Island in the Sky

Neck Spring Trail
Friday, May 17Thursday morning we left Monticello, headed for the Island in the Sky unit of Canyonlands. We stopped in Moab only long enough to empty tanks, shop and gas up again. We’re not even going to try to get a campsite in the park, instead driving directly to the Horsethief BLM campground about 6 miles outside park boundaries. There were plenty of spaces left to choose from even at late-morning in this 60 space campground. All afternoon is was very windy and cloudy so we didn’t venture out much the rest of the day.Friday morning however, we were ready for a hike. It started off quite clear and cool with very little wind. Perfect for our 6.5 mile hike on the Neck Spring Trail. We were out early and easily drove into the park. The trailhead is a little ways past the visitor center. The Neck of Neck Springs is actually a narrow spot along the road – a little wider than the 2 lane blacktop. My first visit here in the early 80’s, this road was gravel and seemed a little scary to me. On one side is a spectacular view of Shafer Canyon and the La Sal Mountains. On the other, another set of canyons that our trail runs through. We parked in the Shafer Trail parking lot and set out down the trail. It immediately drops down to the roadway, then crossed to the west side into Neck Spring Canyon.This is another well known trail to us, but not one of the most spectacular of walks. It has every element of what I love about Island in the Sky, but on a more diminutive level. The hike took us around and down and up again, several canyons. There are interesting sandstone amphitheaters one can hike into, a great variety of wildflowers blooming in patches all along the way, and nice views in several directions. And something I haven’t seen in the desert for quite a while – water. We crossed several tiny creeks flowing from some of the grottos. These could have been springs. Climbing out of a couple of the canyons is steep and a bit grueling over the sun-baked white sandstone. There is no breeze down in the canyons so 70’s feel more like 80’s. Climbing out required plenty of shade and water breaks. Up along the rim, we found the breeze again, and more interesting rocks and views to photograph. Once out of the final canyon, the trail continues around the lip as it begins to loop back around toward the road. This portion runs over mostly whitecap sandstone (of various colors), much of which have natural cryptobiotic planing bowls in their midst. We also passed evidence of past attempts to take advantage of natural resources. The whitecap sandstone colors ranged from natural gray to orange and yellow. Thickening clouds provided a nice background for some of the images. Once across the road, the trail rises a little more and runs near the rim on the other side of the road. Now the more impressive views are revealed. In several spots, views of the canyons could be seen on both sides of the road, and later on the trail, we were looking down at Shafer Road that leads to the White Rim 4-wheel trail. The clouds had really thickened by now, but we were near the end. Rain looked imminent, but as so often has been the case, all we actually got was a little virga. Tired as usual after a hike, we headed back to camp. Tomorrow we are planning an early morning drive along the main park road out to Grand View Point. Not much walking in the plan, but that has a way of changing.

Morning Rim Drive
Saturday, May 18Because it is Saturday, our plan was to get out early for a drive to the furthest point on the mesa at the Grand View Point Overlook before it got busy. Along the way there are a number of overlooks and a couple of interesting trails to explore. Again we had an easy entry into the park and drove right out to the Green River Overlook. Walking up to the viewpoint, visitors have no idea what they will see – it is hidden. As they get to the rail, the bottom drops out and a view 1000’ down and away for miles is revealed. The Green River snaking its way through the canyon eventually registers on the brain. My favorite view anywhere. I’ve seen it so many times now. Yet, even at 7:30 this AM, the sun is too high and light too harsh. The sky, a pale blue and nearly featureless, is not helping. Not it’s best light. It’s still great to be at this spot seeing this view. We explored along the rim edge looking for different ways to photograph the view. There was some nice Princes’ Plume and the aromatic Cliff Rose was wafting through the still air. Before arriving at the overlook on the way in, we passed by the Mesa Arch trailhead. This is a 3/4 mile hike to an iconic image location for many, and yes, I have my own version. When I did it years ago, there were maybe 5 other photographers also there at dawn. As we drove by at around 7 AM this morning, we counted about 40 cars in the lot. Photographers stand is a semicircle to photograph it, but there are only a few spots to get the ideal composition. People walk out on it for selfies – it’s only about a 1000’ drop. More than 10 photographers is going to be a real crowd. We drove on by.It was an enjoyable ride out to Grand View Point. Along the way I was surprised to see so many new trailheads. Most seem to be for bikes though. We stopped briefly at a couple of overlooks, but didn’t leave the car until the end at Grand View. The lot was half full at 8 AM and quite a lot of folks were at the overlooks. There is a rim trail of about a mile that departs from the viewpoint and we decided to walk out on a bit. It just wasn’t an inspiring morning, at least looking out to the views. We walked maybe a half mile, then decided to turn back. Instead of looking at the view again, I turned my attention toward the multicolored sandstone shelf that we were hiking along. Just as at House on Fire, sunlight was reflecting off surrounding rock, lighting the sandstone overhang from underneath. The overhang ledge was only about 3’ high so squatting down and looking up put my neck to the test. All along this stretch of wall, the many layers of colored stone created a multitude of patterns. I made dozens of exposures. Back in the car, we started back through the park, stopping only to check out another location for a later walk. From the Buck Canyon Overlook, the White Rim Overlook Trail runs out on a finger of the mesa for 1.8 miles, to wonderful views of white rim canyons. We will do this another day that isn’t Saturday. We started back to our camp at Horsethief. As we slowed to pass by the entrance station, I counted 67 cars lined up to get, and passed many more as we drove the 6 miles to camp. It seems best to stay out of the park during the 10-5 period of the day unless a hike is involved.

Rim Drive, Redux
After a relaxing afternoon, we had an early dinner and drove back into the park in hope of a fine sunset at the Green River Overlook. It was very cloudy all afternoon with virtually no breaks, but as evening approached, it began to look like something great might happen. We were at the overlook by about 5 PM to see how it was shaping up. There were some nice breaks but still too much cloud cover. With more than an hour before sunset, there was time. Since we still had time, we drove over to the Buck Canyon Overlook again, but here too it wasn’t really happening. A little before sunset, we returned to Green River Overlook for last light. For about a half hour it really looked like the sun would get down below the clouds to light the view up for a few minutes. But it didn’t happen. From where we stood we couldn’t see the layer of clouds behind the layer above the horizon. There were just a minute or two of partial light. By 6:30 the other two photographers still out there and I were looking at each other wondering who would break for home first. It wasn’t going to happen tonight, so I packed it up – the other two were right behind me.It was nearly dark by now so we headed back to camp. The rising full moon surprised us as we passed the visitor center, so we pulled over and Mary made a few hasty exposures. I just watched it rise. Tomorrow we plan an early morning hike along the White Rim Overlook trail.

White Rim Overlook Trail
Sunday, May 19Our entire stay in Island in the Sky so far has been a bit hampered by wind and rain showers during the day. It is sometimes not fun being out in it. The forecast is calling for a series of storm rolling in from California over the next week. Our plan was to stay through tonight and begin our 5 day drive back to San Fracisco, but that means this morning excursion is our last of the road trip.It was another cloudy morning and it seemed it would get more so as the day progressed, so we were out early. The first stop was just a pull-out by the road that had a nice large area of walkable whitecap sandstone to explore. This was also a nice alternative view of the Green River canyon. Stopping here attracted a bunch of other folks, so I took a longer walk out along the rim and found a few nice compositions, then we moved on to our hike.The trail leave from the Buck Canyon Picnic/Overlook and it was nice to see the parking area only had a few cars. It was already pretty windy – which made it feel colder – but quite a lot of the trail offered some protection and we were dressed warmly. With the light so dim, it was difficult to get excited about the pictures along the way, but the hike was still nice. As the trail reached the end of the mesa, the views began to open up all around. We could walk out quite far onto the rocks, but the furthest point would require some scrambling. Interesting rocks, great views, mostly flat light. We found a nice protected area to have a snack before heading back. Cloud cover was only getting thicker and the wind was getting pretty old as well. Despite the conditions, we still savored our last day here. A brief stop back at the earlier turnout, convinced us the weather was not improving, so we were done for the day. What is left for us now is the journey home. It will be 5 days of 200 plus miles to get us there, so there won’t be much time for exploring along the way. This may be my last post until the next road trip, probably starting in September. Thanks, everyone who have been following along.

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