Location: Upheaval Dome in the Island in the Sky District
Directions: From Moab, UT, drive 10 miles north on Highway 191. Go west on UT 313 for 30 miles into Canyonlands National Park and follow signs to Upheaval Dome.
Trail: 36 mile loop starting at Alcove Canyon, to the Green River via Taylor Canyon, up Upheaval Canyon to Upheaval Dome, then south around Upheaval Dome back to Alcove Canyon TH. Hike can be done in reverse without any trouble. Very well marked, mostly flat, but very steep in a few places. No water in Taylor Canyon so bring lots on your own. Green River water is hard to filter! Water is sometimes available in side channels of Trail Canyon and in Syncline Valley..ask a ranger before starting out.
Maps: USGS 1:24,000 Upheaval Dome & Horsethief Canyon; Trails Illustrated 1:62,500 Canyonlands National Park Needles & Island in the Sky (210)
Fees: Park entrance fee ($10) & backpacking fee ($15)
Dogs: No dogs allowed on trails, usually too hot to leave them in cars (Don't bring dogs)

April 13, 2006
A bit of a misnomer, calling it the Alcove Spring Trail, I think, as Larry and I laboriously make our way down the steep descent amidst sharp boulders and loose tallus on the trail. The drainage is painfully dry, such that only ghosts of plants poke up through the rocks. A few hardy junipers, with roots stretching nearly down to the molten core of the earth, are all that green the rocky slope dropping away from the massive 200-ft alcove carved from a Wingate Sandstone cliff on the east face of Buck Mesa.  We hitched the belt straps of our packs on around 1:00 and left the truck far above on black pavement in this, the Island in the Sky District of Canyonlands National Park. After an unforgivable hiatus of 7 years, Iíve returned to this wonderful, desolate spot of bare earth crust in eastern Utah for another round of desert hiking. The vagabond returns, always. The sun is out, it is warm, almost hot, and the sweat beads up in a sheen on my face before being spirited away in the dry air. I can feel the grit of salt on my skin already, and imagine little white specks coating my eyelids. It is April, and a fine month to be in the desert. While the mountains still languish under feet of snow, the desert is greening, some plants are even blooming, and we are enjoying a welcome break from the work which rules our lives, by escaping to the non-electric, non-preservative, non-political desert. The air is blissfully quiet, such silence one seldom enjoys. Each step brings a crunch of gravel or a crackle of a dislodged rock echoing along the steep wall. For a short while we are in the shade of the Alcove, and enjoy it while it lasts. Soon the trail leads back out into the open sun, with no shade. The Alcove watches over us as we leave it, uncaring. The descent is very steep, and my calves are soon quivering from exertion. The trail switchbacks again and again down the wash leading out from the Alcove, down through the geologic layers to the final depth of Trail Canyon. Seen from above it looks like no more than a crack in the orange crust. Even from here, I can see it is dry. After an hour of hiking, the trail flattens out near the bottom of Trail Canyon. I get ahead of Larry and am alone with my thoughts, plodding along the sandy trail that runs north, paralleling the dry streambed. Short shadscale saltbush crouch stoically under the desert sun. Widely-scattered bunches of Indian ricegrass are greening up. A few purple-flowered Astragalus dot the expanse. A claret cup cactus steals the show with crimson blooms. And of course everywhere, the bare earth is exposed in wide expanses, often covered with the corrugated black knobs of cryptobiotic crust. The trail crosses several shallow washes that cut down from Buck Mesa to the west, the mesa we just descended from. One wash is muddy, with millimeter-deep pools of water, but everything is coated in a crust of salt. There is no question of attempting to filter water here. Other washes are dry. After another hour of hiking, the trail enters the dry streambed of Trail Canyon, which is soft sand and small gravel, bordered on both sides by a lip of rock 2-5 feet high. Walking in the soft sand is difficult, and the going is slow and hot. I note faint traces of footprints in the sand, but they are very faint, and are either weeks old, or strong wind has covered them over recently. The air is yet still and the sun is shining unimpeded on our heads and backs. I continue to slurp water, warding off dehydration. We walk side by side down the wide wash, talking of many things: plants, hikes, cars, women, sometimes even work (ah, it poisons everything!). I note with slight alarm that the steep hike down from the Alcove has created a blister between toes 1&2. Thatís a new spot. I keep track of our progress on a paper topo map sealed in a Ziploc, and stop in the shade of the last side canyon before Taylor canyon where the park ranger said there might be water. From where I sit, it looks painfully dry. Larry and I discuss our options, and decide to hike up the side canyon to see what it holds. We do, and are rewarded with clean, clear pools of water about 150 yards up the draw. We filter water, filling all canteens, and return to our packs and out. I have 6 quarts of water in my pack, and they must last the rest of today, tonight and most of tomorrow as we hike 6 miles to the Green River. 

Continuing north, we see the tips of the rock formations Moses and Zeus, and know we are close to the confluence of Trail and Taylor Canyons. The afternoon sun slants in from the west, casting a garish yellow tint over everything. The land looks parched and unforgiving. We consult the map and determine to hike up Taylor Canyon a short ways and make camp. As we turn north up the wide, sandy bottom of Taylor Canyon, I see two trucks parked ½ mile down canyon at the designated vehicle campsite. Until yesterday, I had assumed Taylor Camp was a backcountry site, but in fact there is a dirt road that one can drive up from the White Rim Road. Thus, we continued up canyon to camp, in the Park Service vernacular, "at-large". I explore a couple of draws that run uphill from Taylor Canyon, but each one elevates into a wide expanse of broken rock and cryptobiotic soil with a few shadscale for decoration. "At-large" ends up being a sandy patch just above the bottom of the wash next to a sickly tamarisk that yields almost no shade, but more than absolutely no shade. Larry sets his tent up in a similar scenario 50 feet downstream. It has taken us 5 hours to hike 6 miles, and I sit in the semi-shade by my tent and ponder where the time went. We hiked pretty darn slow coming down from the Alcove, it being so steep, and we stopped for a long break to filter water. Still, somewhere it nags at me that weíve lost time somewhere along the way. Iíve brought my single-man tent, the kind that looks like a sausage. Itís held up by two short semi-hoops on either end, then stretched lengthwise by 4 stakes to hold it up. In the soft, deep sand, the stakes do not find much purchase, and the tent leans inward. A thin yellow rainfly covers it, mostly. Russian thistle and rabbitbrush provide the chief topographical distractions in the vicinity, aside from the 8-foot tall tamarisk. I note the base of the tamarisk is pocked with half a dozen rodent holes, and make a mental note to zip up all pockets on my pack and hang my food tonight. Larry brings his camp stool over, along with his home-made elk jerky. We sit in the sand and I sample both kinds he has brought, and prefer the "inferno" spice blend to the ordinary "mesquite" flavor. Drowsiness sets in, and I decide to nap. I slide into the tent and strip down to my skivvies (it is quite hot) and instantly fall off to sleep. After some unknown period of blissful snooze time, I wake up and see the sun has sunk low on the horizon, and a brilliant orange light is streaming in from the west. The giant rock pinnacles of Moses and Zeus, just north of my tent, are bathed in the golden light. I dress, hop out and carry my camera with me as I ascend a wash to the south and get up into the uplands. From there I snap several nice shots of the rocks. As I watch, the sun sinks lower, and the rocks glow brighter red than ever imagined. The evening light seems like a magic spell that uncovers some hidden flavor in the rock, only for a few moments. I mosey back to camp and wake Larry up from his nap. As dark descends, we attempt dinner. Delay comes in the form of a dry rubber plunger that must be oiled and kneaded for some minutes before it will affect a seal and pressurize the MSR fuel bottle. Dinner stretches beyond 8:00 and it grows dark enough to need a flashlight. We each eat one bean & cheese burrito, and then clean up. Around 9, the moon rises, brightly, nearly-full. It casts a baleful silver sheen over everything, and suddenly the flashlight is irrelevant. The air has cooled considerably, and it seems like it will be a nice evening for sleep. I lumber to my tent, undress, and scribble notes of the dayís activities before falling asleep around 10.

April 14
A cool, white light streams through the thin tent fabric in the quiet of the morning. I dress, and spill out of the tent, stretching off a night of less-than-restful slumber. A thin veil of clouds hovers on the eastern horizon, filtering the sun that is just above the rock rim of Taylor Canyon. In the still air, tiny gnats begin to bite my arms and face. I take a stroll up the wide, sandy wash of Taylor Canyon and find a flat rock upon which to sit and eat a grapefruit for breakfast. The sweet taste of the tangy fruit is made more so by knowledge that my pack will be that much lighter today. I pack up camp carefully, and I hear Larry stirring in his tent down the wash. As I finish packing, I decide to have a cup of Fruity Pebbles and dry milk. We leave camp around 10:00 under a perfectly clear sky. The sky never seems so blue as when in the desert, surrounded by orange rock. We follow the wash for some time, pick up a trail, then lose it again and return to the wash. Activity abounds at Taylor camp when we pass it, with at least 4 humans milling around their pickups. We seem to pass unnoticed. Past the Taylor camp we pick up the dirt road, which provides a hard-packed surface and quick going under the hot sun. A truck passes, its passengers waving and thinking, probably, "why in the world didnít they drive?" I wonder why in the world they did. We stop in the shade of a rock overhang around lunchtime, snack on peanuts and jerky, and air out our hot boots. A cyclist comes laboring up the slightly but persistently-sloped road. I say hello to him as he passes our shady alcove and I think I startled him quite a bit. The sun must have made our shady alcove too dark to see into. After lunch, the breeze picks up and affects a welcome cooling. Clouds loom on the western horizon. We reach Labyrinth camp on the White Rim Road, just above the Green River, at around 12:30. Water is running low, and we are taunted by a well that has a warning sign against drinking anything from it. The river sits below a shelf of rock that forbids easy access, and we walk north along the bustling White Rim Road, stepping aside for trucks, jeeps and clans of bikers as they pass. Trail Canyon was completely empty. In Taylor Canyon we saw 5 people. On the White Rim Road, we see 10 people pass every 15 minutes on some sort of wheeled vehicle. No hikers. I feel out of place walking on this bustling road, as if I were attempting to walk in the slow lane on a major highway. Half a mile north of Labyrinth we investigate a draw that leads to the river but ultimately it is too steep to access. We decide to doubleback and hike south on the road and see what comes. By the time we return to the Labyrinth camp, the sky is completely overcast. We hike south along the road to Upheaval Bottom, and bushwhack our way through thick tamarisk and 6-foot-tall dried mustard to the river, where we indulge in filtering three quarts of thick river water. We let water sit in two pans and I splash the salt off my face with handfuls of cold river water. After 20 minutes, there has been no apparent settling of the sediment within. We filter it anyway and take a bottle of raw water for cooking. A gal we talked with later in the trip suggested a pinch of allum would settle out the sediment. As of yet, Iíve not tested that tip. Returning to the packs with scratched arms and soot-blackened pants from the patches of burn that snake through the bottomland, we hop on the trail to Upheaval Dome and make slow headway in the deep sand of the trail. We encounter the first fellow-hikers of the trip coming down the trail, a middle-aged man and woman toting small daypacks and looking happy. The breeze of earlier has increased to mild wind, blowing sand in gusts. The trail snakes across a wide open plain of stabilized sand dunes and sparse vegetation, and in the distance the knotted crown of Upheaval Dome sits on the horizon. We enter Upheaval Canyon and decide to pitch camp near the wash against a east-facing rock wall (ostensibly to block the wind). It is around 4:00 now: though we made great time down Taylor Canyon, we lost 3 hours in our search for water. We still have very little, and I hope that the ranger was correct in his assertion that we would find water on the Syncline Loop. Lack of water has caused a little bit of rationing to occur, and I have a headache to show for it. I take some ibuprofen and try to nap, but it is hot, and every gust of wind brings a fresh layer of silty sand through the mesh of my tent and over my naked chest. I doze uncomfortably until around 6 when a group of hikers on the nearby trail goes past, talking loudly to each other. I get up and shake out the sand from everything as best I can before securing the rainfly to ward off future depositions. I take a short walk around and on top of the wall we are camped by, and find a nice little overhanging rock to cook dinner under. I return to camp and grab my stuff, and Larry and I go back uphill to the overhanging rock. From this perch, we can see all the way down to the Green River. The sky is overcast, and it is very windy. I boil the unfiltered water and it starts to sprinkle. I dine on jerky, cheese and crackers and M&Mís. Very tasty. The sprinkling abates and a rainbow streaks out over Upheaval Dome as the sun breaks through a thin opening on the horizon. Back at camp, I shake the sand out of my stuff again. Apparently the rainfly is no protection. I take a sponge bath and treat the two small blisters on my big toe. It is much cooler tonight than last, around 65F Iíd guess. I climb in my tent at 8:30 and scribble notes. At 9, rain comes in pelting waves and I drag my pack under the protection of the rainfly before going to sleep. The rain continues on and off all night with incredible gusts of wind that bend and bow the tent. Every gust brings a wave of fine sand to coat everything. I sleep very fitfully, if at all. It seems the entire night is spent in a light snooze, like the kind one occasionally engages in at work. My ears are always alert for the wind, and when I hear it roaring towards us down the canyon, I cover my face and chest with my shirt to block the sand, then remove it when gust subsides. All night this continues. At times, lightening and thunder shake the sky overhead, and I vaguely hope that the wash we are camped near will have running water in it come morning. 

April 15
Come morning, the sun is out and the wash is dry as a bone. Even the sand surrounding the tent is dry and powdery and I wonder how I had heard so much rain when the ground seems so dry. Two fellows pass by camp, framepacks on their shoulders and we briefly discuss the turbulent weather of the night. By 9, we are on the trail again and heading up Upheaval Canyon. The trail follows the streambed most of the way, and gradually the route is enclosed by ever-steepening walls. We are low on water, but fortunately we donít have far to go before we reach the split in the trail at the Syncline Loop. We turn north and follow the trail only 1/8 mile before encountering two backpackers on their way down a steep descent of stairs on a cliff. A man and woman who descend the stairs are from Virginia, and point out that the Syncline backcountry camp, where we have our first-class reservations, is at the top of the stairs, and water is in the creek just beyond. They relate to us how the wind had snapped their tent pole in the night, owing to the exposed location of the tent. They also relay news of the difficult spot requiring fixed cables at the top of the canyon. Full of interest, we hurry up the steps and set up camp on the packed dirt clearing under a beautiful, sunny sky. We find water in the creek and filter the cool, clear liquid before hiking up canyon around noon. The hike is very nice over a rugged and rocky trail that snakes around the steep red canyon. Pools of water lend a comfortable feeling to the hike, certainly. After a series of steep switchbacks, the trail comes to a point where I have to grab onto a cable and swing out over thin air to a block of sandstone on the other side of the exposed face. I throw my pack ahead of me, and then itís pretty easy to cross. A heavy pack would almost have to be lowered with rope to make the crossing practical. The canyon beyond is a u-shaped affair that drains to the south, with a giant wall to the west and undulating humps of rock to the east. Vegetation is abundant. We stop in a dry wash to have lunch and I explore a shallow alcove to the south where a large overhang has created a deep plunge pool. I would love to be around to see the water cascade off the rim 200 feet above, but I imagine one could wait around for a long time and never catch it. Somewhere along the way, Iíve hurt my back, and every stoop, bend or uphill step sends an unpleasant crack through my lumbar. I consider all the food we brought that is clearly unneeded, and resolve to be more realistic regarding provisions on future trips. After our hike of about 2 miles up, we retrace our steps back to camp and filter water. We take a short walk up the canyon into Upheaval Dome, then return and make burritos for dinner in the calm evening. A few wind gusts tear through the canyon, but I appreciate the lack of sand and hardly mind the wind at all. The sky is clear and I hop into the tent for sleep at 8:00 and sleep the best sleep of the trip. The only interruption is the sound of Larry snoring at 4AM, although the simple fact I can hear him in his tent 20 feet away is testament to how calm and peaceful the night was. 

April 16
When I get up, the camp is in the shadow of the canyon wall, though the sun blares brilliantly on the rocks down the canyon, and they seem to glow like an orange flame. The sky is blue and clear. Wonderful day. It is the kind of day I dream of when the words canyon country are uttered. I eat a bowl of cereal and pack up camp. We leave just as the sun hits the campsite at 8:45. We head back down the steep stairs to the trail junction and turn up Upheaval Canyon. The route is easy, following the wash in the morning shade. I eyeball the rim above and consider that somehow, we are to end up there, and between here and there is a lot of uphill. After 30 minutes, it comes. The trail bolts uphill in steep switchbacks that are relentless for the next 2-3 miles. At least we are still in shade the entire time. As the trail rises up out of the canyon, panoramic vistas present themselves, including a view down the canyon all the way to the Green River. The wind picks up, and at times it is a little chilly. We stop twice for breaks, one for a long snack break, and finally make it up to the Upheaval Dome parking lot at 11:20. The truck is parked at Alcove Canyon, 1.2 miles away, but Larry volunteers to walk down and get it. I sit at a park bench and watch the packs, eat a PBJ sandwich and enjoy the quiet. A few cars come and go. A ground squirrel boldly begs food from me, but is denied. One car parks and the two fellows inside hike away up the trail. In 24 minutes Larry is back and we take a walk, unencumbered by heavy packs, to the Upheaval Dome lookout, where we can see down into the canyon we walked through the evening before. 

In the truck and driving for the first time in 3 days, we cruise down the road a few miles to the Willow Flat campground and stake out car-camp site #11 for $10. The wind has increased to a formidable power by now, and it is challenging setting up the tent, and only possible with the aid of several large rocks. It is pretty chilly out with the wind blowing, though the sun is shining brightly. We hop in the truck and drive south to various attractions: Buck Canyon Overlook and Grand View Point. We take the walk to the end of the Grand View Point and enjoy the awesome perch high above the white rim. Lots of folks crowd the parking lot, but very few make it out to the end of the trail. Closer to camp, we take in the short loop trail to Mesa Arch, then hike up to the Aztec Buttes, both of which house old granaries. In camp again as the afternoon progresses, we cook up broccoli rice and chicken, and down it with Doritos and cold Pepsis (the cooler had, amazingly, held solid ice the entire time we were backpacking). Near sunset, we drive to Buck Canyon overlook and watch the canyon walls glow red before going into shadow. In camp again after dark, and the wind is ferocious. I actually am glad of this since it serves to almost completely drown out the noise of nearby campers. Almost. 

April 17
Up before dawn in the bright moonlight, I dress and wake Larry so we can drive west and take sunrise shots at Upheaval Dome. Larry is a good sport and gets up right away, though it is cold out. We get there in plenty of time, but a thin veil of clouds to the east mutes the sunís intensity and creates only moderately crisp colors. The wind is back at it, and I have to hold my hat on my head to keep from losing it to the canyon below, where many hats rot away the years, Iím sure. We drive back to camp and go see the Green River Overlook, where the cliff drops away and the White Rim is open below, as well as the Green River. Nice spot. We return to camp, pack up, and leave by 9:30. 

Take a look at more Utah images at LandscapeImagery.com
Page Created 2/20/07
Send comments / questions

Alcove CanyonAlcove CanyonAlcove CanyonAlcove CanyonZeus and MosesAlcove CanyonZeus and Moses in Taylor CanyonTaylor CanyonLarry inspects a bad-water well near Upheaval BottomUpheaval  CanyonUpheaval  CanyonUpheaval  CanyonUpheaval  CanyonUpheaval  CanyonSam & Larry @ Upheaval  CanyonUpheaval  CanyonUpheaval  CanyonUpheaval BottomUpheaval  CanyonSyncline Valley CampSyncline ValleyLarry negotiates a tricky ledge in Syncline ValleySyncline ValleySyncline ValleySyncline Valley Camp at dawnUpheaval CanyonUpheaval CanyonUpheaval CanyonSouth Fork Buck CanyonLarry at Grand View PointMonument BasinMonument BasinLaSalle Mts through Mesa ArchWhite RimWhite Rim and LaSalle MountainsBuck Canyon OverlookAlcove CanyonUpheaval DomeUpheaval DomeGreen River OverlookGreen River OverlookGreen River Overlook

Back to Camping