it. From the Moab Bridge you can drive along the Colorado in both directions. You can go down stream toward the southwest on UT-279 for about 16 miles till the road ends at a Potash factory. This is a very scenic road that goes by some towering cliffs as well as a panel of Petroglyphs.
Towering cliffs by the side of UT-279, SW of Moab
Petroglyphs along UT-279
If you go the other way from Moab, upstream toward the northeast you’ll be following UT-128 through the Professor Valley. If you go about 43 miles you’ll hook up to I-70 (US-50). However, this road only follows the river for the first 34 miles. Much past this point is not nearly as scenic a drive as the portion along the river. Starting from Moab, the drive upstream takes you through some narrows along the Colorado but then the valley opens up with more farmland nestled between the Buttes and Mesa’s with the odd resort or cabin rentals sprinkled around. Along this section, on the other (north) side of the river is the south boundary of Arches National Park.
Just about where the farmland ends and the canyon gets much narrower you’ll go by a dirt road turnoff to Fisher Towers which is worth a look. As you keep going there are many small pullouts (just a wider section of road) where you can stop and take some photos.
Pedestrian/Bike bridge across the Colorado at Moab. Entrance to Aches NP is less than a mile past this bridge
Picnic atop a pinnacle near Fisher Tower
Colorado and Fisher Tower
Butte and autumn tree from Sorrel River Ranch
I hope you enjoyed reading about our Moab Excursion and that you’ll come back for other journey’s
PLEASE LEAVE COMMENTS AS I ENJOY HEARING YOUR REACTION TO WHAT I'VE WRITTEN
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These and other Images of this trip are posted in a Gallery on my website.
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Thanks for reading – Dan
(All images by Dan Hartford. Not all images from 2017 trip, some from prior trips. Info from Wikipedia and pamphlets gathered at various sites along the way along with attraction websites)
Keywords: Blog, Canyonlands, Canyonlands National Park, Colorado River, dan hartford photo, dantravelblog, dantravelblogmoab, Dead Horse Point, Dead Horse Point State Park, Fisher Tower, Grand View Point, Mesa Arch, moab, Professor Valley, ut, utah
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