Exploring The Parks: Musings From Island In The Sky At Canyonlands National Park

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Off in the distance rises the Needles District/Lee Dalton

Canyonlands National Park is divided by the Green and Colorado rivers into three distinct districts. Needles, Island in the Sky, and the Maze. There are no roads connecting them because the rivers and some very deep ditches are in the way. Island in the Sky is about a two-hour drive north of the Needles. The Maze is another matter. It can be reached only via a very long and circuitous route north, then west, then south and then over sometimes treacherous gravel roads that may not allow passage if they are wet. The Maze is exactly what the name implies and visiting it is not for the faint of heart.

I told another camper I’d just come from the Needles and he asked which I thought was the best and most interesting. Terrible question. Impossible to answer. They are so completely different that any comparisons are simply silly.

Island in the Sky is certainly the most easily accessible. It sits a couple thousand feet higher in elevation than the other two districts. There are any number of view points along the dead-end road that takes you out to Grandview Point and back. From those spots you can look down on the Green River as it meanders between the Island and the Maze. You can look out across the spiky skyline of the Needles. Sunrise or sunset will simply blow your mind. Get out at sunrise and you’ll be pretty much alone.

There are hiking trails all over the place. Some especially interesting routes will take you up and around the perimeter of Upheaval Dome. Upheaval is a circular jumble of rock that has geologists puzzled. Is it the result of an upwelling of salt squashed upward through a weak spot in the sandstone or was it a wound left by an ancient meteorite strike?

Circling the Island is a hundred-mile-long 4-wheel drive/mountain bike road called the White Rim Drive. It’s said to be “moderate” 4-wheeling and generally requires at least two, and preferably three, days to complete. Mountain bikers may require an extra day and will need a support vehicle to haul water and supplies. Reservations are required for the few designated campsites along the way. Those reservations can be made up to four months in advance via the park’s website. Day use driving on the road is permitted, but you won’t be able to cover much of it.

Shafer Trail Road is a special treat. It drops several thousand feet down the sheer side of a sandstone cliff on a series of switchbacks that will cause some puckering even for an experienced rough country driver. It may be necessary to ignore the pitiful whimperings of passengers riding with you. The road is really quite good. It’s just vertical. Moderate describes it well as long as you’re looking only at the road immediately in front of your windshield. Funny thing is that GPS units often try to route travelers either up or down the Shafer Trail Road. I can just imagine the excitement in the vehicle of someone in a sedan who has ignored the signs and blindly followed their trusty electronics.

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Far below Island in the Sky the Green River meanders towards its union with the Colorado River/Lee Dalton

I used the Shafer Trail Road this morning as a “shortcut” to Moab. Part of the way I needed to use low range to allow my engine to hold the truck back and avoid smoking my brakes. There are some spots where if you meet someone else, one will either have to back up or be pushed over the side. Yesterday, while watching from one of the overlooks where astonished flatlanders may look down at the winding switchbacks, I watched an NPS dumptruck loaded with gravel making its way slowly and gingerly down to where a road crew was installing a new culvert. Can you imagine the look on the face of some poor testosterone-jazzed 4x4 buff when he comes around a blind turn and finds himself radiator to radiator with that big thing? Wanna bet who backs up?

When Canyonlands was developed 50 years ago, it was an opportunity to design a large national park along completely different and non-traditional lines. There would be no railroad built to serve the park. No railroad companies would construct huge lodges of sandstone and big timbers. Instead, Canyonlands would become a very minimalist park. No lodging – except the two small campgrounds in Needles and Island in the Sky. No restaurants or cafeterias. No big souvenir shops hawking genuine Indian artifacts made in China. Just some roads and trails and small visitor centers. And nature. Lots of pure, unadulterated nature with trails through it and plenty of overlooks and viewpoints where the most common word seems to be a reverently whispered, “Wow!”

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Negotiating the Shafer Trail Road is a unique Canyonlands experience/Lee Dalton

Needles is what I would call a get out and do park. Island in the Sky is mostly a look and see park, unless you’re equipped with a 4x4 or sturdy mountain bike. Needles has lots of hiking trails and a few challenging Jeep roads. Island in the Sky, on the other hand, is the opposite.

I met no seasonal rangers at either park district. All I asked said they were permanent employees. I didn’t think fast enough and failed to ask, but I’ll guess it’s because both units are year-round operations. Campgrounds are open year-round, as are all the trails and roads – if weather permits. I discovered that interpretive rangers at Island in the Sky double as fee collectors. When I mentioned that to one of them, she laughed and said, “Yes, it keeps things from becoming too monotonous.” I asked about use of volunteers to collect fees at Needles and was told it’s because the districts fall under different types of fee collection categories. She didn’t fully understand it, and I don’t either, but it’s legal to use a volunteer in one place and not in the other. Another fee-collecting interpreter lamented some clouds and explained that she was supposed to give a dark sky program tomorrow night at nearby Deadhorse Point State Park. She had been hoping to practice with the big telescope this evening. Deadhorse and Canyonlands interpreters alternate back and forth in evening programs at the state park.

Out on the trails to Upheaval Dome, I did encounter a law enforcement ranger who was surrounded by visitors and was in the midst of what sounded a lot like a campfire talk. I stayed for a minute or two, but my tummy was very rumbly and supper was calling.

Speaking of millennials, ( . . . well, all the rangers I met at Canyonlands were in that category, mostly anyhow) I met two brothers from Columbus, Ohio. The older one says he just turned 30. The younger one is in the Army, deployed three times to Iraq and Afghanistan. He says he actually discovered national parks when he was a turret gunner on a Humvee in Iraq. There were national parks there that preserve historic sites dating to the Old Testament. Then, when he was stationed in southern California, he discovered America’s national parks. Now, every year, they spend a week or two visiting national parks. Joshua Tree, Zion, Grand Canyon, Grand Teton, more. Ship camping gear via UPS, fly out from Ohio, rent a car, visit parks. Once it was two weeks in Death Valley while their mother worried about them. Death Valley, after all! This year they flew to Denver. Rented a car and visited Rocky Mountain. Then on to Arches and now Canyonlands. Tomorrow they must be in Salt Lake to catch the plane home. Where will it be next year? Ask again next year, they tell me.

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Virga -- valuable moisture that seldom reaches the ground/Lee Dalton

Island in the Sky has just a very small campground. Only about a dozen sites, and they fill quickly. No reservations are available, so plan on arriving early. (There are two BLM campgrounds not far outside the park’s entrance. Horsethief and Lone Meadow. There are 58 nice-looking campsites at Horsethief, which is the closer of the two.)

I build a campfire and sit beside it. Clouds promise to kill the evening’s golden hour for photos and telescope practice. As I sit there I can hear a voice from the next campsite. It’s speaking German and I don’t understand the words, but there is no misunderstanding what’s happening. It’s the voice of a mother reading to a child. Have you ever noticed how no matter what the language may be, or where in the world you hear it, there is no mistaking the sound of a mother’s voice as she reads to a child. One of those universalities we all share.

The next morning I’m in the VC as a ranger inducts a young boy – I’m pretty sure it’s the boy whose mother was reading to him last night – into the ranks of Canyonlands’ Junior Ranger corps. The boy appears to be about six or seven. He speaks some English, but his mother helps and translates the ranger’s words. He raises his right hand very seriously and solemnly repeats the Junior Ranger pledge in a mixture of English and Deutsche. He has a big-front-tooth-missing grin on his face as the ranger pins his badge on him. His parents smile widely and take plenty of pictures.

And it strikes me. We talk a lot about the values of our parks. Economic values. Natural and environmental values. We know that without Canyonlands and Arches, Moab likely would be just another depressed, hopeless backwater desert town smoldering in the heat. Could another value of our parks be the opportunity they provide to make international friends for America? Every time one of those people from Europe who have rented a motor home or every one of those from Japan, or Korea or China who tumble off a crowded tour bus are treated kindly and with respect by an American, what value has been gained? Are our parks incubators for understanding one another? Might they be ambassadors for world peace?

Wouldn’t it be great if our parks were visited by people from Iraq or Iran or Afghanistan or Libya or Russia or North Korea or Nigeria or Syria or wherever else? Let them discover us as that young soldier I talked with last night discovered the parks of Iraq. But here, at least, it may be done without having to man a machine gun on a Humvee.

I guess I can dream, can’t I?

Comments

Thanks, Lee. Enjoyed it.

Since you are chatting up the White Rim, I wanted to alert your readers to a July road closure http://www.nps.gov/cany/parknews/news060414.htm tells the details.

My husband and I were priviliged to visit The Islands in the Sky section of Canyonlands in May. We were blown away by its beauty. When we looked over the vista that included the Colorado river there were about 15 people around us. No one was saying anything, just standing there, awe struck. Thank goodness for the foresight of Mr. Udall.

Thanks again Lee for an excellent article. I agree, our national parks can be outstanding ambassadors for world peace. I'm glad to read that Canyonlands rangers are also promoting the night sky as a park resource and that a law enforcement ranger was giving what appeared to be a form of a campfire program. I've been to Island in the Sky and the Needles, but I'll have to wait for another time to do the Maze, the Schaeffer Trail, and the White Rim.