Dead Horse Point and Island in the Sky

After a day spent in Arches National Park, we decided to switch things up a bit with a day at Dead Horse Point State Park and the Island in the Sky district of Canyonlands National Park. These parks are also close to Moab, but due to the rugged topography, you must drive a little ways to get there by making a big counter-clockwise loop out of town.

Dead Horse Point
First view at Dead Horse Point

Both the Dead Horse Point and Island in the Sky mesas rest on sheer sandstone cliffs high above the surrounding terrain. At times the cliffs are 1,600 feet above the rim below, and the rivers 800 feet below that. If you have acrophobia, you will be mentally exhausted by the end of the day. The rim trails take you right to the edge, often with only a short stone wall separating you from firm ground and nothingness. I spent most of the day with the feeling I was going to be sucked out into the void. And even if you don’t have a fear of heights, the views seem almost too big and other-worldly to comprehend.

Dead Horse Point
Wide Open Space

We went to Dead Horse Point State Park first. Why the gruesome name you ask? According to, “before the turn of the 19th century, mustang herds ran wild on the mesas near Dead Horse Point. The unique promontory provided a natural corral into which the horses were driven by cowboys. The only escape was through a narrow, 30-yard neck of land controlled by fencing. Mustangs were then roped and broken, with the better ones being kept for personal use or sold to eastern markets. Unwanted culls of “broomtails” were left behind to find their way off the Point. According to one legend, a band of broomtails was left corralled on the Point. The gate was supposedly left open so the horses could return to the open range. For some unknown reason, the mustangs remained on the Point. There they died of thirst within sight of the Colorado River, 2,000 feet below.”

Dead Horse Point
Colorado River from Dead Horse Point

After leaving the visitor center, the park road takes you over the neck mentioned above on its way to the end of the mesa. It’s easy to see how the horses would’ve been corralled as you drive across this narrow strip of asphalt with cliffs dropping on either side. I drove really slow and deliberately in the dead center of the road.

Dead Horse Point
Dead Horse Point Observation Deck

Located at the end of the mesa is the main reason you come to Dead Horse Point, an extraordinary view of a tight bend in the Colorado River. More trails trace the edge of the mesa, but the best view is from an observation deck. Even in the safety of the railed deck area, I was still wanting to hold on to something.

Canyonlands Island in the Sky
Hiking the Upheaval Dome Trail

There are some hiking loops in Dead Horse Point, but we chose to move on to Island in the Sky where there is a wider variety of terrain to explore. Our first stop in the National Park was the Upheaval Dome trail. Upheaval Dome is an impact structure, the deeply eroded remnants of an impact crater about 3 miles across.

Canyonlands Island in the Sky
Upheaval Dome

We hiked initially to the first observation area, but then decided to hike further out along the rim. It is a somewhat challenging hike, the trail climbing up and down the rock and crossing narrow ledges. At times there were rock cairns to follow along the slick rock. The big problem with rock cairns on these busy trails though, is that people like to build their own for fun. In some areas the false ones would lead you off in the wrong direction.

Canyonlands Island in the Sky
Ledge trail carved into the sandstone

Once back at the trailhead, we enjoyed a nice lunch in the shade. Whale Rock was nearby, so we decided to climb it next. Whale rock is a big mound of sandstone that looks like a giant desert whale if you have a good imagination. This trail is almost all on rock, again marked by cairns. Luckily, there were fewer rogue trail markers on this one, and we found ourselves on the top for fantastic 360 degree views of the area.

Canyonlands Island in the Sky
Whale Rock

Canyonlands Island in the Sky
Climbing Whale Rock

Canyonlands Island in the Sky
The view from Whale Rock

The remainder of our day on Island in the Sky was more of a scenic drive, only getting out of the car for short walks to vista points. Some of the views were almost frightening. It looked as if the ground was ripping apart, the lacerations in the earth tearing their way towards you, ready to pull you down to the fiery center of the earth. Apparently, much of this area was once an ancient sea bed. With that in mind, the layout of the land begins to make more sense.

Canyonlands Island in the Sky
The earth, tearing open

Canyonlands Island in the Sky
A crow soars above the White Rim

At the end of the road, we hiked around the Grand View Point Overlook. Again, more awesome views that challenged comprehension. I would’ve liked to have just sat there and taken it all in, but it was too hard to relax. Families with small kids that didn’t share my fear of heights scampered along the retaining wall. It was more than I could stand to watch, and I finally had to leave!

Canyonlands Island in the Sky
The White Rim above the Green River

After a breathtaking day, we made our way back to Moab in search of a big dinner and locally made brews. We’d also have to rest up for another day of hiking, exploring The Devil’s Garden in Arches National Park.

More Information:

More photos of Dead Horse Point.
More photos of Island in the Sky.

Canyonlands National Park – Island in the Sky National Park site.
Dead Horse Point State Park site.


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