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September 21st – Syncline Trail and Canyonlands

May 28, 2010

Canyonlands – 9/21/2009

I get up before dawn and head out for another day of hiking; although temperatures should be in the 90s, it’s cool as I check out of my hotel in Moab and head north to Canyonlands.

I make the odd climb up to Canyonlands/Island in the Sky with little fanfare, though I’m amazed semis are able to negotiate the curvy, two lane highway that switchbacks up from the Moab canyon valley, climbing through lots of sandstone and juniper.  The park isn’t even open (which becomes a theme, despite me having a national parks pass), but the gates are open, so I head to the far south end of the park.

The park, I should explain briefly, is north of Moab and is mostly on a high mesa, overlooking an ancient canyon floor which, in turn, is eroded by the Colorado and Green Rivers.  The rivers have carved out a massive series of cliffs, hoodoos, pillars and other amazing formations, and it is no wonder the southwestern part of this park is called The Maze.  On the first floor below, the White Rim Trail, nearly 100 miles long, forms an amazing drive/bike along multiple walls with incredible exposure.

Grand View Point, in a single picture, describes it better and gives you a huge appreciation for the people who have called this home. This is the view looking south, and you can see why the White Rim Trail as it curves along the rock cliffs below:

An easy mile to the west brings you to another interesting lookout; this is not a good trail for kids, animals, or anyone with a fear of heights, as I was looking down several feet of air a couple of times:

And a view to the northwest – you can see the Green River snaking around, and can see how geology is laid bare (Turks Head is right of center):

With a good general idea of the land, I head to today’s goal:  The Syncline Trail and Upheaval Dome.  While most of the land around is a testament to erosion, Upheaval Dome is a mystery, and there is still not a concensus on what formed it.  It’s basically a weird, circular crater, with strange formations and bizarre strata rising up in the middle.  The loop is about 8 miles, but requires some light climbing and some tricky footing; if you’re an ultrarunner, you’ll love it, but if you have a bit of sanity, you’re probably better off staying up top. First I climb the short trail to the top to see what the hubbub is about:

Strange, huh?  You can see the far side of the crater, and all the red limestone, and then whit elimestone with more red landstone underneath.  One of the prevailing theories is that this was formed by a salt dome that explanded and collapsed.  I have no idea, I just see a nifty (oh, and fairly deep) crater to explore!

The trail heads west and then a bit north and down, circling back into the crater before completing a loop around the far side.  The trail tends to be classic canyon pathfinding.  If you’ve done a fair amount of open-country hiking with cairns and feint signs, you’ll find this a breeze. If you’re not used to looking for trails, again, probably not the best trail.  I love this particular section – guess it goes down from here!

Yes, pretty much straight down!

As I get close to the Green River and circle back towards the crater, I’m struck by the odd patterns on the rock, sorta blasted on black, almost sootish.  The rocks range in color from orange to orange black:

Another reason to discourage hiking alone if you’re unexperienced – it’s very hard to pick up on landmarks, as moving even a few dozen feet can completely change the look of the scenery.  This neat outcropping above the trail, for example, I never saw again; on, and yes, that’s the trail, going straight up and then, who knows where!

BUT, if you’re a fan of geology, man, you’ll love this hike.  There’s a lot of bizarre sandstone structures; for example, lots of rocks like the following, which is soft sandstone beind hollowed out by harder balls of rocks; the whole thing looks like it melted though:

Then, into the heart of the crater – it really just looks like a lot of twisted rocks and oddly placed sheets of rocks piled willy-nilly:

So, then, just have to hike out!  Like always, I eschew the easy and opt to take the more difficult route I haven’t seen out.  The trail is actually very well thought-out, but there are portions where you think… wait, that’s the trail?  Why, yes it is, but that shouldn’t look like that… should it? 

Oh, and then it just goes straight up into sky for a while – tough going, but you gain altitude fast!

My camera ran out of juice on the return back, but it was just more lush valleys among canyons, impossibly blue sky against red navajo sandstone, and the like.  I grab my rental car and head north, staying in the shadow of Mt. Nebo, for Nebo Part II – the revenge!

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