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Bikes, Bones, or Buttes

Canyonlands NP, Monday 22 May 2023

Fruita, CO - home of my nephew - lies 90 minutes east of the two western Utah parks. The whole region has earned legendary status for mountain biking, dinosaur fossils, and eroded rocks. Thus, it did not surprise me to see the artwork in Fruita's city park celebrating two of those linchpins.

I'd already covered the mountain biking (even if not partaking of cycling over slickrock) on my first day in Arches. No dinosaur bones for me on this trip (though the 'bones' of the pinyon remains sort of qualified, I think).

That left me with a day to return to Canyonlands NP, exploring the buttes, mesas and canyons of the Island in the Sky district.

After sea caves, whitewater, and mazes in my last three parks, I felt adventure fatigue setting in. To compensate, I dialed it back and opted for the 'tourist two-step': drive to the overlook, take the short hike, snap a photo, then on to the next attraction. Grand View? Check. Mesa Arch? Check. Lather, rinse, and repeat.

Canyonlands does not attract the throngs of crowds that Arches does. No timed entry here, only a couple minutes waiting at the entrance station. The road up to the Island district passes a few eroded landscapes (such as the buttes named Monitor and Merrimac)

as it climbs, but soon levels out onto a mesa awash in green with little hint as how the land will soon change.

Crossing the neck, you suddenly see the land fall away. I pressed on, aiming to start my sightseeing at the south end of the 'island'.

The stream is still quiet, and we glide along through a strange, weird, grand region. The landscape everywhere, away from the river, is of rock—cliffs of rock, tables of rock, plateaus of rock, terraces of rock, crags of rock—ten thousand strangely carved forms; rocks everywhere, and no vegetation, no soil, no sand. -- John Wesley Powell's description of the area now inside Canyonlands NP

Grand View Point Overlook:

The road ends at the southernmost point of the Island in the Sky,

with views over miles of eroded buttes and mesas. I had seen these eroded canyons from our flight back from rafting two days ago, but they never fail to impress me.

Looking down, I could plainly see the ribbon of the White Rim Road. That brought back memories of when my friend Tim and I took a week-long bike ride along the rim decades ago - my first extended adventure in a National Park.

I walked a portion of the designated half-mile trail along the rim,

crossing slickrock, passing gnarled trees and desert brush while admiring the views over canyon country. (Visibility was hampered due to the smoke from the Canadian wildfires.) Others took time to soak in the scene.

White Rim Overlook:

Far below I could see the White Rim, named for that rime of white where the land was eroded into a stream canyon.

And we almost hiked up to that point from our first camp on the river.

Here the half-mile trail meandered through a narrowing sliver of land, again populated by the desert vegetation, before reaching the east-facing overlook. Looking over the land, the reason for the name became obvious.

Mesa Arch:

The arch attracts scores of visitors at sunrise, catching early rays of the sun.

Through the day, people continue to flock there, taking their pictures of the Mesa Arch, and of Washerwoman Arch which it frames.

In the background, I could still see snow-covered mountains despite the haze. A 0.6-mile easy loop trail took me to the arch and through more desert growth, with interpretive signs identifying the plants.

Green River Overlook:

A branch from the road to Grand View Point leads west on the island. Turning toward the campground took me to the Green River Overlook, with vistas over a less-convoluted section of land.

This stop provided no trail to stretch my legs on, only interpretive signs.

Upheaval Dome:

Now for the mystery portion of the park. In sharp contrast to the flat layers of sedimentary rock laid down over eons, Upheaval Dome features dramatically folded and inclined rock layers - and scientists aren't sure why.

Some say a salt deposit was deformed, forming a bubble which seeped up through sandstone and created the feature; others blame a meteorite its creation, with newly-exposed rocks underneath heaving up to fill the void.

In any case, this stop offers a trail to two overlooks, the best exercise of the day.

Shafer Trail:

Ahh, memories again. At the Neck, the pullout from the road looks down on the Shafer Trail, the road leading down to the White Rim Rd.

The Trail snakes down the sheer walls of the plateau before reaching the flat rim. That was quite the ride down, I recalled.

With the day wearing on, I enjoyed the last views from the park before tackling the ride back to Fruita.

The view was quite different on that long-ago bike trip, when no smoke in the air obscured the snow-capped mountains in the distance.

On the drive 'home', the highway took me away from the worst of the haze, and my exit from the Colorado River canyon treated me with a clearer view of the surrounding mountains and buttes.

Behind the Fisher Towers, clouds billowed, suggesting the potential of rain.

Another National Park in the rearview mirror. Only 17 more to go!

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