Okay, so THIS was a real adventure. My two packing partners and I quipped that we had gained +10 backpacking-badass points each from doing it. And we’re absolutely going back, but it will likely be Salt Creek Canyon next time (a one-way trip). As you peruse this entry, feel free to open each landscape-oriented image in its own tab, as they were uploaded in larger sizes than you are likely seeing them here.
A hat tip to Backpacker.com for the beta on this hike (linked). The writeup includes a trail path outline on a map, written directions, and some GPS coordinates. Without these things, we would have had only a vague idea of where we were going! My blog entry on the trip here showcases my photos, of course, but it is also a way for me to augment what they’ve put out there.
The journey starts upon a lookout on the Island in the Sky feature of Canyonlands, located at a picnic area on the East side of the main road just a bit before the road comes to its southern end.
And the lookout doesn’t disappoint, though Google Earth’s landscape coloration certainly does after you’ve seen what the place actually looks like. Seeing such a blue sky helps…
So there’s that, to entice you onward in your journey! Pretty spectacular. But how does this walk begin?
Down an incredibly steep cliff face.
Fun! And if you haven’t backpacked for a while, let alone with 2.25 gallons of water on you (and at least a day’s worth of emergency food), also challenging. Also: bring more water than that. *achem* .. anyway!
And where are we going on this trail? Well, you can see the start of the deep Gooseberry Canyon in the pictures already, but here are two more Google Earth images highlighting a section of the trail that goes from legit, up to the start of the canyon there, to wandering along the White Rim towards the “ramp” (see the Backpacker.com trail directions) that takes you safely down into the canyon.
When you make it to the end of Gooseberry Canyon, and walk south along the edge towards the privy by the designated White Rim Trail campsite, you’ll find yourself gawking at this:
And maybe also sitting down for some lunch before some navigating and the canyoning that follows.
Further along we go!
Once at the ramp, which you soon realize is a couple of drops down a set of boulder slabs onto the sloped canyon terrace below (which required some backpack-lowering for us), you must begin orienteering your most logical path back towards the cardinal direction you came from in order to reach the “boulder gully” (Backpacker.com directions again) and make your interesting descent into the canyon wash far below.
You will get these views along the way to the boulder gully:
Now… the gulley itself was challenging enough a thing that I apparently didn’t take one single picture of it, or from within it. And it must have taken us an hour to get through. It’s not a mind boggling labyrinth, but it does require a bit of scrambling, downclimbing through boulder cracks and seep-moistened muddy spots, and a bit of blissful ignorance of the fact that, if one had to go back this way instead of via Dogleg Canyon, it would take twice as much time going up as it does going down (and pack-*lowering* in this case is probably a far easier task). Anyway, Google Earth to the rescue regarding my lack of photos from this section:
Here’s the canyon bottom, at least! Hooray; we made it!
From here to the Colorado River is an absolute cinch. The wash stays much the same as you see in the picture above, and only forks in directions that go upward and back (so, no left or right turns to worry about). It seems a bit far off at first, when there’s so much you can’t see…
…but, in the scheme of things, it’s not that bad:
I mean… there is the whole “impassable overhang” thing to think about…
…but you’ll figure that out, and get a little dusty (you’d better!) in the process. After you’re in the wash again, it’s not too far from the Colorado River. And if you left at 11:15am like we did (yeesh), just a week before the spring equinox, you too might arrive just in time for the glow of sunset upon the canyon walls:
And if you set up camp where we did (indicated by a yellow pin on the last Google Earth image map), you may get to see our “Turtle Rock” at night!
It seems like it’s just a fun thing to put that picture up – I mean it was just the subject of some goofy joking by my friends and me upon real exhaustion – but it’s actually good to take note of this feature, because your path into Dogleg Canyon is not an obvious one. This is especially because (1) on maps it seems that the riverbank is accessible and walkable, when in fact it is totally overgrown with bush, and (2) the waypoints between the two canyons on the Backpacker.com trail directions are indeed at the mouths of both canyon washes. We had to figure something else out, and luckily that something else was quite obviously right next to ol’ Turtle Rock. So, go this way the next morning:
By the yellow pin labeled “rock tunnel/ picture frame,” you can tell that we didn’t initially know to go down to the riverbank the way that we eventually did. We explored a bit before we found that – which really wasn’t a hard find – and came upon a cool lookout in the process. Here’s a moody-morning shot from there, looking towards Dogleg Canyon:
And here’s a perspective from the other side of the Colorado River, looking up both canyons, with the Island in the Sky plateau and trailhead in view:
The path to the Riverbank and some cool rocks to ramp down:
And a farewell to the mighty Colorado River when we see Dogleg Canyon come into view:
And man, that canyon!! We still had a ways to go. But it sure looks easier from here:
And it really is, too. The wash is super easy to travel on (note my buddy without shoes on), at least until you get to the ‘knee’ of Dogleg Canyon, here:
Here’s a Google Earth screenshot from just below the White Rim, and to the right of the above photo, showing where you’re headed. The path to take will be painfully obvious:
And for some perspective on where you’re going compared to where you’ve been (with Dogleg Canyon on the left):
And so! Once you’ve made it this far, you feel pretty good about yourself. It doesn’t stay as easy as it’s been since the river, though. Time for more canyoning, like at the boulder gulley in Gooseberry Canyon, but perhaps a bit less steep:
“Less steep,” I said. Yep. You got it. But it’s really fun and actually not hard to navigate! The rest of the path is easy to follow:
And when you’ve reached the White Rim, you’ll already miss being in the canyons when you look back on your footfall:
But there is one helluva view just a short walk across the Rim when you’re up there, facing the mountains, that includes a peek of the Colorado River far below:
And another one at camp not too far away (i.e., camp where we did because it’s free as long as you paid your backcountry permit up through 2 nights), where you must set up your tent on the rock of the White Rim to avoid destroying this delicate soil life:
…but which will be SO worth doing, rocks instead of stakes and prayers to the wind gods all, because of the scenic serenity…
You really can’t beat this. But alas, when the cool morning air heats up and you are drawn by the siren’s call of a delicious brunch at Eclecticafe in Moab, you must start back up the path to Island in the Sky. With a long break halfway there to take it all in again, of course.
Again, I just can’t get over the steepness of this hike and the immensity of the landscape. Looking up, and looking back down, along the way:
And now you know where to go if ever you’re in southeast Utah looking for a great adventure! Sand Creek Canyon is yet another one, I hear, and it just might be in the cards for this upcoming autumn…
Cheers! – Brendan Muir Bombaci