By Wayne Cottrell
The Islands in the Sky Cruise is a 51-mile out-and-back ride over undulating terrain between and through Dead Horse Point State Park and Canyonlands National Park. The elevation ranges from 5,639 feet at Upheaval Dome, in Canyonlands National Park, to 6,184 feet on Big Flat, on State Highway (SR) 313 between the Canyonlands and Dead Horse Point Parks. The route is entirely on state highways and national park roads, so the pavement is generally smooth. This ride does not begin anywhere near a city or town, so be prepared by bringing any provisions needed—there are only limited facilities along the way. Bring cash, too, to pay park entrance fees.
The ride starts and finishes at Dead Horse Point State Park visitor center, located 33 miles northwest of Moab via US 191 and SR 313. The terrain features rolling hills and false flats. Traffic volumes vary seasonally, but are typically light. The route explores the State Park, as well as Canyonlands National Park. The latter – actually both – are true showcases of Utah’s deep canyons, goosenecks, and buttes. The landscapes here are equally harsh, intimidating, intriguing, and alluring. There are five park districts; the Island in the Sky and Needles Districts are probably the most accessible to visitors. Relative to Moab, both Island in the Sky and Needles are to the southwest, although access to the former is from the northwest. The Colorado and Green Rivers meet within Canyonlands; the two rivers’ powerful actions were the main players in carving out this wonderful landscape. Surprisingly, Canyonlands is “only” Utah’s fifth most-visited national park. In fact, Canyonlands is not even the most popular national park in the Canyonlands region—that would be Arches. But the numbers are misleading: The scenery here is staggering, and the recreational opportunities are endless. The “islands” are actually mesas, or plateaus situated at about 6,000 feet in elevation, overlooking canyons and rivers that are some 2,000 feet below.
Signs near the entrance to Canyonlands National Park warn that there is no water in the park. This is not entirely true—it is possible to purchase water from a vending machine at the visitor center. But there is no running water. The route involves entering and exiting a state park and a national park. Entrance fees are required for both. The fee for autos at Dead Horse Point State Park is $7. Pay this, and park your car at the visitor center. Take your receipt with you on the ride as proof of payment, so that you will not have to pay again to reenter the park at the end of the ride. The fee for bicycles at Canyonlands National Park is $5.
To recap: Dead Horse Point State Park entry fee: $7. Canyonlands National Park entry fee: $5. Water from the vending machine at the Canyonlands visitor center: ~$2. Riding through the world’s most stupendous collection of bends, buttes, canyons, cliffs, craters, mesas, and monuments: priceless. Start at the Dead Horse Point State Park visitor center. Turn left upon exiting the parking lot, and head toward the Dead Horse Point overlook. The road undulates and winds for 1.3 miles before entering the overlook parking area. Notice the cliffs and deep canyons on either side of you. You will not be able to see the overlook unless you dismount and walk to the end of the short path, adjacent the parking area. It is worth a peek—the Colorado River winds its way through the canyon-scape some 2,000 feet below. Legend has it that cowboys used the mesa as a natural “corral” for wild mustangs. The series of flat stones along the road as you near the overlook were one of the techniques for confining the horses to a certain space. The neck here is only 90 feet wide, leaving little opportunity for any horse to escape. The good horses were chosen from the bunch, while the others were left corralled. Horses that went unselected eventually died on the Point from thirst (a sad ending; no horses were known to leap into the canyon).
Return to the main park road and head toward the visitor center. Head past the two entrance stations; now you are on SR 313. The terrain throughout the entire ride is rolling, with short climbs, short descents, and false flats. The self-explanatory “The Knoll” appears on your right as you near the junction with the main road into Canyonlands National Park (Grandview Point Road; also referred to as Island in the Sky Road). Turn left here, at mile 9.2, and begin heading south over Big Flat. Enter the park at mile 13.6. The entrance station is at mile 14.8; pay the $5 fee and proceed. The visitor center is on the right, 1.1 miles later. There are lavatories and a vending machine. Continue into the park. While you may have been unimpressed thus far with the scenery, you cross The Neck at mile 16.6, just 0.7 mile beyond the visitor center, and your perception changes.
As you cross The Neck, look left to see Shafer Canyon, which plunges deeply (and steeply) to the Colorado River below. The elevation here is 5,800 feet. Do not fail to look right, as well, for views of multiple springs and canyons. The road begins to wind and roll across the fanciful landscape. At mile 22.1, turn right to head toward Upheaval Dome. On the right is Aztec Butte, a masterpiece of slickrock. About 2 miles into this road, you will be surrounded by some mighty nature: cliffs on the right, and uplifts and monuments of Holman Spring Canyon on the left. Whale Rock is on the right at mile 26.0. Enter the parking area for Upheaval Dome at mile 26.8. The Dome is directly in front of you—or, more precisely, looming above you. At this point, you can circle through the lot and return to Upheaval Dome Road. Or—better yet—dismount and hike out on Crater View Trail to at least see what’s inside the dome. Geologists have surmised that Upheaval Dome is actually a crater that was formed by the impact of a meteor. The crater is 3 miles across and about 1,200 feet deep. Return to Upheaval Dome Road for the trip back to the entrance of Canyonlands National Park. Ride in the reverse direction of the outbound route to return to Dead Horse Point State Park. Enjoy the ride.
Wayne Cottrell is a former Utah resident who conducted extensive research while living here – and even after moving – to develop the content for the book.